The Wounded Knee Massacre, the murder of Lakota refugees by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890, was inevitable. This atrocity was the culmination of the centuries-long effort by European immigrants to exterminate the indigenous peoples of the Plains, an indelible desire to expand fueled by Manifest Destiny.
Despite the infamy of its name and its key role in American history, Wounded Knee is not understood in terms of the relevant warnings it offers. Contemporary issues involving inclusivity, nationalism, xenophobia and historical integrity can be better confronted by learning from this harrowing event.
Coming to terms with our past is a great struggle for Americans, yet by failing to do so we are not only neglecting our mistakes and ignoring valuable lessons, but also committing an injustice against those who suffered – and continue to do so.
The “Ghost Dance,” taught by the Paiute Wovoka, played a central role in the events at Wounded Knee. Wovoka envisioned the coming of a messianic character who would liberate the natives from their European oppressors, re-establishing the bygone era. As the spiritual movement spread across the Plains, it worried the American cavalry, who interpreted it as a signal for revolt and insurgency.
Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, the hero of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, had been killed earlier in 1890 for his participation in the movement. Mounting tension led around 300 Lakota, the Miniconjous, to seek safety at the Pine Ridge Reservation in December of that year.
On Dec. 29, the Lakota refugees, escorted by American cavalrymen, began performing the Ghost Dance on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The soldiers ordered disarmament of the civilians, which one man resisted. His rifle discharged, causing the soldiers to open fire, and chaos ensued.
Dead bodies were found for three miles around the camp; they were then dumped in a mass grave. At least half, – possibly all,– of the 300 civilians were shot down.
Wounded Knee was the last major confrontation between the U.S. Cavalry and Plains tribes, officially closing off the western frontier and indigenous resistance to American expansion. The “Wild” West, with all its gore and glory, faded into antiquity.
Applauded by the American people, members of the 7th Cavalry who fought in the massacre were awarded Medals of Honor.
Indigenous peoples around the world have faced vicious attempts to destroy their way of life for years. From the Nagas in India to Mapuche in Chile, original inhabitants have consistently been discriminated against and ravaged by those desiring their land or fearing their lifestyle.
Part of the problem is the struggle to incorporate diverse peoples into one nation, to assimilate them into one identity. It is difficult to find compromise between people of different backgrounds, especially when placed in close quarters.
Existential war cannot be the solution. How, then, will we react to a continually globalizing world, where distinct peoples interact more than ever?
In many ways, the recent nationalist sentiments spreading internationally seem to be from the same vein as wars upon indigenous peoples. Efforts to define a nation have caused great suffering for those alienated in this endeavor.
The targets of these feelings, whether indigenous peoples or immigrants, usually have much to offer in a shared society. Before colonialism, for example, Native Americans had achieved greater developments in agriculture, medicine and democracy than their European counterparts, as shown in renowned anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s book “Indian Givers”. Instead of hatred, cooperation and mutual respect can bring peace and prosperity in a greater form.
For our country, acknowledging uncomfortable histories is a touchy subject. In the past year, Civil War monuments, Ken Burns’ “Vietnam War” and the behavior of powerful men have shed light upon dark histories — histories that we must acknowledge. The genocidal actions against Native Americans are an inescapable stain on our history. We must recognize and emphasize it as an unforgettable part of our shared heritage. Not doing so is an injustice.
One of the primary reasons I chose to write this column is to remember our history and demonstrate its contemporary importance. People quickly forget what happened: a dangerous and unacceptable path to follow.
In former Yugoslavia, political desires have manifested in rejection of the genocide at Srebrenica. The growing denial of the Nanjing Massacre in Japan is a concerning development. American actions involving slavery, Native Americans and foreign wars consistently plague our consciousness.
Instead of forgetting Wounded Knee, let us memorialize it by drawing a line in the sand, by striving to uphold the truth and to move toward a more inclusive society. By doing so, this tragic history can form the foundation for a better world.
Nabil Kapasi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This Week in History appears online every other Thursday.