Success brings Rounds an opportunity on Wounded Knee medals

January 13, 2023 3:45 pm
A sunrise silhouette of the entrance to the Wounded Knee Massacre memorial in South Dakota. (Getty Images)

A sunrise silhouette of the entrance to the Wounded Knee Massacre memorial in South Dakota. (Getty Images)

Senator Mike Rounds deserves praise for his recent repeal of laws that discriminated against Native Americans. There’s a related issue he should consider next: the medals awarded for the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, has momentum on Native American legislation from the passage of his bill that wiped away 11 egregious and antiquated laws. They included provisions that authorized the federal government to punish “hostile” tribes, to make government benefits contingent on sobriety, and to place Native American children in boarding schools without parental consent.

Rounds first introduced the bill in 2016. He kept introducing it until it gained congressional approval and a presidential signature last month. Rounds said in a news release that the bill’s passage was “long overdue.”

The same could be said, according to many Native Americans, about a serious re-examination of the Wounded Knee medals.

The massacre occurred on Dec. 29, 1890. About 350 Miniconjou Lakota people – many of them women and children – were concluding a cross-country trek to the Pine Ridge Agency. They camped near Wounded Knee Creek in southwest South Dakota, where a force of nearly 500 U.S. soldiers took positions around them.

The soldiers tried to disarm the camp. According to some accounts, soldiers struggled with a man who refused to give up his gun, and it fired into the sky. Chaotic shooting ensued. Soldiers used rifles and wheel-mounted, rapid-fire artillery guns.

Fewer than 40 soldiers were killed (some by friendly fire, according to historians), while Native American deaths have been estimated at 200 or 300 or more, depending on the source. After some of the Native American bodies froze on the ground for several days, a military-led burial party dumped them into a mass grave. 

Historians have revealed how military leaders rushed to assign and then escape blame for the massacre. Gen. Nelson Miles, who was in command of Army departments west of the Mississippi River, criticized the commander on the ground at Wounded Knee, Col. James Forsyth, for unwisely positioning his soldiers and failing to keep them sufficiently separated from Native Americans in the camp. 

But Miles’ critiques were whitewashed as they moved up the chain of command. Within months after the massacre, the secretary of war began awarding Medals of Honor to soldiers who participated in it. Historians say about 20 Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers for their actions during the massacre, give or take several additional medals awarded for action during the days immediately following the massacre, and other medals that vaguely mention the 1890-91 “Sioux campaign.”

Some of the medal citations praised unspecified “gallantry” and “bravery.” Others lauded soldiers for helping wounded comrades. And some heaped honor on a group of soldiers for raining gunfire into a ravine where Native Americans fled.

The rush to cover the event in manufactured glory did nothing to change the underlying facts. One hundred years later, in 1990, Congress passed a resolution that described the incident as a “massacre” and expressed “deep regret” on behalf of the United States.

Yet the Medals of Honor remain. 

Several attempts to rescind the medals have failed to gain traction. One possible reason is the conspicuous lack of support and even opposition from the congressional delegation of South Dakota. 

If Rounds or either of the state’s other two congressional delegates were to support rescinding the medals, they would undoubtedly come under fire from critics accusing them of trying to “rewrite history.” But rescinding the medals would do nothing to assign new or greater blame to soldiers who committed atrocities, or soldiers who were perhaps guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In other words, we may never know exactly how much blame to place on any one person. But that doesn’t have to stop us from considering whether anyone deserves a medal for a massacre.



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.