Source: Molly Carter
The Battle at Wounded Knee is a significant battle in American history, as it put an end to the Indian Wars and is marked as the last official defeat of the Native Americans. But what’s not taught in history lessons is that Wounded Knee was one of the first federally backed gun confiscations in the history of the United States, and it ended in the massacre of nearly 300 unarmed people.
During the late 19th century, American Indians were allowed to purchase and carry firearms, just as white men were. The colonial gun laws did not bar Native Americans from possessing firearms, yet that natural right was violated by government forces at Wounded Knee. And once the guns were confiscated, the battle ensued.
When we look at the issues surrounding gun confiscation, Wounded Knee gives us an example of the devastation that unarmed people can experience at the hands of their own government. This battle serves as a reminder to fight against gun confiscation and the gun control legislation that can lead to it.
Leading Up to Wounded Knee
At the beginning of the 19th century, it’s estimated that 600,000 American Indians lived on the land that is now the United States. By the end of the century, the number of people diminished to less than 150,000.
Throughout the 1800s, these nomadic tribes were pushed from the open plains and forests into “Indian Territories,” places determined by the U.S. government. It started during the Creek Indian War (1813-1815), when American soldiers, led by Andrew Jackson, won nearly 20 million acres of land from the defeated Creek Indians.
Unlike George Washington, who believed in “civilizing” the Native Americans, Jackson favored an “Indian Removal,” and when the president in 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which was the first of many U.S. legislations that did not grant the Native Americans the same rights as colonial European-Americans. Davy Crockett was the only delegate from Tennessee to vote against the act.
The Plains Indians, who lived in the plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, weren’t as impacted by the U.S. government until later in the century, as U.S. expansion pushed into the “Wild West.” As people moved past the Mississippi and into the Frontier, conflicts again arose between the Indians and Americans.
In an attempt at peace in 1851, the first Fort Laramie Treaty was signed, which granted the Plain Indians about 150 million acres of land for their own use as the Great Sioux Reservation. Then, 13 years later, the size was greatly reduced to about 60 million acres in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recreated the Great Sioux Reservation boundaries and proclaimed all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills, solely for the Sioux Nation.
As part of the treaty, no unauthorized non-Indian was to come into the reservation and the Sioux were allowed to hunt in unceded Indian territory beyond the reservation that stretched into North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. If any non-Indian wanted to settle on this unceded land, they could only do it with the permission of the Sioux.
That was until 1874 when gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The treaties that were signed between the Native Americans and the U.S. government were ignored as gold-rushers invaded Indian Territory and issues arose, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
As time went on, the American Indians continued to be pushed into smaller territories and their lives began to diminish. In 1889, the U.S. government issued the Dawes Act, which took the Black Hills from the Indians, broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into five separate reservations, and took nine million acres, and opened it up for public purchase by non-Indians for homesteading and settlements.
The Native Americans were squeezed into these smaller territories and didn’t have enough game to support them. The bison that had been a staple to their way of life was gone. Their ancestral lands that sustained them were no longer theirs. The resistance was over. They were no longer free people, living amongst themselves, but “Redskins” confined by the “white man” in reservations they had been forced to, many against their will.
With all of the Sioux Nation inhabiting less than nine million acres, divided up throughout South Dakota, the Indians were encouraged by the U.S. government to develop small farms. But they were faced with poor, arid soil and a bad growing season, which led to a severely limited food supply in the year following the Dawes Act. A miscalculation in the census complicated matters, even more, when the population on the reservation was undercounted, leading to fewer supplies sent from the U.S. government.
The situation was beyond bleak and the Sioux people were starving. That winter, an influenza epidemic broke out and caused a disproportionate number of Sioux children to die. And then in the summer of 1890, a drought hit, destroying yet another season of crops, and the people of Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were in dire condition.
The Ghost Dance
Perhaps it was these desolate circumstances that led to the spread of what is known as the Ghost Dance. Based on a vision experienced by a Sioux religious leader, the Ghost Dance was a spiritual ritual that was supposed to call the coming messiah, who would be an American Indian. This messiah would force the white man off of Indian lands, return the bison to the plains, and resurrect both their deceased and the life the Native Americans had once enjoyed.
Although this was not a war dance, it was feared by those who believed the Indians were savages. One such man was Daniel Royer, who arrived as the new agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in October of 1890. He believed it to be a war dance and requested troops from President Benjamin Harrison on November 15th of that same year. His telegram read: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.”
Harrison granted the request and part of the 7th Cavalry arrived on November 20th, with orders to arrest several Sioux leaders. Commander James Forsyth led the troops.
On December 15th, the 7th Cavalry attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who annihilated Commander George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (he also toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and was a dear friend to Annie Oakley), because he didn’t attempt to stop the Ghost Dance amongst his people. During the incident, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.