By the end of 1890, the US government’s subjugation of the Native American peoples was virtually complete with the remnants of the once proud tribes herded into reservations located on poor land and relying on government handouts for survival.
Despite this, the white settlers still remained fearful of the Indians; these sentiments worsened by the endless production of Western fiction and the many Wild West shows depicting the Indians as bloodthirsty savages. The army too, stationed in forts near the reservations, where legends of earlier Indian atrocities were embroidered and enlarged, remained trigger happy and ready to crush any remaining signs of resistance.
The Plains Indians, whose lands once spread from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, had been particularly harshly treated by US authorities who had made many solemn treaties with them promising to feed, house and clothe them and protect reservation land from encroachment by white settlers, but failed to stop the tide of settlers and gold miners who flooded into Indian lands and the once vast herds of bison on which the Indians relied for food and shelter had been hunted to near extinction.
There was much unrest on the reservations with the young men wanting to return to the old ways and taunting the elders for bowing to the rule of the white man.
It was in this time of unrest that rumours began circulating among the tribes of a Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion who reportedly had a vision that the Christian Messiah, Jesus had returned to earth in the form of a Native American. The Messiah would raise all believers above the earth, the white man would disappear from all Indian lands and the buffalo and other animals would return in abundance. The ghosts of all Indian ancestors would return to earth and all would live in peace. All this would be brought about by performing the Ghost Dance.
These rumours may sound fanciful today, but the Indian nations were deeply spiritual, believing in the oneness of nature and the power of their Great Manitou expressed through the spirits of the sky, the earth and water. It would not be such a great leap to believe that Manitou would send a saviour to give them back all they had lost.
Two Lakota Sioux leaders, Kicking Bear and Short Bull, visited Wovoka and learned his rituals. He told them that meditation and prayer and the dance would bring all that the Indians desired. When the two returned home however, they saw the ritual as a way of galvanising their tribe into driving out the white man and that all believers should dance wearing a Ghost Dance Shirt which they claimed had the power to repel bullets. The power of the message spread and the white authorities began to fear a general uprising and ordered that some of the senior chiefs should be taken into custody to quell what they called “The Messiah Craze”. They also sent troops to bases close to the reservations and geared themselves up for another campaign.
A certain James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at the Standing Rock Agency where the great Sitting Bull lived, decided to send the local Indian police to arrest the chief and on December 15th 1890, a group of 40 police arrived. Crowds gathered in protest and when Sitting Bull was grabbed a scuffle broke out during which, a policeman was killed. The police panicked and opened fire on the crowd, killing Sitting Bull and eight of his Hunkpapa followers. Six of the police were also killed by the enraged tribesmen.
Fearful of reprisals, some of the Hunkpapa left the agency and fled to join chief Spotted Elk and his Miniconjou on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Spotted Elk realised that their would be trouble from the affair and on the 23rd December, decided to take about 350 of the two peoples to the relative safety of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and seek the protection of Chief Red Cloud who was considered friendly by the whites and would prevent any retaliation.
The military, led by General Nelson Miles, had also been ordered to arrest Spotted Elk, (sometimes known as Big Foot) and sent out the infamous Seventh Cavalry, led by Major Whiteside, to intercept the band. After a search in heavy snow, they discovered Spotted Elk’s party at Porcupine Creek, some 30 miles from Pine Ridge. Whiteside wanted to disarm the Indians immediately, but John Shangreau, a scout and interpreter who was half Sioux, advised against the move as it would surely lead to violence. The Indians offered no resistance to the soldiers and Spotted Elk, ill with pneumonia, rode in a wagon. The soldiers ordered the group to set up camp some five miles westward at Wounded Knee Creek. Colonel James Forsyth then arrived to take charge of the cavalry. He ordered his men to mount four Hotchkiss rapid fire cannon in position around the camp. The soldiers now numbered some 500 and the Indians 350, of which all but 120 were women and children, many being the widows and orphans of previous cavalry attacks.
The following morning, the 29th December, and in heavy snow, soldiers entered the camp demanding that all firearms be handed in. Forsyth also ordered the immediate removal and transportation of the Indians from “The zone of military operations”. A medicine man called Yellow Bird, advocated resistance and danced around the camp in a Ghost Dance Shirt.
A mixed race army scout named Philip Wells was called to interpret for Colonel Forsyth and later recounted his version of the events. “The Indians were ordered to give up their arms. Big Foot (Spotted Elk) replied that his people had no guns. Forsyth replied “Tell him he had guns yesterday when we found him, he is deceiving me. Tell him he need have no fear in giving up his arms as I wish to treat him kindly”. Big Foot replied, “They have no guns other than those you have found”. Forsyth responded, “You are lying to me in return for my kindness”.
A search of the camp confiscated 38 rifles and more were found when the Indians were searched. Yellow Bird continued to harangue the young tribesmen who were becoming more agitated as the search went on. There are conflicting accounts of the events that followed, but it seems that Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, probably misunderstanding the order. Another Indian shouted to the soldier, “Stop, he is deaf”, but the soldiers continued to pry the rifle from Black Coyote. The soldiers were again told, “Stop, he cannot understand you”, but two soldiers then tried to grab Black Coyote from behind and in the ensuing struggle his rifle fired.
At the same moment, Yellow Bird threw some dust in the air and five warriors threw aside their blankets and fired their rifles at the soldiers. After this initial exchange, the shooting became indiscriminate.
According to General Miles, “A scuffle then broke out between one warrior who had a rifle in his hands and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a battle occurred, not only the warriors, but the sick chief Spotted Elk, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed”.
What he failed to say was that what started out as a rather heavy handed attempt to disarm and round up a group of non threatening Indians rapidly turned into a massacre. When Black Coyote’s gun fired, the nervous soldiers panicked and began firing at the warriors standing in line to be searched. The few Indians still in possession of their rifles responded by shooting back at the soldiers. With no cover and with only a few weapons, the fight lasted only a few minutes before over half the warriors were killed. Hearing the shooting, the soldiers manning the Hotchkiss guns began firing into the camp, ripping into the tipis and lodges housing the woman and children. It is believed that many of the soldiers in the camp were victims of friendly fire from their own Hotchkiss guns.
The Indian women and children fled the camp and ran to a nearby ravine to escape the crossfire, but by now the officers had lost all control over their men who fanned out through the camp shooting the wounded Indians while others mounted their horses and charged off in pursuit of those trying to escape and riding for miles across the prairie to reach and kill all and any of their quarry.
By the end of the fighting which had lasted for little over an hour, the camp was littered with nearly 200 bodies, men, women and children. A blizzard then blew in from the north. In her book, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown estimates that 300 of the original 350 were now dead. The army themselves reckoned that they collected 51 survivors, (4 men and 47 women and children) after the massacre and loaded them on to wagons to transport them to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Army casualties were reported at 25 dead and 39 wounded.
The Lakota medicine man Black Elk, a survivor of the event, later recalled, “I Did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them when my eyes were young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. The nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer and the sacred tree is dead”.
American Horse, another survivor, later described the scene, “There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce. A mother was shot down with her infant, the child not knowing that its mother was dead, was still nursing. The women as they fled with their babies were shot right through…and after most of them had been killed, a cry was made that all those that were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys came out of their place of refuge and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there”.
Captain Edward Godfrey, commanding D Company of the Seventh cavalry wrote, “I Know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don’t believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly, but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us, warriors, squaws, children, ponies and dogs, all went down before that unaimed fire”.
General Miles visited the site some days later and estimated about 300 snow shrouded forms were strewn over the area. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the camp and cut down without mercy by the troopers. Judging by the slaughter it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk.
The military hired some civilians to collect the bodies who were then buried in a mass grave on the site of the camp. Four infants were found alive amongst the bodies, found wrapped in their dead mother’s shawls.
Miles denounced Forsyth and relieved him of command, but a Court of Enquiry exonerated him of responsibility and he was re-instated as commander of the Seventh cavalry.