Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Wounded Knee, 1890: Historical Evidence on Trial in the Classroom

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Wounded Knee, 1890: Historical Evidence on Trial in the Classroom

Article excerpt

On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry of the United States Army killed approximately 300 Sioux Indians near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The Army had come to disarm and detain the Sioux in order to suppress the unrest associated with an emerging religious movement known as the Ghost Dance. While the soldiers were disarming the Sioux and separating the men from the women and children, a shot was fired. In the chaos that followed, soldiers gunned down and stabbed Sioux men, women, and children. Some who did not die instantly crawled away only to freeze to death in the coming blizzard. The day's bloodshed not only represented a tragic defeat for the Sioux, but also the definitive conquest of the American West by the U.S. Army. While Indian resistance would reemerge (and native population would increase dramatically) in the next century, the incident at Wounded Knee marked a turning point in American history.

Studying the incident at Wounded Knee in a high school or college history class offers an excellent opportunity for students to understand not only important historical content but also essential historical skills. The documentary evidence related to Wounded Knee provides diverse and conflicting perspectives and compels students to analyze and interpret evidence just as professional historians do. Instead of receiving a straightforward textbook description of the incident at Wounded Knee, students confront the historical record to construct their own interpretation of historical cause and effect. To make the use of primary sources an explicit and self-conscious part of the curriculum, I have designed and implemented a mock trial in which students participate as attorneys, witnesses, and members of the jury in a collective effort to interpret history. Students make use of primary source materials in order to conduct a "trial" of the U.S. Army for the murder of 300 Sioux Indians. Each time this mock trial has been performed in my classes, students' interpretation of evidence and the jury's verdict have varied, and students have learned that our national history is more than a compendium of facts--that it is also a story we tell about ourselves that remains subject to revision and reinterpretation. It is in constructing such stories that we discover ourselves in both the past and present.


The incident at Wounded Knee--whether described as "battle" or "massacre"--was the tragic consequence of cultural, economic, and military conflict between the U.S. Army and the Sioux Indians dating back to the 1860s. The story of this conflict is not only historically rich in its own right, but also provides a dramatic lens through which to study U.S.-Indian relations in the nineteenth century.

In the late 1860s, the Sioux leader Red Cloud successfully led the resistance to white encroachment in the territory of the Powder River. The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 formalized the peace settlement between Red Cloud and the U.S. Army and assured the Sioux rights to extensive territory on the "Great Sioux Reservation." Red Cloud's victory was brief, and the terms of the treaty would be consistently and violently contested over the next several decades.

The language of the Treaty of 1868 was clear: "No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without the consent of the Indians to pass through the same." Yet General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry defied the treaty in 1875 by passing through the Black Hills in search of gold. The allure of gold led the U.S. government to reconsider its commitment to the Treaty of 1868, and Indian agents were dispatched to the Black Hills to convince the Sioux to sell their land. The continuing conflicts over Sioux territory led to the famous Battle of Little Bighorn, where Crazy Horse and myriad bands of Sioux annihilated Custer and his soldiers in 1876. Angered by defeat, the U. …

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