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Folio · 2017

Wounded Knee and the Effect of Media

Nikki Devers


Gun control laws give too much power to the government and may result in tyranny and the taking away of all guns from citizens effectively leaving them defenseless.

(procon.org)

The second amendment in the Bill of Rights was written to protect the rights of the people in the new world. It states "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed". (billofrightsinstitue.org) In 1890 this was not applicable to Native Americans as the tribes were seen as sovereign, separate from the union. Nevertheless, the events that occurred on December 29th of that year are sometimes used as an example what gun rights advocates fear could be a result of government-backed disarmament of a people.

A common belief is that the media's portrayals of gun owners are misrepresented and affect the opinions of the public when it comes to the debate on gun issues. We can look back at an example of this when in 1867 the Battle of Little Bighorn and the defeat of General Custer was reported in the newspapers. Chicago’s Daily Inter Ocean reported the culmination of General Custer's demise as such:

The Yellow-haired Chief’s body was not respected by the savages, but horribly mutilated. The death-wound was given by a chief known as Rain-in-the-Face, who, after killing Custer, cut out his heart, elevated it on the point of his lance, and waved it aloft while his followers executed a war-dance around him. (qtd. in Clabaugh 43)

This is not the true account of what had happened, but exemplifies the exaggerated and vilified tone the depiction of the Native Americans received in the press. This tradition carried on until some newspapers began to change their attitudes about the Indians, the Lakota Sioux in particular, when the details of the events that occurred at Wounded Knee, 23 years later, became known.

The Ghost Dance religion had swept in from the west and seemed an answer to the Lakota's prayers. They embraced the Ghost Dance ritual taught by a Paiute shaman, Wokova, who believed practicing the ritual would reunite them with their departed loved ones, send the white men back to where they came, that the buffalo would return, and they could live in their traditional ways again. Upon witnessing this, the nearby Pine Ridge agency, manned by the US army, sent a message requesting protection and advising arrest of the Indian leaders in fear of an uprising brought on by the natives "going crazy" demonstrated by their wild dancing. It is arguable that the agency's men had already cultivated a biased opinion based on how the media portrayed the Indians: as a treacherous and fearsome adversary.

Troops were dispatched. Along with them were Lakota police officers who went into Sitting Bull's teepee and dragged him out to be arrested. During which time Sitting Bull's followers who had gathered around began to plead for their Chief. A shot was fired on the policemen and a gunfight ensued wherein Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a Lakota police officer, fulfilling a vision he had had of being killed by his own people.

The remaining group fled to join Chief Bigfoot at the Cheyenne River reservation. Bigfoot then led his group of about 350 men, women, and children to Pine Ridge under a white flag of surrender to try to reconcile. A group from the 7th cavalry along with Major Samuel Whitside was sent to intercept. Whitside then led the group to a spot near a creek called Wounded Knee where they received rations and camped for the night.

According to a diary that was found, an eyewitness gives insight into the Army's intentions:

After dark, the rest of the Seventh Cavalry quietly rode in from Pine Ridge Agency under their regimental commander. Col.

James Forsyth. Forsyth came with orders from General Brooke to disarm the Indians, to prevent their escape, and to destroy them if they chose to fight. After disarming the prisoners, they were to take them to the railroad at Rushville, Nebraska, for transport to Fort Omaha where they would be incarcerated. (Lathrop 255)

On that fateful wintry morning, the group was told to come to the center of camp where there would be a meeting and were instructed to surrender their guns, most of which had been given to them by the U.S. government. Colonel Forsyth was unhappy about what had been turned over and ordered the tepees and people to be searched for any more weapons.

A man named Black Coyote did not want to surrender his gun and when they tried to take it by force, it discharged and at that moment everything became a clamor of bullets and yelling and the women rushing around to protect the children. The men of the 7th cavalry began to fire upon the whole group with their sidearms and rifles. The Hotchkiss cannons placed upon the surrounding ridges fired at a rate of 100 bullets per minute and neither the Lakota, nor some of the US Army's own men, had a chance against the bombardment. Some of the unarmed Indians made it a few miles but were hunted down by men on horseback and were shot in the ravines they were hiding in and left there.

In less than an hour 250 Lakota Sioux and 25 troops had been struck down, including Chief Bigfoot. The survivors were carried away to an Episcopal church where they were treated for injuries and given blankets from the homes of the local people. This act of kindness must have been in stark contrast to their thoughts of the loved ones left to be frozen in their death and await proper burial. Several days later a mass grave was dug and the dead were buried in ceremony. At least 20 soldiers of the 7th cavalry received Medals of Honor.

The newspapers up until this time had portrayed the Sioux as savages, and undeserving of the land the European settlers wanted to expand territory into. The "white society" narrative may have attributed to the opinions of the Indians which fostered fear and racism in the minds of the public.

Initial reports of what happened at Wounded Knee praised the soldiers and held them as heroes but as details became known, some newspapers printed stories questioning the moral accountability within the military leadership and others took on a humanitarian perspective due to the unnecessary deaths of women and children.

Today, the media plays a large role in how we view particular stories, people, events, and topics. Some news outlets are corrupt and will push a group's agenda for the right price. They tend to downplay responsible gun ownership and show us a lot of irresponsible gun ownership. This could be viewed as an attempt to get the public to accept gun restrictions or even bans. The slippery slope envisioned by gun advocates is a scenario much like the Wounded Knee Massacre. Viewed as a weak argument because the Native American's weren't U.S. citizens, however, if the government sanctions actions that treat citizens as they are anything but, it is still a real possible outcome. A well-known quote from early 20th century philosopher George Santayana declares "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". (Flamm par. 1) Whether used as an example of what could happen or not, we should never forget what happened at Wounded Knee.

Works cited

Bill of rights institute. "Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791)." 8 Oct. 2016, billofrightsinstitute.org

Clabaugh, Erik K. "The Evolution of a Massacre in Newspaper Depictions of the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, 1876-1891". Atlanta Review of Journalism History 12. (2015): 38-64.

Flamm, Matthew Caleb. "George Santayana." Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. 8 Oct 2016, http://www.iep.utm.edu/santayan/

Lathrop, Alan K. "Another View of Wounded Knee." South Dakota History 16.3 (1986). South Dakota State Historical Society, 1987

Procon.org. "Gun Control ProCon.org." ProCon.org. 24 Sept 2016, gun-control.procon.org


Folio · 2017