Wounded Knee is the story of the 1890 massacre in South Dakota that left more than 250 Sioux and 25 soldiers dead.
The book explains the history of the relationship between the Sioux and the American government, the religious movement among the Sioux that made Indian agents nervous, the escalating tensions between the military and the Indians, and, finally, the massacre and its aftermath.
Critically, though, Wounded Knee asks a question no one has asked before: Why were the troops sent to South Dakota in the first place, when there were no lives lost and no property threatened in the alleged Indian “uprising”?
The answer is that what happened on December 29 at Wounded Knee Creek came out of a struggle to control the national government.
In 1890, America was bitterly divided between rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, Easterners and Westerners. Since the Civil War, the Republicans had used the federal government to promote business. But by the 1880s, rich industrialists threw million-dollar parties while laborers worked for pennies in mills and fields and factories. Americans began to worry that government was too cozy with business, and pressured politicians to cut back their pro-business legislation. Government, they said, should not privilege businessmen over everyone else in society.
Horrified, Republicans countered that business development was the centerpiece of America’s life, and that any attempts to ameliorate the abuses of industrial capitalism were “socialism.” Those demanding that government regulate business—or at least stop protecting it at every turn—were trying to destroy America, Republicans insisted. They organized businessmen to pour money into the 1888 presidential election. Their candidate, Benjamin Harrison, won in the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.
Harrison’s administration was weak from the start, and to shore it up, Harrison’s men worked to skew the electoral system toward the Republicans and away from Democrats. They admitted to the Union six new western states that they believed would vote Republican, tried to change election laws to favor Republicans, and bought a popular newspaper to act as the administration’s mouthpiece.
By the summer of 1890, it had become clear that none of these measures were sufficient to stop the flow of voters toward the Democrats. Republicans heightened their rhetoric about socialism and the destruction of America in the months before the midterm election of 1890. At the same time, though, they passed a new law that dramatically benefited business at the expense of consumers, workers, and farmers.
The backlash of 1890 threatened to take control of the government out of the hands of the Republicans. They lost the House of Representatives by a margin of 2:1, and retained control of the Senate by only four votes.
This was not the relief it should have been, though. Three of those four Senate Republicans had voted against the last piece of pro-business legislation, and had indicated that they would no longer support the administration’s economic policy.
Control of the Senate hung on one seat: the seat from South Dakota.
The election for that seat was contested, and would not be decided until January of 1891. While South Dakotans fought over who had won, President Harrison sent troops to the new state.
The Sioux could not vote in the election of 1890, but nonetheless they became crucial pawns in the struggle to control the government.
“Why were the troops sent to South Dakota in the first place, when there were no lives lost and no property threatened in the alleged Indian ‘uprising’?”
Since the 1970s, there has been a tendency in America to see inequalities in society solely through the lens of race. Our understanding of the Wounded Knee massacre has reflected this: we have blamed racist soldiers alone for the brutal deaths of the Sioux that day.
But using racism as a scapegoat for society’s inequalities is far too easy. It lets modern-day Americans—most of whom pride themselves for not being racist—condemn inequalities in the past while insisting that problems in the present are not of their making.
Wounded Knee demands that we use a wider lens when we look at society’s problems. I recognize the racism of the soldiers, but if the soldiers had had their wish, they would never have been in South Dakota in the first place.
To understand what created the Wounded Knee massacre, we have to look beyond the racism of the soldiers. We have to figure out what led President Harrison to deploy a third of the U.S. Army to the new state of South Dakota when there was no obviously pressing reason to do so. It turns out that what prompted him to make that fatal decision was a toxic brew of politics and economics.
It is a mistake to let racism alone bear the responsibility for American inequalities. Wounded Knee suggests that to understand events like the massacre—as well as myriad other instances where one group has advantages over another—we have to look at larger societal systems. We need to see how economic policies privilege certain groups over others; how seemingly even-handed legislation can in fact discriminate against certain groups of people; how political machinations have winners and losers.
Looked at this way, continuing inequalities in society cannot be explained away by blaming somebody else’s racism. They implicate anyone who participates in the system without addressing its flaws.
In 1890, the soldiers were responsible for pulling the triggers, yes. But anyone who had voted for the Harrison administration was also responsible for what happened at Wounded Knee.
Some of those Republican voters prided themselves on their goodwill toward the Indians. But they were nonetheless instrumental in setting them up for destruction: accepting the idea that Harrison’s opponents were socialists who wanted to destroy America, they handed the reins of government to men who were determined to promote big business at all costs.
While the final paragraph of the introduction is perhaps the best synopsis of the book’s argument (page 18), my favorite paragraph in the book is on page 277.
This paragraph tells the story of what the men in the burial party found in the council area when they went back to it a day or so after the massacre. What they found was horrific, of course, but the paragraph does more than simply describe carnage; it carries the weight of one of the strongest themes of the book.
Years later, the men who saw the council area before the bodies were removed remained haunted by what they saw: women, girls, and babies, who, torn by bullets, had crawled together to die in each other’s arms.
The story in Wounded Knee is a story of political maneuvering and military campaigns, spheres in which women in 1890 had very little voice. The men who designed economic policies and fought over patronage, launched military campaigns and supplied troops, did so in a world that they held separate from the world of wives and homes and babies. Politicians and businessmen insisted they were protecting their dependents, doing what was best for them, but they made decisions according to an economic theory that focused on men. When writing Wounded Knee, I was careful to keep that focus on the men’s world. Women very rarely appear, and then only incidentally.
But the point of the book is that national policies and national political rhetoric matter, and they matter on a very personal level. While President Harrison and General Miles and Sitting Bull were arguing about economics and voters and troops, women were trying to feed their children, and to protect them. For all the righteous language of the midterm campaign, what really mattered in the end was that people died.
Women and children who had had no say in any of the debates that led to the events of December 29, 1890 were murdered. And in their extremity, fearfully wounded mothers and daughters clung to each other so they could die together.
Women are there throughout Wounded Knee, but they are invisible. The one place they become visible is that paragraph on page 277. And in that one paragraph, I think, they balance—and trump—everything else in the book.
“Continuing inequalities in society cannot be explained away by blaming somebody else’s racism. They implicate anyone who participates in the system without addressing its flaws.”
Wounded Knee shows that we must reject extreme political rhetoric.
Leading up to the 1890 midterm election, Republicans refused to admit that their policies were not working for many Americans. Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns of farmers and workers, they accused them of being “socialists” who wanted to destroy the nation. Having defined a Democratic victory as the end of America, the Republicans made it imperative that they win, no matter the cost.
In the short term, that cost was a massacre that left more than 250 people dead.
The Republicans’ conviction that they must win to save America had longer term consequences, as well. During the Harrison administration, officials added six new western states to the Union to increase their power in the Senate, sowed the seeds for draconian voter purges, committed the government to a western policy that dramatically changed the western environment, and undercut the ability of the Sioux to participate in the American economy in the future. These efforts dramatically reshaped the nation, and we still live with their consequences.
Today we deplore what happened at Wounded Knee Creek. But we must recognize that what made it possible was extreme political rhetoric. Beyond “racism,” it was the accusation of political opponents as being un-American that made any action acceptable so long as it would achieve political goals.
So long as we accept hyperbolic political rhetoric and reward the politicians who use it, we are laying the groundwork for other disasters.
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Besides Wounded Knee, featured in her Rorotoko interview, she is the author of a number of other books on late nineteenth-century America, including The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Class, and Politics, 1865-1901, and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War.