Why is the Battle of Wounded Knee not well known in American history?

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jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

The answer is that well-worn but accurate adage, "history is written by the victors."  The treatment of Native Americans, as Brown so vividly depicts, is not a very palatable episode in the history of the United States. 

The Sioux Tribe were to be relocated to a reservation by force but they refused to give up.  The resulting battle, known as the Massacre of Wounded Knee (1890) left over 300 men, women, and children dead. 

Broken treaties, mistreatment, and ghettoization of Native Americans has been the norm.  Chief Joseph, one of the Lakota Sioux whose words Brown captures in his text, explains the discontent and dismay of his people.  He writes:

“I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises…. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. …I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.”

Along with slavery, the treatement of Native Americans remains one of the most closeted and uneasy subjects in our nation's history. 

kobrakai7474's profile pic

kobrakai7474 | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted on

First and foremost, I must correct something said above.  The poigniant words quoted above ARE from Chief Joseph but he was a Nez Perce Indian not a Lakota.   Regardless, his words are relevant here.  I just wanted to make sure they were correctly cited.

As for the reasons why the Battle of Wounded Knee is not well known in American History, I think we first need to be clear about what happened at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890.  It was not a "battle" by any reasonable (or unreasonable) definition of the word.  It was a massacre.  American troops stationed on high ground and armed with artillery and automatic weapons (yes, MACHINE GUNS!) opened fire on an unruly crowd of unarmed native Americans in the valley below.  Then, for those unlucky enough to be wounded but survive the "fighting", they left the survivors to freeze to death.  There was no effort by the indians to fight back in any way, shape or form, and, even if they had, they couldn't have hoped to accomplish anything.  Even by the anti-native standards of the day, such an event was difficult to cover up. Oh sure, the army called it a "battle" and most newspapers even followed suit, but nobody could look at the endless pictures of unarmed old men frozen where they fell, to see anything else.  Since it was never going to be a glorious feat of American arms, it was languished to the back pages of most history books (even Mr. Brown's brilliant work) and usually only discussed because it makes a good bookend for the end of "taming of the old west".         

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