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Big Foot riders remember Wounded Knee

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WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. - In 1968, Birgil Kills Straight had a recurring dream. He and other community members were envisioning modern people riding horses down the Big Foot trail in South Dakota. In 1986, Kills Straight decided to make journey along the trail on horseback to honor the Lakota people who died in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Once word of his ride got around, others asked to join him. Nineteen riders and two support vehicles made that inaugural trek. Now, over 15 years later, groups of up to 250 riders retrace the ride of Big Foot and his band. The ride takes about two weeks, ending around December 29, the anniversary of the massacre.

The Big Foot Memorial Ride starts at the site of Sitting Bull's log home, where the Hunkpapa spiritual leader was killed by tribal police 110 years ago; the Standing Rock Reservation unit, also tribesmen, was under orders to arrest him in what many historians consider an over-reaction to the Ghost Dance ferment. The annual ride retraces the route of a band led by Chief Si Tanka (Big Foot), who fled Standing Rock Reservation fearing for their safety. A group of about 100 joined Si Tanka's band at Cherry Creek. He led this large group through the Badlands, but federal troops intercepted them near Porcupine and escorted them to Wounded Knee. On Dec. 29, 1890, more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by the soldiers.

According to reports, these rides are not for the weak. The days are long with a fast pace and limited rest periods. While support vehicles follow the riders to set up camp and cook meals, it is expected that the riders feel hardships. These hardships connect the community of riders and sponsor a sense of cultural pride.

(These are the following stops along the Big Foot Memorial trail and their historical significance, as presented in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader special coverage of the year 2000 ride.)

1. Dec. 15, 1890:

Chief Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) of the Hunkpapa Lakota is killed by tribal police. Many of his followers flee, heading south for Chief Hump's village near Cherry Creek.

2. Dec. 15, 1890:

In need of rations, Chief Big Foot leads his band of Minneconjou Lakota east toward Fort Bennett.

3. Dec. 21, 1890:

Big Foot learns of Sitting Bull's death while at Hump's village. Big Foot decides to return to his band's home near the forks of the Cheyenne River, but is intercepted by Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner of the U.S. Army's Eighth Cavalry. Big Foot agrees to take his people to Fort Bennett to surrender.

4. Dec. 23, 1890:

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A civilian, John Dunn, is sent as a messenger to urge Big Foot to leave for Fort Bennett. Dunn instead urges the Indians to go to Pine Ridge, and during the night Big Foot and his people quietly slip out of the village, eluding the soldiers. Their intention is to join Chief Red Cloud, who wants to make peace with the U.S. Army.

5. Dec. 24, 1890:

Big Foot crosses the Badlands at what is now known at Big Foot Pass along Highway 240.

6. Dec. 26, 1890:

Big Foot and his band camp along Medicine Root Creek, seeking the shelter of steep bluffs.

7. Dec. 28, 1890:

Maj. Samuel M. Whitside, of the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry intercepts Big Foot's band at Porcupine Butte. Whitside escorts the group under a white flag to a military camp near Wounded Knee Creek.

8. Dec. 29, 1890:

Col. James W. Forsyth, Seventh Cavalry, orders Big Foot's followers to surrender their guns. While soldiers search the village for weapons, a shot is fired about 9:15 a.m. Hand-to-hand combat erupts between the warriors and soldiers. Minutes later, the stunned families flee. Most run west and huddle in a dry ravine; others escape to the south. The army rolls a Hotchkiss cannon down the hill and fires into the ravine. By mid-afternoon, all shooting stops. Twenty-five soldiers have been killed. The army returns to the Pine Ridge Agency, arriving at 9:30 p.m. with approximately 30 seriously wounded Indians.

Jan. 4, 1891:

Big Foot and 145 followers are buried in a mass grave. However, more than 250 Lakota men, women and children are believed to have been killed. Their bodies lie on the open prairie five days through a blizzard before being buried.