State senate urges inquiry into Wounded Knee Medals of Honor

February 23, 2021 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Monday unanimously supported a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to launch an investigation into Medals of Honor given to soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Congress has the authority to rescind the medals. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, advocating both for Native American tribes and military veterans, said their action would give momentum to a years-long effort to rescind Medals of Honor from 20 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment who participated in the December 29, 1890, massacre on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek. An estimated 250 Native Americans were killed, many of whom were women and children.

“It’s not going to change the stain of what happened there today,” said Democratic Sen. Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “This will give us a chance to start a new history — that will recognize what we did that day was wrong.”

Heinert recounted the history of the massacre, telling the Senate chamber how Chief Big Foot’s band of Minneconjou Lakota had sought to take refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation but were intercepted by U.S. soldiers. After the Lakota surrendered, the soldiers led them to an encampment. As soldiers finished disarmed the Lakota, a shot was fired, and “what ensued was a massacre,” Heinert said.

Bernardo Rodriguez Jr., an Army veteran who is now a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council representing the Wounded Knee District, made the trip to Pierre to urge lawmakers to pass the resolution. He said the massacre was something he lived with every day, passing by what locals refer to as “the big sign” for how the site is marked. Human remains from the massacre are still found to this day, he said.

For Rodriguez Jr. and other military veterans who are tribal council members, the resolution was a sign of progress in a sometimes-uneasy relationship between tribal and state governments.

“It feels good to be heard by our state Senate,” said Kevin Killer, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

While Congress has apologized for the massacre, previous efforts to rescind the Medals of Honor have failed in Congress. But South Dakota Republican lawmakers argued that the medals given to the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment tarnished Medals of Honor given to soldiers for genuine acts of courage.

“That wasn’t a battle, that was a slaughter,” said Republican Sen. V.J. Smith.