I am not the federal government, nor am I the Department of Defense. I am ignorant of the process for awarding the Medal of Honor to military members. I am against revising history in order to fit the actions of our past into the changing and sometimes narrowing social standards of modern times. However, I have an opinion about the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for actions taken during the Battle of Wounded Knee, otherwise known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The 20 medals awarded for the 1890 massacre were issued for actions such as:
“Directed fire at Indians in ravine at Wounded Knee;” “extraordinary gallantry at Wounded Knee;” “bravery in action at Wounded Knee;” “rescuing commanding officer who was wounded and carried him out of range of hostile guns at Wounded Knee:” “distinguished bravery at Wounded Knee for killing an Indian who is in the act of killing a wounded [soldier];” “killed a hostile Indian close-quarters and although entitled to retirement from service, remained to [the] close of the campaign at Wounded Knee” and the list of similar actions goes on.
Admittedly, the U.S. government used a liberal standard for awarding the highest military honor prior to 1918. In an Act of Congress of July 9, 1918, the War Department version of the medal required that the recipient "distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," and also required that the act of valor be performed "in action involving actual conflict with an enemy." This followed shortly after the results of the Army Medal of Honor Review Board, which struck 911 medals from the Medal of Honor list in February 1917 for lack of basic prerequisites. Clearly, the actions of the soldiers at Wounded Knee would not justify the Medal of Honor award according to the newer 1918 standard.
The issue today is the ongoing and festering wound created by awarding the nation’s highest military honor for the killing of men, women and children during a police action on American soil.
Native Americans have struggled for equal footing in America since colonial times. Yes, 1890 is in the past, and there is much to be said for looking to the future rather than the past; however the Wounded Knee Massacre is too impactful for Native Americans to forget. Modern day Jewish people would never be expected to forget the Holocaust, and no one would question the impact the Holocaust has on Jewish people today.
In this case, and especially considering the history of Native Americans, it is important for the United States to acknowledge the past. In fact, under the right circumstances, it is important to make a correction when it is within our power to do so. The 20 Medals of Honor should be rescinded.
If we are to move forward, we must respect the past and the Native Americans whose ancestors endured it. I urge South Dakota’s congressional delegation to support the revocation of the medals awarded for actions taken during the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Steve Allender is mayor of Rapid City.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!