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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Wounded Knee Massacre

Updated: May 11, 2023

132 Years ago one of the most horrific and shameful chapters in U.S. history took place

December 29, 1890. The massacre at Wounded Knee. The name comes from a creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. But its words have come to mean so much more—fraught with suffering, injustice, horrific violence, and shame. “Wounded” for the nearly 300 hundred unarmed Lakota who suffered unmitigated hatred, violence, and death. “Knee,” symbolic of a proud indigenous people forced to their knees of subjugation. Even in final imprisonment and captivity on reservations in disease-ridden conditions, they would not be allowed even the smallest freedoms to follow their traditions.

By 1890, the Lakota and other Plains Indians had been relegated to reservations. South Dakota contained more Indian reservations than any other state: nine reservations that house Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Brule Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Hunkpapa Sioux, and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Natives comprise about 12% of South Dakota’s land. (See map of South Dakota reservations.)

Chief Sitting Bull lived at Standing Rock Reservation on the border of North and South Dakota. Chief Spotted Elk (aka “Big Foot”) lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. Red Cloud lived at the Pine Ridge Reservation on the southern border of South Dakota. Christian churches, huge ‘mission schools” teaching white ways to Native children, and “company stores” were built on all reservations to force enculturation of Native inhabitants into white society.

In 1889, a new spiritual movement began to sweep across reservations across North America. A Wovoka-Northern Paiute man name Jack Wilson had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. In the vision, God showed Wilson a glorious land like the one Native Americans had known before whites had arrived. The land was beautiful and untouched, teeming with game and Indian tribes lived in freedom across the land. In his vision, Jesus Christ would come back to earth as an Indian. Whites and their tyranny would disappear.

In order to honor this vision and bring their salvation, believers danced the “Spirit Dance,” called the “Ghost Dance” by whites. Magnificent shirts were handcrafted and decorated for the Dance. The shirts were believed to hold strong spiritual power themselves and would protect wearers from death and suffering.

The Ghost Dance movement spread quickly across reservations and tribes as a last gasp of hope and insurrection against reservation captivity and loss of Natives ways. In December 1890, the Army and government got wind that Sitting Bull had been inciting his people at Standing Rock Reservation to celebrate the Ghost Dance.

The government had officially declared the Ghost Dance as seditious and inciting violence and announced illegal. Any dancers would be arrested and imprisoned. The Army sent government Lakota reservation police to arrest Sitting Bull. But Sitting Bull protested, gun shots were fired and Sitting Bull as killed outright by point black bullets to his chest and head. Violence ensued and eight Indians, including Sitting Bull and his 17-year-old son were killed, as well as seven police.

The Lakota knew that this insurrection would bring down the wrath of the Army upon them. About 200 Standing Rock Lakota men fled their reservation and rode south to the Cheyenne River Reservation, which was headed up by Chief Spotted Elk, also known as “Big Foot” by whites. From there, Chief Spotted Elk and some of his warriors rode south to convene with remaining chiefs at Pine Ridge Reservation, headed by Chief Red Cloud. The Pine Ridge Reservation was on the South Dakota / Nebraska border.

While en route to Pine Ridge, Spotted Elk was intercepted by the Army and he was escorted to the outskirts of Pine Ridge, where he was ordered to set up his teepees on the banks of Wounded Knee. The Army had already been amassing troops and with carbine firearms and rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns mounted on hills overlooking Spotted Elk’s village. The next day, December 29, 1890, troops were ordered to collect all the Indians’ arms. One young, deaf Lakota warrior named Black Coyote refused and struggled with a soldier. A gun discharged and an officer gave the command to open fire. The Hotchkiss guns mowed down nearly 300 Lakota, many of them women and children traveling with Spotted Elk. Spotted Elk and a leading Lakota Medicine man were also killed. In the chaos, 25 U.S. soldiers were killed, and 39 wounded, most by friendly fire.

The Army hired local civilians to gather the dead in wagons, dig and huge deep pit and throw in the bodies. Lakota were not allowed traditional burial or mourning practices. Among the hundreds of dead, four infants were found alive in their dead mothers’ arms wrapped in shawls.

The Army’s and the public’s outrage at the massacre were immediate. General Nelson Miles relieved the commanding Colonel James Forsyth from his command. Nevertheless, the event was whitewashed and Forsyth was not only not punished, but was later promoted to Major General. And about 20 U.S. Army soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for the massacre.

The American public’s reaction to the massacre was generally positive, in great part because the event was whitewashed by the Army and government for the press. But not all Americans were duped. A young newspaper editor, L. Frank Baum, later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891:

The 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 future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands.

The tyranny of Wounded Knee did not end in 1890. Look for future posts on: The Modern Aftermath of Wounded Knee, The Fight Over Sitting Bull’s Final Resting Place, and Chief Red Cloud.

You may find these related posts interesting:

• Sitting Bull, Immortal Native Icon

• The Ghost Dance, Last Prayer for the Old Ways

• Ghost Dance Shirts

“The Wounded Knee Massacre” was first published on Facebook and on February 20, 2021.

266,188 views / 15,220 likes / 6,176 shares

© 2022 Notes from the Frontier

1,783 views5 comments


Dec 31, 2022

In the late 1940's and early 1950's I was a Boy Scout & Explorer and attended to the 10 Mile River camp in the Catskill Mountains, New York summers, went several times to the Native American Museum in NYC and recently the Buffalo Bill in Wyoming which I highly recommend and learned about the history of Native Americans, have the LP record album of Native American songs produced in the 1950's, collect and wear turquoise jewelry and to this day I attend Pow Wows - The more I learn, the more I am heart sick and disappointed today that I don't see more youth in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.


Dec 29, 2022

Thank you for telling this very sad story. Shameful what the U.S. Government did and continues to not do!


Dan Buchanan
Dan Buchanan
Feb 24, 2021

Excellent read, I've never read a context piece for wounded knee and this fill that gap. Now I have to fill all the other gaps!


Notes From The Frontier
Notes From The Frontier
Feb 20, 2021

Hightechexec1– Thank you for your comments, as always! It is very frustrating that Native Americans continue to suffer under poverty, racial prejudice, lack of opportunities, and other injustices that are holdovers of their plight in the 1800s. But they are making some progress today. I have been working with the Chief Joseph Foundation and other Native groups who are doing fantastic work! Support those groups, if you can, and help right the wrongs of the past.💪🏽✌️


Feb 20, 2021

Nothing has changed, elected government officials continue to deny and lie, nothing is done and nothing can be done!


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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