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Wounded Knee Massacre

The tragic events of 29 December 1890 are not a scar on American history, but, as the name of the small creek in South Dakota suggests, a gaping wound. Julian Humphrys explores why
Men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux litter the ground of their own camp after the slaughter

Daniel F Royer was a nervous man. It was November 1890 and as the newly appointed agent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he was the representative for the US government’s dealings with the Lakota Sioux living there. Royer had little experience for the job and even less understanding of the ways of the Sioux peoples. They took to calling him ‘Young Man Afraid of Indians’. Royer had hoped to improve the lot of the Native Americans by encouraging them to adopt the ways of the White Man, going so far as to bring his nephew in to teach them baseball. But an increasing number of the Sioux favoured a very different – and to Royer a very worrying – path to salvation: the Ghost Dance.

These were desperate times for the Lakota Sioux. The relentless westward march of white settlers had seen them driven from their traditional hunting grounds onto reservations, and the bison, vital to their way of life for the hides and meat, had been hunted virtually to extinction. The US government made them sign treaties to limit their freedoms and then broke them with impunity. In 1889, they engineered the dismemberment of the Great Sioux Reservation, which covered the western half of South Dakota, in order to give approximately half the land to whites. The Lakota were left with just six smaller reservations. There was little to hunt, the soil was poor for farming and matters were made worse when the authorities miscalculated the additional supplies needed to survive the winter.

Weakened by starvation and wracked by disease, many Sioux found solace in a new religion. Its origins lay in the teachings of Wovoka, a holy man from the Paiute people of Nevada. Having claimed to have had a vision during an eclipse of the sun, he foretold the resurrection of the dead, the return of the bison, the banishment of the White Man and the revival of the Native American way of life.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month’s issue… Henry VIII’s Six Weddings While every detail of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle has been anticipated and analysed, the nuptials of his Tudor namesake Henry VIII are less familiar. Alison Weir peers behind the drapes of the six days that preceded ‘divorced, beheaded, died…’. Plus: the CIA heist of a sunken Soviet nuclear sub during the Cold War; Wounded Knee massacre; female Pharaohs; the 1820 plot to murder the Cabinet; and Lee Miller’s photos of WWII