THE events that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 began with Wovoka, a Paiute Indian, who considered himself an Indian messiah. Part of his belief hinged on the Ghost Dance, a dance which promised that Indians would be freed from the white man's domination and that white shirts worn during the dance would be bulletproof. Thus, when the Indian Bureau sought to end the fervor over the Ghost Dance, United States Cavalry troops were sent to Pine Ridge, S.D., where Big Foot, chief of the Minneconjou Sioux and his followers were encamped at Wounded Knee. Believers in the promise of the Ghost Dance, they had fled a nearby fort after the great chief Sitting Bull was accidently killed.
On the cold morning of Dec. 29, the old and sickly Big Foot was told to order his tribe to turn over their rifles. He refused. In the standoff, a rifle was fired from an unknown source. It touched off a furious close-range gunfight that slaughtered Indians and soldiers alike.
But up on the hill above the ravine the cavalry had Hotchkiss guns capable of firing shells weighing two pounds. They were fired into the swirling mass of Indians trying to escape.
When the shooting stopped minutes later, about 180 Indian men, women, and children were dead. Of the 500 soldiers, 30 were slain.
The fight marked the last time the US Cavalry would engage Indians in battle, thus bringing to an end more than two centuries of wars between the white man and Indians for control of the American continent.