On Dec. 29, 1890, American soldiers slaughtered more than 350 Lakota men, women and children in an event known to history books as the Battle at Wounded Knee.
Twenty of those soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor -- later renamed the Congressional Medals of Honor -- for their actions.
One hundred years later, the U.S. government changed Wounded Knee's designation from a battle to a massacre and issued a statement of regret to the Lakota people. However, the Medals of Honor remained.
Now, a handful of American Indian activists are trying to change that.
'This was butchery'
The Wounded Knee massacre happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, just south of the rolling Black Hills.
In 1890, life was bleak for the Lakota. Broken treaties had shrunk their land. Government-run boarding schools had taken many of their children. Buffalo were scarce, and the area was experiencing a two-year drought. Congress had cut back on food rations.
"It was the middle of December, and people were literally starving," says Native American activist Bob Smith, a Vietnam veteran and now a program analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. "Babies were dying. People were super, super desperate."
A phenomenon known as the Ghost Dance had gained popularity among many Lakota; it promised a return to their native Black Hills and the end of conflict with white settlers.
But the Ghost Dance worried the U.S. army, who referred to it as "dangerous" and a "strange religious hallucination."
On Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. soldiers from the 7th Cavalry opened fire on Lakota camps. They outnumbered the Lakota two to one. Eyewitness accounts recall the executions of women and children.
"It was reported that four babies had their heads crushed in," Smith says. "When people surrendered, they were summarily executed. This was wholesale butchery."
Twenty members of the 7th Cavalry received Medals of Honor for deeds described in Army papers as "heroic."
"The big question," says Smith, "is how can you give the Medal of Honor for a massacre? If you do, then you did something wrong. And if it's wrong, it should be corrected."
Smith and others are working with Army historians to build the case for the annulment of what they call the "medals of dis-honor" and for a formal apology to the Lakota people from the U.S. government.
Federal law dictates that the Congressional Medal of Honor be awarded to soldiers who "distinguish (themselves) conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at risk of ... life above and beyond the call of duty."
"The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically," says William Thunder Hawk, member of the Lakota tribe and resident of the Rosebud Reservation, just east of Pine Ridge. "But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty."
In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the Medals of Honor and calling on the U.S. government to rescind them.
So far, their efforts have been met mostly with polite refusal.
An online petition to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs resulted in this response from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., committee chairman:
The policies and decisions ... that led to the Army's being at Wounded Knee in 1890 doubtless can be characterized as unjust, unwise, or worse. Nevertheless, a retrospective judgment that the Government's policies and actions were dishonorable does not warrant rescinding the medals awarded to individual soldiers for bravery in a brief, fierce fight in which 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded. In 2004, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced legislation to formally apologize to Native Americans. The bill, praised by some tribal leaders as a good first step, was delayed by the Bush Administration and never reached the Senate floor.
Some question the relevance of the Wounded Knee medals and any formal apology, but Thunder Hawk argues that the failure to address either "shows my people that our history doesn't matter."
By Carrie Kilman | Staff Writer, Tolerance.org