Memory of Wounded Knee Massacre Still Haunts Native People

By Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (December 28th, 2020)—This year marks the 130th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, an atrocious event which resulted in the deaths of over 300 Lakota children, women, and men. Earlier this month, we recalled the killing of Hunkpapa Itancan, Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake). Sitting Bull’s killing at his residence on the Standing Rock Agency on December 15, 1890 was the beginning of events that led to the massacre near Wounded Knee Creek in southern South Dakota.

After Sitting Bull’s murder, some of his followers fled the Standing Rock Agency and traveled to the Cheyenne River Agency to seek refuge and guidance from Mnicoujou leader, Hehaka Gleska (Spotted Elk). A decision was then made to travel south to the Pine Ridge Agency to meet Oglala leader, Red Cloud.

Knowing that the U.S. Army was in pursuit, the group of Hunkpapa and Mnicoujou Lakota began their trek in the dead of night in brutally cold temperatures. The group, comprised of families with children, did not rest and faced tremendous hardships as they fled south. The elderly Hehaka Gleska fell ill during the journey. 

On December 28, the group was intercepted by the 7th Calvary near Wounded Knee Creek. The ill Mnicoujou leader peacefully surrendered to the troops. The next morning, under a flag of truce, Spotted Elk and other Lakota men met with military leaders. The cavalry had placed high-powered Hotchkiss guns around the Indian camp and the soldiers began confiscating weapons from the Lakota. 

A soldier attempted to confiscate a rifle from a Lakota man who was deaf; however, the man did not understand what was happening and soon, chaos ensued with shots fired into the camp. When the smoke cleared, over 300 Lakota people lay dead, including Hehaka Gleska. Bodies of women and children were found as far as five miles away from the camp, slain by cavalry soldiers who hunted them down as they fled.

Some survivors, many of whom were children, ran north back to the Cheyenne River Agency. Some of these children did not survive the ordeal. Those who did survive returned to the western portion of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, an area now named Takini, which means survivor in Lakota. 

For their actions, 20 soldiers were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor. 

Since the late 1980s, an annual memorial horse ride retraces the route that Lakotas took after they fled the Standing Rock Agency. The ride traverses south onto the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and lasts about two weeks, ending on December 29 at the Wounded Knee Massacre site. The next day, runners begin running north, back to Takini, all the while running in prayer. The annual memorial is an opportunity not only to remember those lost and wounded, but also serves as an opportunity to teach history which is not often taught in South Dakota schools. 

For decades, descendants of Wounded Knee survivors and Lakota tribal governments have been working for the revocation of the Congressional Medals of Honor given to soldiers for their actions at Wounded Knee. In 2001, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council passed a resolution asking the federal government to revoke the medals. 

Marlis Afraid Of Hawk, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is a member of the HAWK 1890 Wounded Knee Descendants group. Her grandfather, Richard Afraid Of Hawk, was only 13 years old when he survived the massacre, and he spent his entire life advocating for the revocation of the medals. In 1934, he traveled to Washington, DC to implore the government to do just that, to no avail. Marlis continues her grandfather’s work, and she is not alone. 

In June 2019, Marlis and a delegation from Cheyenne River traveled to Washington to help introduce the Remove the Stain Act, legislation that would revoke the medals once and for all. Since its introduction, the bill has gained the support of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Deb Haaland. 

In South Dakota this past February, Senator Troy Heinert introduced resolution SR701 to the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. The resolution, which had bipartisan support, requested unified support of the Remove the Stain Act from the South Dakota legislature and the South Dakota Congressional Delegation.

The three Republican committee members shared their concerns that revocation should happen at the federal level, with one senator stating that the atrocious acts were not committed by soldiers who were from South Dakota, completely disregarding that the dead victims were from and of South Dakota. Although the committee heard testimonies of support from numerous Lakota citizens, many of whom were descendants of Wounded Knee survivors, the 3-2 vote deferred the bill to the 41st day.

Republican Senator Mike Rounds said he “believes that what happened at Wounded Knee was a massacre, not a battle, and the criteria for awarding a Medal of Honor has more value now than it did then.” He then said “we’re now guessing” about what the individual soldiers did.

Elaborating further, he stated, “I don’t think we should, at this time, go back and decide and change the recommendations of forefathers, even if we disagree vehemently with the outcome of the incident, the massacre.”

After the Remove the Stain Act was introduced, Representative Dusty Johnson called revoking of the medals an “aggressive act” stating, “there’s a better, more nuanced, more facts-driven way for us to move forward.”

As the 130th anniversary of the massacre approaches, memorial riders on horseback will complete their prayerful ride, while a collective grief envelopes the Oceti Sakowin. Senator Heinert shared that he plans to reintroduce a resolution in support of the Remove the Stain Act this upcoming legislative session.

“The resolution is important because our ancestors, through no fault of their own, were murdered in this state, and people were given Congressional Medals of Honor. There’s enough of us now that understand what the Remove the Stain Act means, and we’re in a position now to not only educate people but to also right that wrong. The importance to South Dakota is that this is not about erasing history, this is about righting the wrongs that have been done in the past. It needs to happen.”

The Remove the Stain Act has bipartisan support from elected leaders from across the nation- it is time that the South Dakota legislature step up and support the bill– the lives of over 300 South Dakotans were taken that tragic day on December 29, 1890. Dismissing this fact infers that the Sioux people are not citizens of South Dakota. As long as this stain is unresolved and unacknowledged, indigenous people of South Dakota will never feel as though the State of South Dakota regards their lives as important, worth protecting and defending.   

The veil of discrimination and racism is threaded in these atrocities and poor government policies. If we truly want to lift the veil and see our friends and neighbors as humans and South Dakotans, then full support of this bill and those like them is needed.  

The South Dakota Democratic Party implores all members of Congress to research the tragic events of Wounded Knee and the generational historical trauma rooted from the atrocities against indigenous people. Use your voice and vote to address the wounds of history. Your words have as much power as your relatives did in those days. Your voice can be a cannon, fired in the defense of truth and indigenous lives. 

Please direct questions to SDDP Executive Director Pam Cole via email or phone (605) 695-1996.