The Wounded Knee Cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Jeremiah M. Murphy

O.J. Semans to presidential candidates: Rescind medals for massacre at Wounded Knee

The following is the text of a letter sent February 10, 2019, to 16 Democratic presidential candidates, including Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. It was written by O.J. Semans, a U.S. Navy veteran from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

As part of our ongoing work to promote the dignity and equality of Native Americans, we are, along with the previous countless demands from the descendants of the Wounded Knee dead and survivors over the decades, campaigning to rescind the Medals of Honor granted to 20 soldiers who perpetrated the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890. As a candidate for the Presidency, you can help us correct this historic injustice by calling for these Medals to be rescinded.

We have previously written to President Trump (on February 4, 2019) and separately to the leadership of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee (on February 8, 2019). These letters are attached for your reference.

U.S. soldiers can be seen in the background as Chief Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, lies frozen to death at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota. Image: Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Chief Signal Officer

It doesn’t take modern sensibilities to recognize that the Seventh Cavalry committed atrocities at Wounded Knee. Just three weeks after the massacre, General Nelson A. Miles, on whose orders the Seventh Cavalry pursued the ailing Chief Big Foot and his people across the frozen Plains and Badlands, called his soldiers’ actions at Wounded Knee, “The most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children” [DeMontravel, 1998, pp. 211– 212]. Miles acknowledged, “Every day we hear of poor women, little girls and boys and children found dead and frozen to the ground, or crawling over the prairie, for a distance of one hundred miles north and south” [p. 206]. Testifying before the Commission on Indian Affairs in 1920, Miles said he “regarded the whole affair as most unjustifiable and worthy of the severest condemnation” [National Park Service].

Less than a year after the Massacre, General Miles wrote in a confidential letter dated November 20, 1891: “Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee. About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns and nursing babes with five bullet holes through them ...” [Letter to Baird].

Despite their general’s own clear-eyed condemnation, twenty of the cold-blooded killers of Wounded Knee still bear the Medal of Honor. These medals contradict the judgment of General Miles, insult Native Americans, and hinder Native-White reconciliation.

To recognize the historical fact of the atrocities committed at Wounded Knee, to approach all Native Americans with an open hand and an honest heart, and to restore Honor to the Medal of Honor itself, we ask that you use your public platform to call for these medals to be stricken from the historical record. We ask that you promise, if elected President, to use your Executive authority to correct the injustice of honoring the Seventh Cavalry’s atrocities and rescind those Medals of Honor.

We’ve worked for 16 years to help Native Americans register to vote and exercise their Constitutional rights. We look forward to working with you to see that honor is restored for all the worthy recipients of the Medal of Honor and that justice is done for those defenseless, innocent women and children killed and wounded on that infamous day in December, 1890 by stripping from the historical record the Medals wrongfully awarded to the killers of Wounded Knee.

O.J. Semans, United States Navy Veteran
Co-Executive Director, Four Directions

Peter R. DeMontravel, A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839–1925, Kent State University Press, 1998.

National Park Service, “Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance,” retrieved 2019.04.01 from

Letter to Baird. Nelson A. Miles to George W. Baird, Nov 20, 1891. Baird Collection. WA-S901, M596, Western Americana Collection, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. [Excerpt]

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