Friday, November 22, 2013

Massacre at Wounded Knee

US Attorney General Eric Holder laying a wreath at the site of the Wounded Knee Memorial. Photo taken September 26, 2009.

November is Native American Heritage Month. As you will read below, November and December are also the months leading to the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee. 

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.)

"All Indians must dance, everywhere. Keep on dancing. Pretty soon, next spring, Great Spirit come, He bring back all game of every kind. All dead Indians come back and live again when Great Spirit comes this way. Then all Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Then while Indians way up high, big flood comes and all white people die. After that, water go away and then nobody but Indians everywhere. Then Medicine Men tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good times will come." --Wovoka

Wovoka, Paiute Shaman.

"Indian people were ready to try anything, and what Wovoka proposed sounded reasonable. To a drowning man, he would reach for a straw floating by, and it was in that state that the coming of the Messiah idea was presented, and they grasped it." --Johnson Holy Rock, Lakota

Sioux Ghost Dance, circa 1894 (If video fails to play, click on link.) 

"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 

December 29, 1890: The Beginning of the End

It was December 29, 1890. The Great Indian Wars were over, but the tension remained. The white settlers feared the Native American Indians. The surrender of the Sioux was less than a decade behind them. The Native American Indians, cheated and lied to in nearly every promise made to them, were equally distrustful of the white men. This one battle, the battle of prejudice, was not over.

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.
Kiowa Ghost Dance shirt. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

The Implications of the Ghost Dance Shirt

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.

"Troops or no troops, we do not intend to stop dancing." --Little Wound

Colonel James W. Forsyth commanded the 7th Cavalry Regiment at Pine Ridge Reservation.

Then the reporters arrived looking for a war that wasn't there. They gathered each morning over coffee and concocted stories to send across the nation. They did not imply, they outright claimed that a war was taking place, and the government and the people believed every word they read. The Indians knew what was being said, and they could sense what was coming. 

Sitting Bull

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, circa 1885. Photo by David Francis Barry (1854-1934).

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.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody. Photo taken in 1885.

According to the Story of the Great American West, Sitting Bull was also one of the few leaders of the Sioux who questioned the power of the Ghost Dance, but he kept a respectable distance and did not interfere.

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. 

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, McLaughlin's accusations regarding Sitting Bull were believed by military leaders and in December of 1890, Major General Nelson A. Miles at Fort Yates on Standing Rock ordered the arrests of Sitting Bull and Big Foot, leader of the Miniconjou Sioux on the Cheyenne Reservation. 

On December 14, 1890, McLaughlin sent a letter to Lt. Henry Bullhead with instructions on how to capture Sitting Bull, recommending an early morning arrest. The troops arrived at Sitting Bull's camp at 5:30 a.m. on December 15 and included 39 officers and four volunteers. They surrounded his house, shouted out that he was under arrest, then entered. Sitting Bull was led outside and told to mount a horse. Bullhead told Sitting Bull he would be taken to meet with an Indian Affairs agent, then he could return. Sitting Bull refused and the officers grabbed him and a struggle ensued. 

Lakota Catch-the-Bear shot Bullhead who turned and fired his revolver at Sitting Bull. Another officer, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head. The Great Chief Sitting Bull died in the arms of his people. 
According to the show "Native American Tech," Sitting Bull's horse, a gift from Buffalo Bill, was trained to do a dance in the Wild West show. Sitting Bull's horse survived the shooting of Sitting Bull and his followers believed this was a sign, that the horse was telling them to continue with the Ghost Dance as the horse pranced and bowed for the people. Some believe the horse was simply doing a trick, but to the mourning, desperate people, it was a sign. (I know animals, and love them as much as they love me. I would have also believed it was a sign, that Sitting Bull's horse was speaking to the people.)

The grave of Chief Sitting Bull, circa 1906. Sitting Bull was originally taken to Fort Yates for burial, but in 1953 Sitting Bull's ancestors had his remains removed and reburied near his birthplace at Mobridge, South Dakota.

At this point the military, white settlers, US government and the press were closely following three "hot spots" and three Indian tribes involved in the situation: The Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge Reservation led by Chief Red Cloud; the Hunkpapa at Standing Rock where Sitting Bull died; and Chief Big Foot and the Miniconjou at the Cheyenne River Reservation. 

Around 400 of the Hunkpapas attempted to flea to the Cheyenne River Reservation led by Sitting Bull's half brother Spotted Elk, but Miniconjou Chief Hump, with the assistance of US Army officers, managed to convince most of them to surrender and they were taken to Fort Bennett. However, 38 of the Hunkpapa turned to Big Foot for help, joining him at his village on the forks of the Cheyenne River west of Fort Bennett. 

Big Foot's band of Miniconjou Sioux at a dance at the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota, circa August 8, 1890.

Fear and Tension Inspires Desperate Acts

Lt. Col. Edwin V. Summer was given the responsibility to arrest Chief Big Foot, but considering the tragic circumstances he decided to hold off on the arrest and keep the village under surveillance. His actions only increased the tension and fear in the village. More troops arrived for the surveillance operation and the tension and fear in the village grew stronger. 

Chief Big Foot was in a terrible position. He knew he had to act to bring peace to his people and the Hunkpapa refugees, 350 in all, but what could he do that would not incite a violent reaction from the military? He must have known that any action would bring violence. In his heart, he must have known he was facing his own death. 

Late in the evening on December 23, in an act of desperation to save his people, Big Foot led his people and the remaining Hunkpapa Sioux out of the village and into the darkness. They quietly headed south through the Dakota Badlands toward the Pine Ridge Reservation. Big Foot's intention was to ask for help from Chief Red Cloud on how to make peace with the military and save his people and the people of Sitting Bull.
The military were not as quiet in their pursuit. They were angry, and perhaps felt foolish that they had missed Big Foot's escape. The 7th Calvary, the former command of deceased Lt. Col. George Custer serving under Major Whiteside, left in pursuit of Big Foot who of course surrendered without violence--it was never his intention to do anything else. Big Foot and his followers, now numbering around 350, all made camp at Wounded Knee Creek 20 miles from the Pine Ridge Agency while 500 soldiers positioned themselves in the surrounding hills. Big Foot, who by this time had pneumonia and was very sick, had no intention of running anywhere. Nevertheless, the entire 7th Calvary was called in, as well. The military, and the press, was prepared and aching for a war.
A 1923 re-enactment of the encampment at Wounded Knee Creek showing a line of US troops in the background. The rest of the troops were positioned in the nearby hills. 

Then, early in the morning on December 29, 1890, Col. James W. Forsyth ordered the surrender of all weapons. The military and the press would have their war. They insisted on it, no matter how the Indians felt, no matter what their intentions.

The Shot Heard Round the West

On the morning of December 29, 1890, Chief Big Foot and the 350 men, women and children who looked to him for guidance awoke to find themselves completely surrounded by military with a line of military on the hillside and orders to surrender all of their weapons to the US military. Chief Big Foot was so sick he could barely stand unassisted. His warriors refused to surrender their weapons--they were already surrounded and the request, to them, was illogical and might place them in danger. They were right. They were in danger.

The warriors were lined up and ordered to bring their guns out of their teepees. They said they had no guns. Forsyth was angry, and impatient. He ordered his soldiers to enter the tepees, the homes of the Miniconjou, and the Hunkpapa refugees, to search for and confiscate all weapons. 

The medicine man, Yellow Bird, sang and danced and called to the people to resist.

Forsyth then ordered his men to search the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa. It was unwise for a white man to lay hands on a Sioux, particularly military men, but they were not even respectful in their search. They were bullying, rough, and insulting. And what happened next was confusing, fast, and deadly. It is believed that a young man named Black Coyote, angry over the rough treatment he received at the hands of a soldier, stood up and said, "This is my rifle, I paid for it, and no one is going to take it from me without paying me for it." He was grabbed by two soldiers.

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. 

Closing Thoughts on The Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre was a symbol, a threat, really, for those who refused to adopt the ways of the white man. The white American government was dissatisfied with simply rounding up the Native American Indians like cattle and watching them with armed guards like criminals, the government wanted to see the Sioux, and anyone else who stood up for their rights for fair treatment, destroyed. Wounded Knee was the last confrontation, a violent end to the spirit, culture, and dreams of the Native American Indians.

 Big Foot at the Cheyenne River Delegation in 1888. I removed the previous photo because I spoke with one of Big Foot's ancestors who feels Big Foot's death photo is sacred, and I agreed and removed the photo. There were many photos taken of the dead after the shooting and these photos were printed on postcards and sold to tourists.

"Wounded Knee was the last act in the government conspiracy to dispossess the Sioux," according to Paul Andrew Hutton, Professor at University of New Mexico speaking on The Final Clash: Wounded Knee. "When all of their nefarious schemes and with bogus treaties with false negotiations with broken promises failed, the government reacted with thuggery, and they achieved their ends with violence."

Soldiers on horseback return to the Cheyenne River Reservation following the massacre at Wounded Knee. Photo from the Office of the Chief Signal Officer.

According to Dee Brown, author of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, "Wounded Knee is usually listed as the last battle of the American Indians. It was not a battle, it was a massacre. There is no way it could be called a battle, or even a fight." 

Black Elk said the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee. According to Black Elk, "Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished," he explained in Black Elk Speaks. "And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

  • 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.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...