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Massacre at Wounded Knee

On December 29, 1890, about 300 Sioux warriors, women, and children were killed while awaiting removal to a reservation.

With the buffalo all but gone, their lifestyle taken away, and dependent on the federal government to survive life on reservations, the Sioux turned to a Paiute shaman called Wovoka for salvation. Calling himself the Messiah, Wovoka prophesied that the dead would soon join the living in a world in which the Indians could live in the old way, without fear of any white man. In order to hasten the event, he preached that Indians needed to dance the Ghost Dance, a ceremony in which the dancers wore brightly colored shirts emblazoned with images of eagles and buffalo. Warriors who performed the ceremony believed that they would be forever protected so long as they wore those shirts.

By the fall of 1890 the federal government had become convinced that the Ghost Dance was simply a prelude to new Indian uprisings and issued calls for the arrest of all Ghost Dance leaders and eradication of the ceremony. One of those leaders targeted for arrest was Sitting Bull, who was subsequently killed by Lakota policemen at the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory on December 15, 1890.

Another Sioux leader targeted for arrest was Big Foot, but he managed to escape the reservation with a number of his followers. Although he was old and seriously ill with pneumonia, Big Foot hoped to lead his followers several hundred miles to the south and seek protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation, but the group was intercepted by the U.S. Army on December 28 and taken to a camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

map of the Wounded Knee Massacre site
map of the Wounded Knee Massacre site

On the morning of December 29, Big Foot sat among his warriors and a few army officers, hoping to reach some kind of peaceful solution and prevent bloodshed. Unfortunately, someone, it is not known exactly who, got nervous and all of a sudden a single shot was heard. Before anyone could discern from where the shot originated, army troops opened fire on the Indian camp. By the time the shooting and fighting were over some 300 Sioux, including Big Foot and dozens of women and children, were dead, as were about 25 soldiers.

contemporary photograph of Wounded Knee Massacre victims laying in the snow
victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre lay in the snow

Eyewitness to History

Sitting Bull

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This page was last updated on 12/29/2017.