Massacre at Wounded Knee: Summary & History

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  • 0:00 Some Background
  • 0:50 Ghost Dance
  • 1:55 Sitting Bull
  • 2:35 The Massacre
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tiffany Wayne
The battle between U.S. military troops and Lakota Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, resulted in the deaths of perhaps 300 Sioux men, women, and children. The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last major battle of the Indian Wars of the late 19th century.

Some Background

In order to make way for white settlement, the U.S. government ordered large numbers of Native Americans onto designated reservation lands in the late 1800s. The Great Sioux Reservation was established by treaty in 1868 and broken up into smaller areas in the 1880s. Many Lakota Sioux were living at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota by 1890.

In the previous decade, Sitting Bull, the leader of the Sioux Tribe, had led thousands of Sioux away from the reservations, resisting forced relocation, but under constant pursuit by the U.S. military. Sitting Bull had survived the confrontation with General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, only to reemerge a decade later as a still-committed leader among his people.

Ghost Dance

By 1889, many Sioux Indians had gathered at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation to participate in the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was part of a religious revival movement that began among the Paiutes and was practiced by many Plains Indians in the 1870s and 1880s. A prophet named Wovoka (or Jack Wilson) shared his spiritual vision and message of hope and cultural renewal for Native Americans who had suffered through decades of broken treaties, lost lands, forced relocation, physical deprivations, and death. Wovoka preached a positive message of peace, although some Native Americans interpreted the vision as a call for active resistance in an effort to reclaim their lost lands. The Lakota Sioux even adopted special garments that they believed provided special protection against white bullets.

Fearing large numbers of armed Indians gathered in one place, the U.S. military brought in extra troops to Wounded Knee and tried unsuccessfully to ban the Ghost Dance ceremony. The U.S. troops viewed the Indian ceremony as preparation for armed conflict and described participants as 'wild and crazy.'

Sitting Bull

In addition to fears about the Ghost Dance, the U.S. government was also concerned about Sitting Bull as a leader with great influence over the people. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was arrested because military officials feared that he was organizing an effort to lead people off the reservation again. He was to be taken into custody and removed from the reservation, but a number of Sioux men rallied to his side to prevent it. The confrontation ended in an exchange of gunfire that killed the great Sioux leader along with several of his followers and police officers. The conflict at Wounded Knee had begun.

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