They murdered men, women and children. An estimated 300 died. Some were killed on the spot. Others, mostly kids, were chased down and shot. All of the dead, even the babies, were left on the field that winter day and froze. Four days later, a party of men arrived to bury the iced corpses in a large pit. They were paid two dollars for every body dumped into the trench. Sometime later, 20 of the soldiers involved in the massacre were awarded the Medal of Honor. The day was December 29, 1890. The incident: Wounded Knee Massacre.
It has been more than 120 years since the U.S. 7th Calvary (George Armstrong Custer’s men) opened fired with rifles and Howitzers on the camp of Lakota. Yet, those 20 “Medals of Dishonor”, as they’ve oft been referred to, remain. And although there have been numerous calls by Native American leaders and celebrities, including filmmaker and veteran Oliver Stone, to have the medals rescinded, no action has been taken on the part of any president or Congress since that day of carnage.
The debate surrounding these 20 medals has again surfaced since President Barack Obama will today bestow 24 veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II with the Medal of Honor. Nineteen of these veterans were originally passed over due to their race or ethnic background, and only three of the total 24 are alive today.
Obviously, this is a move on the part of the presidency to right the wrongs of history, to pay honor and tribute where honor and tribute is due, regardless of color or creed. But this ceremony, which is to be held in the East Room of the White House, appears to me to be quite, let’s say, ironic.
Here we have two-dozen deserving veterans of several wars. Nearly a third of them were unjustly overlooked to receive the Medal of Honor because they are African American, Jewish or Hispanic. And although they are to be justly recognized for their valor decades later, the medal they are to be given is tainted by this moment in history.
Since the Medal of Honor was created in 1861, it has been reserved for those military personnel who have exhibited selflessness, bravery and heroism on the field of battle, but Wounded Knee was not a battle. It was a massacre, and to award 20 U.S. soldiers who acted in stark contrast to what the Medal of Honor stands for tarnishes its purpose and diminishes its value.
Native Americans continue to feel the pierce of what occurred that deplorable winter day. The story of the brutality and the inhumanity of what occurred is passed down to us from our elders because, quite unfortunately, these dark moments of American history are not shared in our schools as much as they should be.
To be sure, a great many of you who read this column are only learning of the Medals of Dishonor because I write of them. And that begs the question as to why. I’ll tell you: because it is very difficult for this country to fully recognize what it has done to its indigenous population. Well, it is time to start recognizing, and in so doing a time of healing (and learning) can begin.
Still, the fact that President Barack Obama would bestow the Medal of Honor to the 19 commendable veterans who were, at the time, discriminated against all the while refusing to revoke the 20 awarded to the soldiers who indiscriminately murdered hundreds of free Lakota, is hypocritical.
It is imperative that we restore the integrity to the Medal of Honor by revoking those medals awarded to the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. If we truly seek to do what’s right and just, then let’s do what’s right and just and revoke the 20 medals from those who exhibited the antithesis of honor.