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The 120th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre should serve as a reminder of the U.S. government’s brutal war on American Indians.
On the morning of Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. 7th Calvary attacked a Lakota community camped along Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Soldiers indiscriminately shot the Lakota, killing at least 150. Most of them were women and children. About 30 soldiers also died, some from friendly fire.
Many historians consider this bloodbath to be the sad endpoint of the Indian Wars. To make way for the white conquest of the West, the U.S. army subjugated the Indian nations, and Congress forced them into giving up most of their lands through coerced treaties. But America’s failure to live up to its end of the bargain— food, clothing and other provisions — led to great Indian unrest.
By the turn of the 20th century,. the West was secured for white settlers. Indian tribes were, for the most part, demoralized and forgotten.
But the Indian Wars did not end on the frozen banks of Wounded Knee Creek. America continued its efforts to subdue the Indian with new strategies.
A policy of privatizing Indian property allowed for increased white land-grabbing. Tribes lost millions of acreage. The oppressive practice of sending Indian kids off to white boarding schools remained in effect. Thousands of Indian children were removed from their homes and shipped off to military-style schools designed to “kill the Indian, but save the man.”
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower signed legislation aimed at dismantling the tribal reservation system. “Indian termination” cut off treaty-based provisions such as health care and other critical services to tribes like the Menominee, Klamath and Potawatomi.
In the mid-1970s, Congress finally shredded the Indian termination policy — allowing tribes to reclaim nationhood.
In recent decades, tribes have reasserted themselves.
They have called on the nation’s courts to force the federal government into upholding treaty rights, and the courts have largely done so.
Tribes have demanded an end to corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal institution charged with funding and overseeing services to tribes, and this has led to measurable reform.
And on the cultural and spiritual front, American Indians are reviving their languages, customs and religions, which Washington once outlawed.
But Washington has yet to set the historical record straight.
In the days that followed the massacre at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army awarded medals of honor to twenty of their soldiers. Indians have urged the federal government to strip away those medals. But the government not only refuses to withdraw the medals; it also refuses to apologize for the genocide it inflicted.
To the American Indian that means only one thing: the Indian Wars are far from over.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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