Understanding Wounded Knee

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13151

If you hear or read the phrase "The Battle of Wounded Knee," correct the speaker or writer. Wounded Knee was not a battle. It was a massacre, and surely one of the saddest events in Native history.


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What was the cause of this massacre?

Years of tension, of course: broken treaties, battles, deaths on both sides. For the Native Americans, the loss of their land and their culture, sorrow, and near-starvation on the reservations. For the White man, fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding.

And then there was a dance.

For the Native Americans, it was a dance of hope.

But to the American government, it was a dance of defiance.

Watch Ghost Dance Wounded Knee from Jamarrius Hassell:

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On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army killed between 150 and 300 Native American men, women, and children, and wounded 51 near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The Ghost Dance was one of the reasons this tragic event came to pass.

Sioux Ghost Dance

Image by James P. Boyd, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • What was the Ghost Dance, and why was it so controversial?

A Native American prophet named Wovoka said he saw a vision which showed him that performing the Ghost Dance would bring back to life dead relatives, make the White men go away, and bring back the buffalo.

This message spread to other Native tribes, many of whom spoke a different language from Wovoka's, and they took the message differently. They saw it as a chance to fight against the reservation system and return to their lands.

Some even believed that, if they wore certain Ghost Dance shirts, it would protect them from the White man's bullets.

Settlers became worried about all the bands of Natives doing the Ghost Dance. They thought it was the beginning of another war. Some Indian agents -- men who worked for the government and dealt with the Native tribes -- also began to worry.

One Indian agent sent police to arrest Sitting Bull, the famous chief of the Lakota, thinking he was part of the Ghost Dance movement. In reality, he wasn't. The arrest went wrong, and Sitting Bull was shot and killed.

Sitting Bull's attempted arrest -- and death -- worried other Native leaders. Would they be arrested -- and perhaps killed -- too?

They began to gather together with Red Cloud, another Sioux leader. This, in turn, worried the government agents and military leaders. Were the Native tribes on the warpath again?

As you watch the video clip below to learn more about these events, write down some notes about the following:

  • What was the Ghost Dance like?
  • Why was "the White man" afraid of the Ghost Dance?
  • What were the reservations like?
  • Who was Bigfoot (also known as Spotted Elk)?
  • Who was Red Cloud?
  • Who was Dewie Beard?

Episode 1: Wounded Knee Legacy and the Ancestors; 2: Mexico (45:10) 500 Nations from andi burridge:

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Bigfoot became ill on the trip to visit Red Cloud and was not really a threat to anyone. He was known as a peaceful man who often negotiated between differing groups and brought peace between them. He made camp where the soldiers ordered him and put up a white flag of truce.

Reports from eyewitnesses say that, when the Lakota were asked to lay down their weapons, they did so. But when one man, a deaf man named Black Coyote, was confronted with the demand, he either refused or didn't understand. The soldiers began to push him around, a gun went off, and the massacre started.

Watch the following clip from the movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to see a dramatic presentation of the event.

Clip of Wounded Knee Massacre from the HBO film from Ammari:

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  • What went wrong here?
  • Why did the soldiers chase down and kill fleeing women and children?

No one really knows. Some historians suspect that many of the men in the Cavalry unit were terribly angry about the defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876 (see Related Lesson in the right-hand sidebar).

Read this account by Private Hugh McGinnis, First Battalion, 7th Cavalry:

"Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life?...As I see it the battle was more or less a matter of spontaneous combustion, sparked by mutual distrust "

~ The American Soldier, 1866 - 1916: The Enlisted Man and the Transformation of the United States Army by John A. Haymond

Bigfoot (Spotted Elk), along with 150 to 300 of his people, died at Wounded Knee. It was a cold winter day, and the bodies froze on the ground.

Bigfoot lies dead in the snow

Image from Northwest Photo Co., via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Another very sad episode in Native American history, but one we can learn from as well.

  • What can we learn?

Think about that, and in the Go! section, you'll be asked to suggest what could have been done to prevent this tragedy!

But for now, move on to the Got It? page, where you'll gather facts to prove that Wounded Knee was a massacre and not a battle.

You'll also write a caption to an old photograph of soldiers from Wounded Knee!

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