The Wounded Knee Massacre

“It sickens me to have to tell my beautiful daughter about this tragic event,” writes Mary Black Bonnet of her experience writing about the Wounded Knee Massacre.

I had originally written this piece for my daughter on the memorial date of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It is one story among many stories in our tragic, heartbreaking past of the Lakota. However, without our past, I, she, we as a nation, cannot know our future.

The story of Wounded Knee affects — or should affect —everyone, no matter what the color of your skin. Human lives are human lives, not matter who they happen to belong to.

Wounded Knee Memorial

On December 29, 1890, 350 women, children and men were brutally massacred along the shores of Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota. At that time, relations between the government and the Indians (all tribes, not just Lakota) were very tense.

Then a Paiute man named Wovoka was given a vision of the Ghost Dance which he shared with the tribes. He was told that when we gathered and performed the ghost dance, our land would be returned to us, our buffalo would be replenished and our dead would come to life again.

So, Si Tanka, (Big Foot) chief of the Mniconjus, undertook a journey of 150 miles from the Cheyenne River Reservation to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, to take shelter with Mahpiya Luta’s (Red Cloud) tribe and perform the Ghost Dance.

At that point, a law had been put into place that made it illegal for Lakotas to practice our ceremonies or to have wacipis (pow wows). When the government heard about the “Ghost Dance” they got very frightened and feared our people were going to revolt and start a war.

They sent out a declaration banning the Ghost Dance and any associated activities. If anyone were to be caught doing anything resembling the Ghost Dance, then they would be arrested for “inciting an act of war”.

When the authorities saw Si Tanka’s tribe leave for Pine Ridge, they assumed it was to band together for war. So soldiers were sent out to intercede Si Tanka and his Tiyospaye  (Band).

On December 28th, Si Tanka had almost made it to Mahpiya Luta’s oyate (nation) along with 120 Wicasas (men), 230 Winyans (women), and Wakanejas (children and babies) whose safety he feared for. They continued on their way, only this time with a white flag flying above them to indicate they meant no harm or hostility.

The next day, however, Si Tanka’s Tiyospaye were surrounded by the Calvary who demanded the weapons be turned in. This they agree to, but this is where it gets tricky depending on to whom you are talking.

The reports of the Natives who survived Wounded Knee (and I use that term “survived” loosely) tell of a deaf tribal member who didn’t understand what was going on. A soldier tried to take his gun (probably not in a polite or kind way), and in the struggle, the gun went off. The Calvary heard a shot and proceeded to open fire on everyone: women, men and children.

Heart of Wounded Knee

I will not go into the details here, but it was a grim, disgusting sight. They massacred our women and all of our children without a second thought. They shot (in the back) people who were fleeing to safety, and they didn’t even think twice about mothers with tiny babies.

In the end, nearly all of Si Tanka’s 350 Tiyospaye were dead. Some of the Calvary soldiers died too, but the numbers were nowhere close to even, nor were the odds.

To make the story even more disgusting and disturbing, someone had the nerve to take pictures of the horrific massacre. These pictures will burn your eyes and terrorize your brain forever.

The dead and dying were left out in the freezing cold snow for three days. When soldiers and hired people (wasicus) finally buried the bodies, they threw the bodies into a mass grave. Some accounts report that the bodies were kicked into the grave.

No matter who wants to argue about this, here is the bottom line — people were needlessly slaughtered, children and women were killed, and they were all unarmed.

There is NEVER an excuse for this, nor will this EVER be excusable. The good in all of this is, however, is that they tried to eradicate us but they failed. The Lakota are still here! And our culture is still alive!  As long as we speak our language, live our traditions and conduct our ceremonies, their horrible acts will have been for naught, despite the scars they inflicted.

One tragically wonderful event that has come out of this is the Wounded Knee Memorial Ride that starts at Bridger, South Dakota and ends at the memorial at Wounded Knee.

Men, women and children, big and small, go on this ride. They face the elements, including bearing temperatures that can drop into the negative digits. Today they can go to Cabela’s and get the gear to help deal with these elements; in 1890, they couldn’t.

As the ride winds on, each person must deal with the emotions that come up, their own sorrow doubled with the historical trauma and sorrow. I spoke with one of my Honorary Unci’s (Grandma) about this article and this tragic event. She told me that what makes it worse is that: “No one has ever said sorry about this; there were no apologies, nothing. Our pain is not validated for us, and that makes it all the worse.” To which I say, it will never get better until that happens. Time can pass but if the pain of the Lakota is not validated, not acknowledged, the healing cannot begin.

Wounded Knee is but one of many tragic events. It sickens me to have to tell my beautiful daughter about this tragic event. Even writing about it was traumatic for me — but it must be done.

I cannot teach my daughter her culture and only show the pretty, easy parts. If I wanted to do that I could just open a history book. The joy in all of this is that we are still here, and we are still strong. Our battered, bruised hearts beat strong and steady. The Lakota Oyate (nation) are true survivors.

Two years ago, on the memorial date of the Wounded Knee Massacre, I wrote a poem about it:

The Dark Side of December

By Mary Black Bonnet

A huge chasm flows
for Lakota between Christmas and the New Year.
The Date burned into our hearts, our minds, our memories,
even if we weren’t there.
December 29,1890.
When the snow was stained
with the blood of the helpless.
If you’re quiet, you can hear the screams of terror,
the terrified cries of innocent babies, the trampling feet.
The horrific, deafening, gun shots;
the thud of bodies.
The bitter snow underneath, as souls left bodies;
only to be bound to earth.
If you’re not sickened,
you’re not paying attention.
Celebrate your holidays,
ring in your New Year.
But send a prayer, a song,
a whisper up, for lives lost.
Heinously, wrongly,
and forever.

Please take a moment to watch this video, Wounded Knee Massacre.

YouTube Preview Image

Photo Credits

“Monument” Hamner_Fotos @ Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

“The Heart of Wounded Knee” Hamner_Fotos @ Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

Recent Mary Black Bonnet Articles:


  1. avatarDaniel Rosenthal says

    The Sioux were the victims of several previous attacks of the same type–the bloodiest wereAsh Hollow (September 3, 1855) and Whitestone Hill (September 3, 1863) Wounded Knee was
    nothing new, it was simply the last in a series of massacres perpetrated by the U.S. Army against
    various native nations–against the Cheyennes at Sand Creek (November 29, 1864), Washita (November 27, 1868), Darkwater Creek (April 23, 1875), against the (Algonquin) Blackfeet
    at the Marias River (January 23, 1870), and against the Shoshoni at Bear River (January 29, 1863).
    And this is only a partial list…..

  2. avatar says

    Mary, thank you for writing this. It’s so hard–and so necessary–as a parent to tell your child the truth about the horrible parts of history. I hate that my boy knows people are capable of evil. But I feel like he’s not going to learn about these events anywhere else, and I have a responsibility to raise a person who is aware and awake…

    Hugs to you.

  3. avatarChris Davis says

    It is good that you wrote about this awful event to remind us of the senseless tradgedy, but I have to disagree with a sentence that you wrote..”To make the story even more disgusting and disturbing, someone had the nerve to take pictures of the horrific massacre”….I believe that it’s because of those pictures and reports that tell the true story of that day. If there weren’t the photo’s to prove that this had happened, I’m sure it would of gone untold and unoticed by the rest of the country, like I’m sure so many other sensless deaths occured of the Lakota People. Though they are sad and hard to look at, they should be seen and let the story be told through the photo’s.

    I’m sure with Turtle, she will grow up to know her history and embrace it no matter what bad history she knows…Thanks again Mary for bringing this article to our attention so we all may never forget..

  4. avatarMargaret Blackwood says

    I am grateful we live in more enlightened times, but there is still so much ignorance and blindness in the world. Thank you, Mary, for this searing and poignant article.

  5. avatarHedda says

    Magnificent presentation, Mary. Hard to read and hard to watch, but says it all. Unfortunately, nothing has happened in Sudan or Iraq that hasn’t happened in this country.

  6. avatar says

    Tim Giago: “Five days after the slaughter of the innocents an editorial in the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer reflected the popular opinion of the wasicu (white people) of that day. It read, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

    Ten years after he wrote that editorial calling for genocide against the Lakota people, L. Frank Baum wrote that wonderful children’s book, “The Wizard of Oz.””


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