“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.” – Anonymous Native American – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
120 years ago today, the final sad chapter in the government- and pulpit-sanctioned greed-justifying saga known as “Manifest Destiny” was written near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
It was on this date in 1890 that 150 (some reports say 300) Lakota Sioux men, women, and children were massacred by the U.S. 7th Cavalry in the final slaughter of the Plains Indian Wars.
The Lakota, who had seen their nomadic lifestyle decimated in armed conflicts with white settlers and the U.S. Army, had been forced onto reservations by the U.S. government and left beholden to corrupt and inefficient Indian Agents who failed to provide adequately for the tribes.
At this time an Indian holy man named Wovoka claimed he saw a vision that Jesus Christ would return as a Native American and bring back all the murdered Indians and buffalo while banishing whites from Indian lands. This, he preached, would only come about if Indians everywhere performed a “Ghost Dance.”
Ghost Dancing spread throughout the Plains, and after an attempt to stop the “messiah craze” led to the death of Chief Sitting Bull, a group of Indians left their reservation to find protection with Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The group was intercepted by the 7th Cavalry and led to the banks of Wounded Knee Creek to camp. When the army tried to disarm the Indians, a shot rang out, and they responded by opening fire from their Hotchkiss guns from the hills overlooking the encampment. When the shooting stopped, hundreds of Indians were dead, along with 31 soldiers, most of whom were cut down by friendly fire.
Eighty years after the massacre, historian Dee Brown’s best-selling book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee brought fame to the incident. The book has never gone out of print in the 40 years since it was first published, having sold over 4 million copies.
In 1973, a 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee between the FBI and activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) became the talk of Hollywood. In the midst of the conflict, actor Marlon Brando, who supported AIM, refused to accept his Oscar for The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards presentation because of the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry.” His refusal was delivered by a Native American woman dressed in Apache clothing.
Today, the Pine Ridge Reservation is still one of the most miserable places on the continent. Its 28,000 residents are plagued with 85% unemployment, four times the national average for youth suicides, and one of the shortest life expectancies for any group in the Western Hemisphere.