Moving along in my A to Z challenge we are now on W, and a topic that has caused me great heartache every time I think of it, from the time I first read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. My mother bought the book when I was 12, and it was a brutal, harsh, painful introduction to American history for a 12 year old, but one that has never left me. (Note: I have revised and removed photos of the dead at Wounded Knee out of respect for those who died and their ancestors.)
"Yes, it is so about Jesus, and all the Indians are talking about it. He has come to save the Indians. It is the first time he has come to save just the Indians. It was too far to go to him where he was before, up in the sky. Now it is not half so far to where he is, so you may come to him. All Indians may." --Crooked Nose.
"Dancing was a way of life. Even the wind or the tree, everything seems to dance. So everything begins with a song and a dance. It's a ritual. This is why the Ghost Dance was acceptable."
--Birgil Kills Straight, Lakota
"Our elders speak of a one brief period of time that the divine being gave our people the opportunity to make a connection with the life hereafter. The Ghost Dance was powerful, it was real, and it came to pass." --Leonard Little Finger, Descendant of Big Foot
On that fateful day, December 29, 1890, the atmosphere of hatred and distrust exploded in a tragedy that shocked the nation with the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The Ghost Dance
As you may recall, the Ghost Dance moved from one reservation to another like wildfire to the desperate Indians on their drought-parched land. It reached the Sioux in the Dakotas around 1890. By the time it reached the Sioux it was obvious that the government and white settlers were afraid of the implications of the dance, in spite of its ties to Christianity. The dance, the shirt, the press, the desperate-sounding messages of naive Indian Agents added together to form a lethal mix.
The impact of the Ghost Dance Shirt must be understood when piecing together the events of that day. The shirts were not in the vision of Wovoka, they were introduced to the Sioux by a warrior named Kicking Bear. Kicking Bear told the Sioux that the symbols--the eagle, stars--would protect them from bullets should the military try to harm them.
The military believed the magic symbols were a sign that the Sioux were planning an uprising. "Why would they need protection if their intentions were honorable and their actions were peaceful?" the settlers asked. Suspicion and mistrust was everywhere.
By this time the military knew the way of life of the Native American Indians. I believe they would have/should have known that painting symbols on their shirts was part of their spiritual practice, similar to painting their bodies, shields, teepees, and even their horses.
According to "Native American Tech," the symbols used on shields, teepees, bodies, and clothing were often chosen because they came to a person in a vision or dream. For instance, Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse painted lightning bolts on his face and white circles resembling hail stones on his horse and his own body.
According to Oglala Lakota Nation Historian Aaron Ten Bears speaking on "Native American Tech," these symbols represented their medicine, and every warrior walked his own path and had his own medicine. Therefore, painting symbols on the Ghost Shirts for protection would be a logical action and a way of life, and not necessarily preparation for war.
Paint came from ground minerals mixed with bear grease. Black came from charcoal, white from clay, blue from duck poop. Images decorating shields, teepees, and horses were believed to help protect them from enemy arrows. The Ghost Shirt symbols were certainly not new to the military. They should have known the painted symbols had the same meaning as all other painted symbols used by the Native American Indians--protection, not a declaration of war.
Fear and Panic Inspired by Indian Agents
The dance and its promise of the return of the prosperity and great leaders of past years was the last hope to the desperate Sioux. They left their jobs and schools and everything the white government tried to force them to do to make them more "white," and they danced and danced into a frenzy.
Nevertheless, it was not the dance that spread fear among the pioneers as much as the Indian Agents, their messages to the government and military and their quotes to the press. All Indians were practicing the Ghost Dance, but only the Sioux wore the Ghost Shirts, and it was the Indian Agents who were supposed to be working with the Sioux who inspired fear in the hearts of the settlers.
According to the Story of the Great American West, Indian Agent James McLaughlin of the Standing Rock Agency wrote, "A more pernicious system of religion could not have been offered to a people who stood on the threshold of civilization." It was one of the few logical statements made by McLaughlin, in my opinion. At least he recognized the religious connection, but failed to see that the white civilization had failed the people, all of the people. It did not bring peace to the community. It did not bond the Native American Indians and the settlers. Forcing one's beliefs on others does not create unity.
According to the US National Park Service website, Valentine McGillicuddy was the Indian Agent at Pine Ridge from 1879 to 1886, and McGillicuddy clashed regularly with Oglala Chief Red Cloud over education, farming, and social and religious changes forced upon the Sioux. McGillicuddy was replaced by Indian Agent Hugh D. Gallagher from 1886-1890, and Gallagher seemed to have a more calming affect on the situation, but the resentment still existed between the Sioux and the white settlers.
On October 9, 1890, when the Ghost Dance religion was at its peak, the inexperienced agent Daniel F. Royer replaced Gallagher, which proved to be one of the worst decisions the US government could have made in Indian relations. Within four days of his arrival he was already sending frantic pleas for help and military protection based on his misunderstanding of the Sioux way of life and the meaning of the Ghost Dance.
According to Leonard Little Finger, descendant of Big Foot, speaking on "Wild West Tech," Indian agents were political appointees who rarely had any understanding of the ways of life of the Native American Indians, little understanding of their dreams and hopes, or what they had lost. It is certain that Daniel F. Royer did not understand the culture of the Sioux.
The local Indians referred to Daniel F. Royer as Young Man Afraid of Indians, and their description was spot on. Royer felt fear and spread fear like a contagious virus. "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy," Royer said in an urgent appeal for help, help that was unnecessary as there was no real threat. Nevertheless, he begged in his message to the military, "We need protection and we need it now."
In Washington, D.C., far removed from the events taking place on the reservations, the only information US President Benjamin Harrison had available in order to guide him on the situation in South Dakota was the frantic messages sent by Daniel F. Royer, so he sent troops to both the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Agencies.
The Arrival of the Military
On November 20, 1890, the first contingents of military troops arrived at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. They came from Omaha and Forts Robinson and Niobrara, Nebraska. Within a week, thousands of troops filled the reservations from surrounding states.
According to the National Park Service Website, "nearly half the Army's infantry and cavalry and some artillery, the largest concentration of troops anywhere in the United States between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and one of the largest ever assembled in one place to confront Indians."
At Pine Ridge Reservation, Major General Nelson A. Miles commanded the operation with approximately 3000 troops, including the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment serving under Colonel James W. Forsyth. The soldiers essentially sat and waited while their leaders tried to gather information and calm the situation, but their presence alone was enough to incite fear in the Indians.
Sitting Bull became the focus of much of the fear and anxiety of the white community. He was feared more than the Ghost Dance. Sitting bull was a Hunkpapa Sioux, a medicine man, one of the last of the great warriors to surrender to the military, one of the last to accept the white government's authority and many believed he never did accept the white government's authority.
Sitting Bull was the man who had a vision of the defeat of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Calvary at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the man who made that happen.
Sitting Bull led the Sioux in the Battle of Little Bighorn and The Great Sioux War of 1876. He escaped with some of his followers to Sasketchewan, but surrendered to US soldiers in 1881. He then worked for Buffalo Bill Cody's Buffalo Bill's Wild West where he was paid $50 a week. He was a celebrity, a warrior, and earned a small fortune before returning to the Standing Rock Agency.
Then James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Agency, heard rumors that Sitting Bull converted to Catholicism. For some reason, this incised McLaughlin, who began a campaign to bring about the end of Sitting Bull. McLaughlin insisted that Sitting Bull was responsible for what he considered to be a dangerous religious frenzy created by the Ghost Dance and argued both with the government and in the press for the immediate arrest of Sitting Bull.
The medicine man, Yellow Bird, sang and danced and called to the people to resist.
Then came that horrible moment. A shot was fired. There was a struggle. Who fired the shot was never verified. It was the shot heard round the West. It's source was never identified, but that one shot will never be forgotten.
The massacre began. The peaceful valley was suddenly filled with the screams of women and children. The soldiers on the hill were infuriated that the women and children were escaping in the ravine and pursued them for two miles, shooting them down, making certain that they would all die. It was ghastly. It was torture. It truly was a massacre. Over 200 men, women, children, and tiny babies lay dead in the snow.
A nearby church, still decorated for Christmas was used as a makeshift hospital. Men were hired to bury the dead at $2 per body in a mass grave. The press stayed on, reporting every last horrible detail they could find, propping up the frozen bodies of the dead to take pictures that were later made into postcards and sold to tourists.
- Brown, Dee. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Sterling Innovation Publishing. New York: 1970.
- "Native American Tech." Wild West Tech. Originally aired May 11 2004. Accessed August, 2007.
- "Pine Ridge Agency: South Dakota." National Park Service Sites and Buildings. Accessed October 4, 2013.
- "The Final Clash at Wounded Knee." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
- "The Final Clash: Wounded Knee." Wild West Tech. Greystone Television. First aired September 16,1993. Accessed February, 2011.
- "The Ghost Dance." Native American Encyclopedia. Accessed October 4, 2013.
- The Spirit World. Time Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: 1992.