Native American groups are asking Congress to rescind 20 Medals of Honor bestowed on American troops who massacred hundreds of women and children at Wounded Knee Creek more than a century ago.
Reps. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Paul Cook (R-Calif.) on Tuesday will introduce legislation that would formally take back the medals awarded to members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry division after the 1890 massacre, in which as many as 300 unarmed Native Americans were killed. An estimated 200 of those killed were women and children.
“This isn’t an Indian issue. This is an American issue,” said Oliver Semans, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe who heads the Native American voting rights group Four Directions.
The group has asked President Trump to rescind the medals on his own. It has also asked 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to pledge to do so if they are elected. Several Native American groups, including tribal associations that cover territory in Iowa, will host a candidates forum in August in Sioux City.
Heck, the bill’s lead sponsor, said rescinding the awards would do more to honor those who have earned them for legitimate reasons. Only 23 service members have earned the Medal of Honor during the global war on terror, which has lasted for 18 years — just three more than the number of recipients from Wounded Knee, which may have lasted a matter of minutes.
“The Native Americans were outnumbered and outgunned. The U.S. soldiers had what constituted automatic weapons of the day, four of them as a matter of fact,” Heck told The Hill. “I think this would go a long way in helping there to be healing.”
Heck said the co-sponsors would begin promoting the bill after it is introduced. One potential avenue is to include it in the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The bipartisan bill does not yet have a Senate sponsor.
“The Medal of Honor is our highest and most prestigious military decoration, reserved for service members who perform acts of tremendous valor. By allowing twenty individuals to retain Medals of Honor for the massacre at Wounded Knee, we dishonor every deserving Medal of Honor recipient,” Cook said in an emailed statement.
The massacre at Wounded Knee took place Dec. 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Troops opened fire on a band of unarmed Lakota, led by Spotted Elk, chief of the Miniconjou Lakota. The troops were so badly placed that at least 25 were killed by friendly fire, according to contemporary accounts.
In an account to the commander in chief of the U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles said he had “never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.”
Miles described seeing powder burns on the dead, including infants, indicating they had been shot at close range.
But President Benjamin Harrison, preparing to run for reelection in 1892, saw a political opportunity. The wars against Native American tribes were popular with the voting public, and Harrison later bestowed the Medal of Honor on 20 of the division’s soldiers.
“The Sioux tribes are naturally warlike and turbulent, and their warriors were excited by their medicine men and chiefs, who preached the coming of an Indian messiah who was to give them power to destroy their enemies,” Harrison wrote to Congress a year after the massacre.
Harrison lost reelection to Grover Cleveland, though he carried South Dakota’s four electoral votes.
There is precedent for rescinding Medals of Honor. In 1916, Congress established a board of five retired generals — chaired by Miles — to review previously awarded medals. The next year, the board took back 911 medals, including those given to Buffalo Bill Cody and Mary Walker, the only woman to have received the award. Both Cody and Walker later got their medals back.
“The real question is: Why hasn’t it been done before? If ever there were an example of an overdue action, this is it,” Heck said.
Semans said none of the Democratic presidential candidates had responded to his group’s request yet, and he does not believe Trump — who even invoked the massacre at Wounded Knee as he criticized Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — will act to take back the medals. But he plans to push White House hopefuls to attend the forum focusing on Native American issues in Sioux City.
“If the candidates want to ignore us, we should ignore them,” Semans said. “They’ve always taken the Native vote for granted. It shouldn’t be. We can no longer be ignored.”