Dec. 29, 2022

The Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre

December 29, 1890. The United States Army massacres hundreds of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.


Cold Open - The Massacre

It’s December 29th, 1890, in South Dakota.

From atop his horse, US Colonel James Forsyth surveys a Native American camp at Wounded Knee Creek. The inhabitants belong to one of the seven bands of the Lakota nation. They are cold, sick, and starving. A white flag flies over their tents. They aren’t prepared for a fight. So, Forsyth reasons that today, it will be easy to disarm them and bring them under the control of the United States Army.

The colonel nods at his cavalry as they mount four Hotchkiss machine guns on a nearby slope, pointing them down at the camp. With the Lakota surrounded, Forsyth uses an interpreter to order the Native Americans to surrender all their guns and weapons.

A murmur goes through the camp. The Lakota rely on their guns for protection and for hunting. On top of that, they’re valuable. So reluctantly, the Lakota produce a handful of guns and hand them over. But Forsyth is not pleased. He knows there must be more weapons among them.

Forsyth orders his men to search the tipis.

There are more complaints from the Lakota, but they allow the soldiers to conduct their search without obstruction. And soon, the soldiers uncover 40 more rifles. The Lakota exchange angry and humiliated looks. But Forsyth is still not satisfied. He does not want to leave the Lakota with a single weapon that could be used in a rebellion against the United States. So he gives the order to search every man in the camp.

When they reach a deaf man named Black Coyote, he holds up a brand new Winchester rifle defiantly. He demands to be paid for the gun. But, before his words are translated, three soldiers grab him.

Amid their scuffle, the rifle goes off.

Instantly, Forsyth’s men begin firing. The Hotchkiss machine guns tear through tipis, wagons, and bodies.

Some of the Lakota try to fight back, but most flee for safety. Still, there is no escape from the machine guns on the hill.

When the shooting finally stops, hundreds of Lakota are dead. 25 American soldiers are killed as well, mostly from friendly fire. The wounded Lakota are left to die in the snow. A few days later, the army will return and bury the bodies in a mass grave.

Initially, the event at Wounded Knee is reported as a victorious battle of the US Cavalry over the dangerous Lakota. But, over time, it will develop a new label: the Wounded Knee Massacre. This devastating day will close one chapter of the Lakota’s long struggle for self-determination. But the massacre will not be the end of their resistance to assimilation and repression. Years later, a new generation of Lakota will take a stand for Native American sovereignty on the very same land that bore the bloodshed of the Wounded Knee Massacre almost a century earlier on December 29th, 1890.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 29th, 1890: The Wounded Knee Massacre.

Act One: The Ghost Dance

It’s the fall of 1889 in Walker Lake, Nevada, a year before the events at Wounded Knee Creek.

On the Paiute Reservation, a Lakota man named Kicking Bear sits among a crowd of hundreds of fellow Native Americans. Many are from different tribes. But they’re all here for the same reason: to meet a man rumored to be a new messiah.

Over the past few decades, white settlers have pushed the Native Americans off most of their ancestral lands. Some have fought violently to protect their land and way of life – including the Lakota. But victories have been rare. And now, to Kicking Bear and many others, it feels like the Native American way of life is on the edge of extinction. But, this evening, Kicking Bear has come to see a man who promises to change that.

As the sun sets, the rumored messiah steps forward – a spiritual leader from the Paiute nation known as Wovoka. In front of a blazing fire, Wovoka tells Kicking Bear and the rest of the crowd that he has brought word of their ancestors. But, first, he says he will teach them a dance.

Wovoka begins a performance known as the Ghost Dance. As he moves, he sings. And after picking up the dance, Kicking Bear and the others join in. Together, they dance for hours. And as he moves, Kicking Bear feels the song echoing in his ears. He watches hundreds of his fellow people dancing in the firelight. His heart is pounding. The ceremony makes him feel hopeful in a way he hasn’t for a long time.

Finally, late into the night, Wovoka announces that they have danced enough. Kicking Bear and the rest of the crowd retire for the night. The following morning, they reconvene, and Wovoka tells the crowd about his prophecy.

Wovoka explains that he had a vision during a recent solar eclipse. In it, he saw the Earth remade. A new layer of soil buried all the white men. The land was covered with grass, trees, and running water. The great herds of buffalo returned, along with all the spirits of their ancestors.

But, Wovoka insists that this new world will not come about on its own. In order to bring his vision to life, Wovoka says that the Native Americans will have to end their battles with the white men and instead, practice the Ghost Dance. He assures the crowd that the ritual is crucial to bringing back their ancestors’ spirits and restoring peace and prosperity to their land.

As Wovoka describes his prophecy, Kicking Bear listens in wonder, hanging on every word. He knows he must bring Wovoka’s message back to his people.

So after his trip to the Paiute Reservation, Kicking Bear visits the Lakota’s leaders to spread Wovoka’s prophecy. Among the first he meets is Chief Sitting Bull, the honored leader of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota. Sitting Bull is one of the most famous Native American chiefs. A decade ago, he helped lead the Lakota to a decisive victory against the US Army at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Since then, he has been widely respected by Native Americans and generally reviled by white Americans.

So Kicking Bear knows that Sitting Bull wants nothing more than to return the Native Americans’ life and land back to how it was before the white settlers arrived. So, he hopes the chief will spread Wovoka’s message. Kicking Bear relays his experience at the Paiute Reservation. He tells him all about the Ghost Dance and Wovoka’s instruction to spread the ritual.

Sitting Bull listens quietly, deep in thought. He doesn’t believe this ghost dance can resurrect the Native Americans or their way of life. But he sees no harm in a peaceful practice that could bring hope to his people. So, he agrees to help spread the Ghost Dance.

As Kicking Bear shares Wovoka’s message with other tribal leaders, the Ghost Dance will begin to invigorate the Lakota. They will need it. Over the next year, the tribe will face immense hardship. The US government will fail to provide the rations and supplies promised to them by recent treaties. And with their land and resources already decimated by white settlers, the Lakota will find themselves on the brink of starvation. But the Ghost Dance will become an unexpected reprieve, bringing them hope in a time of desperation.

But not everyone will understand or appreciate the new ritual. The Ghost Dance will alarm both white settlers and the US government. Many Americans will interpret it to be a warlike gesture of rebellion, and efforts will be made to curb the spiritual practice. But the Lakota will resist, setting in motion a series of deadly and terrible events that will soon end in catastrophe.

Act Two: Sitting Bull’s Death and Prelude to the Massacre

It’s November 18th, 1890 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one year after Kicking Bear spread the Ghost Dance to the Lakota.

Inside a government office, Daniel F. Royer prepares to send an urgent telegram. Daniel is an Indian Agent, one of the government appointees responsible for overseeing the Native American reservations. And, lately, he’s been growing increasingly concerned about a new practice sweeping through the native populations. 

In recent months, the Lakota have started a strange ritual. During the so-called Ghost Dance, they hold hands and cavort in a circle for hours, sometimes days. Their faces are painted and they wear white shirts emblazoned with symbols. They sing and chant, some of them entering into a trance as they envision a world without white men.

The dance has become a cause of concern for Indian Agents like Daniel. To them, the ritual feels threatening and hostile. They worry that the dance is a sign that the Native Americans are preparing for violence against white settlers. And they want it to stop.

So, today, Daniel sends a frantic message to the federal government. In it, he writes that the dancing Indians are wild and crazy, and demands immediate government intervention and protection.

While Daniel waits for the government’s response, another Indian Agent prepares to help end the Ghost Dance with the arrest of Chief Sitting Bull. For months, Sitting Bull has allowed and encouraged his tribe to practice this Ghost Dance. Many officials think the chief is the driving force behind the dance’s prevalence, and they want him to end it. But Sitting Bull has refused to stop the ritual. So, the US government decides to force his hand another way.

Before dawn on December 15th, Sitting Bull awakens to a loud knocking at his log cabin home. As Sitting Bull rises, he sighs wearily, before opening the door.

Outside his cabin is Lieutenant Bull Head, joined by 42 other Indian policemen. Bull Head and his fellow policemen are also Lakota, but Sitting Bull does not trust them. They act as go-betweens for the Lakota and the Indian Agents, and they want to help the agents push the Lakota into the white man’s way of life. And today, they’re here to arrest Sitting Bull for his role in spreading the Ghost Dance.

Knowing he’s outnumbered, the Lakota chief agrees to go quietly. But word of his arrest travels fast. By the time Sitting Bull and the policemen begin to leave the cabin, more than a hundred of the chief’s followers arrive, determined to stop the arrest.

Lieutenant Bull Head tries to resolve the tension. He explains that Sitting Bull must come with him. He cannot say what will happen if Sitting Bull does not. But his fake threats only enrage the watching crowd.

Without warning, one of Sitting Bull’s followers, Catch the Bear, pulls a rifle. He shoots Bull Head in the side. The lieutenant attempts to fire back. But he misses Catch the Bear, and instead, hits Sitting Bull in the head.

Sitting Bull crumples to the dirt, dead instantly, and his followers react. Gunfire erupts between both sides and by the end of the exchange, six policemen and seven of Sitting Bull’s followers are dead. But these killings are just the beginning of the violence to come. Over the next two weeks, Indian Agent Daniel Royer’s calls for action is finally answered. Thousands of US soldiers head to the area surrounding the Lakota’s land.

Meanwhile, word of Sitting Bull’s death circulates the reservations. Eventually, it reaches one of the elderly leaders of the Miniconjou Lakota named Big Foot. The news worries Big Foot who believes more violence could be on the way. So, he decides to take his people to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in search of protection.

As his wagon rolls along, the elderly leader lies on his back, sick with pneumonia. He coughs and wheezes uncontrollably. But news from a messenger soon forces him upright. His heart sinks as he learns that the U.S. army is on the horizon. Big Foot knows he’s in no condition to fight. And immediately, he orders one of his men to fly the white flag of surrender. 

Soon after, US Major Samuel Whitside arrives at the wagon. The Major informs the Lakota leader that he’s under orders to bring Big Foot’s people to a nearby cavalry camp at Wounded Knee Creek. Determined to keep the peace and protect his people, Big Foot nods and follows the US cavalry to the camp.

The following morning, on December 29th, 1890, the cavalry attempts to disarm Big Foot’s people. But the Native Americans do not give up their weapons quietly. Chaos erupts. And within an hour, hundreds of native men, women, and children are dead.

The Wounded Knee Massacre, as this incident will become known, will bring an end to the Ghost Dance movement and force the Lakota to accept the harsh reality of life on reservations. But the Lakota will never give up the fight to protect their land and their traditions. Almost 80 years later, this struggle for self-determination will come to a head once again at Wounded Knee.

Act Three: The Occupation at Wounded Knee

It’s May 5th, 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 83 years after the massacre there.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, 33-year-old Russell Means looks out the window of the office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On the horizon, he sees dozens of armed federal marshalls. And Russell sighs. He knows the US government's presence can only mean even more trouble for the Lakota people.

After the massacre at Wounded Knee, most of the Lakota settled onto reservation land demarcated by treaties with the U.S. government. Life on the reservation has been hard. The Lakota now battle poverty, low employment, and low life expectancy. Making matters worse, many feel the tribal chairperson designated to represent the Lakota at Pine Ridge, Dick Wilson, is corrupt and apathetic to their suffering. After failed attempts to vote him out, members of the Lakota reached out to Russell for help.

Russel is a Lakota tribesman and a member of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, a Native American civil rights organization. In February, Russell and his fellow AIM activists occupied Wounded Knee to try to force a change. They arrived with weapons, and immediately declared Wounded Knee to be an independent Lakota nation. They demanded an investigation into the treatment of Native Americans on the reservation and a change in leadership. Several months later, things are still at a standstill. And, as Russell peers at the US marshalls outside, he worries they’re running out of time. 

Russell tries to collect himself as the phone starts to ring. He takes a deep breath, then answers the call with his usual bravado. On the other end is the voice of the federal negotiator. who tells Russell there doesn’t need to be any more violence. Over the last two months, clashes between the Lakota and the government have left two Indigenous activists dead, and a US Marshal shot and paralyzed. The agent reassures Russell that no more blood needs to be shed, and Russell and his fellow activists can still leave Wounded Knee alive.

These words chill Russell’s blood. His mind goes back to the Lakota surrounded by the U.S. government on this same land in 1890. And he does not want that fate for himself, or for his people. The recent Native American deaths have already weighed heavily on the people he came to help. He knows many of the Lakota are ready for this fight to end. So, reluctantly, Russell agrees to a surrender.

When the occupation of Wounded Knee ends after 71 days, it will be the longest-lasting "civil disorder" in over 200 years of U.S. history. But AIM and the Occupation will fail to remove Dick Wilson as tribal chairperson, and to this day, the Lakota at Pine Ridge will struggle with some of the highest poverty within U.S. borders. But the Occupation of Wounded Knee will still become a symbol of Native American resistance to assimilation and oppression, nurtured in part by the memory of the tragic massacre that took place at Wounded Knee decades earlier on December 29th, 1890.


Next onHistory Daily: December 30th, 1941. In a rousing speech to the Canadian Parliament, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill celebrates his success in holding off Nazi Germany in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.