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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Dec. 29 is an historical day...

Posted 12/26/17 (Tue)

On Friday, many people in this part of the country will observe a somber anniversary that still has people talking 127 years after it happened.

On Dec. 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry; the same one George Custer was involved with in the Battle of the Little Bighorn 14 years prior, marched into Wounded Knee, S.D., to disarm the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

That was the order from the cadre of the 7th Cavalry, disarm the Lakota! Instead, the Lakota were massacred beyond belief.

There were nearly 300 casualties among the tribe: 150 men, women and children killed, 51 wounded and four men and 47 women who died as a result of their wounds.

Twenty-five Army Soldiers also died in the battle and 39 were wounded in the melee.

Books have been written about this incident, conferences have been carried out, professors discuss it in collegiate history curriculum and the Plains Indians would much rather forget that day on the wind-swept prairie of South Dakota.

Some say Wounded Knee was an important historical marker because it concluded one era for the Sioux nation and began another. It ended decades of fighting against the U.S. government and expedited the placement of Indians on reservations. In effect, it was the surrender of the Sioux Nation.

Robert Utley wrote a book in 1963 called “The Last Days of the Sioux Nation,” describing in detail what led up to the massacre at Wounded Knee. Many of the references in Utley’s book are different than those in the “cookie-cutter” history books.

To summarize, the 7th Cavalry had way more fire power than it needed to disarm the Indians and that included artillery. The Sioux were already at a boiling point because most people don’t realize this, but Wounded Knee happened just two weeks after Sitting Bull was killed. Some say the Cavalry was waiting for an excuse to punish the Sioux tribe for Little Bighorn.

Whatever it was, Utley called it “a regrettable, tragic accident of war for which neither side as a whole may be properly condemned.”

The description of the first shot is bizarre, not only in the history books, but in Utley’s book as well.

Apparently, a deaf tribesman by the name of Black Coyote, didn’t want to give up his weapon because he paid a lot of money for it. At some point in the process of disarmament, Black Coyote’s rifle went off, then the Cavalry opened fire.

It’s also documented that a Lt. Reynolds shot dead a tribesman named Big Foot. A short time later, Reynolds shot Big Foot’s daughter in the back.

The only problem with that account is that there wasn’t a Lt. Reynolds involved in that battle. Utley implies that the Cavalry made up the name so the real shooter would remain anonymous. Big Foot was doing a Ghost Dance when he was shot and killed and it is also implied that if the real Soldier was known to the Indians, they would have stopped at nothing to find him and seek retaliation.

A captain, two lieutenants, two first sergeants, a blacksmith and even a priest were killed during this “battle” that was later changed in official history entries as a “massacre.”

Following a three-day blizzard, the Cavalry hired civilians to clean up the mess and bury the dead.

Sometime later, the Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to those in the 7th Cavalry who were involved on Dec. 29. Indian activists continue to dispute it, calling them medals of dishonor.

Ironically, some of the harshest criticism of this incident came from field commanders who wrote in their journals that federal policy was too harsh on the Indians at the time.

And it may have been. The Lakota were minding their own business at Wounded Knee when the Cavalry moved in, set up camp and positioned their weapons, including machine guns on a hill top that mowed down many in the tribe.

About a month after the massacre and a battle Dec. 30 at Drexel Mission, the Sioux Nation surrendered. Several tribal leaders signed documents calling for an official end of hostilities.

That ceremony included historians, newspaper reporters and photographers who captured the event that was widely reported as far away as the Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star.

The reporters wrote their accounts of the massacre and subsequent surrender, but if you analyze the photographs of the Indian leaders that day, you’ll see a mood that signaled the end of a nomadic existence on the Great Plains.