What Really Happened at Wounded Knee?

Growing up, I thought I had a good sense of how the Indian Wars played out. To my knowledge, the last battle fought in the Indian Wars was “The Battle of Wounded Knee.” There were early Army accounts that depicted the “battle” as heroic. I was wrong. My education system failed to explore the historical and tragic massacre that occurred on December 29th, 1890. That morning of December 29th, Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot) and his band were making their way towards the Pine Ridge Reservation when they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry. The troops were sent to arrest Big Foot and disarm his band. There was some tension in the air as 14 days prior an order for Chief Sitting Bull’s arrest resulted in his murder at the Standing Rock Reservation.[1] During the confiscation of weapons from Big Foot and his followers, an ambiguous shot fired into the cold morning air.[2] Within seconds the atmosphere suddenly changed, and the Indian men ran to recoup their confiscated arms. The troops then opened fire and began to unload shot after shot into the Lakota camp. Not only did the troops on the ground fire at the Indians, but from a hill above a machine gun also opened fire on the camp. Men, women, and children ran to a ravine near the camp, many were ultimately met with crossfire. The soldiers also slaughtered and hunted down all the Indians they could find, some even at point-blank range to prevent them from fleeing.[3]

Aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29th, 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.

In the end, between 200 and 300 hundred Lakota lay dead or were left to die on the site of the massacre as an incoming blizzard began to hit the plains. There was a Sioux doctor who returned to Pine Ridge, Charles Eastman, who was there to treat wounded survivors in a makeshift hospital. The physician feared that wounded Indians could have been left in the field and he sought help from civilians to look for them. Eastman, with the help of others, returned to the site of the massacre to begin looking for survivors. When survivors were found miles away from where the massacre took place, Eastman then knew they were “slaughtered while fleeing for their lives”, which is just what different other accounts also reported.[4] Not only do early accounts from the army portray this event poorly but, they are also inaccurate depictions of what truly occurred. While this event is an example of inaccurate descriptions of events between the US Army and Indigenous people, it is also important to remember that it is not the only one. The Wounded Knee Massacre is only one of many US Army attacks on Indigenous people. Tragic events such as the Bear River Massacre in 1863, Marias Massacre in 1870, and Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 are similar events that are not often talked about but, deserve to be discussed as many innocent Indigenous people lost their lives. The early US Army narratives remain the same throughout these events as well, depicting soldiers as heroes and the Indians as “treacherous.”[5] Upon reviewing different accounts of these tragic events we can tell that was not the case. As we remember the events that took the lives of many innocent Indigenous men, women, and children. We must also not forget them, for those who survived the tragic events did so to ensure the survival of future Indians.


[1] Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: a Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2019. Page 328.

[2] Richardson, Heather Cox. Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. Page 10.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] “Dakota Doctor Witnesses Wounded Knee Aftermath – Timeline – Native Voices.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Accessed November 23, 2020. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/378.html.

[5]   Cox, 9.