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Eyewitness at Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee photograph
This view is from the hill where the Indian dead were interred. The tipi poles to the right mark the location of the Indian camp. At mid-center, where the men are loading the frozen bodies into a wagon, was the council circle where Colonel Forsyth ordered the Indians to surrender their arms. To the left is a second photographer with his camera (Nebraska State Historical Society RG2845.ph).

In the late 1880s the world of the Lakota or Sioux seemed to be disintegrating but in 1890 disciples of a new religion offered renewed hope to the discouraged tribe. Converts told of the coming of a Messiah who would make the white people disappear, bring back vast herds of buffalo, and allow Native Americans to return to their old ways. To hasten the coming of the Messiah converts performed a ceremony called the Ghost Dance.

Although the creed was nonviolent some white officials and many settlers around the reservations were convinced the Ghost Dance was a prelude to war. Rumors spread and tensions mounted until units of the U.S. Army were sent to quell the "uprising." On December 29, near a creek named Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Seventh Cavalry surrounded a Lakota band led by Big Foot. Col. James W. Forsyth ordered the Indians to surrender their weapons. In a tense atmosphere of suspicion and misunderstanding, the careless discharge of one gun set off a bloodbath that claimed more than 300 lives, including those of many Indian women and children.

Eyewitness at Wounded Knee brings together and assesses for the first time some 150 photographs that were made before and immediately after the massacre. Present at the scene were two itinerant photographers, George Trager and Clarence Grant Moreledge, whose work has never before been published. Accompanying commentaries focus on both the Indian and military sides of the story. Richard E. Jensen's "Another Look at Wounded Knee" dwells on the political and economic quagmire in which the Sioux found themselves after 1877. In "Your Country is Surrounded," R. Eli Paul discusses the army's role at Wounded Knee. John Carter, in "Making Pictures for a News-Hungry Nation," deals with the photographers and also the reporters and relic hunters who were looking to profit from the misfortune of others. Their words enhance our appreciation of the haunting images in this first book-length photographic history of the events that led up to and followed the bloodshed at Wounded Knee.

Richard E. Jensen
Nebraska State Historical Society

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