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Today we honor the recipients of the Medal of Honor, a military honor often mistakenly called the Congressional Medal of Honor. With the award, the nation celebrates our true military heroes. But the odd circumstances of the history of the Medal of Honor mean that there are twenty medals that have been contested almost since the day they were awarded. These are the medals awarded to soldiers who participated in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

In December 1890, the army was trying to calm tensions in the brand new state of South Dakota. There, Sioux were starving. Before 1889, they had lived on the Great Sioux Reservation, which covered the western half of what is now the state of South Dakota, but in 1889, the government had taken much of that land. Indians had been corralled onto six, much smaller reservations, with far less game for hunting. Their farms could not make up for the loss of hunting ground, for the 1889 land negotiations had taken place during the growing season, and Indians went home from the land meetings to find their fields ruined. Their food supply dropped further when an agent collecting information for the 1890 census undercounted the Indian population on which the government calculated necessary supplies and food stores. Indians went into the winter of 1889 hungry and dispirited. When an influenza epidemic engulfed the world that winter, the Sioux, especially Indian children, died in disproportionate numbers.

Spring 1890 brought rain and renewed hope for good farm yields, but a hot summer wind burned the crops away. Desperate Indians turned to a new religion, the Ghost Dance, which promised to resurrect the loved ones lost in the past year and to bring back ample food. Ghost Dancers did not threaten local settlers (who, indeed, visited Ghost Dances as spectators). But a new agent on the Pine Ridge reservation, Daniel Royer, believed that the Ghost Dancers were joining with Indians upset over the previous year’s land loss. They were, he insisted, plotting a war. He begged President Harrison to send in troops.

Harrison obliged. On November 20, 1890, troops moved from Nebraska onto South Dakota’s Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. As they marched in, panicked Ghost Dancers ran to the Badlands to hide. As army officers negotiated with them to get them to return to their agencies, army officers tried to round up leading figures who had opposed the 1889 land cession to keep them from fomenting discontent.

On December 15, as police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, an officer murdered him. Sitting Bull’s terrified supporters ran to the neighboring reservation to take shelter with Sitanka, a famous negotiator, who was on good terms with army officers. But when they heard that Sitting Bull had been killed, Sitanka’s supporters themselves fled southward across the state to gain the protection of the great leader Red Cloud, who had been negotiating with Americans since 1868.

Army officers believed Sitanka’s men were running not for shelter, but to join with the Ghost Dancers in the Badlands. This was a delicate moment. The Ghost Dancers had agreed to return to their agencies, but would certainly be spooked if they heard of Sitting Bull’s murder. Frantically, troops combed the center of South Dakota to intercept Sitanka’s people before they reached the Badlands.

On December 28, members of Sitanka’s band overtook two army scouts watering their horses. The men told the soldiers they were on their way to the Pine Ridge agency. The army scouts informed their commander, who intercepted the Sioux with guns and demanded an unconditional surrender. Sitanka and his men agreed. Sitanka was deathly ill with pneumonia, and the two groups were going to the same place. It only made sense to travel together. The commanding officer put Sitanka, who was bleeding from his mouth and nose and having terrible trouble breathing, into an army wagon for the trip to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation. There the Indians and soldiers settled down for the night. They would travel to the agency in the morning.

But in the morning things went deadly wrong. During the night, a new commander, James Forsyth, had arrived and taken command. Dead-set on making the surrender a show of force, he insisted on disarming the Indians before they set off for the agency. Many of the young men refused to give up their guns, which were not only expensive, but were the only hope the men had for feeding their families through the winter. As soldiers struggled to wrench a gun from a man’s hands, it went off into the sky. “Fire! Fire on them!” Forsyth screamed.

The soldiers did. The first volley brought down the men who were being disarmed, as well as about 25 of the soldiers themselves, who had moved into a circle around the Indians during the course of the morning. In the haze from the gun smoke, men grabbed weapons from nearby soldiers and dove for a dry creek bed that ran behind the camp, hoping they could escape. The women and children had been separated from the Indian men during the morning. When the firing began, women ran for wagons and horses…or just ran.

But they could not escape. Over the next two hours, frenzied soldiers hunted down and killed every Sioux they could find. Soldiers trained artillery on the fleeing wagons as troops on horses combed the hills for fugitives. Some of the escaping women were ridden down three miles from the encampment. When the wagons were motionless, the soldiers moved the guns to the creek bed and shot everyone who moved. Within a few hours, at least 230 Sioux, mostly women and children, were dead.

The outcry against this butchery started in the army itself. Forsyth’s commanding officer, General Nelson Miles, was incensed that a simple surrender with a peaceful band of Indians had become what he called a “criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.” He demanded an inquiry into Forsyth’s actions. Miles’s report was so damning his own secretary asked him to soften it. But President Harrison’s administration was in terrible electoral trouble, and his men wanted no part of an attack on soldiers that would imply that Harrison’s agents had both created a war and then mismanaged it. They dismissed Miles’s report with their own, which blamed the Indians for the massacre and concluded that the soldiers had acted the part of heroes. In spring 1891, President Harrison awarded the first of twenty Medals of Honor that would go to soldiers for their actions at Wounded Knee.

That the president would make these awards was not as unusual in 1890 as it would be today. Congress had created the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to honor officers and privates who had distinguished themselves by gallantry in action. At first, Congress established no criteria for earning the medals, and by 1890, they were available almost for the asking. Between 1891 and 1897, presidents gave out more than five hundred medals.

This profligacy cheapened the medal so much that in 1897, the secretary of war announced that future awards would require “incontestable proof of the most distinguished gallantry in action.” The army later insisted that evidence of heroism must come from official reports, and that officers, rather than the honoree, must request the medal. In 1916, a military panel stripped medals from 2600 recipients. Since then, Medals of Honor have been increasingly hard to come by. Only 95 were awarded to soldiers of World War I, 324 to soldiers of World War II. Korea and Vietnam combined saw 240 Army recipients. Only three soldiers have been honored for their heroism in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But we still honor twenty men for their actions in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

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