COMMENTARY: Rescind Wounded Knee Medals of Honor now

by Dec 1, 2020OPINIONS





The image of Chief Big Foot dead and frozen in the snow following the Wounded Knee “Battle” – really a massacre – is emblazoned on my mind.  The fact that 20 soldiers, members of the U.S. Army 7th Cavalry, received the Medal of Honor for their part in the incident, is also emblazoned on my mind.

The Medal of Honor was established by a Joint Congressional Resolution on July 12, 1862 and is given to a member of the military who has “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States”.

On the morning of Dec. 29, 1890, nearly 400 Lakota, mostly women and children (two-thirds by some accounts), were gunned down by members of the U.S. Army 7th Cavalry in what is known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Following this, 20 soldiers were presented with the Medal of Honor – the highest U.S. military decoration.

A bill, known as the Remove the Stain Act (H.R. 3467), was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 25, 2019 and seeks to have those medals rescinded.  The bill states in part, “Allowing any Medal of Honor, the United States highest and most prestigious military decoration, to recognize a member of the Armed Forces for distinguished service for participating in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Native Americans is a disservice to the integrity of the United States and its citizens, and impinges on the integrity of the award and those who have earned the Medal since.”

The Act was introduced by Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) and was co-introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Rep. Daniel T. Kildee (D-Mich.), and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.).  Rep. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, said at the time of introduction, “The introduction of this bill today shows the continued work and strength of the Native American people who have fought for more than a century for the United States to acknowledge the genocide of our people that has taken place on this soil.”

Later the same year, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced their own version of the Remove the Stain Act in the Senate.  Sen. Warren said in a statement, “The horrifying acts of violence against hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee should be condemned, not celebrated with Medals of Honor.  The Remove the Stain Act acknowledges profoundly shameful events in U.S. history, and that’s why I’m joining my House colleagues in this effort to advance justice and take a step toward righting wrongs against Native peoples.”

Manny Iron Hawk’s grandmother, age 12 at the time, survived the massacre by hiding in a ravine.  In a statement on the day the Act was introduced, Iron Hawk noted, “Our relatives were shot at very close range.  They were so close that you could see the powder burn marks on the children and the women.  There was no honor in these murders, and the Lakota live with these traumas to this day.  Our lives are reminders of our courage, strength, and the will to survive in the 21st century.  In the healing road that we have to all take, we are all human beings, and we need to work together.”

In June 2001, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, based in Eagle Butte, S.D., passed Res. No. 132-01 which states, “The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe requests the United States government to review the history surrounding the Dec. 29, 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and either return those medals, renounce the issuance of said medals, and/or to proclaim that the medals are null and void, given the atrocities committed upo0n unarmed men, women, children, and elderly of the Great Sioux Nation.”

Congress itself has already issued a formal apology on this issue.  Senate Concurrent Res. No. 153 (Passed Oct. 25, 1990), “Declares that the Congress, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, acknowledges the historical significance of this event as the last armed conflict of the Indian wars period resulting in the tragic death and injury of approximately 350 to 375 Indian men, women, and children of Chief Big Foot’s band of Mniconjou Sioux,  expresses the deep regret of the Congress on behalf of the United States to the descendants of the victims, survivors, and their respective tribal communities.”

This wouldn’t be the first time in U.S. history that Medals of Honor have been rescinded.

According to “U.S. Army Medals, Badges, and Insignia”, by Col. Frank Foster, the U.S. Congress created an official Medal of Honor roll on April 27, 1916 and also appointed a board given the task of “investigating and reporting past awards of the Medal of Honor by the War Department to see, if any, had been awarded or issued for any cause other than distinguished conduct involving actual conflict with an enemy”.

In February 1917, a total of 910 names were stricken from the list for various reasons including 864 of those from the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry who received the medal simply for re-enlisting.

It is now time again for more medals, 20 in fact, to be rescinded.  Killing women and children and unarmed people is not the definition of conspicuous gallantry.

Neither bill has advanced to a vote yet.  If you wish to have your thoughts considered, please contact Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) at or Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) at