A World Less Certain | Helping to Heal Wounded Knee

Old wounds run deep and now is the best time to heal

PHOTO: Rick Thomas | SouthPasadenan.com News | Oglala Sioux flag symbol with the date “12/29” (December 29, 1890). Remembrance of the massacre at Wounded Knee

Massacre at Wounded Knee – A Family Journey

My mother read stories to me as a child about the American Indian chiefs. My bedroom walls were covered with their images while I was growing up. When I was a little older, she told me what happened at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.

The Native American experience is not mine, but the people and their cultural differences as separate nations have become a part of me through my mother’s teachings.

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Forty-five years later, my daughters came with me to South Dakota on December 29, 2015, to attend the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. We stood together with the ancestors of men, women, and children buried at our feet. In 1890, their frozen bodies piled up in a mass grave trench on the hillside that overlooked where the senseless slaughter occurred.

The U.S. Calvary, who committed this crime against humanity, was awarded 20 Medals of Honor. The U.S. Congress has never rescinded those medals.

Facts and Eyewitness Accounts

The Wounded Knee Massacre is the most notorious mass killing of non-combatant innocents by the U.S. military on the North American continent.

  • Women and children outnumbered total U.S. military casualties by more than 2 to 1 (64 Lakota women and children killed vs. 25 U.S. soldiers).
  • Total casualties at Wounded Knee: Ten Lakota Sioux killed for every one U.S. Cavalry Soldier. In total, 25 U.S. Cavalry soldiers were killed compared to approximately 250-300 Lakota Sioux.
  • The heart of the Sioux camp was pounded by an artillery battery of 4 Hotchkiss-designed M1875 Mountain Guns located on high ground. Of the 25 U.S. military casualties, most were caused by the “friendly fire” of artillery and crossfire from fellow U.S. soldiers.
  • U.S. 7th Calvary soldiers and artillery surrounded the Lakota camp, which had no lines of attack or defense. During the massacre, the nearby Agency Road and ravine was used in a desperate attempt to escape the slaughter. Instead, members of the U.S. Calvary pursued and killed those who fled – many of them women and children.

There was an instant, and then we heard sounds of firing in the center of the Indians. ‘Fire!’ I shouted, and we poured it into them.Lieutenant J.D. Mann (U.S. 7th Calvary)

A massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed. – Nelson A. Miles Commanding Maj. General

As soon as the Indians crossed the ravine, perhaps two hundred yards distant, and attempted to escape on the Agency Road, I gave the command, “Commence firing!” They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs. I believe over thirty bodies were found on our front.Edward S. Godfrey, Captain, Commanded Co. D (U.S. 7th Calvary)

I looked down the ravine and saw a lot of women coming up and crying… little girls and boys, coming up, I saw soldiers on both sides of the ravine shoot at them until they had killed every one of them.Dewey Beard (Survivor – Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee)

What Needs to be Done

The National Museum of the American Indian is a short walk from the United States Capitol building. On display are several original treaties never honored by the United States during decades of unlawful land grabs and genocide of the Native American people.

The U.S. government and 565 tribal nations have acknowledged that a massacre of Lakota Sioux took place at Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, the military action at Wounded Knee Creek was similar to the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War in which the U.S. Congress issued no Medals of Honor.

For decades, the Sioux Nation has asked the U.S. Congress to rescind the “Medals of Dishonor” awarded to 20 U.S. 7th Calvary soldiers. During the 2020 pandemic and the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the United States has another opportunity to reexamine the facts of the Wounded Knee Massacre and make a meaningful gesture of reconciliation with the Lakota Sioux people.

A Time for Healing

We are all connected. One people, traveling aboard a marvelous spaceship – planet Earth. As we navigate space and time together, we find ourselves at a dangerous moment in our relatively short history as human passengers; the rising population and insufficient distribution of goods and services further widen the disparities in standards of living.

We need each other to survive and thrive, especially during these troubling times.

If we seek to provide a better world for ourselves and our children, we need not look further than our not-so-distant past. We should recognize the wounds inflicted by our ancestors, which cause enduring emotional suffering, systemic racism, and lingering economic hardships for many Americans.

Instances of mass murder committed by our military should never be the basis for issuing medals of “honor.” The perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable and brought to justice. Not rewarded. It minimizes the honor for those who deserve the highest level of distinction in our country’s service.

The time to heal Wounded Knee is now.


Rick Thomas
Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.