This Month in Lakota History - December

When tasked with listing important December events in Lakota history, what first comes to mind is the slaughter by United States soldiers of approximately 300 innocent and unarmed children, women and men at Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge Reservation on December 29, 1890. It is a historical touchstone for nearly all Lakotas, especially for Sihasapas, Oohenunpas, Itazipcos and Mniconjous, whose ancestors first settled in Cheyenne River Reservation and who were the overwhelming majority of the victims of the massacre. 

Consider the magnitude of the massacre for the residents of Cheyenne River Reservation at that time. According to the Indian Agent’s annual report, the 1890 population of Lakota residents in Cheyenne River Reservation was 2,823 persons. The actual number of them who were at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890, will never be known, but authoritative sources put the total number of Lakotas at between 370 and 400. Likewise, the number of Lakotas killed that day is impossible to ascertain. CAIRNS uses 300 as the total death count. Other sources suggest a low estimate of around 200 and a high estimate of 400 or more. 

If we use 300 as the number of Lakotas killed at Wounded Knee, they represent 10.6% of the 2,823 residents of Cheyenne River Reservation in 1890. More than one in ten persons of that nation was killed on a single day! Today, that would be like 93,774 South Dakotans dying on a given day, which is equal to all of the residents of Aberdeen, Brookings, Watertown and Mitchell (the 3rd to 6th largest cities in our state), plus Hot Springs! 

10.6% of the 331 million U.S. residents is 35,086,000. That is more people than live in the 20 largest cities in the U.S. combined!  The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, killed 2,753 persons, which was 0.034% of the 8,008,278 population of New York City that year, or one out of every 2,941 residents. Remember the Alamo? The estimated 200 persons who were killed at the Alamo in 1836 represented 0.67% of the 30,000 residents of Texas at that time, or one out of every 149.

The magnitude of the Wounded Knee Massacre in terms of the loss of lives of Cheyenne River Reservation residents is almost incomparable and incomprehensible. 

Even if we expand the reference population to include the Lakota residents in 1890 of Standing Rock Reservation (where Sitting Bull was killed), Cheyenne River Reservation (where Big Foot lived), and Pine Ridge Reservation (where Wounded Knee is), the magnitude is horrific. These three reservation populations in 1890 totaled 11,933 persons. The 300 deaths at Wounded Knee represented 2.5% of these residents, or one out of every 40. 

Comparing that ratio to South Dakota today, it would be similar to every person in Watertown, which has over 22,000 residents, being killed over the course of a single day. If 2.5% of the U.S. population was to be wiped out in one day, it would be like losing every resident of Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. 

When viewed as a percentage or ratio, the Lakota lives lost at Wounded Knee is staggering. But when one considers that those lives were of unarmed, innocent children, women and men who were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers, it is despicable. Yet twenty of the soldiers that day were awarded the Medal of Honor, which, according to a U.S. Department of Defense webpage, “is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the United States government,” and is:

Conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty:

•While engaged in action against an enemy of the United States

•While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or

•While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Those Medals of Honor are the most ever awarded in a single military engagement in the history of the United States. For 130 years, they have been and remain a stain on the honor of the United States. So too is the United States’ refusal to apologize for the massacre. 

But even if, or when, the United States apologizes for the Wounded Knee Massacre and rescinds the Medals of Honor awarded to its soldiers for actions that day, the 29th of December, 1890 should always be remembered. It should always be remembered not just for the disgraceful actions of the United States, but also for the courage and tenacity of Lakotas.

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)