by Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International Special Contributor

The last major conflict between Native Americans and the U.S. Army took place in South Dakota near Wounded Knee Creek. The year was 1890. A young Minniconjou Lakota Sioux warrior named Black Coyote played a pivotal role in that engagement. Black Coyote was deaf.

During the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, Indian resentment at the white man's methods continued to grow as a relentless tide of settlers flowed west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and beyond. Whenever the Indians had land that the white man wanted, they were forced to give it up and move to less desirable locations.

At first the Great Plains were of interest to whites only as a direct route to California and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, serious trouble with tribes like the Sioux came later.

Soon the invaders discovered that the West was full of precious metals like gold and silver. This attracted large numbers of men hoping to make their fortunes. They repeatedly ignored treaties that had been signed by both the government and Indian leaders.

During the middle and late 19th century, white settlers and miners overran Sioux hunting grounds and killed many buffalo. The Indians began to fight back. Minnesota's Santee Sioux rebelled in 1862 and then fled west. In 1868 Red Cloud and his band of Ogalala Sioux attacked white men throughout their territory.

The U.S. government set aside areas called "reservations" for the Indians to occupy. Some of the Native Americans did just that, moving in peacefully. Unfortunately, they had little experience with farming. To make matters worse, the land was very poor. A number of Sioux tribes under leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull stayed away from the government preserves for a long time.

In South Dakota the Sioux were provoked further by goldseekers moving illegally into the Black Hills. The Indians (and the whites, too) consistently ignored government orders. In 1876 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and a force of the Seventh Cavalry were sent against the Indians. This campaign ended in a battle called "Little Big Horn." All of Custer's men were killed in that action.

Following this defeat, the Army embarked on a concerted effort to solve the "Indian problem." Over a 10-12 year period, they managed to drive most of the Sioux into reservations.

In 1890 the "Ghost Dance" cult brought new hope to the Sioux for " ... spiritual renewal ..." Hunger, disease, loss of tribal lands, and broken government promises left them little hope for the future.

Ghost Dance philosophy promised that the gods would restore Indian lands to the way it was before the white men came. Dead Indian ancestors would come back to life, and game animals like the buffalo would return. (Those animals, essential to the Indian way of life, had been nearly wiped out by the trespassers.)

The entire Ghost Dance creed was nonviolent, teaching the Indians to live peacefully and love others. Even so, U.S. Army leaders feared its effect on the Sioux. When the government agent at the Pine Ridge Agency saw signs that the Sioux were becoming more aggressive, he sent for help from the Army.

General Nelson Miles assembled a force that eventually numbered over 5,000 men. Its objective was to "pacify" the Indians.

On December 15, 1890 Miles sent a group of Indian policemen to arrest Sitting Bull. The chief had eventually moved to a reservation, but government officials believed that he had been influenced by the Ghost Dancers and would cause trouble in the future. Somehow, while trying to take him into custody, Sitting Bull was killed.

When word of his death spread, hundreds of Sioux fled to Ghost Dance camps throughout the region. General Miles dispatched a large force to intercept all Minneconjou Lakota Sioux, especially Chief Big Foot who had left the Cheyenne River Reservation with 300 of his followers. This band had been joined by a number of Sitting Bull's followers who had escaped after the Chief was killed. Big Foot made the decision to head for the Pine Ridge Reservation.

On December 28 a squadron of U.S. Seventh Cavalry troopers (Custer's old regiment) located Big Foot and his contingent. All 120 men and 230 women and children surrendered under a white flag of peace. The commanding officer directed all of them to set up camp at Wounded Knee Creek (Chankpe Opi Wakpala), about 20 miles from Pine Ridge.

All of them were issued rations. They were told that the next day they would turn in their weapons and then be taken to Pine Ridge.

Additional troops continued to move into the area until the force numbered about 500 men. In addition, a group of four Hotchkiss guns arrived. These small, deadly, howitzer-like cannons could fire 50 rounds a minute. They were stationed on a hill overlooking the Indian encampment. One eyewitness reported that the soldiers were "itching for a fight," hoping to gain revenge for the fallen Custer and his men.

In command of the soldiers was Col. James Forsyth. His orders were to disarm the Indians and then take them to the railroad for transportation away from the "zone of operations" (not what the Indians had been told earlier). No one expected a fight.

The next morning (December 29) all Indian men and older boys were called to the camp's center. Forsyth issued orders that all weapons be surrendered. His men first searched tepees and individual bundles, finding two rifles and a number of knives, axes, and even tent stakes. Everything was collected and stacked in the middle of the camp.

Big Foot, ill with pneumonia, cautioned his people to obey the soldiers. His medicine man, Yellow Bird, danced and chanted songs of resistance. He was ordered to stop, and he did so--for a while.

Forsyth's next order was for the men and older boys to be physically searched. Blankets were to be removed, and all Indians "patted down." The older men complied quickly, but some of the younger ones " ... began moving away, not sure what to do .."

Two more rifles were found during this phase of the search. One belonged to a young warrior named Black Coyote. He was described later as being deaf.

Black Coyote held the Winchester over his head, muzzle pointing up. He shouted that he had paid a lot for it and that it belonged to him. Apparently he never aimed the rifle at anyone. Two soldiers grabbed him and spun him around. While the three were struggling for the rifle, a shot rang out. Many (but not all) contemporary accounts agree that Black Coyote's weapon was discharged accidentally.

This unexpected explosion was followed by a volley of carbine (rifle) fire directed at the Indians who grabbed whatever weapons were at hand and fought back. Of course, they were heavily outgunned. There was a short lull during which Indians and soldiers grappled with each other at close quarters, using knives and even clubs. This was face-to-face and bloody; most of the Indian men were killed during this interval.

All four of the Hotchkiss cannons opened up from the hills, firing about one shot per second, raking the camp with shells exploding and shrapnel flying everywhere.

Many Indians began to run away, followed by mounted troopers firing pistols and swinging their sabers, killing everyone they could reach (mostly women and children). This pursuit went on for miles. Survivors continued to flee, staggering, limping, even crawling up ravines and hiding in cut banks or in shallow trenches.

Chief Big Foot died in the first few minutes, and very likely so did Black Coyote. Hundreds of rounds were fired, practically all by soldiers.

The "battle" was over in less than an hour. Survivors were rounded up and loaded into wagons. Reports say that this group consisted of four men and 47 women and children. The wagons took them to Pine Ridge where an Episcopal mission was opened to shelter them. More than half of the Sioux lay dead at the camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

On the next day (December 30) there was a blizzard. Many of the Indians who were hiding (some wounded) simply froze to death. When the storm ended, the soldiers returned with their wagons, loaded the hideously frozen bodies of the dead (including Chief Big Foot), and buried them in a mass grave. This resting place is now a memorial on Pine Ridge Reservation.

One estimate places the final Indian death toll at nearly 300 of the original 350. The Army also suffered casualties: 25 soldiers were killed and 39 wounded. Most of these came from "friendly fire" (shots from other soldiers).

After Wounded Knee, the various factions of the Sioux united and tried to continue resistance. However, the outcome seems to have been inevitable. General Miles brought 3,500 men to surround a Sioux camp along White Clay Creek, north of Pine Ridge Agency. He used diplomacy, threats, and promises of good treatment to convince the Indians to surrender and return to the reservations. They did so formally on January 15, 1891.

For 20 years various bills were introduced into Congress to compensate Wounded Knee survivors and relatives of the dead. None of them passed. Wounded Knee became a symbol of the " ... injustices and degradations inflicted on the Indians by the U.S. government ..."

Some people still refer to Wounded Knee as a "battle"; others see it as a massacre. By either name it was the final defeat of the Sioux and the end of their traditional way of life. It also brought to an end the era of "Indian wars."




The frozen body of Big Foot
lies in a field at Wounded Knee


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