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“We tried to run, but they shot us like we were buffalo. I know there are some good white people but the soldiers must be mean to shoot women and children!”

Sound like a scene from Tianamin Square? Chechneya? Well, how about South Dakota? That’s right – this eyewitness account describes an incident that took place in the heart of the land of the free on December 29, 1890. The place was called Wounded Knee. The murdered were members of the Minniconjou Sioux Nation. The attackers were U.S. Seventh cavalry soldiers – paid agents of the United States Government. The aftermath saw 153 innocents butchered – elderly men, women and children.
Yet, if it weren’t for a protest some 70 years later, the name and the legacy of what happened that Christmas would be nothing more than a footnote to history. There were few howls of protest back then. After all, the victims were only Indians. And many white Americans still concurred with the infamous words of Civil War hero and commanding General of the U.S. Army, Philip Sheridan, when he proclaimed that the only good Indians he’d ever seen were dead. Hopefully, as we move into the third millennium, we are a little more enlightened. A review of the events of that fateful day may impress upon our hearts the emphatic determination that it never happen again.

Big Foot was a sick man. By the morning of December 17, 1890 his pneumonia had worsened to the point that he was coughing blood from his lungs. Yet, when he heard that morning of the assassination of the great leader Sitting Bull, he knew instantly that his people would no longer be safe on the plains. He had to get his band of 350 Minniconjou into Pine Ridge Agency before they got caught up in the whirlwind of grief and anger that was sweeping through the remnant of the Sioux nation as a result of this latest outrage. So, he broke camp at Cherry Creek, South Dakota and started at once for Pine Ridge – and safety. On December 28th, Big Foot’s band came across four troops of approaching Cavalry. The old man, his health now critical, immediately ordered the white flag run up over his wagon. The soldiers were of the Seventh Cavalry – the very command that the Sioux had annihilated at Little Big Horn some 13 years previously. The soldiers agreed to escort the Indians to a camp at Wounded Knee Creek, a few hours march way.
When they arrived at the camp the Indians were carefully counted – 120 men and 230 women and children. After surrounding the Indian encampment with armed guards and then stationing four Hotchkiss guns on the surrounding hills, the Seventh turned in for the night. Colonel James W. Forsythe, commanding officer, settled into his tent with a keg of whiskey, in celebration of the capture of his dangerous prisoner – Big Foot.
Meanwhile, Big Foot himself was too ill to even sleep. His people were fearful of the pony soldiers. They knew that these were the reformed soldiers from that ancient victory on the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) and they suspected that more than a few had revenge on their minds.
The morning saw the soldiers mounting their horses and surrounding the Indian encampment. They called for guns and arms to be given up. Then they searched the Indian teepees. Personal belongings were ransacked and scattered across the ground. The final humiliation was the body searching of all the men. The Indians chaffed under their anger but still they submitted. Then suddenly, a young Minniconjou named Black Coyote resisted when the soldiers grabbed at his Winchester rifle, one of only two found. He protested that he’d paid good money for the weapon. A struggle ensued. The rifle fired.
And then the killing started.
The sound of rifle fire was deafening. The air soon filled with powder smoke. Women screamed. Children ran. Old men tried to protect their loved ones. But, the soldiers showed no mercy. Within a few seconds the Hotchkiss guns were brought into action, raking across the encampment with deadly efficiency. The young men tried to fight back – diving for the few weapons that had only just been piled in the middle of the encampment. But it was to no avail. Within a few minutes the guns again fell silent.
The madness was over. Big foot and more than half his people were dead. Many more were seriously wounded. Within days nearly 300 of the 350 members of Big Foot’s band had perished.
The bodies of the dead were left where they fell for three days as a terrible blizzard swept across the field of carnage. Then on New Years Day, 1891, a burial party returned to put the now grotesquely frozen remains of the victims into the ground. One by one the bodies were dragged from under the snow and tossed into a single pit. Four babies, still alive, were discovered and wrapped in their dead mother’s shawls. All of the other children were dead. The members of the burial party had been promised two dollars per body to carry out their task. Staring at the naked, frozen remains of those little children they may have wondered if it was worth it.