Three congressmen — Reps. Denny Heck (D-WA), Paul Cook (R-CA), and Deb Haaland (D-NM) — introduced a bill on Tuesday that would rescind the Medals of Honor given to those who participated in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Twenty people received medals for the attack, which killed an estimated 150 unarmed Native Americans, including women and children, according to The History Channel. Other estimates place the number at upwards of 300.
In an announcement regarding the bill, lead sponsor Heck said the aim was to honor others who have received the Medal of Honor, The Hill reported.
“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.”
In his own statement, Cook echoed Heck’s words.
“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 told the Hill.
The History Channel explains that Wounded Knee took place on December 29, 1890. The U.S. government was already concerned with “Ghost Dancing,” a spiritual movement that “taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs,” the History Channel wrote.
Members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded a camp at Wounded Knee Creek led by Lakota Sioux Chief Big Foot and confiscated their weapons. Some reports claim a blind Indian, Black Coyote, refused to give up his rifle. At some point, his rifle went off, prompting the U.S. Army to respond by shooting and killing dozens or hundreds of Indians. Other reports suggest it is unclear from which side the first shot was fired. From The History Channel:
The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle, but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Surrounded by heavily armed troops, it’s unlikely that Big Foot’s band would have intentionally started a fight. Some historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last major confrontation in America’s deadly war against the Plains Indians.
Demand to have the medals removed has raged for decades. Some historians have argued that Medals of Honor were given far too liberally prior to 1916. For reference, just 23 service members have received the Medal of Honor during the 18-year-war on terror. Other pre-1916 battles, however, received fewer medals than Wounded Knee.
Some of those awarded the Medal of Honor for the massacre were alleged to have been searching for Lakota Indians who were attempting to escape the U.S. government.
As the Hill reported, Medals of Honor have been rescinded before.
“In 1916, Congress established a board of five retired generals — chaired by [U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Nelson] 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 outlet reported.