Wes Dodson | University of Texas
29 December 2018; the kind of cold that transforms any injury into stinging anguish. An estimated 350 members of the Lakota Sioux under chief Spotted Elk awoke to a skyline parapeted by four Hotchkiss light artillery guns, and as many as 500 U.S. 7th Cavalry troops under Colonel James Forsyth. A day previous the Lakota Sioux had surrendered and been shepherded by the 7th Cavalry into a camp near Wounded Knee Creek, where the slight gradient of Cemetery Hill offered the Hotchkiss guns a commanding over-watch.
With the Lakota Sioux surrounded, cavalrymen ventured into the camp under orders to arrest Spotted Elk and disarm the Lakota. In the ensuant attempt by the soldiers to disarm the combined Miniconjou-Hunkpapa band, a rifle discharged. Taking the shot as a sign of resistance, the soldiers, and accompanying Hotchkiss battery, opened fire on the men nearest the rifle report. American Horse, an Oglala Lakota chief associated with the American government, relays the encounter, saying:
“The men were separated, as has already been said, from the women, and they were surrounded by the soldiers. Then came next the village of the Indians and that was entirely surrounded by the soldiers also. When the firing began, of course the people who were standing immediately around the young man who fired the first shot were killed right together, and then they turned their guns, Hotchkill guns, etc., upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled, the men fleeing in one direction and the women running in two different directions. So that there were three general directions in which they took flight.
There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”
Estimates of Lakota dead range from 150-300 out of the initial 350. Native American wounded were left to expire in the blizzard conditions of the next three days and eventually buried in a mass grave. U.S. dead were between 25-31 out of 500.
Interpretations of the encounter vary. Unsurprisingly, the event was initially classified by the American government as a battle; in 1891 President Harrison awarded twenty Congressional Medals of Honor to U.S. 7th Cavalry soldiers for their participation. Historians were slow to amend this chronicle. In 1970, author Dee Brown begins to re-shape the narrative with her seminal historical overview of Native American-U.S. relations, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The modern, and in my opinion accurate, historical understanding of Wounded Knee is as an unjustified, and avoidable, massacre.
Wounded Knee, however, also falls into a very specific classification of massacre. Soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry were likely armed with a combination of single-shot breech-loading Springfield rifles and single-action revolvers; they were supported by four Hotchkiss light-artillery cannons. In an effort to confiscate firearms from a minority population, U.S. soldiers ended the epoch of Native American resistance, the lives of hundreds, and perpetrated one of the worst mass shootings in American history. The Bear River Massacre in which upwards of 400 of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone were slaughtered, is considered the worst.
In light of the magnitude of carnage at Wounded Knee and Bear River, one might expect the conversation about mass murder events involving firearms to center on majority/minority relations. Recently, however, the conversation surrounding mass shootings, a nebulous term with conflicting definitions, has focused on only one specific iteration of mass murder by firearm: the “lone wolf” shooter.
This kind of mass shooting is characterized by: a single shooter (occasionally a pair of shooters), four or more dead (looser definitions prefer four or more injured), and the motives are typically unclear or irrational (looser definitions include more obvious motives such as gang shootings). Using the narrower of the definitions, the Washington Post lists American deaths from mass shootings at 1,081.
Focusing on the “lone wolf” shooter is helpful to an extent. Modern mass casualty events involving firearms are uniquely susceptible to the contagion effect, wherein the events occur in a cluster pattern, indicating that shooters inspire other shooters to some degree. This could be due to technology that allows the shooters to reach massive audiences with their actions, thus inspiring others to seek similar notoriety.
However, the usefulness of the current conversation ends with that insight. A singular focus on “lone wolf” shooters obfuscates the actual most deadly use of firearms in mass murder events: majority groups, which typically outnumber and outgun their victims (largely due to government disarmament policies), perpetrating mass slaughter against minority groups, typically with little or no recourse from the government (routinely because the government is behind the rifle).
When looking for evidence that this is true, American observers needn’t even venture to the oft-cited mass graves of Germany or Russia. Wounded Knee and Bear River are two of a spate of massacres that the government perpetrated against minority Native American populations. The East St. Louis and Colfax massacres involved white non-government actors in the slaughter of at least 100 African Americans. When taken as a whole, the number of minority group members slaughtered by majority actors in American history is larger than the 1,081 number cited by the Washington Post.
Discussions about mass shootings in modern U.S. history are useful, but obscure the deeply American history of the tensions between majority and minority groups erupting into violence. This history is obviously germane to a conversation that could create a new minority-majority divide: that of the armed against the unarmed. For those who wish to limit the scope of the conversation to the “lone wolf” shooter, a justification for excluding pre-1960 American history as data pertinent to the gun control conversation is required. “It happened a long time ago” is not sufficient. History does not begin where it most convenient for your narrative.