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American History II


The Final Chapter in the Indian Wars

            Over a period of two and a half centuries, Americans had moved Native American Indians out of their way in order to make way for whatever activities the white man wanted to pursue. Indian population in the 1600s was estimated to be about 10 million people; by 1865, an estimated 300,000 Indians remained. The decline in total population was largely due to two factors: disease and warfare. To whites, whether Spanish, English, or something else, Indians were "savages," "barbarians," somewhat less than fully human.  Prior to the twentieth century, there were virtually no attempts to understand Indian culture or to assess the merits of its beliefs and values. Nor had there been any attempt to recognize that it had anything of value to offer to the emerging American society. At various times, whites convinced themselves that they were bringing something of value to the Indians by introducing the Indians to European and American technologies and other cultural elements. But, as the Cherokee removal in the late 1830s amply demonstrated, replacing hunting and gathering with farming, becoming Christian, developing a written language, creating a literate population, etc.--even when coupled with being completely peaceful--was not enough to ensure that whites would not resort to violence, extermination, and other means to get Indians out of their way whenever it was believed Indians were in the way of something that whites wanted.

            By the time of the Civil War, most Native American Indians were concentrated in the West. In the West, the federal government maintained forts and other Army posts to protect white settlers and travelers, but during the Civil War many of troops assigned to many of these posts had been shipped east to fight in the war. At the same time, there was an increase in Indian attacks against the posts. In the years following the Civil War, the United States turned the attention of its military toward subduing and removing the Plains Indians, nomadic hunters and gatherers, from areas in which whites wished to settle. In 1867, a Peace Commission was created in an attempt to bring peace to western lands by creating reservations for the tribes. Three major areas in which reservations were established were in present day South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Leaders of various tribes agreed to reservations in an attempt to preserve their way of life and to ensure peace. Virtually all Indians had been "reservationized" by the early 1880s.  Once on reservations, Indians were subject to the various attempts of Indian agents, Christian missionaries, and others to make them into some sort of imitation white people, but an imitation white minority that would not have the rights of whites no matter how closely they came to emulate white society. From the perspective of the Indians, their culture was being obliterated.

            Reservation life had rendered the male role of protector and hunter obsolete. By 1889, a whole generation of young men had reached adulthood without a clear role for themselves in society. Yet many Indians were still alive who had lived the traditional role, and even some who had not, could still remember at least some of the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s and the final surrender of the Sioux in 1880-81. They longed for something to do, for some source of hope that they could once again be men as their culture understood manhood, even as they tried to live a lifestyle that did not fit.

            In response to this yearning, and Indian named Wovoka stepped forward preaching a blend of Christianity and traditional ways that had been revealed to him in a vision. Wovoka preached that Jesus had returned to earth specifically to save Indians (but asked his followers not to let whites know that). A gentle man himself, Wovoka preached that men should do good and avoid violence. He taught that if Indians did a series of ritual dances eventually, the Messiah would cause all their white oppressors to die, leaving no one but Indians. He taught that the Messiah had caused some of the Indian dead to live again and would cause still more to live again. The dance eventually became what is known as the "ghost dance." While the ghost dance was not a traditional ritual dance, all of the Plains Indians' rituals began with a song and a dance; thus, the ghost dance was easily adapted to tribal life. Wovoka taught that only those who participated in the dancing, for which there were specified times and specified durations, would be saved by Jesus when he crushed the evil whites and their ways. The Ghost Dance movement was essentially a messianic movement (i.e., a movement based on the coming of a messiah or deliverer) which borrowed the idea of Jesus appearing in the New World to the Indians from the Mormons, and created its own version of the Apocalypse in which the Indians became the chosen people and the ghost dance participants the true believers who would be saved because of their faith.

            The original two-step dance Wovoka specified quickly became a much more elaborate ritual. The steps in the dance became more elaborate. The objective became for participants to dance themselves into a trance. During such trances, some claimed to have seen Jesus and to have been shown by Him their dead relatives, now living with Jesus. By 1889, believers had introduced the ghost shirt for men and the ghost dress for women. These white cotton garments were painted with blue collars and yokes and with bird, animal, and plant symbols; they were also decorated with feathers. Dancing would often take place day and night for a week, and on occasion as many as a hundred Indians at a time would be in trances. Eventually, the ghost dancers developed the idea that the ghost shirt or dress had the power to protect them from harm.

            As Indian belief in the power of the ghost dance and the ghost shirt grew, white settlers in the regions adjacent to the reservations of South Dakota became fearful that the Indians were planning to revolt. By the fall of 1890, with the Indians expecting deliverance by the following spring and the white settlers nearly panicked, the newly appointed Indian agent, Daniel Royer, started sending telegrams to Washington describing the Indians as "crazy" and demanding a thousand troops to protect the settlers. Royer was a political appointee who knew nothing at all of the Sioux customs or culture; in addition, he was afraid of Indians. The Sioux, sensing his fear, had given him the name "Young Man Afraid of Indians." After a month of almost daily panicky telegrams from Royer, the president ordered troops sent to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

            At first, the troops did nothing. The officers were convinced that the Indians were not about to attack, as they had been led by Royer to believe. The commanding general tried to calm the situation. But then the press began to stream in. Indian wars were good press, and there had not been an Indian War in almost a decade. What the reporters found was nothing happening. But under pressure from editors for circulation boosting stories, the reporters began to portray the situation as "about to erupt," and then as "imminent war."  In essence, they ballyhooed nothing into something. The fictions they went back as "news" were widely believed by the American public.

            The presence of the military and the press began to frighten the Indians. As one unnamed Indian put it, "[The white man] has made more promises to us than I can remember. They have never kept but one: They said they would take our land, and they took it." The Indians had no difficulty believing that now the whites were going to take away their new religion with its promise of salvation for the Indian. Some Indians fled the reservation because they believed that they would soon be prohibited from dancing. In fact, most of the military officers believed that there was no harm in the Indians dancing and that, if they could keep a lid on things until the spring, when the Indians believed the Apocalypse would occur, the Indians would see that their dancing accomplished nothing and would stop it.

            Sitting Bull was one Sioux leader who was initially not enthusiastic about the ghost dance and the message of Wovoka. But eventually, he came to believe that his people needed the messianic hope that participation in the ghost dance cult brought. He brought people to Standing Rock, the reservation where his people were, to teach Wovoka's message and the ghost dance. While the message was to dance, to pray for life, and to do good, the involvement of Sitting Bull with the ghost dance further alarmed whites.

            Army General Miles made the decision to arrest and remove tribal leaders, including Sitting Bull, who were supporting the ghost dance. He ordered the Indian agents to send out reservation police to arrest those chiefs. Some 42 reservation police were sent to arrest Sitting Bull. They timed their arrival for the middle of the night and woke Sitting Bull from his sleep. They told him that the Great White Chief wanted to see him; Sitting Bull agreed and sent for his horse. But, when it became obvious that Sitting Bull was actually being arrested, about a hundred of his men decided not to let their leader be taken. A gun battle between the Sioux and the reservation police ensued in which Sitting Bull was killed.  His great horse, a gift from Buffalo Bill to Sitting Bull when Sitting Bull appeared with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, began a dance  because all Wild West Show horses had been taught to dance when the shooting subsided. The Indians took this to be a sign that they must go on with the ghost dancing.

            Alarmed by the violence at Standing Rock and the threat of violence on other reservations, Chief Big Foot decided to take his Minikonjou from their reservation to Pine Ridge for protection. The military assumed that Big Foot was a hostile Indian and that he was taking his tribe to strengthen the opposition. The Minikonjou were intercepted by a patrol from the 7th Cavalry. Big Foot wanted to powwow, but his tribe was ordered to surrender, which it did. They turned over most of their arms, keeping only a handful of hunting rifles. At about the same time, the 7th Cavalry received orders to remove ghost dance supporters to Omaha, and the Minikonjou were ordered to begin marching toward Omaha. They stopped at Wounded Knee for an overnight camp; a flag of truce flew above the encampment. The force guarding the Minikonjou was supplemented by additional cavalry armed with four new Hotchkiss rapid fire canons, which they deployed on the hill above the camp. There were on the scene over 500 armed soldiers and about 350 Indians, of whom about 120 were adult males, who among them had about 30 hunting rifles. The ranking officer among the new arrivals demanded that Big Foot surrender the tribe's weapons. Big Foot said that they had no weapons, only a few hunting rifles. The officer did not believe him and ordered the soldiers to search the camp.

            The tribal medicine man began the ghost dance and spread the word that the ghost shirts would protect the band from harm; he called on everyone to join the dance. One Indian objected to being relieved of his hunting rifle, arguing that he had paid for it with his own money and he should be paid by anyone wanting to take it. The ghost dance no doubt made the soldiers nervous. During the course of the argument, a shot rang out. No one knows who fired although the "official" reports blamed the Indians. A fight ensued in the camp. Soon after the fight started, the cavalry began firing the artillery pieces on the hill. Women and children began to run, but were pursued by soldiers although everyone knew they were unarmed.  The firing, especially from the artillery on the hill, was indiscriminate. Ultimately almost all of the Indians were killed or wounded and 39 soldiers were killed or wounded by friendly fire (i.e., by their fellow soldiers).

            A severe winter storm developed before the dead could be buried. The wounded were removed to a field hospital. Several days later, after the storm had passed, the press descended on the scene and propped up the frozen dead bodies into various poses so that they could take pictures. Then the dead Indians were buried in a mass grave. A number of the dead soldiers killed by friendly fire were given medals posthumously.

            For many decades, Wounded Knee was characterized as a "battle," indeed, the last "battle" of the Indian wars. In fact, what happened at Wounded Knee was not a battle but a massacre of a tribe seeking protection, a tribe which had already surrendered and disarmed and which was under a flag of truce. The Army claimed a great victory and the press backed them up. (History is written by the winners.) The Indians got the message: "Give up the ghost dance or we will kill you, your wives, and your babies." Ghost dancing disappeared almost immediately.
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