Removing the Stain of Wounded Knee:  Members of Congress Move to Rescind Medals of Honor

Stephanie Woodard

On Dec. 29, 1890, the soldiers with the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment massacred an estimated 250-500 Native people, most of whom were women and children, at Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Above, U.S. soldiers dump the frozen corpses of those they killed into a mass grave.

Bod­ies frozen in the snow, a baby with five bul­let wounds, small chil­dren shot at such close range their clothes and bod­ies were singed with gun­pow­der. Army gen­er­al Nel­son Miles was shocked by what he found at Wound­ed Knee. He arrived sev­er­al days after the car­nage, which occurred Decem­ber 29, 1890. A bat­tle-hard­ened Civ­il War vet­er­an, he was appalled by what he called in a let­ter to his wife, the most abom­inable crim­i­nal mil­i­tary blun­der and a hor­ri­ble mas­sacre of women and children.”

Over Miles’ objec­tions, 20 Con­gres­sion­al Medals of Hon­or were soon award­ed to U.S. Army sol­diers involved. When more medals were sug­gest­ed lat­er in 1891, Miles called them an insult to the mem­o­ry of the dead.”

Five U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives are co-spon­sor­ing a bipar­ti­san bill called the Remove the Stain Act, which seeks to rescind the Wound­ed Knee awards.

Speak­ing at a June 25 Wash­ing­ton, D.C., press con­fer­ence were two-time Pur­ple Heart recip­i­ent and retired Marine colonel Paul Cook (R‑Calif.), Deb Haa­land (D‑N.M.), and Den­ny Heck (D‑Wash.). Both Haa­land and Cook are mem­bers of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, to which the bill was referred after being sub­mit­ted to the House.

The bill, H.R. 3467, needs to get through the com­mit­tee and pass both the House and the Sen­ate in order to be sent to the President’s desk for his sig­na­ture. Accord­ing to Oliv­er OJ” Semans, a mem­ber of the Rose­bud Sioux and the co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the vot­ing-rights group Four Direc­tions, efforts are now under­way to increase the num­ber of House co-spon­sors and to craft a com­pan­ion Sen­ate bill.

That Decem­ber day in 1890, a unit of the Sev­enth Cav­al­ry had accept­ed the sur­ren­der of a group of Mini­con­jou Lako­ta. Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Jer­ry Green in a paper for the Nebras­ka State His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, the sol­diers dis­armed the Lako­ta and butchered them. Green reports one offi­cer present describ­ing the sol­diers as great­ly excit­ed,” shoot­ing the Lako­ta wild­ly with­out aim­ing their guns. War­riors, squaws, chil­dren, ponies, and dogs…went down before that unaimed fire,” accord­ing to one offi­cer. As many as 375 died, about 200 of them women and chil­dren, accord­ing to lat­er Con­gres­sion­al documents.

The sol­diers also killed or wound­ed dozens of their own com­rades posi­tioned across the sur­round­ing cir­cle. It was impos­si­ble not to,” accord­ing to an Army med­ical offi­cer present, says Green’s research.

Lat­er that night, a sur­geon who had served in the Civ­il War tend­ed to Lako­ta sur­vivors. He began to look faint, accord­ing to a Nebras­ka jour­nal­ist who was among those who had arrived to report on the inci­dent. This is the first time I’ve seen a lot of women and chil­dren shot to pieces. I can’t stand it,” the jour­nal­ist report­ed the sur­geon saying.

At the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., press con­fer­ence, Rep. Haa­land said intro­duc­tion of the bill shows that our coun­try is final­ly on its way to acknowl­edg­ing and rec­og­niz­ing the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted against our Native com­mu­ni­ties.” One of the first Native Amer­i­can women to serve in Con­gress, Haa­land, who is a mem­ber of Lagu­na Pueblo, laud­ed the con­tin­ued strength of Native peo­ple, despite the many out­rages against them, includ­ing Wound­ed Knee.

From left, stand­ing, U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Paul Cook (R‑Calif.), Deb Haa­land (D‑N.M.), and Den­ny Heck (D‑Wash.) with, seat­ed, WWII Army vet­er­an Mar­cel­la LeBeau, of the Cheyenne Riv­er Sioux Reser­va­tion. They are in the Long­worth Cap­i­tal Build­ing, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to speak about the Remove the Stain Act, a bill to rescind Con­gres­sion­al Medals of Hon­or award­ed for the Wound­ed Knee mas­sacre. (Pho­to by OJ Semans.)

Rep. Cook con­demned not only the mas­sacre but the con­tin­u­a­tion of a lie that is asso­ci­at­ed with the high­est award we have for val­or.” With the Act, he said, We are […] cor­rect­ing some­thing that was trag­ic in all ways [includ­ing] award­ing those par­tic­u­lar medals.”

Rep. Heck called the bill a step toward heal­ing. He not­ed that his con­gres­sion­al dis­trict once had the high­est num­ber of liv­ing Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ents of any dis­trict in the nation.

We have dis­tin­guished peo­ple here to help our ances­tors,” said Man­ny Iron Hawk at the press con­fer­ence. A descen­dant of a mas­sacre sur­vivor, he is from the Cheyenne Riv­er Sioux Reser­va­tion. Today we give our ances­tors voice,” said Marlis Afraid of Hawk, also a descen­dant of a Wound­ed Knee sur­vivor. It’s time to heal.”

This dark­est day” is not rec­og­nized or taught in our schools, said descen­dant Phyl­lis Hol­low Horn, born and raised in Wound­ed Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indi­an Reser­va­tion. She saw a con­nec­tion between the press conference’s date — June 25, the anniver­sary of the Bat­tle of the Lit­tle Big Horn — and the sol­diers’ uncon­trolled fury at Wound­ed Knee. She said they sought revenge for the Lako­ta and their allies defeat­ing the Sev­enth Cav­al­ry at the Bat­tle of the Lit­tle Big Horn just 14 years before.

In ear­ly Jan­u­ary, mem­bers of the 7th Cav­al­ry gath­er up the frozen bod­ies of the Native peo­ple they mas­sa­cred at Wound­ed Knee on Dec. 291890.

The descen­dants spoke of the endur­ing pain of the killings and its con­tin­ued pres­ence in their com­mu­ni­ties. Nowa­days, Native women expe­ri­ence extreme rates of vio­lence, includ­ing mur­der. Mean­while, Native chil­dren have long been a focus of fed­er­al poli­cies of forced assim­i­la­tion and geno­cide. To begin with, they were among mas­sacre vic­tims — at Wound­ed Knee, at Sand Creek, in Col­orado, on the Marias Riv­er, in Mon­tana, on the Bear Riv­er, in Ida­ho, and in oth­er places. Start­ing in the late 1800s, they were sent to noto­ri­ous­ly abu­sive board­ing schools estab­lished to erad­i­cate Native cul­ture. Today, many states take Native chil­dren into fos­ter care or adop­tion in num­bers that are dis­portion­ate­ly high­er than their per­cent­age of the population.

As a grand­moth­er and great-grand­moth­er, I’m sup­port­ing this bill for the chil­dren — to ensure that no one hurts our chil­dren again,” said Hol­low Horn.

The press con­fer­ence cel­e­brat­ed World War II vet­er­an Mar­cel­la LeBeau of the Cheyenne Riv­er Sioux Tribe, in South Dako­ta. She has long advo­cat­ed for rescind­ing the Wound­ed Knee medals. Dec­o­rat­ed for sav­ing lives rather than tak­ing them, LeBeau, now 99, received France’s high­est award, the Legion of Hon­or, as well as U.S. and Bel­gian awards, for her work dur­ing the war. A U.S. Army lieu­tenant and sur­gi­cal nurse, she cared for those injured on D‑Day and was often near the front lines. At the Bat­tle of the Bulge, she could see ene­my planes over­head, hear guns fir­ing, and feel bombs shake the ground as she tend­ed the wounded.

LeBeau is among the many Native Amer­i­cans who have served in the mil­i­tary. They are the pop­u­la­tion group with the nation’s high­est enlist­ment rate, accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Defense. In a Library of Con­gress inter­view, LeBeau called her World War II ser­vice one of the great­est hon­ors and priv­i­leges of my life.” Of the sol­diers she served with, and saw both live and die, she said, They were hon­or­able men, pro­tect­ing our coun­try” — mak­ing clear the vast gulf between them and the sol­diers at Wound­ed Knee.

OJ Semans, a Navy vet­er­an as well as co-exec­u­tive direc­tor with his wife, Barb Semans, of the vot­ing-rights group Four Direc­tions, was instru­men­tal in mar­shalling sup­port for the Remove the Stain Act from the three Con­gres­sion­al co-spon­sors. He says that Native Amer­i­cans’ recent­ly improved bal­lot-box access, espe­cial­ly in states crit­i­cal to the out­come of the 2020 elec­tion, means pub­lic offi­cials will now lis­ten to their con­cerns. (For more, see In These Times here, here, here and here.)

Though not one of the three House mem­bers now co-spon­sor­ing the Act, U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dusty John­son (R‑S.D.) sent In These Times a writ­ten state­ment. Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ents of today are held to a tremen­dous­ly high­er stan­dard,” wrote John­son, in whose con­gres­sion­al dis­trict the mas­sacre occurred. It’s painful­ly clear from our his­to­ry [that] the U.S. didn’t have these same stan­dards in 1890.” 

Recip­i­ents of the Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or receive their award from the Pres­i­dent, who presents it on behalf of Con­gress. With that in mind, Semans has writ­ten to the Pres­i­dent about the Act, urg­ing him to “[r]estore hon­or to the Medal of Hon­or itself, to the brave sol­diers who have earned that Medal in real wars, against real ene­mies.” At press time, In These Times had not received a response to a request for a com­ment from the Pres­i­dent, who has used a ref­er­ence to Wound­ed Knee as a slur on Twit­ter.

The Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or Soci­ety says it rep­re­sents recip­i­ents. Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­how­er estab­lished the non­prof­it soci­ety in 1958 to pro­tect, uphold and pre­serve the dig­ni­ty and hon­or of the medal at all times and on all occa­sions.” Hon­or Soci­ety spokesper­son Lau­ra Jowdy said she could not com­ment on the Remove the Stain Act. She cit­ed pro­hi­bi­tions against soci­ety involve­ment in leg­isla­tive affairs.

The medal, though excep­tion­al­ly pres­ti­gious nowa­days, has a check­ered his­to­ry. Dur­ing 1916 and 1917, Gen­er­al Miles head­ed a Con­gres­sion­al inquiry into cri­te­ria for bestow­ing it. He found it could be doled out hap­haz­ard­ly. Cler­i­cal errors spawned medals. Miles’s inquiry revoked 864 medals that had gone to Civ­il War sol­diers not for brav­ery, but to encour­age reenlistment.

In his research for the Nebras­ka State His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, Green found that some of the sol­diers award­ed the Medal of Hon­or for actions at Wound­ed Knee may have faked or exag­ger­at­ed wounds in the process of qual­i­fy­ing for the award. At least one oth­er recip­i­ent was endorsed by a group of friends. Some medals appeared friv­o­lous, includ­ing one for con­spic­u­ous brav­ery” in round­ing up a run­away pack mule. A com­pa­ny musi­cian who got a medal had been court-mar­tialed eight times. The doc­u­men­ta­tion for oth­er medals backs up Miles’s assess­ment of the day’s hor­rors: One medal was for lead­ing 20 men into a ravine, where women and chil­dren were lat­er found dead or wound­ed, and anoth­er was for using a how­itzer to lob explo­sives onto women and chil­dren in a ravine.

In 1990, Rep. Tim John­son (D‑S.D.), now retired (not relat­ed to Dusty John­son), authored an offi­cial Con­gres­sion­al expres­sion of deep regret” for the mas­sacre. The res­o­lu­tion called for a new begin­ning, includ­ing sup­port for Amer­i­can Indi­an self-deter­mi­na­tion and a recog­ni­tion of the valu­able con­tri­bu­tion of Indi­an cul­tures, tra­di­tions, and val­ues to the his­to­ry and fab­ric of Amer­i­can society.”

Despite efforts like Tim Johnson’s, the view of indige­nous peo­ple that engen­dered the hor­rors of Wound­ed Knee per­sists in some areas. In 1890, a South Dako­ta news­pa­per edi­to­r­i­al came out for total anni­hi­la­tion” of Native Amer­i­cans. Dur­ing most of 2016, the world watched aghast as North Dako­ta respond­ed vio­lent­ly to demon­stra­tions against an oil pipeline being built across the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water sup­ply. Heav­i­ly armed police offi­cers and oil-com­pa­ny pri­vate secu­ri­ty agents attacked unarmed civil­ians — women as well as men, elders as well as younger adults — with dogs, rub­ber bul­lets, mace, tear gas, batons, and water can­nons deployed in sub-freez­ing temperatures.
​Accord­ing to Semans, In this time of duly height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to vio­lence against women and chil­dren, in a polit­i­cal era where nation­al lead­ers appear to be will­ing to bring front and cen­ter dis­cus­sion of the his­to­ry and cur­rent issues of America’s indige­nous people…the time is right to return to Wound­ed Knee.

The time is right to hear the cries of my ances­tors from that frozen and blood­ied landscape.”

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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