Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn – A Stark Contrast

Wounded Knee should be a site that we seek out and that offers us an opportunity to learn about the complex and challenging past that is our heritage. Contrasting Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn is provocative and perlexing. What should be done?

As we left South Dakota, we went through Wounded Knee.  There is so much of that history that is shrouded in the mists of time.  What I recalled was that in December 1890, Wounded Knee was the site of the largest domestic massacre in the history of the United States.  Let that fact sink in.

It was in the midst of the period when the U.S. was making and breaking treaties with Native Americans, when many Sioux were mesmerized by a belief in Ghost Dances that would free them from their travails, when buffalo herds were decimated leading to starvation among indigenous peoples, and, as the U.S. was entering a serious recession, when the lure of wealth on lands committed to tribes under treaties was irresistible to a nation that believed in Manifest Destiny.  You can read the histories yourself but here is a perspective from a U.S. General serving in the territory.

The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.

They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.

The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyenne have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.

From a telegram sent by General Nelson A. Miles from Rapid City to General John Schofield in Washington, D.C., on December 19, 1890

Ten days after General Miles sent the telegram, the U.S. 7th Cavalry intercepted a band of Lakota and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek.  The next morning, they attempted to disarm the warriors and a fight broke out.  By the end of the day, 150-300 Lakota were killed and 25 members of the Cavalry died.  The vast majority of the dead were women and children.  In recognition of this tragedy, the site of the massacre was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and in 1990, on the centennial, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.

With that background Linda and I traveled through the Pine Ridge Reservation to visit the memorial and gain a greater understanding of the history.  This is what we found.


There is no museum, no monuments, no means to commemorate and learn from what transpired in Wounded Knee.  The mass grave where the bodies were piled is memorialized by a single marker and a chain link fence. The only note on what transpired is relegated to a sole sign.  Let me reiterate, this was the largest domestic massacre in the history of the United States.  We were baffled and disheartened.

As you go through the Pine Ridge Reservation, you can certainly understand why the Lakota have not invested in the site.  It is one of the most impoverished of all reservations and the deprivation can shake you to your core when you see mobile homes with windows boarded over to keep out the cold (and the sunlight).


A week further in my ramble, I went to Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, Custer’s Last Stand or Battle of the Greasy Grass as it is known to Plain’s Indians.  It stands in stark contrast.  The complex history of the battle between the Sioux and the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George A. Custer is not glossed over or glorified.  There are touching memorials to the U.S. troops and to the Native Americans and living history from both perspectives that bring this moment in time alive.  At Little Big Horn, approximately 260 of the 585 U.S. troops were killed.  Since the bodies were removed by their families, the number of Native Americans that died is hazy with estimates ranging from 36 to 300.

Memorials to those in the U.S. Cavalry and a well-balanced presentation on what transpired by a National Park ranger
Memorials to Native American warriors and an impressive monument conveying the history from a tribal perspective

I’m still struggling to understand why we have failed to create a site that helps us learn from the history of Wounded Knee when we have succeeded at Little Big Horn.  At first, I resorted to a narrative that it was simply white-washing of history by the victors.  I also recognized the fact that Wounded Knee sits on a Native American reservation with rights of tribal sovereignty and also abject poverty.  On the former point, however, the victory of Native American tribes and a narrative on what they were fighting for is prominently displayed at Little Big Horn so it isn’t entirely skewed history.  But we all learn about Custer’s Last Stand in our history books when we are children even though that account is abridged and does a disservice to the broader conflict between the U.S. government and Native Americans tribes.  Nevertheless, tourists are inclined to take a detour on the way to Yellowstone to visit the national monument.  How many of us learned about Wounded Knee beyond a footnote?  How many of us would take a detour when we are in the Badlands of South Dakota?

Wounded Knee should be a site that we seek out and that offers us an opportunity to learn about the complex and challenging past that is our heritage.  As I mentioned in my prior post, I reflected on this at Sturgis.  Much of the time of bikers attending Sturgis is spent traveling the roads of South Dakota and the broader region.  I also now know from family members that embrace the joy of motorcycles that there is a strong culture of charitable work including the Trail of Tears Remembrance Motorcycle Ride.   Could some of those attending Sturgis start making a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee?  Could they begin to raise funds to support the Pine Ridge Reservation in building a destination that offers an opportunity to learn this history and offer those who lost their lives the commemoration that they deserve?

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