Wounded Knee

John Two-Hawks, left, Yamni White Eagle and Darwin Yellow Earnings stand at the Wounded Knee Memorial as part of a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the massacre in 2015. 

A controversial tweet by President Donald Trump could be a catalyst to rescind medals that were awarded for the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, a South Dakota organization hopes.

Four Directions Inc. sent letters last week to Trump and other federal officials. The letters ask for the removal of 20 medals of honor that were awarded to soldiers who participated in the massacre, which killed perhaps 250 or more Native Americans, including many women and children.

Specifically, Four Directions is asking for language rescinding the medals to be included in the next National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress.

The letters are signed by O.J. Semans, a Rosebud Sioux Tribe member who serves as co-executive director of Four Directions with his wife, Barb. Four Directions describes itself as a 501(c)4 organization, a type of tax-exempt entity that is allowed to engage in political activities.

“No earthly power can bring my ancestors back to life,” says one of the letters signed by Seman. “But the United States can stop honoring the men who butchered those defenseless Lakota women and children in cold blood.”

Trump referenced the Wounded Knee massacre in a Jan. 13 tweet. The tweet mocked a video shared earlier by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.

Trump’s tweet said, “If Elizabeth Warren, often referred by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!”

Trump has repeatedly chided Warren for her claim to Native American ancestry, especially since she released DNA test results in October showing she is between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.

Trump’s tweet referencing Wounded Knee has been widely criticized. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., tweeted on Jan. 15, “The Wounded Knee Massacre was one of the darkest moments in our history. It should never be used as a punchline.” Rounds’ fellow Republican South Dakota congressional delegates, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson, also criticized the Trump tweet.

Thune and Rounds were among the recipients of last week’s letters from Four Directions. Monday, in response to Journal questions, spokespeople for the two senators reiterated their earlier criticisms of Trump's tweet but took no position on the Four Directions request, saying they are still reviewing it.

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Johnson, after being shown the Four Directions letters by the Journal, replied with a written statement.

"Wounded Knee left behind one the darkest stains in our nation’s history," Johnson said. "If medals were awarded to soldiers who massacred noncombatants at Wounded Knee, that was a grave mistake. We need to have a conversation about how we can rectify that."

Meanwhile, O.J. Semans confirmed by phone Monday that Trump’s tweet was the spark that motivated the Four Directions letters.

“What he’s doing and how it affects us is like if he started tweeting and using 9/11 as a political pun,” Semans said.

Congress passed a resolution in 1990 expressing "deep regret" about the massacre, but multiple efforts to rescind the medals awarded to soldiers who participated in the massacre have failed.

The massacre happened on Dec. 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A force of 490 U.S. soldiers — armed with four rapid-fire, wheeled artillery guns — was attempting to disarm a camp of about 370 Lakota Sioux Native Americans when a shot rang out and chaotic firing ensued.

A total of 31 soldiers died during the massacre or from wounds afterward, compared to the estimated 250 or more Native American deaths. Some of the Native American dead were left on the frozen massacre grounds for several days before a military-led burial party dumped the bodies into a mass grave. Today, that grave is marked by a small, weathered monument that was erected in 1903.

According to historical sources, the Army awarded 20 medals of honor to soldiers who participated in the massacre, varying in rank from privates and a musician to lieutenants. The citations ranged from the ultra-brief — including one for unspecified “bravery” — to the more descriptive, including citations for assisting fallen comrades, dislodging Native Americans from a ravine, and killing a “hostile Indian” at close quarters.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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