July 24, 2019

Removing the Stain on American History

Jessica Leeds Richman

Content Warning: Historical violence, genocide

United States history is soaked in the blood of Indigenous peoples, and for too long, violent white supremacy and murder have been heralded as acts of heroism. The 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre is a prime example of the U.S. commending an atrocity as a valiant military effort. Thankfully, a few members of the United States Congress are working to rectify these errors in order to seek historical justice and remove the stain on American history.

Last month, H.R. 3467 (“Remove the Stain Act”) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and subsequently referred to the House Committee on Armed Services. The bill calls for the rescission of the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers following the massacre. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) co-sponsored the act along with Reps. Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Sharice Davids (D-KS), Daniel Kildee (D-MI), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Denny Heck (D-WA).

If enacted into law, the Remove the Stain Act would require not only the rescission of the medals, but also the removal of the names of those awarded from the official Medal of Honor Roll maintained within the United States Code. The descendants of the individuals will not be required to return the physical medals, but in removing the names, the U.S. government could finally take the first meaningful step toward historical justice.

"This bill is particularly significant because it's a marker that shows that our country is finally on its way to acknowledging and recognizing the atrocities committed against our Native communities," Rep. Haaland said during a press conference last month on Capitol Hill.

Above: Rep. Haaland meets with leadership during a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base in Feb. 2019

While 1890 may seem like a long time ago, it’s actually only been a few generations since the bloodiest military attack on Indigenous people in the United States. It is far past time that we work to right the wrongs of one of the worst massacres of Native men, women, and children in American history.

So what exactly happened at Wounded Knee?

The backdrop of the Wounded Knee Massacre is the final decades of what historians call “the Indian Wars”—a time marked by increased hostilities and land grabs by the U.S. government. On Dec. 15, 1890, Indian agency police attempted to arrest Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull in the hopes that it would stop him from joining the Ghost Dance movement.

When Sitting Bull refused to comply with the arrest, the police shot him in the chest and head.

Sitting Bull’s murder led Chief Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot) of the Miniconjou Lakota to seek protection under Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Nation in order to keep his band safe. On their way to Pine Ridge, Spotted Elk and his band were intercepted by Samuel Whitside, a Major of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Whitside had orders to escort Spotted Elk and his people to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

The next day, Dec. 29, 1890, the cavalry disarmed Spotted Elk and his band. Black Coyote, a man described as deaf in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was ordered to surrender his gun by soldiers.

When he did not give his gun and fired, the Cavalry began shooting as many unarmed Indians as they could.

"The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty."

– William Thunder Hawk​, Rosebud Resident

After the bloodshed ended, between 250-300 out of the initial 350 Indians were killed, including Spotted Elk. As for the U.S. soldiers, 25 were dead and an additional 39 were wounded—mainly from their own fire.

Eyewitnesses who survived the encounter later described the horror in harrowing detail: women shot while trying to flee, children butchered by soldiers, and an infant trying to nurse from his dead mother.

As a result of this massacre, the U.S. Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to the soldiers at Wounded Knee.

“They couldn’t kill us all,” said Manny Iron Hawk, a descendant of a woman who survived the slaughter at Wounded Knee. The story has been a part of his family’s legacy for generations and was committed to writing in Lakota by his grandfather. “We are the people that survived, and we are the people that today are made flesh and blood of Wounded Knee, and we’re still here.”

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Foundation, a Medal of Honor is the highest award a member of the Armed Services can receive for active bravery “against an enemy force.” In awarding these medals to people who slaughtered unarmed Indigenous people, the United States government is not only condoning these actions, but also saying that Indigenous people—here for millennia before colonization—were and still are an enemy of the United States.

This isn’t the first time a request was made to rescind the Wounded Knee Medals of Honor. It is, however, the first time members of Congress initiated the call.

Reps. Haaland and Davids, of the of the Laguna Pueblo and Ho-Chunk Winnebago peoples, respectively, are the first two Native women to be elected to Congress—and both are raising awareness for issues pertaining to Indigenous sovereignty. Their efforts on the Remove the Stain Act, and Rep. Haaland's work on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, exemplify the importance of Native representation in the halls of government.

The introduction of the bill, in Rep. Haaland’s words, “shows the continued work and strength of the Native American people who have fought for over a century for the United States to acknowledge the genocide of our people that has taken place on this soil.”

For decades, Native communities have protested the mischaracterization of the events at Wounded Knee. Activists have launched campaigns calling for the rescission, terming the commendations “Medals of Dishonor.”

In 2001, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe passed Tribal Council Resolution No. 132-01 requesting federal action on the matter. Then, in 2007, the National Congress of American Indians also put forth a request for the federal government to renounce and/or nullify the medals.

"The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically," said Rosebud resident William Thunder Hawk. "But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty."

For the Lakota people and many other Indigenous communities around the country, Wounded Knee represents unresolved grief and intergenerational trauma. Fortunately, it looks like these wrongs may, at last, have a chance to be righted.