The beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota were, for the Lakota Sioux, a sacred spiritual and ancestral home. An 1868 treaty guaranteed lands where they could roam freely but, following the discovery of gold, the area was occupied by miners and settlers. The Sioux refused to be confined and after the humiliation of the battle of little Big Horn the US government tightened control. Early in 1890 the authorities attempted to suppress native culture by dividing the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller areas, separating the tribes and forcing them to farm the arid land. The Sioux found spiritual solace in the Ghost Dance.
A Nevada mystic called Wovoka had revived this ancient ritual; his teachings of an earthly paradise-in-waiting swept through the Native American nation. Though he preached harmony, the Sioux believed that, wearing sacred ‘bullet proof Ghost Shirts, they would be instrumental in the disappearance of their colonial masters. White officials were alarmed: interpreting spiritual fervor as a war dance, they banned its performance on the reservations.
Scattered tribes began to move south; Chief Sitting Bull was killed during his arrest and his tribe went to join his half-brother Big Foot. But as the 120 men and 230 women and children trekked over the frozen plains, they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry and ‘escorted’ to a site near Wounded Knee creek. Commander Colonel James Forsyth positioned four Hotchkiss machine guns around the camp and early next morning ordered the Sioux to surrender arms. As they handed in their weapons one man accidentally loosed a shot, provoking fierce hand-to-hand fighting.
Then the artillery fired. Dead and wounded were left lying where they fell as a blizzard enveloped them. Many attempting escape died of cold. Forsyth was exonerated. A record ten Medals of Honor were awarded.
When: December 29 1890
Where: Wounded Knee creek. South Dakota, USA
Death toll: 25 soldiers and about 200 unarmed Sioux died.
You should know: Today South Dakota is one of the USA’s poorest states, and the remaining Native American tribes are dependent of the tourism industry. The Wounded Knee Massacre Site is a neglected cemetery in the grindingly poor Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.