To be awarded a Medal of Honor in the United States, a person must display “great personal bravery or self-sacrifice.” For the past 129 years, that stipulation has effectively included the mindless slaughter of Indigenous people.
On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, and Republican Rep. Paul Cook of California will introduce legislation to formally retract the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry following the 1890 slaughter of 300 peaceful Miniconjou Lakota and Hunkpapa Lakota men, women, and children located on a peaceful encampment on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The announcement comes on the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Greasy Grass, also known as the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became one of the first two Native women to be elected to Congress last November. In the time since, she’s championed Indigenous-focused legislation in a manner previously nonexistent in D.C., including bills on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Crisis and the leasing of tribal land to oil, gas, and mining corporations.
When reached for comment, her communications director passed along comments Haaland prepared for a press conference unveiling the bill on Tuesday morning:
“I believe the introduction of this bill today shows the continued work and strength of the Native American people who have fought for over a century for the United States to acknowledge the genocide of our people that has taken place on this soil. It has been a privilege and an honor to help serve to raise the visibility of Native American communities, our culture, and our heritage because we remain strong through massacres like this one that we are addressing today. I am proud of the strength and resilience that each of you represent here today and hope that we continue to pass these stories to the younger generations who will carry this strength forward.”
The Wounded Knee Massacre unfolded on Dec. 29, 1890. The U.S. forces of Major Samuel Whiteside and Colonel James Forsyth, boasting nearly 500 men and four Hotchkiss guns, had rounded up the Lakota people and moved them to the Wounded Knee Creek area, where the Lakota remained peaceful. But a misfired gun by one of the Lakota men was all the impetus U.S. forces needed to open fire and initiate a slaughter.
Three hundred Lakota Sioux were killed and subsequently dumped in mass graves; the majority of the 25 U.S. casualties came from friendly fire. Even today, the U.S.-inflicted tragedy remains one of the worst massacres in American history.
In the immediate aftermath, the massacre was heinously praised by Americans as a necessary and crucial military victory, including by eventual The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author and then-newspaper editor Frank Baum (his descendants apologized to the Sioux for the following editorial in 2006):
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”
The campaign to rescind the Wounded Knee medals has waged for decades. In 1990, on the centennial of the war crime, Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the United States’ actions. But even then, the action was largely symbolic, as it did not provide reparations for the descendants or declare the site a national monument as requested by a survivors group at the time. In 1996, an online campaign regarding the medals resulted in Sen. John McCain offering the following ahistorical, half-hearted response (emphasis mine):
The policies and decisions of the United States Government that led to the Army’s being at Wounded Knee in 1890 doubtless can be characterized as unjust, unwise, or worse. Nevertheless, a retrospective judgement that the Government’s policies and actions were dishonorable does not warrant rescinding the medals awarded to individual soldiers for bravery in a brief, fierce fight in which 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded. Neither today’s standards for awarding the medal nor policies of the United States with regard to Indian tribes are what they were in 1890.
In 2007, the National Congress of American Indians issued a resolution calling for the revocation of the medals and requesting that the event be referred to properly as a massacre and not a battle.
Calvin Spotted Elk, a direct descendant of Miniconjou Lakota Chief Spotted Elk—who was killed during the massacre while waving a white flag of surrender—spoke with HuffPost in 2013 and explained why the rescission of the medals is so crucial for those living in South Dakota, and United States citizens as a whole.
“In South Dakota there are people who still believe that what happened at Wounded Knee was a ‘battle’ and not a slaughter,” Calvin told HuffPost. “There are kids in school who are still taught these lies today. This isn’t ancient history in the west, it informs people’s daily lives, and it makes truthful and peaceful reconciliation that much more difficult.”
Given President Donald Trump invoked the massacre five months ago in order to land a cheap racist potshot against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the expectation that the Remove the Stain Act will pass on its first attempt seems dubious at best. But that we’ve finally got members of Congress looking to act on behalf of the victims is a step in the right direction.
Two groups, the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre Descendants Society and Four Directions, are in D.C. today to support the bill and bring attention to the movement. Among them will be 99-year-old Marcella LeBeau, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who was awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest military award in France, for her service as a nurse on D-Day.
LeBeau spoke to Rapid City, SD-based TV station KOTA about the decades-long fight to deliver justice to the victims of the massacre. “I think it’s wonderful to have this kind of support and we’ve had this support all along,” LeBeau told KOTA. “And we’ve been trying in many different ways to bring about this horrible event to the public so that people know what happened there.”