As dawn appeared on December 29, 1890, about 350 Lakota Indians awoke, having been forced by the US Army to camp the night before alongside the Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The US Cavalry’s 7th Regiment had “escorted” them there the day prior and, now, surrounded the Indians with the intent to arrest Chief Big Foot (also called Spotted Elk) and disarm the warriors.
When a disagreement erupted, army soldiers opened fire, including with Hotchkiss machine guns. Within minutes, hundreds of children, men, and women were shot down. Perhaps as many as three hundred killed and scores wounded that morning.
Few Americans now know that the deadliest shootings in US history were massacres of native peoples. Today is the anniversary of the largest such massacre.
The event’s common name, “The Battle of Wounded Knee,” obscures the true horrors of that day. For this was no “battle” — it was a massacre.
A People’s Dream
Indigenous peoples were the first to experience the wrath of European conquerors. While no one knows how many people lived in what is now the United States, estimates range from two to eight million before contact. By 1900, about two hundred thousand remained, nearly all consigned to remote wastelands in the interior west that elites considered worthless.
The Lakota, comprised of seven bands, was the largest and most powerful of a larger group of Indians who lived in the northern Plains that together are called Sioux. For most of the nineteenth century, they fiercely resisted the encroachment of US authority and people on their homeland.