Wounded Knee, 1890: The Sacred Hoop Is Broken

custers last stand AB

Battle of Little Big Horn

Between 1870 and 1890, the number of buffalo on the Great Plains dropped from fifty million to eight hundred.

-Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee


Big Foot, hearing about Sitting Bull’s death, begins to move his tribe to the Pine Ridge Reservation for safety. The tribe has grown because many homeless widows have joined it recently. It is December, cold and snowing. They meet the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old outfit, who order them to camp at the place called Wounded Knee.  Sleeping on both sides that night are survivors from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Over the Minneconjou Sioux camp flies the white flag. When they awake the next morning the Seventh Cavalry has them surrounded and there are four Hotchkiss guns peering down from a nearby hill. The Minneconjou surrender their weapons and place them in the center of the camp. Not satisfied, the troops search for more and find two rifles. In the ensuing confiscation, a gun goes off. Suddenly an explosion cracks through the shallow valley. The troops open fire. Within seconds dozens of unarmed Sioux are dead. Defenseless, many of the Sioux try to flee. The big Hotchkiss guns open fire. Shells tear through the camp at the rate of almost one a second, shredding tepees and human flesh.  Flying shrapnel does not discriminate between men, women, and children. We tried to run but they shot us like we were buffalo. Some say the Seventh Cavalry killed three hundred. One hundred fifty-three bodies are found soon afterward on the site. Many more crawl off to die in the snow. Twenty-five soldiers are killed, mostly by their own bullets or shrapnel.

A few hours later Black Elk, a leading Oglala Sioux medicine man, arrives to find many bodies, including that of Big Foot, frozen into grotesque shapes. Decades later Black Elk describes what he saw:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream…

The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.

Wagonloads of wounded Sioux, mostly women and children, reach Pine Ridge reservation after dark.  The army leaves in the open cold for hours because the army is living in the barracks. Finally the Episcopal Church offers to take them in. It is December 29; Christmas decorations still adorn the church. Just above the pulpit is a crudely lettered banner:




Eighteen U.S. cavalrymen receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions at Wounded Knee. The United States is two years shy of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ invasion: four hundred years of a massive assault by mostly white Europeans against the forests, animals, and people that have lived there for millennia; four hundred years of constant resistance as the native peoples defend their lives, culture, and land. It takes four hundred years to break the sacred hoop.

-Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 351; Bill Zimmerman, Airlift to Wounded Knee, 48


See additional sources at:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876

Exploring The West

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