Wounded Knee

Party politics and the road to an American massacre.

Wounded Knee

Virtually everyone has heard of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where upwards of 300 Indians were murdered in one of the great tragedies of American history. Yet it’s probably safe to say that few are cognizant of the role that politicians and the media played in fostering the conditions that led to the disaster. “The dark machinations of partisan American politics are at the heart of the story,” writes political historian Heather Cox Richardson in “Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre” (Basic Books), a new book that reexamines the massacre—and why it occurred.

Last week I interviewed Richardson to discuss the major themes of “Wounded Knee,” as well as the political maneuvering of that era, which continues to impact elections to this day.

What happened near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota on the morning of December 29, 1890?
What happened is that a group of about 300 Minneconjou Sioux—mostly women, children and elderly men—were being moved to an Indian agency, and the officer in charge decided that he had to disarm them. In the process of disarming tensions developed, not only because the Indians were frightened of the large number of soldiers, but also because they were starving. They knew if the Army succeeded in taking their guns, they had no security that they would actually be fed. Guns were also very expensive, and they had paid a lot of money for their guns. As the soldiers disarmed them, they actually marked names on some of the guns, intending to give them to friends.

Finally, one of the Minneconjou held his Winchester over his head and announced that he had paid a good deal of money for his gun and would not give it up without being paid for it. Three soldiers jumped on his back, and as they began struggling, the soldiers around the four men lowered their guns and pointed them at the group. Then one of the mixed-blood scouts screamed, “Look out! Look out! They are going to shoot!” At that point, the gun they were struggling over went off. It fired into the air, but with the report, the commander screamed, “Fire!” The soldiers fired, and the first volley cut through the Indians, killing a number of them, including a bunch of little boys playing leapfrog. A number of soldiers were also killed.

This was in the days before smokeless powder, so with the firing of the guns everything was obscured by black powder. And when that happened the Indians began to fight back. They had knives and managed to snatch guns from the soldiers who had fallen. But they were badly outnumbered and the soldiers, who had canons set up on a rise, fired down on them. Meanwhile, the Indian women—who had been held separately and told to saddle up the horses and wagons to go to the agency—jumped into the wagons and tried to escape. But the mountain guns began taking out the wagons. In the carnage about 270 Indians died.

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