Wounded Knee is a creek in the Southwest corner of South Dakota in the Great Plains of the United States. It is also the name of a small unincorporated town there.
They are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, first established in 1878 as the Pine Ridge Agency, becoming a full-fledged Indian reservation in 1889. It is one of the reservations in the region where the remnants of the Sioux Nation liveonce part of a far greater reservation that was subsequently partitioned and whittled away by land attrition through "legal" (though often unilateral and dubious) and illegal means.
Being on an Indian reservation means it is also among the most poor and neglected communities in the USin fact, the Pine Ridge Reservation has recently been listed by the government as the poorest community in the country, with the median per capita income at $2600. In 1993, almost half the population of the county Wounded Knee resides in lived below the poverty line (actually down some thirteen percent from 1989) according to census figures. It has worsened over time with the numbers reaching around sixty-nine percent in recent years.
Unemployment was at 73 percent in 1999 and with few jobs available (as well as stores, factories, industry, and service-oriented establishments), many have to commute long distances for workthe nearest large city is to Wounded Knee is Rapid City which is over seventy miles (112.65 km) away. To put things into a more US-centric perspective: the nearest McDonalds to Wounded Knee is forty miles away (64.37 km). As of 1997, there were zero commercial banks and savings institutions (FDIC-insured) and in 1990, only 10.7 percent of persons twenty-five years and over were college graduates (the graduation rate for all American Indians is around one percent).
Life expectancy among the Sioux in South Dakota is around forty-eight years.
According to the small town's page at Digital Neighbors (www.digital-neighbors.com), the population is 826. The census redistricting information for 2000 shows a much lower number (less than 350), though it probably reflects the lack of strongly defined community boundaries.
While the town is undoubtedly home for its residents, it is much more than that. The town is a symbol, a place on the map that helps preserve a memory (perhaps more poignant and significant because of the living conditions there) and holds a resonance, not only for the Sioux, but American Indians everywhere.
Wounded Knee Creek is better known (though sadly not well enough) as the site where over 200 Lakota were massacred by the US army in 1890, many being women and childrenmost of the bodies of the women and children were found two to three miles away from the initial site of the massacre, where they had been chased down and killed. A snowstorm came up and the bodies of the dead (and many wounded) were left to be frozen to the ground. Because many were retrieved by family members, the full count of the slain will never be known. Some Indians argue it was as high as four hundred.
While the massacre at Wounded Knee was not the single largest number of Indian deaths (Battle of Horseshoe Bend) or even the most brutal and atrocious (arguably the Sand Creek Massacre, though unknown massacres may have occurred), it is one of the most significant moments in the history of the American Indian and the interaction with the European. It was a culmination of sorts, the end of the last great hope to return to a past or at the very least a peaceful coexistence (something that already was seeming essentially impossible).
The Ghost Dance religion was a messianic movement that looked forward to a salvation from the so-called Indian Wars of the Great Plains and other mistreatments and deprecations. With the massacre, the movement was shown to be yet another failed religion and false hope and the massacre, itself, was a sign that peace could not exist except under the control of the United States. Following that December in 1890, no great movement among the Indians arose, until the activism of the 1960s and 1970s.
It was something of a punctuation mark on the struggle for freedom and the beginning of what was (and in many cases still is) an internal colonialism. Resistance would only bring further bloodshed and the possibility of completion to the ongoing genocide. It was a crushing blow and the survival of the Siouxindeed, the American Indian, in generalis testament to the strength and resilience of the traditions and cultures and spirit of the many nations and bands that have not allowed themselves to become a historical footnote.
The significance of the massacre is difficult to overestimate.
Background on the Ghost Dance religion(s):
Massacre at Wounded Knee:
Events Leading to the Massacre at Wounded Knee
Massacre at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown's famous book on the massacre and other conflicts between the Indian and the US government:
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
In February 1973, about two hundred members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), seized buildings at the town, beginning a seventy-one day standoff with police and federal agents. Initially asked to settle a dispute over internal conflict within the tribal government, it became more generalized as an Indian v. United States event. The protest was against the current tribal leaders who were viewed as corrupt and an extension of the US government. Since the tribal government was essentially set up and supported by the US, grievances were easily expanded (beyond the ones building up over the previous five hundred years).
The Indians set up a perimeter and took eleven hostages (including the white owners of the trading post). They informed the government agents who quickly surrounded the town, that the choice was either to kill them or negotiate. One of the demands was a review of the many (broken) treaties between the US and the American Indian (AIM made headlines with their "Trail of Broken Treaties" caravan and march the year before) and treatment of Indians, in general. As a way to boast morale during the siege, one member revived a version of the Ghost Dance.
Both sides alternated between periods of shooting and negotiation that resulted in the deaths of two Indians (and many injured) and a wounded federal marshall. In early March, they declared themselves a sovereign independent territory, part of the "Oglala Nation." Citizenship was offered to anyone who was of "good will." A delegation to the United Nations was appointed, as well. Of course nothing came of that.
In May, the Indians surrendered their weapons. Many were indicted and harassed, though the case was thrown out of court because of prosecutorial misconduct.
the Siege at Wounded Knee
American Indian Movement, AIM
(Sources: the town and reservation, www.pbs.org/homeland/reservation2.html, www.digital-neighbors.com/city/sd/woundedknee769.htm, www.usd.edu/brbinfo/sdc/census.htm, www.census.gov/statab/USA98/46/113.txt
Massacre at Wounded Knee, refer to sources cited in the above links on the subject
Siege at Wounded Knee, www.geocities.com/SoHo/1290/jeremy_wounded_knee.html, Carl Waldman Atlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000, www.britannica.com)