At Wounded Knee Creek, on December 29, 1890, the last fight of any size or significance between the U.S. Army and American Indians occurred.  Although a terrible tragedy involving the loss of Indian women and children, the battle has been wildly mischaracterized, especially by those bent on making the Indian an innocent victim of the Evil White Man.  The real story is far more complex—and far more interesting.  It begins with the Ghost Dance.

Responsible for the ritualistic dance that ultimately led to the Battle of Wounded Knee was Wovoka, a Paiute from the Walker River Reservation in western Nevada.  As a young boy, he was adopted by the Wilsons—a white family who farmed and ranched near the reservation—and reared as Jack Wilson, just another of the Wilson boys.  In 1885, he began having visions and preaching that Jesus would return, this time for the Indians.  Now calling himself Wovoka, he said the white man would be swept from the earth in a great upheaval, but Indians who performed the Ghost Dance would be lifted into the sky and suspended there until the cataclysm was over.  The earth would be covered  by a new layer of soil, sweet grass, and great herds of buffalo.  Dead warriors would return to life.

Not many listened to Wovoka until his white brothers concluded that Jack needed a miracle.  Wovoka told the Paiute of the Walker River Reservation that he would make ice float down the river, a fantastic claim in the middle of summer.  While Wovoka chanted, the Wilson boys, well upstream, dumped blocks of ice into the river.  On cue, ice came floating past the reservation, leaving the Paiute awe-struck.  Word of Wovoka’s strong medicine spread quickly.

By 1889, his message had reached the Indians of the northern plains, including the Sioux.  Soon, Sioux warriors were performing the Ghost Dance and wearing Ghost Shirts, which Wovoka said would repel the bullets of the whites.  As the movement gained momentum, Indian agents began to fear that a major uprising was imminent.  Several bands of Sioux bolted reservations and headed for the Badlands, immediately west of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The 7th Cavalry was given the task of flushing Sioux out of the Badlands and driving them back to the reservations.  Within weeks, the troopers had corralled several bands of Sioux and had them on the march back to reservations.  Then, late in the day on December 28, several companies of the 7th Cavalry caught up with Big Foot’s band of Miniconjou, which was camped alongside Wounded Knee Creek.  Big Foot was told the cavalry was there to escort his people back to the reservation.  The chief was suffering terribly from pneumonia, and some feared he would die.  He was provided a warm tent and a stove and treated by the regimental surgeon.  Because of the cold, tents were erected for those Indians whose tepees were in poor condition, and rations were distributed to all.

Early the next morning, Col. James Forsyth ordered all Indian warriors to assemble and surrender their arms, as agreed upon by Big Foot, so the march back to the reservation could begin.  After an hour, only six unserviceable rifles had been surrendered.  Forsyth ordered troopers to search the tepees.  Squaws raised a great fuss and did everything in their power to hinder the search.  After another hour, the troopers had discovered only 40 more rifles, most of them old and in need of repair.  Something was up.

If the men and officers of the 7th had been fluent in Sioux, they would have known that a medicine man, Yellow Bird, was preparing the Sioux warriors for battle.  He walked among the warriors and chanted, “You wear Ghost Shirts.  No white man’s bullet can hurt you.”  Suddenly, a warrior leaped to his feet and pulled a rifle from under the blanket he wore.  A trooper lunged for the rifle, but the warrior fired.  As if planned, other warriors instantly threw back their blankets, revealing Winchester repeaters, and opened fire.  A bullet shattered a lieutenant’s arm.  Another blew off the top of a captain’s head.  Within seconds, a dozen or more troopers fell.  Others, however, returned fire, and Indians began to drop.

As the two sides separated, troopers manning four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns on a nearby hill began raking Indian positions.  The Hotchkiss fired a shell that exploded on impact, sending fragments flying in all directions and not discriminating among men, women, and children.  The Sioux stampeded out of camp, with the cavalry in pursuit.  The fight was over quickly, but the carnage was frightful.  The 7th suffered 25 dead and 39 wounded.  The Sioux lost 84 warriors and 62 women and children by the Army’s count, although some Indians claimed the losses were higher.  

Because so many women and children were killed, the Army launched an investigation, something never even imagined by Indians after an Indian slaughter of white women and children, since such slaughters were intentional and praiseworthy.  At the investigation, dozens of witnesses testified, including officers, troopers, Indian scouts, and Sioux.  The Army’s investigation concluded, “There is nothing to conceal or to apologize for in the Wounded Knee Battle. . . . The firing was begun by the Indians and continued until they stopped.”

Nonetheless, the battle is often portrayed as a massacre of innocent Sioux, an interpretation that is long on emotion and short on facts.  Some also claim the 7th Cavalry was bent on avenging the slaughter of Custer and his men at Little Big Horn.  If it had been revenge they wanted, they had several opportunities to take it during the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1877, when the Sioux who had fought at Little Big Horn were surrendering and returning to the reservation.  Moreover, by 1890, only a handful of those who had been with the 7th in 1876 were still in the regiment.  The battle was a tragic and dismal end to the Indian wars, to be sure, but the warriors of Big Foot’s band had only themselves and their treacherous actions to blame for bringing on the wrath of the 7th Cavalry.