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Tim Giago: Wounded Knee: 129 years later

Notes from Indian Country
Wounded Knee: 129 years later

South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889. One year and 27 days after joining the Union nearly 300 innocent men, women and children were murdered at a community within its boundaries: A community known as Wounded Knee, Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála.

When I lived at Wounded Knee as a boy I would often listen to the elders while they sat on the porch of the Trading Post where my father worked and I heard the stories about the horrific damage the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannons mounted on the hills overlooking the encampment did to the women and children caught in their fire. The 37mm shells nearly tore the children apart. Death rained down upon the Lakota people that terrible day of December 29, 1890.

It took several days for the news to reach out across the State of South Dakota. For the most part the editorials written after that day addressed the tragedy of the event. But not all. A few days after one of the worst massacres in U. S. history an editorial appeared in a newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota. It was written by the editor L. Frank Baum, who 10 years later would write a book called The Wizard of Oz. Baum wrote:

“The (Aberdeen) Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”

Arlis Afraid of Hawk shows a photo of her ancestors during the #RemoveTheStain press conference in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2019. H.R.3467, the Remove the Stain Act, rescinds the Medals of Honor that were awarded to the men who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This editorial was a clear call for the genocide of a race of people. In his book Mein Kampf another budding author named Adolph Hitler called for the extermination of the Jewish people. One author is honored even this day while the other has been vilified throughout the civilized world. As a Lakota man I can only garner from this distinction that the call for the extermination of the Lakota people is inconsequential.

There are those who say that this is ancient history and to “get over it.” Did the Jewish people ever “get over it?” How ancient is this history? There is a group of Lakota calling themselves the descendants of Wounded Knee who commemorate this tragic day every year. How ancient is this history? On December 29, 1890, my grandmother Sophie was just a few miles away from the slaughter and she actually witnessed a troop of soldiers ride on to the school grounds where she worked and noticed that some of them still had blood on their uniforms.

Was this massacre even necessary? Sitanka (Big Foot) was leading his band from Cheyenne River seeking the protection of Chief Red Cloud shortly after the assassination of Sitting Bull up on Standing Rock. His camp was filled with elders, women and children. It was by no means a hostile camp.

Sitting Bull was assassinated in part for allowing the Ghost Dance to take place at his home. The Ghost Dance was a religious ceremony that caused great fear amongst the white settlers. The dancers prayed for the return of their relatives to earth and also the return and revival of the once mighty buffalo herds. Sitanka feared for the safety of his people because some of them had also participated in this religious dance. At the bottom of the events leading up to the massacre was the white people’s total ignorance of the Lakota spirituality.

There will always be unanswered questions about how and why the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred. The white history books have their version and the oral history of the Lakota has its version. In any event it was a terrible day in the history of America and of the fledgling State of South Dakota.

As the bodies of the dead and wounded were brought through the doors of the makeshift church hospital at Pine Ridge Village a sign above the church door read, “Peace on earth to men of good will.”

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at

Content copyright © Tim Giago

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