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An Essential Detour to Wounded Knee, South Dakota

A recent road trip results in an unplanned stop to mark the 131st anniversary of a tragedy on the Great Plains that remains indelibly stamped on a community’s memory.

A sign on the the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota commemorating what was once called the “Battle of Wounded Knee.” The word “Battle” has since been changed to “Massacre.”
(Clay Jenkinson)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.

My young adult daughter and I were driving from Bismarck, N.D., to a village in far western Kansas on Thursday, Dec. 30, a distance of 753 miles. It is a journey we have made together a dozen times over the years. We were in something of a hurry on this occasion. When we stopped for gas and sodas, I found in my text messages a forward of an essay by Heather Cox Richardson from the day before, Dec. 29. Normally I would have saved such a post for later, but I glanced at it and found that it was a commentary on the massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 131 years ago, Dec. 29, 1890. The Plains Indian Wars have been one of my fascinations most of my life, ever since as a high school student I read Dee Brown’s heartbreaking Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970).

My daughter, a graduate student at Oxford University, is the perfect travel companion. We have visited historic sites all over America and, to a certain extent, Europe. She’s as likely to suggest a foray into the heart of some historical landscape as I am. A couple of weeks ago she suggested, in Minneapolis, Minn., that we visit the George Floyd monument on Chicago Avenue and 38th Street. It was a moving, sad and also inspiring pilgrimage. I am deeply gratified that I have a daughter who wakens me to a higher recognition of the unresolved problems of our time. We talk about the issues whenever we are together.

A Short Journey into Indian Country

When she returned to the car, I said, “What would you think of making a detour to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre? Yesterday was the anniversary of the incident. We’re just 90 miles from Wounded Knee. If we go it will add two-and-a-half hours to our journey, but we both know we won’t be sorry.”

“Let’s go!” she said.

So off we went on old blacktop roads through the magnificent desolation of southwestern South Dakota. South Dakota is “Indian Country” — nine reservations, all Dakota and Lakota, and a Native population of 76,190, one-twelfth of the overall state population of 884,659. At one time, of course, all of today’s South Dakota belonged to the Dakota and Lakota and the Cheyenne. The agents of America’s “manifest destiny” managed to wrest 88 percent of South Dakota from its indigenous sovereigns, some by purchase, some by conquest, some by executive order, some by trickery, some by friendly legislation (with unintended consequences) and some by hostile legislation.

The Lakota (formerly Sioux) claim to this day that they still own the entire western half of South Dakota (and much more), guaranteed to them forever by the 1868 Great Sioux Treaty. This includes the Black Hills, home of Mount Rushmore and the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial. The Lakota have been offered what is by now an essentially infinite amount of money ($1.3 billion and still accruing interest) to relinquish their claims to the Black Hills, but they have steadfastly refused to sell the sacred Hills for something as ephemeral as money.

Stingy, Hostile and in Bad Faith

An image of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 promised the U.S. government would exercise “the utmost good faith” in all its relations with American Indians.
(The Library of Congress)
As we drove, I told my daughter what happened on that appalling day at the end of 1890. It was a desperate time for the Lakota people. They had been crushed by a long series of U.S. military assaults on their homeland between 1854 until July 20, 1881, when the last great leader of Native resistance, Sitting Bull, had surrendered at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, after four difficult years on the other side of the U.S.-Canada border. The Lakota people had been forced onto scattered reservations where they did not wish to live and could not succeed economically.

The U.S. government, which pledged in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to exercise “the utmost good faith” in all its relations with American Indians, was stingy and often hostile, sometimes threatening the Lakota with starvation if they did not cooperate in the conquest and white settlement of the West. The Indian agents assigned to western reservations were usually incompetent and often openly corrupt. It was also a period of severe drought on the northern Great Plains. The land looked dead. There was a general feeling of not just profound defeat among the Lakota and other plains Natives, but a sense that the world was literally dying.

The Rise of the Ghost Dancers

spirit dancers.png
From Harper’s Weekly (December 1890) by way of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, a depiction of the Ghost Dance among the Oglala Lakota based on sketches made at the event in Pine Ridge, S.D., 1890. (LOC)
Anthropologist James Moody is credited with re-creating songs of the Ghost Dance.

Just then, from the Great Basin in Nevada, a new pan-Indian religion burst across the American West. It is known as the Ghost Dance religion. A Paiute man named Wovoka had experienced a vision in which white people would be swallowed up by the earth, never to return, and the buffalo, elk, grizzly bears, antelope, and bighorn sheep were born again, along with the deceased ancestors of the Native tribes. The dead earth would come back to life in a new golden age for the indigenous peoples of North America.

This apocalypse (and the ensuing Native renaissance) could be hastened, Wovoka taught, if the Native people took up a new sacred Ghost Dance. After ritual purification, they were to dance incessantly, their arms open and extended into the sky, without any breaks, without eating or sleeping, until they literally passed out from fatigue and the powerful inflow of spiritual energies. In those exhaustion trances, they would see the New World and be able to communicate with their ancestors.

The Ghost Dance “craze,” as it was called by bewildered white observers, was essentially harmless. The Ghost Dance was bound to collapse if the white authorities had shown a little patience. In fact, this is exactly what happened through most of the American West.

But at Pine Ridge, a weak and nervous agent “freaked out” and sent urgent telegrams to Chicago and Washington exaggerating the threat of the Ghost Dancers, demanding a rush of federal troops to restore order. With some hesitation the U.S. Army responded by sending in hundreds of troops, including the famed Seventh Cavalry, some of whose members were survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25-26, 1876).

The Ghost Dancers at Pine Ridge were surrounded and arrested by the U.S. military. On the morning of Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. troops were confiscating all the arms and ammunition of the Lakota when a gun went off, no one is quite sure how or by whom, and the Seventh Cavalry erupted in a sustained military riot, including the use of Hotchkiss guns from heights overlooking the surrender site. The 37-millimeter Hotchkiss guns were capable of firing 68 one-pound rounds per minute, and they did.

When the smoke cleared, more than 250 Lakota men, women, and children were dead — for dancing peacefully in the middle of nowhere, exercising their First Amendment rights, far from the nearest white settlement. The rampaging U.S. troops pursued those trying to crawl away to escape and shot or bayonetted them a considerable distance from the flashpoint of the massacre. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers were killed, many by friendly fire.
[We] more frequently require to be reminded than informed.
Dr. Samuel Johnson

The Lingering Effects of Dishonor

In what the historian Helen Hunt Jackson called a “century of dishonor,” with more than 400 legal treaties broken by the U.S. government, and 1.5 billion acres of land taken from its aboriginal sovereigns, the massacre at Wounded Knee holds a special place — partly for its sheer brutality, partly because the troops made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants or between men and innocent women and children, and partly because it is seen as the last significant battle of the Indian wars, at the end of the 19th century. It was an appalling and disgraceful and entirely unnecessary incident (incident is not a strong enough word), one of the most shameful moments in American history.

The story ended in a freak plains blizzard, which froze the dead Natives in grotesque gestures of agony. They were buried in pits. Twenty U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroics.

Black-and-white images of Helen Hunt Jackson and Samuel Johnson.
Historian Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) and writer/moralist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
My daughter knew some of this. But as the British moralist Dr. Samuel Johnson said, we “more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” We drove from Pierre up onto the Pine Ridge, a vast plains escarpment dividing the northern plains (lower) from the High Plains of Nebraska and Kansas. And then suddenly we were at Wounded Knee. It’s not like the Alamo or O.K. Corral. There are no billboards or souvenir shops or roadside stands. Just a vast empty plains country, a blue highway, and a little turnoff on Pine Ridge road 27. The experience could not be more understated and stark.

A huge red sign at the site of the massacre tells the story, front and back. At some point the headline on the back side was “Battle of Wounded Knee,” but someone has covered over “Battle” with the word “Massacre.” In recent decades, many of the metal signs posted at South Dakota historic sites have been edited and amended by Native Americans who refuse to whitewash the story of their dispossession. It’s an amazing, subversive, and important form of cultural reclamation.

We stood there for a long time, trying to envision that day — the confusion, extreme violence, rage, sorrow, pain and death.

A Few Beaded Necklaces

A car pulled up. A middle-aged Lakota woman got out and walked over to us. We did not know what to expect and we were a little nervous. Were we unwelcome? Should we have sought permission to visit the site? Would we be seen as drive-by cultural tourists stopping for selfies at a massacre site? Would she tell us the story in her own words? Would she point out important features of the historical landscape?

She said hello and took out of her pocket a few beaded necklaces. Would we buy one? We asked who had made them. Her niece, she said. They were lovely. I gave her the amount she requested. The necklace mostly consists of blue seed beads, and a few orange, red, yellow, black, and white beads of the same size, some silvery connectors, with a faux arrowhead at the center. I said it was a beautiful day on the Pine Ridge. She said yes, but a storm was coming and we had better watch for it. And then she got back into the car and drove off with two or three others.

We drove up a dicey track to the cemetery overlooking the massacre site. As with most Native American cemeteries, there were hundreds of colorful medicine bundles tied to the fence that marked off the burial site from the undifferentiated plains that roll off endlessly in every direction. Each bundle represents a prayer or a memory or a tribute, not unlike a rosary bead. The 1890 Wounded Knee victims are not buried there. Most of the graves come from much later in Lakota history. We could see that more than a dozen were recent. We did not linger. We felt intrusive there. We were filled with a kind of fathomless sadness for the “cost” of the Americanization of the continent.
We naturally wondered what our attitudes would have been had we been alive in 1890, whether back then we would have seen the incident as a battle, a mopping up, a massacre, or a reckoning. It is never safe to project one’s sense of enlightenment onto the past. Most people live in tune with the prevailing zeitgeist of their times. What made us think we would be better than our forebears? We so wanted to be, but we have doubts. We understood that this is an important story — as important in understanding American history as the Gettysburg Address, the crossing of the Delaware, or the 1969 moon landing.

A Small Commemoration, an Important Story, 131 Years Later

As we drove off, mostly in silence for the next hour or two, I told my daughter that I wished we had come through a day earlier, on the anniversary. It would have been interesting to witness the small commemoration. The Lakota have long memories. Each year there is an Honor Ride on horse of scores of Natives, friendly whites, spare horses, dogs, and supply vehicles, from the site on the Grand River near Fort Yates, N.D., where Sitting Bull was assassinated on Dec. 15, 1890, to Wounded Knee, where they arrive on the day of the massacre. Many of Sitting Bull’s followers made that journey in the same two-week period after his killing. I’ve long wanted to take part in that long ride in the depths of the plains winter, and may still, if I am invited or welcomed.

Things that most white people don’t know or bother to know are still vital to the consciousness and historical memory of Native Americans. This is one reason for the intensity of white-Native controversies when they seem, to white folks, to flare up out of nowhere. It all depends on what you carry in your head and heart. Things that seem to have happened long ago in another world (to whites), are fresh hurts for Native Americans, who tend to take the long view, which is why they tend to be optimistic about the far horizon future.

As we drove on to northwestern Kansas, I tried to quote one of my favorite passages about what happened at Wounded Knee. It’s a statement, made decades later, by the Lakota seer Black Elk, as he looked back on the massacre. He had been nearby when it occurred. He was 27 years old at the time. Now, safely home with my books, I can quote his haunting words accurately:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

- Ben Black Elk, in John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks

Listening to America means trying to listen to all the voices of America with new ears and corrected historical lenses. There is a rich literature about Wounded Knee for those who wish to know more. John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks; Louis S. Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America; Heather Cox Richardson, Wounded Knee: Party-Politics and the Road to an American Massacre; Richard E. Jensen, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (Great Plains Photography); and Ralph K. Andrist, The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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