Throughout history, Native people have been subjected to more than 1500 wars, attacks, and raids authorized by the United States government. Under the guise of “expanding civilization,” the drive to amass land and widen borders incited decades of racial genocide. Some of the deadliest mass violence took place in the late 19th century.
In the 1850s, the United States repeatedly violated treaties with the Sioux (or Dakota) people by failing to provide food and supplies promised in exchange for land. As the Sioux suffered and starved, one indifferent federal official reportedly said, “Let them eat grass.” Enraged, leader Little Crow led an uprising known as the Dakota War of 1862. Within six weeks, U.S. forces had captured 400 men and sentenced 303 to death. President Abraham Lincoln spared all but 38 of the condemned; the 38 were hanged on December 26, 1862, in the nation’s largest-ever judicial execution.
In the 1880s, the government was intent on stamping out the Ghost Dance, a spiritual movement with members from 16 states and two dozen tribes that aimed to revitalize Native culture and resist assimilation. Government officials authorized the arrest and detention of any Ghost Dance participant and, in December 1890, beloved Lakota Chief Sitting Bull was killed during an arrest. When protests erupted in South Dakota, federal troops shot to death an estimated 300 Sioux men, women, and children in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
As many as 15 million Native American people are estimated to have been living in North America when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. The so-called Indian Wars devastated indigenous people. By the close of the 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Native Americans remained.