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New Bill Would Strip Medals of Honor From Soldiers Behind Wounded Knee Massacre

The Remove the Stain Act would revoke medals from U.S. soldiers who murdered hundreds of Lakota men, women and children.

Sen. Jeff Merkley talks to Sen. Elizabeth Warren prior to a hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee April 7, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, released the Senate companion to the Remove the Stain Act.

Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and D-New Mexico, and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington, introduced the House with the Remove Stain Act in June.

Both bills strip the Congressional Medals of Honor that were awarded to the 20 men in the U.S. 7th Cavalry. The soldiers murdered defenseless and unarmed Lakota men, women and children on December 29, 1890, also known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

“The horrifying acts of violence against hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee should be condemned, not celebrated with Medals of Honor,” Warren said. “The Remove the Stain Act acknowledges a profoundly shameful event in U.S. history, and that’s why I’m joining my House colleagues in this effort to advance justice and take a step toward righting wrongs against Native peoples.”

Sen. Merkley said they “have a responsibility to tell the true story of the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre.”

“We cannot whitewash or minimize the dark chapters of our history, but instead must remember, reflect on, and work to rectify them,” Merkley said. “The massacre of innocents could not be farther from heroism, and I hope this bill helps set the record straight.”

The U.S. had awarded the soldiers the Congressional Medals of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration and only given to a soldier who “must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery.”

The bill states that the medal “has been awarded only 3,522 times, including only 145 times for the Korean War, 126 times in World War I, 23 times during the Global War on Terror, and 20 times for the massacre at Wounded Knee.”

These two bills will be in both chambers of Congress which allows for talk on both sides, Haaland said.

“The Remove the Stain Act is about more than just rescinding Medals of Honor from soldiers who served in the U.S. 7th Cavalry and massacred unarmed Lakota women and children – it’s also about making people aware of this country’s history of genocide of American Indians, Haaland said. “Senator Elizabeth Warren understands this, and I’m pleased we’ll be able to have these conversations and move bills forward in both chambers.”

Supporters of the bill, including Chairman Charles R. Vig of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, urge the passage of this bill since it will exist in both the House and Senate.

“We urge prompt enactment of [the Remove the Stain Act] by the House and Senate as an important step in beginning to correct our Country’s past wrong doings and in charting a new path forward based on mutual understanding and respect,” the chairman wrote. “It is shameful to honor soldiers for massacring defenseless men, women and children. Moreover, it disrespects the entire Native American community who send more men and women to serve in the military at higher rates than any other ethnic group.”

More tribes, organizations and individuals support the Remove the Stain Act, such as the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Coalition of Large Tribes, United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, Heartbeat At Wounded Knee 1890, the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre Descendants Society, Four Directions, the Native Organizers Alliance, VoteVets, Veterans for Peace, Common Defense, Veterans for American Ideals, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Mandan Hidastsa Arikara Chairman Mark Fox, representing the Coalition of Large Tribes, and veteran of the Marine Corps urged Congress to revoke the 20 medals.

“The Coalition of Large Tribes recognizes the importance of Senator Warren and Merkley’s introduction of the Remove the Stain Act in the Senate and supports their efforts in being a voice for justice that has been denied for 130 years,” Fox said.

At least two veterans organizations support the bills.

Garett Reppenhagen, executive director of Veterans for Peace told Congress they “should act to remove the stain.”

“Congress should recognize this massacre for what it was, a mistake, and not glorify it with the 20 Medals of Honor that were subsequently awarded,” Reppenhagen wrote. “We strongly condemn the violence used against the Sioux people, and believe these medals from Wounded Knee tarnish the Medal of Honor.”

Political Director of Common Defense Alexander McCoy agrees. He calls it straight and said, “…there should be no medals for massacres.”

“Recipients of this award are among the greatest heroes of our history, and so it is tragic that past recipients have included U.S. soldiers who slaughtered hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. It is critical that Congress act to rescind these specific awards, because there should be no medals for massacres,” McCoy wrote. “For us, this bill is not only about correcting the historical record, it is about recognizing the service of countless veterans alive today, taking an important step towards healing for the Lakota descendants, and protecting the integrity of every subsequently awarded Medal of Honor.”

Perhaps the only obstacle in the way of both bills and Congress is the commander-in-chief, Donald J. Trump. Of course, he can veto a bill.

And with the commander-in-chief’s recent actions of dubbing Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher as a hero, it causes concern for the military. Gallagher was accused of multiple charges, including fatally stabbing an Islamic State militant captive and attempted murder of civilians in 2017. He was acquitted of all charges by the military jury but one, taking a photo with a dead captive.

The Navy Times reported that one of the SEALs overheard him saying he was “OK with shooting women.”

The jury wanted to reduce his rank and cut his pension and benefits, according to the Associated Press. Trump intervened and told the Navy to reinforce his rank among other orders.

Philip J. Deloria, professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Harvard University, finds Gallagher’s case “completely relevant” to the Wounded Knee Massacre and Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado even if both massacres happened more than 100 years ago.

“I can imagine in that argument the Gallagher case in some parts of the military, the Gallagher case might ask military officials do the revisioning and take a critical look at its history and question why all of those medals?” he said.

In these three war crimes — Gallagher, Wounded Knee, and Sand Creek — discipline has been ensued in different ways.

The military took action on Gallagher but Trump overrides the system, Congress investigated the Sand Creek Massacre in 1865, and the Remove the Stain Act is introduced for Wounded Knee.

There is “no accountability” for Wounded Knee, he said. “Back in the day they didn’t follow those rules” but now Congress is stepping in and wants an “accurate lens” and says “let’s draw some lines on what our soldiers are able and not able to do.”

The tricky part of the two bills in the chambers is it being “a radical function,” Deloria said. “How often do you take 20 medals from people? It’s also legitimate.”

In all three examples, especially Wounded Knee being a “historical wrong”, Deloria said, “This a moment where military rises as a voice of reason.”

“Revisiting that in the present moment would be a powerful way for the military to reinforce its own argument of military order,” Deloria said. “Admitting on two levels, yes, a massacre occurred and we inappropriately stepped outside of our own bounds of order by awarding these 20 medals of honor, and we’re big enough to revisit these days and speak to the present moment.”

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “I will always protect our great warfighters. I’ve got your backs!”

Officers told Slate in that they are worried Trump undermining the military will affect the military justice system and some officers see the president’s actions as a betrayal.

A Pentagon official said: “You can wreck a military this way.”

“If a soldier or SEAL doesn’t like an order or thinks he’s being unfairly punished, he now has the idea that he can go over the heads of his superiors and appeal to the president, maybe by writing a letter to Fox,” the official told Slate.

However, with the president’s veto, Congress can still pass a bill with two-thirds of the vote, and then it becomes law.