At the end of December in 1890, about two years after the beginning of the Ghost Dance Movement, the Wounded Knee Massacre took place at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. While the holy man who had the vision leading to the movement believed in and preached nonviolence and peace, the government feared that the quickly spreading movement would lead to rebellion. The Dance appeared to the white people who witnessed it to whip the participants into a frenzy. They became uneasy, and that fear spread just as quickly as the movement did, if not more so. When the Ghost Dance Movement reached South Dakota, some of the people who lived there demanded that the Sioux stop taking part in the ritual, but the Lakota Sioux did not acquiesce; of course they didn’t, it would have been quite shocking if they had. But, upon being refused, the local men asked for the Army to back them up, and the government agreed.
The massacre involved a group of about 300 Sioux who had left their reservation because they feared conflict—they didn’t want to fight at all. But the Army looked at this group men, women, and children and saw their own hearts; they saw aggression and belligerence, where there was none. The band of Sioux that had left their reservation because they wanted to avoid conflict was transported by the Army to Wounded Knee Creek. Once there, the Army demanded that the Sioux give up all of their weapons. There are different accounts of what happened next, but universally it is accepted that a shot rang out—and then everything just fell apart. One trusted account says that an old Lakota native, who was deaf, had paid a lot of money for his gun and didn’t want to surrender it. The Sioux tried to explain that he couldn’t hear the orders, and when his gun discharged, a few young Lakota men fired their weapons. The Army returned fire indiscriminately after that. Open fire lasted for a long time while unarmed Sioux men, women, and children tried to get away. Some Army officers tried to get everything back under control, but many soldiers killed in cold blood, using their horses to chase down women and children who were fleeing or trying to surrender. The numbers of those who tragically lost their lives on this day varies a great deal, from 150 to 300 or more, but the main thing to remember is the wrongness of the whole affair and to really understand that fear and ignorance are two of humanity’s worst vices. We should never let either rule our hearts.
I also think it’s important to understand that the men in the Army who were called to intercede with the Sioux in South Dakota, they were, in a large part, what was left of the 7th Cavalry. There’s a great deal of significance to this, because it means that many of them would have been in the Battle of Little Bighorn, what most know as Custer’s Last Stand, a famous battle between Army forces and the Sioux, where the Sioux ultimately devastated the Army’s forces.