Lawmakers took a step last week towards taking back the nation’s highest award for valor from Army troops who perpetrated one of the most infamous Native American massacres in U.S. history.
The legislation to revoke the medals passed the House of Representatives as an amendment to the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill. Similar attempts have made it this far before, however, only to be stymied during compromises between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Some 20 soldiers received the Medal of Honor following the Dec. 29, 1890, massacre near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, where troops from the 7th Cavalry and accompanying artillery units killed hundreds of Lakota men, women and children.
The U.S. troops had nearly completed confiscating weapons from a Lakota encampment when a struggle with a reportedly deaf man sparked a chaotic one-sided firefight.
When the smoke cleared, dozens of cavalry troopers were wounded or killed by friendly fire — likely from their artillery — and hundreds of Lakota were dead.
Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele, D-Hawaii, was the legislation’s primary sponsor, though other members of Congress, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Reuben Gallego, D-Ariz., have pushed for similar legislation in the past. Kahele is a Native Hawaiian.
Dubbed the “Remove the Stain Act,” the legislation’s advocates, which include more than a dozen Native American tribes and groups, say it’s a long-overdue step to right a historical wrong.
“As Congress continues to consider the FY23 NDAA, the most important defense legislative vehicle that is debated each year, we must remind ourselves of the uncomfortable truth that this land – the United States – was taken from indigenous peoples,” said Kahele in a press release. “Although we can never undo the irreparable damage inflicted on indigenous peoples, we can do our best to respect their lands, empower our communities and acknowledge the truth behind our shared history.”
The Senate is yet to pass its version of the defense policy bill, and the two houses of Congress will have to agree on a compromise version of the legislation. If Kahele’s amendment survives the compromise process, it will mark the success of a decades-long effort from Native American advocacy groups and other members of Congress.
Congress officially apologized for the massacre in 1990, near its 100th anniversary, but did not rescind the medals then.
But that’s far from certain. Previously, the act passed as part of the House’s fiscal 2022 defense policy bill, but did not make it into the final compromise legislation.
Military Times deputy editor Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.