Removing the Stain of Wounded Knee

This story first appeared on Rural America In These Times in July 2019. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion.

Bodies frozen in the snow, a baby with five bullet wounds, small children shot at such close range their clothes and bodies were singed with gunpowder. Lieutenant General Nelson Miles was shocked by what he found at Wounded Knee. He arrived from his headquarters in Rapid City, S.D., several days after the carnage, which occurred December 29, 1890. A battle-hardened Civil War veteran, he was appalled by what he called in a letter to his wife, “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.” 

Back l to r, Reps Cook, Haaland, and Heck with Marcella LeBeau.
Over Miles’s objections, 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were soon awarded to the U.S. Army soldiers involved. When more medals were suggested later in 1891, Miles called them “an insult to the memory of the dead.”

Three U.S. Representatives are co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill called the Remove the Stain Act. Which seeks to rescind the Wounded Knee awards. Speaking at a June 25 Washington, D.C., press conference were two-time Purple Heart winner and retired Marine colonel Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), and Denny Heck (D-Wash.). Both Haaland and Cook are members of the House Armed Services Committee, to which the bill was submitted that day for initial consideration. 

The bill, H.R. 3467, needs to get through the committee and pass both the House and the Senate in order to be sent to the President’s desk for his signature. According to OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux director of the voting-rights group Four Directions, efforts are now underway to increase the number of House co-sponsors and to craft a companion Senate bill.

That December day in 1890, several Seventh Cavalry companies had accepted the surrender of a group of Miniconjou Lakota. They then disarmed them and butchered them, according to a paper by historian Jerry Green for the Nebraska State Historical Society. Green reports the officers present describing the soldiers as “greatly excited,” surrounding the Lakota and shooting wildly without aiming their guns. “Warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs…went down before that unaimed fire,” according to one officer. As many as 375 died, about 200 of them women and children, according to later Congressional documents. 

The soldiers also killed or wounded dozens of their own comrades positioned across the surrounding circle. “It was impossible not to,” according to an Army medical officer present, says Green’s research.

Later that night, a surgeon who had served in the Civil War tended to Lakota survivors. He began to look faint, according to a Nebraska journalist who was among those who had arrived to report on the incident. “This is the first time I've seen a lot of women and children shot to pieces. I can’t stand it,” the journalist reported the surgeon saying.

At the Washington, D.C., press conference, Representative Haaland said introduction of the bill “shows that our country is finally on the way to acknowledging and recognizing the atrocities against our Native communities.” One of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, Haaland, who is from Laguna Pueblo, lauded the continued strength of Native people, despite the many outrages against them, including Wounded Knee. 

Representative Cook condemned not only the massacre but “the lie associated with our highest award for valor.” With the Act, he said, “We are correcting something that was tragic in all ways [including] awarding those medals.” 

Representative Heck called the bill a step toward healing. He noted that his congressional district once had the highest number of living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients of any district in the nation.

“We have distinguished people here to help our ancestors,” said Manny Iron Heart at the press conference. A descendant of a massacre survivor, he is from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. “Today we give our ancestors voice,” said Marlis Afraid of Hawk, also a descendant at Cheyenne River. “It’s time to heal.”

This “darkest day” is not recognized or taught in our schools, said descendant Phyllis Hollow Horn, born and raised in Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She saw a connection between the press conference’s date—June 25, the anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn—and the soldiers’ uncontrolled fury at Wounded Knee. She said they sought revenge for the Lakota and their allies defeating the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn just 14 years before.

The descendants spoke of the enduring pain of the killings and its continued presence in their communities. This is evident in numerous ways, including the extremes rates of violence Native women experience nationwide. Native children have long been a focus of federal policies of forced assimilation and genocide. They were among massacre victims at Wounded Knee, at Sand Creek, in Colorado, on the Marias River, in Montana, on the Bear River, in Idaho, and in other places. 

In some cases, the children were shot, as at Wounded Knee; in others, soldiers used their rifle butts on them to save ammunition, said Kip Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota, in a separate interview.Starting in the late 1800s, Native children were then sent to notoriously abusive boarding schools intended to eradicate their cultures and today may be taken into foster care or adoption via child-welfare proceedings. 

“As a grandmother and great-grandmother, I’m supporting this bill for the children—to ensure that no one hurts our children again,” said Hollow Horn.

The press conference celebrated World War II veteran Marcella LeBeau of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota. She has long advocated for rescinding the Wounded Knee medals. Decorated for saving lives rather than taking them, LeBeau, now 99, received France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, as well as U.S. and Belgian awards, for her work during the war. A U.S. Army lieutenant and surgical nurse, she cared for those injured on D-Day and was often near the front lines. At the Battle of the Bulge, she could see enemy planes overhead, hear guns firing, and feel bombs shake the ground as she tended the wounded.

LeBeau is among the many Native Americans who have served in the military. They are the population group with the nation’s highest enlistment rate, according to the Department of Defense. In a Library of Congress interview, LeBeau called her World War II service “one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life.” Of the soldiers she served with, and saw both live and die, she said, “They were honorable men, protecting our country”—making clear the vast gulf between them and the soldiers at Wounded Knee. 

OJ Semans, a Navy veteran as well as co-director with his wife, Barb Semans, of the voting-rights group, was instrumental in marshalling support for the Remove the Stain Act from the three Congressional co-sponsors. He says that Native Americans’ recently improved ballot-box access, especially in states critical to the outcome of the 2020 election, means public officials will now listen to their concerns. (For more, see In These Times hereherehere and here.)

Though not one of the three House members now co-sponsoring the Act, U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said in a written statement that he was separately talking to the Army about a review. “Medal of Honor recipients of today are held to a tremendously higher standard,” wrote Johnson, in whose congressional district the massacre occurred. “It’s painfully clear from our history [that] the U.S. didn’t have these same standards in 1890.” 

Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor receive their award from the President, who presents it on behalf of Congress. With that in mind, Semans has written to the President about the Act, urging him to “[r]estore honor to the Medal of Honor itself, to the brave soldiers who have earned that Medal in real wars, against real enemies.” At press time, In These Times had not received a response to a request for a comment fromthe President, who has used a reference to Wounded Knee as a slur on Twitter.

Spokesperson Laura Jowdy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which says it represents recipients, said she could not comment on the Remove the Stain Act. She cited prohibitions against society involvement in legislative affairs. 

The medal, though exceptionally prestigious nowadays, has a checkered history. During 1916 and 1917, General Miles headed a Congressional inquiry into criteria for bestowing it. He found it could be doled out haphazardly. A commander could recommend a soldier; a soldier could recommend himself. Clerical errors spawned medals. Miles’s inquiry revoked 864 medals that had gone to Civil War soldiers not for bravery, but to encourage reenlistment.

In his research for the Nebraska State Historical Society, Green found that some of the soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for actions at Wounded Knee may have faked or exaggerated wounds in the process of qualifying for the award. Other recipients were groups of friends who endorsed each other. Some medals appeared frivolous, including one for “conspicuous bravery” in rounding up a runaway pack mule. A company musician who got a medal had been court-martialed eight times. The documentation for other medals backs up Miles’s assessment of the day’s horrors: One medal was for leading 20 men against a group of women and children and another was for using a howitzer to lob explosives onto women and children sheltering in a ravine.

In 1990, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), now retired (not related to Dusty Johnson), authored an official Congressional expression of “deep regret” for the massacre. The resolution called for a new beginning, including support for American Indian self-determination and “a recognition of the valuable contribution of Indian cultures, traditions, and values to the history and fabric of American society.”

Despite efforts like Tim Johnson’s, the view of indigenous people that engendered the horrors of Wounded Knee persists in some areas. In 1890, a South Dakota newspaper editorial came out for “total annihilation” of Native Americans. During most of 2016, the world watched aghast as North Dakota responded violently to demonstrations against an oil pipeline being built across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water supply. Heavily armed police officers and oil-company private security agents attacked unarmed civilians—women as well as men, elders as well as younger adults—with dogs, rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, batons, and water cannons deployed in sub-freezing temperatures. 

According to Semans, “In this time of duly heightened sensitivity to violence against women and children, in a political era where national leaders appear to be willing to bring front and center discussion of the history and current issues of America’s indigenous people…the time is right to return to Wounded Knee. 

“The time is right to hear the cries of my ancestors from that frozen and bloodied landscape.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph c. OJ Semans.

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