Native American History: Wounded Knee 1890

This educational article is intended for ages 13 and up. This article contains historical photos and information that will be alarming, triggering and frightening.

Part of the systemic destruction of Native people was moving the survivors of massacres like Wounded Knee (or the many Government condoned slaughters of, "uprisings") to unsustainable land where they would eventually starve to death.

The Ho-Chunk tribe (also known as Winnebago) were a Siouan tribe, they had many offshoots, including Quapaw, Missouri, Iowa, Oto, Omaha and the Ponca. The latter was my mother's tribe. The Ponca lived among lakes stretching from Wisconsin to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. They continued to move West, ultimately settling along the South Dakota border at Lewis & Clark lake. With the rounding up and, "reserving of Indians" the Ponca tribe was moved to the plains of Nebraska onto the Winnebago reservation. This is where my Grandfather was born, on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska just 20 years after the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The Ho-Chunk (specifically Ponca) were fishermen and harvested wild rice which was plentiful along the Great Lakes area of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. According to Government reports, the Ponca were good at business and so friendly with traders and traveling religious visitors that they were known as, "The Civilized Tribe" in reports and intermarried frequently which resulted in what the government called the most ethnically diverse tribe or as some reports eloquently stated,"halfbreeds." In one particular report, a Judge appeared to be surprised that the soldiers who married Ho-Chunk women treated the children of their Ho-Chunk wives as if they were from White Mothers. He further states that because they are mixed blood, they are doomed to Indian Country.

Excerpt from 2013, Sibley’s Winnebago Prisoners: Deconstructing Race and Recovering Kinship in the Dakota War of 1862 by Linda M. Waggoner of Sonoma State University

Even with being lauded as a Civilized tribe and having mixed ethnicities and connections across multiple cultures, when Natives were assigned reservations, the Ho-Chunks (& Ponca) were pushed to the desolate plains of Nebraska where they had no idea how to survive. No wild rice, no fish. Most of modern Nebraska has reservoirs and man-made lakes, but the Winnebago reservation land had no lakes and only a tip of the heavily guarded Missouri River was available. How could they fish and harvest rice? They learned to farm but they struggled as all tribes did.

Placing tribes in areas that appeared unsurvivable and far from their natural habitats was an attempt to kill off the survivors quietly. The Ho-Chunk asked for help and the Government told them to farm. Which was foreign to them. They did their best. This was the tribe who had been kind and welcoming to the government and they still were treated this way.

Despite being on reservations, the Pine Ridge and other Lakota tribes refused to be mistreated, stepped on and pushed around. They began to inspire one another to return to traditional ways and the younger men began a movement called the, "Ghost Dance." The soldiers at the reservation were fearful of the dance, claiming the Natives were about to rise up (this was a thing they often said before murdering hundreds of Natives).

The Ghost Dance: Credit Library of Congress

Calling for backup of 5,000 soldiers, Reservation agents confronted Sitting Bull who had nothing to do with the Ghost Dance movement. He was shot and killed on December 15th, 1890 along with his son, Crow-Foot, during a botched arrest his warriors tried to prevent.

The Detroit Free Press Newspaper, Monday, December 15, 1890 - image from History.Com - Chief Sitting Bull was 59 years old when he was killed.

Most school history books recount this day as, "The Battle of Wounded Knee," but it wasn't a battle. It was a flat out rush to murder hundreds of unarmed people on a cold Winter morning after killing Chief Sitting Bull 2 weeks before. And the worst part? They were fleeing to safety.

After Sitting Bull's murder, Chief Big Foot rallied his people, men, women and children in an attempt to escape to protect them. He intended to travel to join Chief Red Cloud for safety. Big Foot was sick with pneumonia and could barely walk.

Chief Big Foot lies in the snow, sick with pneumonia, before being shot. December 29, 1890,

On the morning of December 29, the Army surrounded the families and after killing them, dumped their lifeless bodies, infants and little children and all into mass graves. The sight of heavily armed soldiers standing over those graves of babies... makes me sick. And is too brutal for this website.


This event was just ONE incident where photographs were taken... but there were many, many more. The hand written reports sent to the White House detailing how uprisings had been squelched all over the US... those were also massacres just not photographed.

Pine Ridge fought hard to defend themselves and they were hit hard in return by the government, even stooping low enough to kill children and infants. That is when the tribe finally gave up trying. They stopped fighting as a means to protect their children.

Pine Ridge has struggled since this. There is a depression that hangs over the tribe that has never been healed. But Pine Ridge needs to remember, their ancestors sacrificed everything to keep the remaining children alive. They sacrificed their freedom, their lives. Pine Ridge children are the descendants of warriors turned saints.

When I was 16 years old, my family traveled from our home in Texas to visit my Grandma in Eagle Butte, SD on the Cheyenne River Reservation. It was Christmas and most of that trip was beautiful. On the 29th, my family visited Wounded Knee with my Uncles. I remember the solemn trip with my relatives. The sadness... was palpable.

It's important to know true history and not what is easy or cleaner to accept. Without history, we can't learn and change. It's like falling down as a toddler. You get up and learn to walk and protect yourself. This is how we change as human beings. We learn from mistakes, we learn from history.

This is our history. On December 29th, 1890, this massacre was photographed.