Stalled legislation would strip Army of medals for its involvement in Wounded Knee

Remove the Stain Act in Congress would help correct historical record, experts, sponsors say

By: - April 6, 2022 4:15 am
Wounded Knee battle

Big Foot’s camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Most folks living in Montana know the name Wounded Knee.

They may be familiar with the massacre of 250 to 300 Native Americans that were slaughtered in South Dakota in the last days of 1890. Or maybe they’re familiar with the seminal history by Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” an account of many Western “Indian Wars.”

Histories have been written and rewritten to describe those events, or analyze what happened – down to the triggering event, the Ghost Dance and a failure on the government’s part to give adequate provisions, that set off the bloodbath that saw mostly cold, starving and disarmed Natives gunned down.

In the aftermath of Wounded Knee, what has since traditionally marked the end of full-scale battles in the West, U.S. Army soldiers were decorated for their actions on the battlefield, with 20 men receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, at the time, the highest award given to U.S. soldiers.

Now, a stalled effort in Congress would strip the soldiers of the honor in an attempt to reframe the federal government’s position on the issue. The Remove the Stain Act is being sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Kaiali’I Kahele, D-Hawaii.

Wounded Knee Medal of Honor recipients could be reconsidered 

Since 1916, the federal government has removed more than 900 recipients from the Medal of Honor rolls. Last year, the South Dakota Senate unanimously adopted a resolution to investigate and possibly rescind the medals.

Neither of Montana’s senators has taken a position on the legislation.

Professor Wade Davies at the University of Montana teaches Native American studies and said while Wounded Knee isn’t a subject on many white students’ minds, it’s still a galvanizing event, referenced by many indigenous students.

“It’s a major infamous event and one of the most remembered in Native and non-Native relations,” Davies said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t argue it was a massacre by the Army.”

Davies said the historical record is clear: The Lakota were disarmed and trying to move away from, not toward the Army.

“This was not a larger part of a military strategy. What touched it off remains unclear and it’s unclear what orders were given, no one knew what was going on and then an indiscriminate slaughter. American troops died as part of the senselessness,” Davies said.

Thirty one soldiers died and 39 were injured in the event.

Davies said Wounded Knee is worthy of reconsideration because of the high number of medals given for that one engagement, 20.

“Look at all the deeds of honor for World War II, or Korea or Vietnam – how many of those soldiers received it,” he asked. “It’s presented sometimes as a battle or a fight, but it wasn’t. The Army clearly exceeded its orders.”

Davies said the battle cannot be separated from the historical context. While Natives were slaughtered, there was a panic fueled by rumors of tribes throughout the West who would use the nascent Ghost Dance movement to rise up and rebel against the Army. Though that belief has been largely debunked, Davies said many in the government didn’t learn more about the beliefs stemming from the holy man, Wovoka.

“It wasn’t really very well understood then and even now it’s not,” Davies said.

Crop failures, a decimated food source (bison) and shrinking land also led to desperation for tribes who were literally starving to death.

“This doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Davies said. “The Lakota have a particular reason to be desperate. The bison herds are near extinction and this is a tribe that’s heavily reliant on that relationship. And, they had lost the Black Hills – their spiritual center – because of gold.

“At that point, they had suffered numerous defeats and not many there would have counseled war against the U.S. Army. The Army was not a mystery to them in terms of what it could do.”

The “Remove the Stain Act” has the endorsement of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, the National Congress of American Indians, and many other groups.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.