The standard story of Wounded Knee makes the massacre out to be a sort of footnote to Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 1876 battle that the Sioux called the Battle of the Greasy Grass and that many call Custer's Last Stand. It says that soldiers were still angry at the Sioux for wiping out Custer and his Seventh Cavalry and they yearned for revenge. Their opportunity came on the morning of December 29, 1890, when soldiers from the rebuilt Seventh Cavalry attacked a party of Sioux who may or may not have been threatening the soldiers (depending on which story you hear), and then hunted down and murdered the whole band.
It is a story of racism, greed, and revenge. It blames the massacre on soldiers, who, it was later reported, were yelling "Remember Custer!" as they hunted down fleeing women and their babies.
This is an appealing story. The bad guys are bloodthirsty soldiers, individuals carrying the weight of an old grudge. The event is isolated, somewhere out there on the frontier. And right-thinking modern day Americans can stand aghast at this version of what happened at Wounded Knee and either mourn the nation's treatment of Indians or indignantly condemn the soldiers.
But it struck me that the story was just too neat. Some critical information was clearly missing: Who ordered the soldiers into South Dakota in the first place? And why?
The first question was easy to answer. The president in 1890 was Benjamin Harrison, one of those bland, bearded late-19th-century politicians none of us can tell apart. But the who, in this case, makes the why much more complicated.
Harrison was one of three American presidents to gain the White House through the operation of the Electoral College after losing the popular vote — in Harrison's case by about 100,000 votes. Although he was a pious man who believed that God had given him the presidency, a campaign manager complained that his operators risked prison to win the election. Harrison was the candidate of big businessmen, who poured a fortune into his corrupt campaign.
So why had Harrison sent troops to South Dakota in 1890?
My first inclination was to assume that the Sioux — after all, some of the best fighters on this continent — had been a true military threat, and that Harrison had called in a company or two to protect settlers. It took very little research to disabuse me of that idea. In fact, there were no lives lost and no property threatened before troops went into South Dakota. No settlers complained to authorities that they were frightened, no editorials foretold a brewing danger. And yet, when Harrison sent in the troops, I discovered, he didn't send in a few companies to keep the peace; he sent in a full third of the U.S. Army. What on earth had prompted him to send 9,000 men to South Dakota on the cusp of a Plains winter?
To find the answer, I buried myself in contemporary newspapers and the Benjamin Harrison papers. The story that emerged was one of politics and power and the use of fear to control both.
President Harrison was a weak man, controlled by a faction of the Republican Party that was determined to hold onto power at all cost. They were staunchly in favor of economic growth and believed that the government must aggressively promote business. By 1890, though, they were under siege. The industrial system had created rich "robber barons" who built Newport mansions and threw fabulous parties while factory workers stoked fires and slaughtered pigs for pennies in cities fouled by chemical pits and rotting garbage. By 1890, increasing numbers of Americans had begun to believe that government must end its cozy relationship with business and begin to regulate factories and clean up cities for the good of hard-working Americans.
Harrison Republicans screeched that regulating business to protect workers and rein in industrial pollution was socialism, and that it would destroy America. They warned Americans that they, alone, understood what was good for the country. They were determined to stop their opponents from taking power.
Harrison's men realized that they would probably lose the 1892 presidential election unless they changed its terms. So in 1889 and 1890 they admitted six new western states to the Union. They thought that the new states would send Republicans to the Senate — two each, giving the Republicans a safe majority of 12. This also changed the number of votes in the Electoral College, making it easier for a Republican to win the presidency the same way Harrison had.
But in the midterm election, held early in November 1890, Democrats hammered Republicans. They lost the House by a margin of two to one, and held the Senate by only four seats. Three of those seats, though, were held by senators who had begun to vote against the administration's pro-business measures. To protect the administration's pro-business program, Republicans had to control the one remaining Senate seat.
That seat was from South Dakota.
On November 14, President Harrison sent in the troops. And six weeks later, when they tried to disarm a surrendering band of Sioux, a gun went off. The soldiers fired a volley that mowed down both Indians and their own men. Then, over the next several hours, soldiers hunted down and murdered any Indian they could find.
Through many unenviable hours in the Benjamin Harrison papers, it seemed I had figured out the why.
But as I wrote down the sordid account, I discovered that why was not the only question I wanted to answer. I began to wonder: Whose fault was it? Early historians had blamed the Indians. According to them, the Sioux had embraced a militant religious movement that promised to bring back the game that had left when settlers came. Then they had run away from the soldiers and finally provoked the troops to fire.
Could it really have been the Indians' fault? After the Civil War, the army had pushed the Sioux off most of their land. Then, in their desperate drive to create western states, Harrison's men took half of the tribe's remaining land and opened it for settlement. By 1890, the Sioux were starving. Surely, turning to a religious movement to find hope was natural. And equally as surely, a historian could hardly fault them for running away from troops after all they had suffered at the hands of soldiers.
Was it, then, the fault of the military? Army officers, almost to a man, opposed sending the troops to South Dakota. Instead, they begged politicians in Washington to feed the starving Indians and to pay them for their lands. The soldiers certainly pulled the triggers, and one participant claimed to have scalped a victim. But the troops had not wanted to be in South Dakota in December. They were cold and frightened and eager to go back to their home bases. Was it fair to blame them alone?
President Harrison deployed the soldiers, and undoubtedly a good deal of the responsibility for the massacre lies with him. But he was a weak man, handled by his advisers. He let his people push pro-business policies however they saw fit. They did so by insisting that they alone knew what was good for America and that their opponents were un-American. To them, business growth alone mattered, and anyone who wanted the government to protect working Americans from the ravages of unfettered industrialism was a dangerous socialist. Convinced they were right, Harrison's men rejected the criticism not only of Democrats and Alliance men, but also of moderate Republicans who balked at their tactics.
But rhetoric was not enough. Determined to hold onto power as voters turned against them, administration men took Sioux land to make the new state of South Dakota then used a Sioux religious revival as an excuse to deploy troops to guarantee the state sent Republican senators to Congress.
They had the power to do all those things because they had been given it.
Ultimately, I concluded that blame for what happened at Wounded Knee lies not with the Indians, and not primarily with the soldiers or even with the hapless Harrison. It lies with Americans who in 1888 put into office politicians spouting extreme political rhetoric to get elected, politicians who would stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power.
This version of what happened at Wounded Knee is not nearly as tidy as the old one. No longer are the villains in the piece a few bloodthirsty soldiers, and no longer is the massacre isolated on the distant frontier. Now the perpetrators of the Sioux deaths in 1890 are American voters who rewarded the hyperbolic rhetoric of unprincipled politicians. And the massacre is no longer distant. Far from being a footnote to greater battles, it is a monumental story of American politics at its worst.