One hundred thirty years ago today, the United States military engaged—for the last time—the American Indians. The conflict, often known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, should appropriately be called the tragedy or massacre of Wounded Knee, for it was nothing short of a travesty. The last actual battle of the Indian Wars was that at Skeleton Canyon against Geronimo and his forces, four years earlier, in 1886.
Beginning in October of 1890, tensions between a significant group of Sioux Indians and the U.S. Government reached toward the tipping point in South Dakota. Many of the Sioux had begun to adopt a nativist religion, recently imported from Nevada, called the “Ghost Dance.” The dance, a complicated movement that hoped for the end of the world with the intermixing of the living and the dead, had been founded by Jack “Wovoka” Wilson, a Paiute Indian. In his famous messiah letter, he had written:
“When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.
“I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud [rain?] which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there [the Indian Territory].
There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.
Grandfather [a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah] says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother. [Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka for the delegation].
Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.
Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes [at the coming of the new world] do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.
I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.”
Many of the American Indians of the Southwest had a deathly fear of ghosts, and Wilson’s faith failed to catch on there. But it spread rapidly on the northern Great Plains, especially among the Sioux. The Sioux, of course, had not only been recently defeated as a people, but they had lost their entire way of life—the buffalo hunt—and the U.S. had brutally confined and imprisoned them on strictly (and unjustly) governed reservations. Among the most corrupt was the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Here, the people not only adopted the Ghost Dance, but they added to its tenets, claiming that a “ghost shirt” would protect the wearer from bullets and other weapons of the whites.
In its attempt to control and attenuate the Ghost Dance, the U.S. military decided to arrest two of the most prominent Sioux leaders, Sitting Bull and Big Foot. Ironically, neither man had thought much of the Ghost Dance movement, seeing it as contrary to the Sioux vision of life. The arrest of Sitting Bull went horribly wrong, resulting in the great man’s death in his underwear. During the subsequent arrest of Big Foot (who was deathly ill with pneumonia), the U.S. Army (the Seventh Cavalry, once led by George Armstrong Custer) demanded all the arms of the Ghost Dancers. During the disarming, a Sioux fired a shot, and a medicine man threw dirt in the air (the signal for the end of the earth). A firefight broke out, and the U.S. military killed—very quickly—anywhere from 150 to 200 Sioux. Many of the wounded Sioux remained on the field—without aid—through harsh, freezing weather. When photographers arrived in the scene, they found the field littered with grotesque frozen warriors. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers died.
The importance of Wounded Knee cannot be exaggerated. It was a horrible end to a horrible series of Indian Wars (most unjust and brutal) that had begun almost immediately following the Civil War. That the massacre occurred in 1890, the same year as the “closing of the American frontier,” at least as Frederick Jackson Turner understood it, has not been lost on historians. Further, the actions of the U.S. Army at the time proved many of the republican fears of a standing army as originally expressed during the Founding and Jacksonian periods. The fight with the American Indians also undid the Jeffersonian legacy of the “empire of liberty” in which the American Indians were to be treated as future citizens of the republic, as best and most brilliantly expressed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
For those interested in the tragedy of Wounded Knee, see Jerome A. Greene’s most recent book, “All Guns Fired at One Time”: Native Voices of Wounded Knee, 1890, published in October 2020 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press (sdhspress.com).