On a cold December morning in 1890 with snow on the ground, three hundred and fifty unarmed Lakota Indians (120 men and 230 women and children) were massacred at Wounded Knee Creek by soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, Custer’s old outfit.
The Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to twenty-three men of the Seventh. This is the story of one of those brave men.
Just then a shot rang out. At first no one made a move, all was quiet. Then the Hotchkiss guns, which could fire forty-three rounds per minute, started to rake the tipis, going through their skins as though they were not there. The people inside the tipis, those that were not killed instantly, ran out in panic. The Lakota men who had given up their guns ran towards the pile in an effort to retrieve them, but most were cut down by the fire from the Hotchkiss guns.
Running for his life the Indian known as Yellow Hair jumped over the lip of the ravine and almost landed on a dead woman sprawled on the incline. Next to her sat an infant, still alive, that was oblivious to the horror going on around him.
As he passed, Yellow Hair plucked the child up and made for the bushes at to bottom. When he made it to where there was cover, he found a woman and a small girl hiding there. The girl was crying and the woman was shaking from head to foot. Yellow Hair handed the infant to the woman and said, “Do not worry mother, neither you nor your child will die this day.” He then made sure that his gun was fully loaded and prepared to shoot the first soldier that stuck his head over the rim of the ravine.
They were the only ones in that area, but about one hundred yards to the north, men, women and children were huddled at the bottom while soldiers stood above and shot down at them. And every once in a while he could hear someone shout, “Remember the Little Bighorn!” The Seventh was getting some of its own back.
While that was going on at the ravine, the men behind the Hotchkiss guns continued to fire at anything that moved. Unfortunately for some of the soldiers before their guns that meant them as well. In the frenzy, soldiers were killing soldiers as well as Indians.
Not all the Lakota ran to the ravine. Some ran to the open prairie in an effort to escape death. None of them had weapons; they were just running for their lives. Some of the soldiers made for their horses, mounted and ran down the fleeing people as if they, the soldiers, were on a buffalo hunt. As they approached the people, mostly women and children, they would cock their guns and fire. If they missed they would turn their horse for another try. One trooper was heard to exclaim, “Great fun, I betcha I get more than you!” When the carnage was over some Lakota bodies were found as far away as five miles, which led some to speculate that the soldiers toyed with the Indians to prolong the hunt.
Back at the ravine, when targets became scarce, one of the soldiers on the rim started to make his way in Yellow Hair’s direction. His name was John Dinneen, a private in the Seventh. So far that morning he had killed fifteen unarmed people, ten of whom were women and children. And now he was looking for more turkeys. That is how he thought of the cowering Indians. At one point he yelled to his compatriots, “Come on boys, it’s just like an old fashion turkey shoot and I’m a gonna win me a prize!”
As Dinneen made his way toward Yellow Hair, he scoured the bush looking for Indians. He walked slowly and purposefully, he did not want to miss any turkeys. Because of his slow progress, the tension built within the woman and girl. Finally it became unbearable and the girl bolted from their hiding place.
When Dinneen saw her, he smiled to himself, and under his breath he said, “I outta git two points for this one. Them small ones is hard to hit when they’re movin’ so fast.” As he raised the rifle to his shoulder to take aim, Yellow Hair stood. It was his intention to draw Dinneen’s fire, but Dinneen was so intent on sighting the girl he did not see him. Yellow Hair yelled to get Dinneen’s attention, but with all the gunfire, he did not think he could be heard. So, Yellow Hair did the only thing left to do, he sighted Dinneen and fired.
The bullet, though he aimed for the man’s heart, if he had one, plowed into his left shoulder before he could fire at the girl. With a shout of pain, Dinneen dropped his gun and then he saw Yellow Hair. The look of astonishment on Dinneen’s face made Yellow Hair smile. He cocked his gun for another try at the man’s heart, but Dinneen turned and ran before he could sight him. Yellow Hair looked for the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. Looking down at the woman he said, “Do not worry, she got away, she is safe.” He did not know if it was true, but it was all he could say.
One last point on Private Dinneen:
His wound was not life threatening, though because of nerve damage he did lose the use of his left arm. But other than that he lived a long, if not particularly fruitful, life. He, along with twenty-two other brave men of the Seventh, was given the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Wounded Knee. His citation read in full: “For conspicuous bravery in action against Indians concealed in a ravine.”
It seems as though Private Dinneen did indeed receive his prize for the turkey shoot.