New federal legislation seeks to “Remove the Stain” from the Medal of Honor by rescinding 20 medals that were awarded to soldiers who participated in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.
Three members of Congress, along with a group of Native American activists and descendants of Wounded Knee victims, announced the introduction of the Remove the Stain Act during a news conference Tuesday morning, June 25, in Washington, D.C.
Included in the group was Marcella LeBeau, a 99-year-old member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who has a French Legion of Honour award for her service as an Army nurse during World War II.
In a Monday phone interview LeBeau said rescinding the Wounded Knee medals would have an uplifting effect on Native Americans.
“A pervasive sadness exists on our reservation,” she said. “It not only affects the descendants of Wounded Knee, but it also affects every one of us. It holds us back.”
None of the three members of Congress affiliated with the bill is from South Dakota, where the massacre occurred. The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington, whose district includes four Native American tribes and 40,000 military service members stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The two co-sponsors, who are both members of the House Armed Services Committee, where the bill could be assigned, are Rep. Paul Cook, R-California, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico. Haaland is one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, and Cook is a retired Marine veteran of the Vietnam War with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
In response to questions Monday, spokespeople for each of South Dakota’s three members of Congress, who are all Republicans, pledged to review the legislation but did not commit to supporting or opposing it.
The massacre happened on Dec. 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. A force of 490 U.S. soldiers — armed with rapid-fire, wheel-mounted artillery guns — was attempting to disarm a camp of about 370 Lakota Sioux people when a shot rang out and chaotic firing ensued.
A total of 31 soldiers died during the encounter or afterward from their wounds, compared to hundreds of Native Americans. Although precise estimates of Native American deaths vary, the Remove the Stain Act says there were 350 to 375 Native American fatalities, nearly two-thirds of whom were unarmed women and children.
Manny Iron Hawk, of Red Scaffold and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said he is descended from a woman who survived the massacre as a teenager by running and hiding in a ravine. Iron Hawk said her story has been passed down through the generations and was committed to writing in the Lakota language by his grandfather.
“They couldn’t kill us all,” Iron Hawk said by phone Monday, before attending Tuesday’s press conference. “We are the people that survived, and we are the people that today are made flesh and blood of Wounded Knee, and we’re still here.”
After the massacre, some of the Native American dead were left on the frozen ground for several days before a military-led burial party dumped the bodies in a mass grave. Today, that grave is marked by a small, weathered monument that was erected in 1903.
The Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor — the nation’s highest military award — to soldiers who participated in the massacre.
There have been previous attempts to rescind the medals. The current attempt coalesced in January after President Donald Trump mentioned Wounded Knee in a tweet mocking a video shared by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. In October, a DNA test showed Warren had Native American ancestry far back in her family tree.
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!”
The tweet sparked bipartisan criticism, including from Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who at the time tweeted, “The Wounded Knee Massacre was one of the darkest moments in our history. It should never be used as a punchline.”
Angered by the Trump tweet and inspired by the criticism of it, a South Dakota nonprofit called Four Directions — which typically works to support Native American voting rights — mobilized an effort to rescind the Wounded Knee medals that culminated in Tuesday's introduction of legislation.
The legislation, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, would require the names of the 20 medal winners to be removed from the government’s official Medal of Honor Roll.
For practical reasons, the bill would not require the medals to be physically returned. A spokesperson for Heck said some of the medals might be lost or buried with a soldier.
Findings in the legislation make note of a resolution that was adopted by both houses of Congress in 1990. In that resolution, Congress expressed its “deep regret” about the massacre but did not mention the medals.
The findings in the new legislation also mention the historical writings and statements of Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, who was not present at the massacre but commanded all of the Army’s departments west of the Mississippi River at the time.
Drawing from a letter Miles wrote in 1891, the legislation quotes him stating, “I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.”