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2018-04-12 / Voices

Rethinking Wounded Knee


In conducting research about the Wounded Knee massacre for the Takuwe exhibition on display at The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, we now question some assertions about what happened that day. One of them is that the Wounded Knee massacre happened over a short period of time; perhaps as brief as an hour. For instance, the online Encyclopedia Britannica summary of the massacre states that “the fighting ended after less than an hour.”

The implication of this and similar accounts is that the killing was done “in the heat of the moment.” The officers, according to these accounts, lost control of their troops, who then slaughtered innocent children, women and men. Soon, though, the officers apparently regained control and stopped the killing.

Lakota accounts, however, paint a different picture. Black Elk, for instance, stated that “we fought all day [and] went back to Pine Ridge just after dark.” Charlie Blue Arm stated that “we had to stay hid all day till the sun went down, and then the soldiers seemed to be away and we went out to hunt for our people.” Alice War Bonnet stated that “the sun had set, and the guns seemed to get quiet.” And Peter Stand stated: “That evening after they had ceased firing we started up that creek on foot.”

These persons are consistent in describing the soldiers shooting until nightfall. Could it be possible that the killing continued that long? To answer this question, we looked at two additional pieces of information. One was the time the sun set that evening and the other was when the soldiers arrived back at the Pine Ridge Agency.

The assumption is that the soldiers should have departed for the agency soon after they stopped the killing. The distance from Wounded Knee to Pine Ridge is about 12 miles. Assuming that soldiers travelled at the rate of a person walking, which is approximately 3 miles an hour, then it would have taken them four hours to travel from Wounded Knee to Pine Ridge.

Therefore, if the killing was over in an hour or two as the mainstream accounts assert, and it began no later than mid-morning, then the soldiers would have left Wounded Knee around noon and arrived at Pine Ridge around 4 pm. But if the Lakota accounts are accurate, then the soldiers would have left Wounded Knee around sunset and arrived at the Agency four hours later.

According to the meteorological data, the sun set at 4:23 pm on December 29, 1890, and the official report from the Agency states that the soldiers arrived after 9 pm. These two times strongly suggest that the Lakota accounts are accurate.

A few of the Lakota accounts also mentioned that it was “dark” after the soldiers departed for the agency. This suggests that the moon either had not risen or was barely visible. So again, we checked the meteorological data, this time to find out what phase the moon was that night, and whether or not it was visible in the night sky at sunset. According to the data, the moon that night was bright! Its illumination was 89%. After all, only four days earlier, on Christmas day, the moon had been full. But, moonrise on December 29, 1890 was at 7:43 pm. Therefore, it was over three hours after the soldiers finally departed at nightfall before the moon rose, which means the sky was moonless when they left Wounded Knee. Once again, the facts support the truthfulness of the Lakota accounts.

Based on the evidence, the soldiers probably spent the day hunting down and killing Lakotas until around sunset. The horrific slaughter at Wounded Knee was not an “unfortunate incident” or a “battle.” The disarming of women and men, the indiscriminate killing of children, women and men, and then the hunting down and killing of more innocent children, women and men was horrific. Accounts that portray the despicable actions that day as something less than a massacre are inexcusable.

Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

*The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies is an Indian-controlled nonprofit research and education center founded in 2004 and located in the Lacreek District of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

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