History, the saying goes, is written by the winners, a fact that can often produce one-side, one-dimensional views on the past, unless other voices are considered and heard. This can lead to some history being rewritten (we hesitate to call it a revision, for that has a negative connotation) and/or reconsidered by future generations.
One such event is the 1890 incident at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. For generations, the official history — and the history that most South Dakota kids were taught — referred to it as the “battle” of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The incident came about as soldiers from the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment ordered a group of Native Americans camped by the creek to disarm. The tribal members started doing what was called a “Ghost Dance,” which troops reportedly mistook for a war dance. When a soldier tried to confiscate a weapon from a belligerent tribal member, the gun discharged, igniting a mad storm of confusion. Some of the Lakota members reportedly tried to fight back before deciding instead to run. An estimated 250-300 Native Americans, mostly women and children, were killed in the incident. About 25-30 U.S. soldiers were killed.
But American records reported this incident as a battle, to the point that 20 U.S. soldiers were awarded the nation’s highest military citation, the Medal of Honor, for their actions.
Now, renewed efforts are being made in Washington to rescind the 20 medals that were awarded for a battle that never was, for a slaughter that still haunts and angers Native American tribes.
Rescinding these medals would be the right thing to do.
Legislation was introduced in Congress last month to do just that in an effort to right, at least somewhat, a terrible wrong in our history. According to the Washington Examiner, the measure — introduced by Democratic Reps. Denny Heck of Washington and Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Republican Rep. Paul Cook of California — is called the Remove the Stain Act. It is also being promoted by O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe and co-founder of Four Directions, a Native American voting rights organization.
“I believe the introduction of this bill today shows the continued work and strength of the Native American people who have fought for over a century for the United States to acknowledge the genocide of our people that has taken place on this soil,” Haaland said.
Seeking to historically right the wrong perception of Wounded Knee is not a new quest. In 1990, Congress officially apologized to the descendants of the victims of Wounded Knee, but left the 20 Medals of Honor in place. The Associated Press reported that, in 1996, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) received a petition to rescind the medals, but McCain replied in a letter that a change in historical view on the massacre did not warrant the revocation.
However, without revoking these Medals of Honor, the winner’s history seems to be having it both ways. The apology appears to acknowledge the mistake, but keeping these honors in place indicates that the 1890 event is still classified at some level as a military battle.
These two views cannot be reconciled historically or militarily, and the apology effectively means nothing without the revocation of the medals. That is the only logical action that can be taken.