On December 29, 1890, the US Army killed hundreds of unarmed members of the Lakota Sioux tribe, many of them women and children, at Wounded Knee Creek on Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota.
After one of the bloodiest acts of violence by American forces against Native Americans, the government investigated the behavior of Seventh Cavalry forces – and decided to award 20 Medals of Honor, the highest military distinction in the country, to the soldiers involved in the massacre.
Now members of the tribe are stepping up a long-running pressure campaign to overturn these medals, saying the government should recognize the atrocities for what it was and take a step that could help heal the historic wounds of that day.
You recently received support from the South Dakota Senate, the passed a resolution in February – calling on Congress to investigate the award of the medals. On Capitol Hill, supporters of the effort, led by Senators Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley from Oregon, both Democrats, are hoping for it make a new boost On behalf of the legislation they sponsor, the Remove the Stain Bill to remove the medals.
“I think we have an omnipresent sadness because of our reservation that is here because of the Wounded Knee massacre, the massacre. It was never resolved and it was never closed,” said Marcella Lebeau, a citizen of the Two Kettle Band, Cheyenne River Sioux.
Ms. Lebeau, a 101-year-old veteran who served as a surgical nurse near the front lines at the 25th General Hospital in Liege, Belgium and later worked for the Indian Health Service, urges medals to be lifted, among other things. Ms. Lebeau said she was particularly concerned that men who slaughtered women and children were being awarded the most prestigious military award in the country.
Many of the award quotations indicated “gallant behavior in combat” and “excellent” or “conspicuous” bravery, while few details were documented to justify these characterizations.
To date, the nation has awarded more than 3,500 Medals of Honor, including approximately 400 to soldiers who fought against Indians during campaigns. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, about 900 awards were canceled, most for awards given during the Civil War. However, no medals were revoked for service in the Indian campaigns.
Troy Heinert, a Democrat serving in the South Dakota Senate, supported the resolution calling for a Congressional investigation. Mr. Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said Congress and the Biden government owed it to Native Americans to take a closer look at the medals worn by the soldiers involved in the massacre. The resolution was passed unanimously in a deeply republican state.
The medals for service in the U.S. Army’s Indian War campaigns are part of the country’s history, where divisive figures were celebrated as heroes, Heinert said. Many of the medals awarded during this period related to violent acts by white settlers and the federal government against Indians as they tried to occupy more of the south and west.
The decade-long drive to repeal the medals gained new impetus last year in a broader national wave of reckoning on historical and systemic racism. Confederate monuments fell, military support efforts to rename military bases in southern states that now honor Confederate generals, and protesters holding large-scale protests against the police murder of black men and women.
“The US government has done everything to exterminate and assimilate the indigenous people in our country,” said Heinert. “Our ancestors fought and died to preserve our language, tradition and ceremonies, and I think the climate has put us in a space and time that allows us to have an open conversation about public order and on what it means to be native to this country. “
Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the urge to keep the medals responded to the wishes of the elders, whose calls have gone unheard for generations. Mr. Killer said it was important for future generations to know that an injustice has been addressed.
“It was one of the greatest atrocities in the history of this country, in which mainly women and children were massacred for trying to have peace,” said Killer. “The story tries to retell it and say that there was a misunderstanding, but it was an atrocity from how you look at it.”
Bernardo Rodriguez, a representative of the tribal council of the Wounded Knee District of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the tragedy was commemorated each day by a memorial to the community – and that the government has cracked down on the medals for more than 100 years, overdue.
“We’ve been pushed, pulled, put aside and treated like second-class citizens since day 1 and got no chance,” said Rodriguez. “I want you to know and understand that this is the same as giving the Auschwitz Nazis a Medal of Honor.”
Despite some bipartisan support for the lifting of the medals, it is not clear whether Congress or the Biden government could act on the matter. The Medal of Honor is awarded by the Presidents but can be revoked by Congress.
Representative Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, said in a statement that Congress understood that it was a mistake to award the medal to those who participated in the massacre. Mr Johnson’s statement said he asked the Army to open a formal review in 2019, but was told that only the President had authority to do so.
In 1990, Native American descendants who were killed and injured in the wounded knee massacre received an apology from Congress after lawmakers passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” at the army’s actions.
The resolution provided no redress for the descendants or declared the remote site a national monument, as the Wounded Knee Survivors Association had requested.
“This was a sin of our nation and the United States Congress has formally apologized. That won’t make the massacre go away, but it is these reconciliation efforts that I believe can help heal the heart and mind and allow it to move forward, ”said Johnson.
“Today’s Medal of Honor recipients are of an enormously higher standard,” he said. “Our history painfully shows that the United States did not have the same standards in 1890.”
In 2019, Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, said he thought Wounded Knee was more of a massacre than a battle, but was also against changing medal recommendations.
His office did not respond to a request for comment. South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem also failed to respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Warren’s office said the bill remains a priority for her, and she and a number of Democratic sponsors have reintroduced it in both the House and Senate for current Congress to consider.