The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 was among the deadliest attacks ever on Native Americans by the U.S. military. Hundreds of Indigenous people were slaughtered, including many women and children.
A century later, Congress voted to formally apologize. Now, some elected officials are pushing to go even further: Legislation introduced in the U.S. House and Senate recently would rescind 20 medals of honor awarded to federal soldiers involved in the massacre. Oregon’s two senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have signed on to the Senate version, introduced last week by presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Wyden spoke to OPB about the Remove the Stain Act this week. Here are highlights from his conversation with “Weekend Edition” host Jenn Chavez.
Q&A with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon
Jenn Chavez: What moved you to support this bill?
Sen. Ron Wyden: While Wounded Knee is obviously not in Oregon, we have nine federally recognized tribes. Often at my town hall meetings, I will hear firsthand about some of the historical injustices that have been perpetrated at their ancestors. And the message here is the impact of Wounded Knee has over time rippled through to hurt tribal members in a very personal way in Oregon and everywhere else.
JC: This bill has earned support from several veterans’ organizations. Do you anticipate any pushback from military groups?
RW: No. So far we have only picked up support, and I think the fact that veteran leaders have spoken out is also a very important because this is a statement about the values of soldiers as well. Soldiers are saying, this is not what we’re about, attacking and killing Indigenous people.
JC: This comes after President Trump pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Iraq and also restored the rank of a Navy SEAL acquitted of murder in Iraq. Does that impact how you’re thinking of the Remove the Stain Act?
RW: The president has basically set aside the military and their viewpoints with respect to these recent matters. Yes, I think we’re seeing soldiers talk about basic values of honor and fair treatment, and that is what is behind our legislation. And to me, when you have soldiers making it clear that they want to show that they have values that reflect the honor and decency that we know our soldiers are all about. That’s an important statement.
JC: Sen. Warren is a lead sponsor of this bill. She has been criticized by some Indigenous groups during her presidential campaign for past statements she’s made about her own Native American ancestry. Do you think her background on Native issues could have any impact on how this bill is viewed?
RW: I think Sen. Warren has worked very hard over the last few months to be very candid about her background, and I think I’ll leave it at that.
JC: As a senator from the Northwest, I’m wondering if you think something like this could be replicated in the region? For example, revoking medals of honor awarded to soldiers involved with the Nez Perce removal?
RW: I certainly want to signal that as long as I’m in public service, I’m going to do everything I can to stand up for fairness for our tribes. I just think a core part of public service in Oregon is about fairness to these to the tribes, and I will always be looking for opportunities to demonstrate it.
JC: Something else that’s been called for by Native groups in the past is reparations to descendants of victims of the Wounded Knee massacre. That is not a part of this bill, but would you support reparations?
RW: I think certainly, as we look to the challenges of our time, this legislation makes a lot of sense. I will tell you in our state, a top priority of mine has been to help the tribes along the Columbia River who long faced unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. I’ve been very concerned about improving health care services to tribal members and buttressing water infrastructure. So there are a whole host of issues we ought to be looking at in addition to this legislation. I’m going to do that.
To listen to the full conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.