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The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890

On the morning of December 29, 1890, the Sioux chief Big Foot and 350 members of his tribe camped on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota (Massacre at Wounded Knee 1890). Surrounding their camp was a force of U.S. troops with orders to arrest Big Foot (Brown, 439). He was on the list of “fomenters of disturbances” (Brown, 440). This was a directive that was reached by the United States War Department. The conflict occurred on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where the 7th Calvary of the United States Army opened fire on the Lakota Indians. The battle left 153 Lakota and 25 soldiers known dead (Brown, 444). There are several accounts of what caused the first shot to be fired. Many historians believe that a deaf Indian refused to give up his expensive weapon. This event will always be known in history as one of the worst injustices of the United States against the Indians.

For the purpose of this paper the following sources were used: The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a journal article A Day to Remember, a Wikipedia article Wounded Knee Massacre, the website http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/knee.htm, and America’s History textbook. The main contents of the Wikipedia article concerning Wounded Knee are divided according to the various events leading to the conflict, the massacre itself and the aftermath. The article provides a prelude which indicates that in the earlier years (before the battle), the United States had forced the Lakota Indians into agreeing to let their lands go. This shows that the conflict did not start at the disarmament process, but there were other causes.

Wikipedia outlines the key stages of the massacre. It was sparked by the refusal of a man known as Black Coyote. He refused to give up his weapon claiming that it was extremely expensive. The article also goes further to explain what happened after the massacre. However, there is more about the Wounded Knee aftermath and the United States long term contribution to the massacre that are not included in the article. Although it offers well researched materials, it is not complete because it does not provide all the information about the conflict.

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Other sources display a specific structure when discussing Wounded Knee. The America’s History textbook only covers a brief outline of the events. The website, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/knee.htm, talks about the actual events and follows it with an eyewitness account. The book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, provides an overview, accounts of the events leading up to it, the actual events, and eyewitness accounts. This book is well respected in the historical community. The article, A Day to Remember, talks about the events leading up to the conflict and the actual massacre.

These sources show various types of history. They talk about the armed military forces and the governmental involvement in this tragic event. This describes military and political history. The Wikipedia article references the dances performed by the Indians. This can be classified as cultural history. This clearly shows that the events being described and how they are viewed (e.g. political, military, cultural).

Unlike the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the Wikipedia article does not provide a well explained scenario concerning the Ghost shirt religion started by Wovoka. The article only explains that the people turned to the religion because of pressure from the United States. However, in Dee Brown’s book, there is an explanation about the religion and the tension it caused to the United States. This explanation helps to identify a contributing factor to the Wounded Knee Massacre. By August of 1890, the United States government was afraid that the Ghost Dance was a war dance. The U.S believed that with time the dancers would rise in resentment. By November, the War Department sent troops to occupy the Lakota camps. At this point, the United States government was fully convinced that the dancers were getting ready to do battle against the government.

The Wikipedia version of the events claim that, during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle claiming it was expensive. A scuffle over Black Coyote's rifle escalated and a shot was fired. This resulted in the 7th Cavalry opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow soldiers. The few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking military unit, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen continued to pursue and kill many who were unarmed.

According to Dee Brown in Bury my Heart at the Wounded Knee, the soldiers surrounded Spotted Elk's camp and set up four rapid fires. At dawn on December 29, 1890, Colonel Forsyth ordered the surrender of weapons and the immediate removal and transportation of the Indians from the place of war to awaiting trains. The main cause of the massacre is believed to be, a medicine man named Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance. This gave assurance to the Lakota that the ghost shirts were bullet proof. At this point, tension kept rising and Black Coyote, a Lakota Sioux, refused to give up his rifle. Two soldiers then seized Black Coyote from behind and in the struggle his rifle discharged. 

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Most of the sources identify the reason of the conflict to be Black Coyote’s refusal to give up his weapon. However, there is the fact that the medicine man named Yellow Bird kept proclaiming that the ghost shirts were bullet proof (Brown, 442). This could have motivated the Lakota warriors to keep fighting. They believed fully in the Ghost religion and they were also convinced that someday the messiahs would return. The eyewitness used in the website article claimed that five or six Indians cast off their blankets and pulled out weapons. One of the Indians fired at the soldiers. This is what caused the outbreak of violence. This contradicts with the other sources such as Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at the Wounded Knee  and the American History article, A Day to Remember, which claims that Black Coyote’s weapon was fired by accident. This makes the information inaccurate because it is not supported by any other source.

 There is also a statement made by Turning Hawk, an Indian eyewitness from Dee Brown’s book, that claims Black Coyote “was a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody.” (Brown, 444) He said Black Coyote fired his gun causing the disaster (Brown, 444). This is the only witness that makes this claim about Black Coyote. This makes the statement highly questionable and hard to prove.

The Wikipedia article and the Dee Brown book are the best sources. They both follow the same pattern in regards to the events and use eyewitness testimonies to support their information. The website is the worst source for two reasons. First, the information is much different from the other sources. Secondly, it uses information from a witness who recanted his statement. The American History article, A Day to Remember is a good source, but it repeats the same information in Dee Brown’s book. The textbook only provides a brief overview of the events and limited details.   

Several of the sources coincide, but they are all come from second hand information. The Wikipedia article provides firsthand information. It shows footage of photos and videos that depict the events of the massacre. The article also gives eyewitnesses’ statements.  The only available firsthand sources are the videos and the picture footage of Wounded Knee. This is because most of the articles have been edited in order to stay in sync with times. The Wikipedia articles use twenty-eight sources ranging from newspaper articles, well known books, and numerous articles from University research. Out of all the sources used, this one has the broadest amount of research from well known publications. As a further reading, Wikipedia recommends one of the other sources used. It is the book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.

The website, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/knee.htm, uses four main sources for its article. One of the sources is Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This gives the story some creditability, but the event concerning the Indian firing at the soldiers, makes it doubtful. Dee Brown’s book uses several newspaper articles. It used a New York Times Book Review, When the West was Won and a Civilization was Lost. The American History article, A Day to Remember, is written from the data of seven Historians. It also uses eye witness testimony from soldiers that were there. The textbook does not explain where their accounts of the massacre originated from, but the limited amount of information is consistent with the other sources.

There is a discussion as to how to classify the events of Wounded Knee. Should the term massacre be removed and replaced with battle. The person who wrote this comment recommended calling the tragedy “The Battle and Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek”. I completely agree with this reasoning. This was a military battle, but the US Army took it too far by running down escaping Indians and killing women and children. As a former soldier, you are trained to identify your target before firing. This is where I believe it turned in to a massacre.

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Seventeen Medal of Honors were awarded for this battle. Wikipedia is the only source that talks about these. I was astonished when I read this. Again speaking as a former soldier, I cannot see how these medals could be justified. The Medal of Honor is the highest award a soldier can earn in war. After reading the sources for this paper, there is not one article, in any of the sources, that gives an example of bravery necessary in receiving such a high honor. I can see how Indians could read this and be appalled that the US would give awards for such a tragic event.

There is a comment in the discussion area in Wikipedia that identifies this tragedy as a military victory for the US. I agree with this comment. In order for this event to be classified as a military victory there must first be a war or conflict. Second, the US should gain something from the victory. The US Army attacked unarmed Indians on their land with no reason, other than we wanted what they had. The military killed many innocent women and children. I cannot see how anyone could classify that as a military victory. The research I did proves this to be a military mistake.

This research project taught me to take a closer look at the sources before using them. Wikipedia can be a great tool to use. One must remember that it has open source media. This means changes can be made to the content by someone that does not really understand the topic or who has not done the research to gather credible information. The book, article, and the textbook were very credible and I would use them to research this subject. The website had different information and I would not use it. I learned through this experience that you have to do comparisons between the sources and use the information that is supported by the majority of the sources. I found that presentation of this subject was lopsided. Most of the witnesses were Indians and only a few were soldiers. I think that information is different depending on who is talking about the events. So when you do research there is a lot to think about and it can very difficult. I have gained much respect for historians.

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