FARGO — U.S. House representatives from the Dakotas and Minnesota are largely undecided on a bill that would rescind Medals of Honor awarded after a 129-year-old massacre of Native Americans in South Dakota.
The Remove the Stain Act, a House bill sponsored by Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., would rescind 20 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for the Dec. 29, 1890, Wounded Knee Massacre, in which Congress estimates the U.S. 7th Cavalry killed more than 350 unarmed Sioux people of the Minneconjou band — most of whom were women and children. The massacre is the largest recorded in U.S. history.
The Forum surveyed representatives in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota on their stances on the bill, giving each about five weeks to reply to requests for comment, so they would have enough time to respond given the ongoing presidential impeachment inquiry.
South Dakota's lone representative, Republican Dusty Johnson, was undecided on the bill.
"Wounded Knee is a tragic chapter in our nation’s history that we should all learn from," he said in a statement. "Medal of Honor recipients of today are held to a tremendously higher standard. It’s painfully clear from our history, the U.S. didn’t have these same standards in 1890. The Army has reviewed these medals in the past and I’ve been in conversations to determine whether another review may be warranted.”
Staff from the office of Republican Kelly Armstrong, the lone representative for North Dakota where many bands of the Sioux tribe now reside, declined to answer questions about the bill, saying they’re still “reviewing the legislation and its potential impact.”
Representatives from Minnesota — where it’s recorded many Sioux people lived prior to white settlement — had mixed reviews on the bill.
Despite multiple requests from The Forum, Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber, all Minnesota Republicans, didn’t respond. And Reps. Ilhan Omar, Collin Peterson and Dean Phillips, all Minnesota Democrats, declined to comment.
Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., said she’s “actively considering the bill and learning more about it.” Though she didn’t disclose a position on the legislation, she said the massacre “represents a deeply painful time in our Native communities’ history, and we have a lot of work to do to repair the damage done during that violent time.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is one of 14 co-sponsors signed onto the bill. In an emailed statement, she said the Wounded Knee Massacre is “indeed a stain on our American history,” and the act is “an important step in the healing and reconciliation process for Indian Country and for our nation as a whole.”
Heck, who introduced the bill, said the Remove the Stain Act is “the kind of concept that requires some education. The first reaction for people that haven’t given it much thought is: 'What do you mean you’re going to take away Medals of Honor?'"
Heck said he decided to sponsor the legislation after discovering the United States’ highest award for valor was given out “like candy” for what amounted to a massacre. “I was morally repulsed,” he said, noting that just 23 Medals of Honor have been awarded for the 18-year Global War on Terror. In total, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,522 times in U.S. history.
“This is a grave injustice,” he said.
In August, Democratic presidential candidates gathered in Sioux City, Iowa, for the inaugural Native American Presidential Debate. In the front row of the auditorium sat 100-year-old Marcella LeBeau, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation in South Dakota, where members of the Minneconjou band now reside. She asked each of the presidential candidates one question: Will you remove the stain of the Medals of Honor given to U.S. soldiers for the Wounded Knee Massacre?
“We have a pervasive sadness that exists on our reservation because of Wounded Knee and our unresolved grief,” said LeBeau, a veteran of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II and recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her role in liberating France from Nazi control.
“Our people still remember,” she said.
In June, LeBeau was in D.C. when Heck, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., introduced the bill.
In a recent interview with The Forum, Heck said he’s targeting next calendar year for passage of the bill and added that he’s expecting the Senate will introduce similar legislation.
“We are in the process of building the support necessary to be able to move it forward to have those educational conversations with my colleagues,” he said. “That just takes time.”
Haaland, one of two Native American women to be the first to serve in Congress, said the Remove the Stain Act is about "more than just rescinding Medals of Honor."
"It’s also about making people aware of this country’s history of genocide of American Indians," she said in a statement, adding that she's been educating her colleagues about the massacre as it's a tragedy that's been "left out of history books."
The bill, she said, "has the potential to provide profound healing."