Genocide in American History:
Some Brief Perspectives
“…the gradual extension of our Settlements will as
certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire;
both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”
In the summer 2002 I visited Little Big Horn National Monument with a friend of mine. There were well over a hundred vehicles in the various parking areas and so it seemed that any typical summer day was a busy day. While going through some of the displays in the main building my friend called me over to look at the sign-in booklet near the front desk. In this booklet visitors can write their names, places of residence, and any comments they have about the monument. About eight lines up from the last entry, toward the middle of the page, a woman (I forget her name) had written in the comment section, “nice monument, but it makes the Indians out to look heroic, they were savages!” I was a bit floored. I wrote in my name below and wrote in the comment section, “you need to make people like this more aware” and I drew an arrow up to her comment. For the rest of the afternoon (we spent about three hours there) I observed the curious notion that of the hundreds of people who were there that day I didn’t notice anyone besides my friend and I who appeared to be sympathetic to the Native American perspective. Most of the visitors (if not all) were middle-aged Caucasians who appeared to reside in that place called Middle America. Prior to the sign-in booklet incident I overheard a woman quietly say to her companion, “gosh, couldja imagine all them Indians comin’ up on ya…”. At the time it seemed like somewhat of a callous statement, but after realizing the demographic make-up of these visitors, I think it probably was a statement uttered from sheer ignorance and racism.
I suddenly became very disturbed by the idea that possibly the majority of Americans today (especially Middle America) still think that Native Americans are “unenlightened savages” and that the founders of this nation did a good, just, and noble deed by killing off so many of them. Such racism and ignorance I thought existed only slightly in my grandparents’ generation and in those generations long dead. Was I wrong? It seems that there is a world of “white” people where the presence of foreign cultures, values, and lifestyles is not welcome. And the idea that this world may represent the majority of American opinion is truly frightening.
The psychological foundations of racism are deep, from the tribalism of small bands in early humankind to the xenophobia of our modern global world. There seems to be some kind of powerful existential unease when collectives are confronted with the existence of other collectives who live seemingly perfectly well, yet very differently. We are fearful of and threatened by what is not familiar to us. We therefore often act violently hostile to such perceived threats. Is it human nature? Or is it a phenomenon found particularly in imperialistic, “civilized” societies? That question perhaps can be addressed some place else. We don’t know much about human nature, but we can know about historical facts.
We may sometimes get the feeling that we're being lied to on some grand scale; that there is some large, yet subtle conspiracy to keep some of the facts away from fresh minds who are eager to represent the future. Nasty things have happened in the past and often nobody wants to talk about it. That leaves new generations with three options: (1) by some set of circumstances, you can simply have no idea that there is something to be informed about; (2) you can have an idea but you wish to disregard the information that doesn’t fit your own worldview and label it as nonsense, lies; (3) or you can do the work necessary to become informed about the facts, which can often be a difficult and solitary task.
Genocide and mass violence that the U.S. government supports has been systematically suppressed in the history books and in the present day media. This creates a multi-leveled platform of inquiry that becomes the more fascinating (and disturbing and frustrating) the deeper you go. First, the subject of genocide is difficult to deal with in the first place. Second, it’s worse when those who perpetrate it claim to have altruistic motivations, or divinely inspired justification. This makes them any combination of the following: ignorant and racist; liars; or just plain evil. Thirdly, it’s even worse when we learn that those who committed such atrocities are our (often not too distantly related) ancestors. And fourth, it’s still worse when these perpetrators and their supporters try to conceal their actions, often making it difficult to obtain the facts. People with power want to force their worldview into broader existence, but they typically don’t want to reveal how exactly they do it, because it can be so nasty.
American history is filled with the kind of genocide and chaotic violence that we typically think only happens in other countries, under different governments, in far and distant times of the past. But if Americans want to honestly confront their past, to find out where they come from, to understand some of the values that this nation was founded on, then they must look at some of the facts that their mothers and schoolteachers didn’t tell them about. The facts are endless, so I’ve chosen to highlight five different events throughout American history that will offer us some different insights into the kind of country that we pay our allegiance to. (1) Columbus and the “discovery” of the Americas. (2) The Pequot “wars” in New England. (3) The Sand Creek massacre in central Colorado. (4) Hayfork, Tolowa, and Indian Island massacres in Northern California. (5) The Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota.
Before his successful explorations of the “new world”, Christopher Columbus was a trader of African slaves. On the day that he and his three ships set sail in 1492, the same port was busy deporting Jews from Spain. All in all during this time between 120,000 and 150,000 Jews were robbed of their belongings and driven from Spain. One account reads, “It was pitiful to see their sufferings. Many were consumed by hunger, especially nursing mothers and their babies. Half-dead mothers held dying children in their arms…I can hardly say how cruelly and greedily they were treated by those who transported them,”(Stannard 62). Europeans were immersed in a world of violence, plagues, wars, religious persecution, witch burnings, crusades, and slavery. The “New World” then held a kind of mythical wonderment for the people. They dreamed of a far off paradise somewhere where gold and riches abounded and wild beasts ferociously roamed dense, endless forests. Columbus may have found a kind of paradise (at least compared to the conditions in Europe), but he and his followers quickly turned it into hell.
Upon arriving at the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic/Haiti today) Columbus observed of the Arawak culture there: “They invite you to share anything they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went with it…how easy it would be to convert these people and make them work for us,”(Thornton 13). Within one hundred years this culture was destroyed. Pre-contact population estimates vary from 100,000 to 4 million. By 1535 it was “nearly zero,”(Chalk 179). With Columbus’ second voyage in 1494 came 17 ships and 1200 soldiers, sailors, and colonists. With them came forced labor and disease, including malaria, syphilis, small pox, and yellow fever.
All around the Caribbean, Spaniard cavalries would rampage across the islands with trained attack dogs (wolfhounds and mastiffs, the world’s two largest dogs), looking for “unarmed native people, slaughtering them by the thousands,”(Stannard 70). Natives were ordered to mine for gold and if workers did not provide enough findings of the precious metal he “had his hands cut off,”(Stannard 71). Soldiers, it appears, killed mass numbers simply for sport. Reports from the time include soldiers who “tore babes from their mother’s breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks,”(Stannard 71). (For possible inspiration for this popular intimidation technique see Psalm 137, last verse). Reports from Bartolome de Las Casas and other friars and priests include killing sprees that left over 20,000 dead, sometimes simply testing the sharpness of their new sword blades by ripping open the bellies of women, children, elderly. Sometimes, to feed their hungry attack dogs, they would tear infants from their mother’s breast and toss the little ones to the dogs while the mother watched. Some natives were hanged. Others were burned alive, as some kind of “whole offering” (“holocaust” is derived from this biblical phrase). Other heroic explorers that we’ve all learned about in grade school, such as De Soto, Ponce de Leon, Cortes, and Pizarro are all associated with similar grotesque atrocities.
Often natives were read the requerimiento. This was to inform them that if they did not immediately swear their allegiance to the Pope and the Spanish crown, then the Spaniards would “make war” against them and subject them to the “yoke and obedience of the Church and Their Highness.” And they “shall take your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highness may command,”(Stannard 66). This was but a formality. Sometimes it was read after the natives had already been “made war” upon. And of course one wonders if the enlightened Spaniards even understood that these people spoke a different language.
In this manner the New World was “discovered”. The official Doctrine of Discovery itself is a curious justification for land rights. It has been used in land disputes throughout US history (see particularly Johnson v. McIntosh, doc. 32 in Prucha). The Doctrine of Discovery claims that only “civilized”, “Christian” individuals can own and control land. It is supposed that all other kinds of people cannot or do not know how to properly use land, and so they have no right to claim ownership. Indigenous peoples, who often assume rights to territories, “homelands”, and who retain communal understandings of proper land use, and who often have little use for the concept of private ownership of the earth, obviously do not fit the “civilized” model, which seeks “dominion” and “rulership” over the land. This is the language and these are the actions upon which this hemisphere was claimed and settled.
Russell Thornton states that the single most important factor in American Indian population decline since European contact was disease. These included, in loose order of abundance of reported epidemics, smallpox, measles, the bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid, pleurisy, scarlet fever, diptheria, mumps, whooping cough, colds, gonorrhea, and syphilis. 1520 was probably the first year of epidemic, smallpox. Thornton cites that as many as 93 serious epidemics and pandemics of Old World pathogens occurred since contact. For some perspective, he quotes Dobyns, “in other words, a serious contagious disease causing significant mortality invaded Native American peoples at intervals of four years and two and a half months, on the average, from 1520 to 1900,”(Thornton 45). Initially then, “the European conquest of the American Indians was a medical conquest, one that paved the way for the more well-known and glorified military conquests and colonializations,” (Thornton 47).
Surviving these initial epidemics were the Pequots of what is now New England. Gary Nash summarizes the general opinion that the early Puritans had toward the native population:
“The native was the counterimage of civilized man, thought to be lacking in what was most valued by the Puritans – civility, Christian piety, purposefulness, and the work ethic. If such people could not be made part of the Puritan system, then the Puritans would have demonstrated their inability to control this corner of the earth to which God had directed them. God would surely answer such a failure with his wrath. So Puritans achieved control of themselves through controlling the external world containing forests, fields, and Indians,”(Chalk 188).
The killing of two sailors, John Stone in 1634, and John Oldman in 1636, sparked an air of vengeance in the minds of the new settlers around Connecticut and Massachusetts. It was later found that the Pequots were actually not responsible for either of the killings. But the Puritans generally didn’t seem interested in bringing any individuals to justice, they just wanted to kill Indians. So in late August 1636, Captain John Endicott with a few dozen men sailed for the Block Island area. John Underhill, a Puritan and one of Endicott’s captains, published accounts of their activity two years later. He described how they daily hunted natives to kill and capture, burned “great heaps of pleasant corn ready shelled”, and “spent the day burning and spoiling the country,”(Drinnon 36-37). The Pequots, in retaliation for Endicott’s expedition, reportedly killed thirty or so people in the area. The General Court in Hartford then declared war on the Pequots, and assembled 90 men under Captain John Mason. Mason, reminding his men that they were God’s children, uttered such lines as “the Lord was as it pleased to say unto us, The Land of Canaan will I give unto thee though but a few and Strangers in it,”(Drinnon 42). And after one particular battle, “the Lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in their hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance,” (Stannard 111). This latter phrase is a reference to Deuteronomy.
Mason headed past Narraganasett Bay and planned a surprise attack on the main Pequot fort along the Mystic River on June 5, 1637. While most were still asleep Mason and Underhill attacked the Pequots from two sides and set fire to everything in the fort. Attempted escapees were met with the sword and “down fell men, women, and children,” Underhill observed (Drinnon 42). In just over one hour, four hundred people were dead. Mason declared that God had “laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his people to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven…Thus did the Lord Judge among the Heathen, filling the place with dead Bodies!” (Drinnon 43). One can scarcely imagine the kind insanity prevalent in these righteous conquests. Some Narragansett and Mohegan allies of the Puritans, rushed in from behind the attack yelling “mach it! mach it!”, translated as “it is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious and slays too many men.”. Underhill observed that “their fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies,” (Drinnon 43). It was, for instance, not typically accepted among tribal warfare for women and children to be fair game. The ability to kill in mass numbers is apparently a sign of Providence. The natives were not used to this kind of warfare, this kind of indiscriminate killing, this chaotic, senseless destruction. The Pequots were among the first unfortunate peoples to experience this gross discrepancy. In 1638, the Puritans signed a treaty with their Indian allies which officially declared the Pequot nation dissolved. Increase Mather, a Puritan minister, later requested that his congregation thank God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell,”(Chalk 180).
As settlers moved west they became increasingly hostile to the natives they encountered. The indigenous people of this strange land were the living models of the wild, unpredictable landscape whose sole purpose it was to be tamed, conquered, brought under submission. The violent hate that these settlers fostered toward their savage neighbors we now can see was in stark contrast to their claims of civility and altruistic motivations. Much of government policy of the time speaks of assimilation, but for people who lived traditionally on their sacred land since time immemorial, the idea of suddenly adopting a new way of living, especially a way that deliberately exploited the earth and encouraged individualism, assimilation was for the most part simply not an option. Looking back we can understand why these converging cultures would have had such intense disputes. But what is not so easy to understand is some of the chaotic, seemingly senseless violence that the US government inflicted upon many communities. Couldn’t there have been some more reasonable compromises to be had between the US and native nations? It seems that the facts show that while the founding fathers of the United States claimed to be reasonable men, they were often just the opposite. Often it seems that they simply had a need for killing; perhaps a visceral reminder that when they say they are doing God’s will, when they are fulfilling manifest destiny, they are speaking the truth, and they have to show proof of this by use of sheer physical, brute and brutal force.
For example, it was election year, 1864, in Colorado, a booming western frontier, and public outcry to “control the Indians” was common. It was generally believed that Colorado must achieve full statehood in order to get sufficient troops to deal with the Indian problem. Those in favor of this (many settlers apparently weren’t) encouraged feelings of fear and Indian hating in the area. In March of 1863, the Rocky Mountain News rambled that “they are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth,” and later in August of 1864, it had written that the troops must “go for them, their lodges, squaws and all,”(Stannard 130).
That winter of 1864, the Third Colorado Calvary was busy keeping an eye on a group of Cheyennes. The Cheyenne had recently renounced a treaty that would have had them moving to a small reservation in southeastern Colorado. It was rumored that the Cheyennes were growing hostile and were preparing for some sort of attack. When no uproar occurred various Colorado newspapers ridiculed the army for its lack of activity against the Indians. General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of all troops in the region, declared during this time, “I want no peace till the Indians suffer more. No peace must be made without my direction,”(Chalk 199).
Dee Brown tells the story of how Major Scott J. Anthony, an officer under Colonel Chivington’s command, had previously told Black Kettle, the leader of the Cheyenne, that they would be safe in the Sand Creek area and that their plans to move further away were not needed (Brown 83). Chalk and Jonassohn also maintain that “Chivington led their chiefs to believe that the Army would protect them if they remained at Sand Creek,”(Chalk 200). But Colonel John Chivington, claiming that cattle were stolen, soon had the Third Colorado Regiment marching for the Cheyenne encampment. Stannard writes that the excuse used to confront the Cheyenne was that a family of settlers was killed, though no one knew which Indians were responsible. It seems that any excuse was enough.
In the early morning hours of November 29, 1864, about 700 soldiers approached the Cheyenne settlement. According to reports from the army, there were about 600 Indians in the camp, including only about “thirty-five braves and some old men, sixty in all,”(Stannard 131). Chivington knew that most of the men at the time were miles away hunting for their village. He also apparently knew that these people were unarmed, having turned in most of their weapons to nearby Fort Lyon, and were considered by the government to be harmless prisoners of war. But Chivington, whose publicly stated policy was to “kill and scalp, little and big”, likely bored by the innocuous situation reportedly responded, “I long to be wading in gore,”(Stannard 131). As the soldiers moved in, George Bent, camped with the Cheyenne, later reported: “I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had an American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the grey light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camp,”(Brown 86). Robert Bent, brother to George and one of Chivington’s guides, saw it from the side of the soldiers:
“They were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word…worse mutilated than I ever saw before, the women all cut to pieces…children two or three months old; all ages lying there,”(133, Stannard).
“There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed…Next morning after the battle, I saw a little boy covered up among the Indians in a trench, still alive. I saw a major in the 3rd regiment take out his pistol and blow off the top of his head,”(132).
Between 150 and 200 people were murdered, mostly women and children. Some, including Black Kettle, managed to escape. And later in October of 1865 the US made treaties with the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in which it admitted guilt to the “gross and wanton outrage” of Chivington and his soldiers. General Nelson A. Miles called it the “foulest and most unjustifiable crime in the annals of America,”(Chalk 200). The Sand Creek site was later marked with a monument that read “Sand Creek Battleground”, but due to concerns of historical accuracy the word “battleground” was replaced with “massacre”. These kinds of activities were going on about this same time farther out west.
Genocidal events that occurred in northern California offers us a glimpse of what the western frontier was really like. We tend to have mythical visions of high riding cowboys, gun-toting, lovable outlaws, and stern, whiskey drinking lawmen. It makes for a mythical kind of utopia where freedom, exciting adventures, and “untouched, wild” lands await. But the perspective that we usually don’t see is that these lands were the home of many distinct communities that thrived there for thousands of years. There were over three hundred languages and dialects spoken in California, and “nearly six hundred identifiably autonomous tribes” before the 1850s (Norton, 12). In the northern part of the state, for instance, at the meeting of the Klamath and Trinity rivers, near Weitchpec, three distinct Indian nations, all speaking different languages, met: the Karuks (Hokan language family), the Hupas (Athabascan), and the Yuroks (Algonquin). In an area of just a few miles these three major native language families converged, representing distinct customs and life-styles, yet they lived in relative harmony, compared to what would come in 1850.
With the discovery of gold and the promise to get rich quick, Euro-Americans came flooding to the west coast. New settlers were so far away from their centralized federal government that they quickly grew impatient with the “Indian Problem” and they had to locally organize their own militias to deal with the pesky natives. As Jack Norton points out though, the brutal treatment of Indians was not the result of a few outlaw bands; rather it was public policy. For instance, in the California statute of 1851 it states that among those who cannot be witnesses in the courts are children under ten, those of unsound mind, and “Indians, or persons having one fourth or more Indian blood in an action in which a white person was a party,”(Norton, 43). In 1850, an act for the “protection of the Indians” created a situation of “involuntary servitude”. Any Indian could be indentured by any white person for between 16 and 25 years. This was not repealed until 1863. This made such episodes as the following possible: G.M. Manson, in 1861, writes a letter about how he confronted three kidnappers near Marysville who had nine children with them, between the ages of three to nine. A cohort of theirs testified that the men were doing a charitable deed to try and provide homes for the children because their parents had been killed. How did he know they had been killed? “Because”, he said, “I killed some of them myself,”(Norton 49). Norton estimates that as many as ten thousand people were enslaved or sold between 1850 and 1863. Kidnappers are said to have gotten between 50 and 250 dollars each for child. Another tragic result of this kind of treatment were the hundreds of “half-breeds” that were the result of the raping of Indian women. These children were often rejected by both Indian and non-Indian societies.
Every tribe and every family no doubt had its own personal holocaust, but there are a few occurrences that stand out because of their sheer brutality, numbers killed, and seemingly wide public acceptance. By 1852, many Indians around the Trinity River near growing Weaverville had been driven farther into the hills. In May, John Anderson was driving cattle through the hills near Weaverville when he was killed by some Indians who took his cattle. Upon hearing the news, about 70 volunteers gathered under their county sheriff, were given free supplies by local merchants, and headed south toward Hayfork Valley to find the perpetrators. As recorded in John Carr’s Pioneer Days (1891), the men followed the trail deliberately slow so that by the time they got to the Indians they would be back at their home, “so as to make a clean sweep of them.” And “there were many late soldiers of the Mexican war, and western frontiersman from Texas and Missouri amongst them, who thoroughly understood their business as Indians hunters,”(Norton, 51-52). Upon locating the tribe, they separated into four groups, and then hid in the outlying brush throughout the night. At first daylight they proceeded systematically with rifles, revolvers, and bowie knives and slaughtered 153 people likely before many of them even woke up. Only one of the volunteers was hurt, wounded by an arrow. Three infants survived and were taken back to Weaverville. As Carr writes, “the Trinity Indians were completely annihilated…twelve years later I hunted cattle over the battle ground. Part of the bones still lay bleaching on the plains; skulls and arm and leg bones were scattered over the ground in all directions,”(Norton, 54). In California frontier country the cost of one white man’s life and his cattle equaled the price of 153 Indians, children, women, elderly, and men.
In the following year, along the Smith River, at a place called Yontoket, the Tolowas suffered a massacre of greater number. Years later a Tolowa man describes how the white men burned all their “sacred, ceremonial dresses, the regalia, and our feathers, and the flames grew higher. Then they threw in the babies, many of them were still alive. Some tied weights around the necks of the dead and threw them into the nearby water.” Two men escaped and hid under the water and lily pads, breathing through reeds. “The next morning they found the water red with the blood of their people,”(Norton, 56). The next year the Tolowas, at Achulet by Lake Earl, were attacked again, this time for stealing a horse. At daybreak, “they were shot down as fast as the whites could reload their guns…a few Indians ran toward lake Earl and plunged into the water. The angered whites followed, shooting at every head that appeared above the water, so fierce was their determination to exterminate the entire village as a lesson to other Indians in the area,”(Norton, 57).
Eight years later, the Wiyots were camped on Indian Island. The Island was a sacred ceremonial site for the people and it was slowly being suffocated by the towns growing around it. On February 25, 1860, a carefully planned attack occurred, one of four that occurred on that very same night throughout the area. The Northern Californian read: “it appeared that out of some sixty or seventy killed on the island at least fifty or sixty were women and children…mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed in…brains dashed out…infants with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds…very little shooting was done, most of the bodies having wounds about them,”(Norton 84). Four or five men attacked these people at about four in morning. The Indian men, the “bucks” as the papers put it, were camped elsewhere that night, out on a hunt presumably. The same night thirty to forty others were killed “on the beach south of the entrance” and many were killed at “Bucksport” and some at camps along the Eel River. It seems that a number of murderers would have had to carefully plan and orchestrate such a wide scale attack at several different locations on the same night. But the Humboldt County Grand jury decided that “after a strict examination of all the witnesses, nothing was elicited to enlighten us as to the perpetrators,”(Norton 85). There were many public militias at the time, including the “Hydesville Dragoons” and “Eel River Minutemen” and a year after the atrocities Lieutenant Daniel D. Lynn stated that a Mr. Larrabee, who owned a nearby cattle ranch, was involved in the massacres and others were subsequently named, but none were brought to justice. Eureka for a while was known as “Murderville”. In order to absolve such altercations, some may even call them “battles” or “wars”, Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands and marched to crowded concentration camp style reservations, where many more died, all in the name of “civilization”, “progress”, “God’s will”, and the “enlightened race”.
How did these brutal, militia style hunting bands come about? The Humboldt Times, for example, provided an effective medium for concerned citizens. The newspaper often printed public complaints to the government about the “bureaucratic slowness” of Indian removal (often “Indian extermination”) and it (among other regional newspapers) ran ads looking for “Indian Volunteers” to work for specified amounts of time (a few months typically) adding that they would be “furnished with arms, ammunition, and provisions,”(Norton, 78). Organizing committee members included attorneys, administrators, sheriffs, and assemblymen.
One wonders why with such ruthlessness there weren’t any outcries of settlers who perhaps wanted to see better treatment of the Indians. Evidently there were some, but their concerns simply were suffocated in the official attitude of the public media and government. As material wealth quickly accumulated in new communities, it provided “proof” of the divine right of the whites to assume responsibility as civilizers to all that was “wild” and “untamed”. The atrocities are endless, each episode as violent and savage as the next.
The massacre at Wounded Knee creek is perhaps the most infamous in US history. This could be because it is the most recent show of violent US power and ignorance on a large scale toward Indian nations. It was December 29, 1890. For decades leading up to this time there had been much strife throughout the plains because of the wagon roads and railroads cutting through traditional lands. Sioux reservation lands were shrinking and the Euro-American public was becoming less and less patient with the existence of their lingering, strange, dark-skinned neighbors. Sitting Bull, the “leader and instigator of the excitement on the reservation” had been shot dead 14 days earlier, and the Seventh Calvary, under Major Samuel Whitside, next sought Big Foot, another Sioux leader.
With Big Foot were about 350 others, 100 of them men. They were taken to Wounded Knee creek and the military planned to ship them by railroad to the Cheyenne River Reservation. In the middle of their camp was a white flag which was to ensure their safety. Four Hotchkiss guns on a rise of ground pointed toward the camp. On the morning of the 29th, Colonel Forsyth led his soldiers into the camp to disarm them. Most complied, but one anxious fellow, Black Fox (Brown has him as Black Coyote), who may have been deaf, had a difficult time giving up his prized rifle. After some squabbling a shot was fired. Then chaos. The Hotchkiss shells poured forth, leveling people, tipis, everything in their sights. Within minutes nearly 300 people were lying dead in the morning winter snow. American Horse later recalled:
“…right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through…after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them…”(Stannard 127).
Bodies were later found miles from the scene. Women and children fleeing for their lives were hunted down, murdered, then left to freeze in the snow. A blizzard came through shortly after the melee. Then US troops on New Year’s Day went through the carnage. “A number of women and children were found still alive, but all badly wounded or frozen, or both, and most of them died after being brought in. Four babies were found alive under the snow, wrapped in shawls and lying beside their dead mothers…only one lived,”(Thornton 152). A mass grave was dug and almost 150 dead Sioux (many had already been removed from the scene by others) were laid there. About 30 US soldiers died in the chaos. Four days later, Frank Baum, famed creator of the Wizard of Oz, and known Indian hater, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, “we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up…and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth,”(Stannard 127). Historians and museums often referred to the Wounded Knee “battlefield”, but efforts have since been made to change the term “battlefield” to “massacre”.
Such events are difficult and often frustrating to understand. Many of these kinds of events occurred only a couple of generations ago, and the results of all of them represent the foundations of what we now call “American freedom” and “liberty” and “good will toward men” and all the rest of the endless rhetoric. Now we go to “war” not against Indian nations, but against far away countries who are just as strange to us as those wild savages once were. We watch over their governments and their natural resources and their economies and if need be, we “liberate” them from real or imagined threats. And still we do not hear about the atrocities, because our leaders, who work with the owners of our mass media, don’t want us to know. And they continue to keep us busy with material desires. As a reminder Stannard leaves us with the following:
“Massacres of this sort were so numerous and routine that recounting them eventually becomes numbing – and, of course, far more carnage of this sort occurred than ever was recorded. So no matter how numbed – or even, shamefully, bored – we might become at hearing story after story of the mass murder, pillage, rape, and torture of America’s native peoples, we can be assured that, however much we hear, we have heard only a small fragment of what there is to tell,” (Stannard 126).
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.
Chalk, Frank & Kurt Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
Norton, Jack. Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1997.
Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United States Indian Policy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.