PIERRE S.D. — The South Dakota Senate voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling on Congress to open an inquiry into rescinding Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers who participated in the massacre of Chief Big Foot's band near Wounded Knee Creek over 130 years ago.
Senate Resolution 701, which last week passed unanimously out of a military and veterans affairs committee, calls for "opening an official inquiry" into the 20 U.S. members of the 7th Cavalry who received the nation's highest honor for military valor for their actions in what's commonly known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
On Monday, Feb. 22, the members of the South Dakota Senate voted 35-0 in favor of the resolution that addresses a historic wound from the state's earliest days.
"This has never been talked about in this statehouse," said Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. "I can still feel the pain. If I close my eyes tight, I can see what the pictures have shown us: frozen bodies being thrown into a mass grave."
On Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry killed and wounded estimates of up to 300 members of Chief Big Foot's band, who'd sought food and shelter in returning to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. U.S. military members fired cannons into the band after fighting was sparked by a gunshot that went off while the tribe was being disarmed.
Sen. Red Dawn Foster, a Democrat from Pine Ridge, said she'd grown up hearing stories of Wounded Knee from the families of survivors.
"It is embedded in our DNA," said Foster, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "I don't believe it is a mistake that I'm standing here speaking on behalf of opening this investigation."
Sen. V.J. Smith, a Brookings Republican, sought to portray the resolution as supportive of the U.S. military, listing off heroic actions by Medal of Honor conferees in Vietnam and other military theatres and suggesting the award to the massacre's perpetrators was a "stain."
"Please know, my colleagues, how I speak is not anti-military," said Smith. "It's pro-military, and it's not a product of cancel culture."
Culminating the vote, small applause broke out in the Senate chamber, which was quickly hushed by Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who called the cheering "out of order." After taking pictures on the statehouse's grand stairs, a delegation from the Oglala Sioux Tribe spoke to reporters.
"It feels good to be heard," said OST President Kevin Killer.
Julian Spotted Bear, Pine Ridge councilwoman and retired Army sergeant, said, "It's something that'll start the healing process of our people."
Bernardo Rodriguez Jr., an OST council member from Wounded Knee and a veteran of the U.S. Army, said the resolution is not about "blaming South Dakota for anything. We're asking for their assistance at moving this forward and getting this into Congress."
Gerald Cournoyer Jr., Medicine Root council member and veteran of the U.S. Marines, said after protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline a "huge gap" emerged between the state's leadership in Pierre and tribal communities.
"But here we are today," said Cournoyer. "This is a first step, but honestly, it's a huge step."
During the last congressional cycle, the Remove the Stain Act, which called on Congress to rescind the medals, was introduced in both the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, but neither received a vote.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Dusty Johnson reissued a statement the state's Republican congressman has made previously, calling Wounded Knee a "sin" and noting the U.S. Congress apologized formally in 1990. But Johnson also said revoking the medals "doesn't make the massacre go away."
In 2019, Sen. Mike Rounds told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that he believes Wounded Knee "was a massacre, not a battle," but he was opposed to "go back ... and change the recommendations of forefathers, even if we disagree vehemently with the outcome of the incident, the massacre."
Sen. John Thune's office did not respond to a request for comment from Forum News Service.
According to the Congressional Medal Honor Society, over 900 medals were revoked following a review of the award ordered by Congress in 1916.