As expected, newspapers geographically removed from the hysteria of South Dakota were more objective in covering Wounded Knee. The Washington Post enjoyed proximity to the country’s military headquarters. Dispatches from South Dakota and responses from Army leaders were readily available.
Chaplain Orville Nave’s speech blaming the Indian crisis on whites appeared in the top left corner of Page 1 of the December 15 Post. Another front-page story on Christmas Day placed much of the disturbance in proper perspective: “There is no doubt that although the Indians are the principal aggressors, yet, since the arrival of the troops, the cowboys and ranchers have become very daring and are now themselves molesting the Indians instead of protecting their [own] homes. The department commander has given orders to watch closely all settlers and disarm and make prisoners of any of them caught in the act of invading the Indian reservation.”
Although the Post ran a few editorial jokes about Wounded Knee on December 31, it also published a lengthy call for investigation: “It is intolerable that, having taken from him his lands and his means of subsistence, we should fail to give him the food which we promised him in compensation for them. It is a national disgrace that we should first starve him into hostility and then kill him for uprising.”
Closer to the action, the Louisville Courier-Journal printed anti-Indian sentiments early on and, on December 16, predicted that the late Sitting Bull’s “chorus of dancers will be ‘good Indians’ or prisoners.” Alongside four racial slurs on its December 20 editorial page, the Kentucky daily demonstrated some objectivity: “The Indians see…they are about to be swept from their last stronghold in this country, and it is natural for any people, whether savage or civilized, to love the land that was once their own and seek to regain it.”
Wounded Knee battle reports filled many news and editorial pages. On January 7, 1891, the Courier-Journal deplored the slaughter of women and children. “This looks bad. …When we are informed that not more than half of the victims were warriors, the mind revolts at the recital….There seems to be no question that it soon became a massacre, and that the soldiers in their fury considered neither age nor sex. This is a discredit to the United States.” On January 11, the editorial page posted the reactions of five other newspapers:
Kansas City Journal—“The Indians have wiped out the great herd of government cattle at Pine Ridge. Had they been allowed to fill their stomachs three months ago, there would have been no Indian war.”
Richmond Times—“The incompetence of the Republican Administration has been exhibited on many occasions and a great variety of ways, but it was not until the Indian outbreak that its incapacity seemed likely to precipitate scenes of bloodshed in our American domain.”
Denver Republican—“The cost of the present unnecessary Indian war will be more than would have fed the Sioux for 10 years. How long is this miserable Indian policy to be tolerated by the American people? The Indians should be under control of the War Department, and the agencies should be abolished.”
Buffalo News—“The whole Indian Bureau should be rooted, the lying and absurd system of making treaties with a people who are not treated as an individual nation, but practically confined to reservations as prisoners of war, should be abolished; the Indians should be put on the same footing as other aliens and gradually prepared for citizenship.”
Rochester Post-Express—“We have taken their lands; we have changed their mode of life; we have charged ourselves with their future. Let there be no more cheating them, stealing from them, lying to them, or starving them. We owe them a living, and we should pay the debt in a way that becomes a great nation. Any other government could exterminate the Indians; but it ought to be the glory of this government to save them.”
The New York Times said in a December 31 editorial: “It would be an abuse of language to describe as a battle the encounter that took place [at Wounded Knee]. The Indians were captives and were surrounded by four times their number of armed white soldiers….The worst that could have happened to these captive Indians against whom no atrocities were charged was to undergo a short confinement, where they would have been better fed and lodged than they were before they were captured….All the authoritative accounts agree that these Indians were starved into revolt…. We must feed the Indians and disarm them.”
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.