Historically Native Americans have been vilified, but in the past few decades details of incidents such as the Ghost Dance and accounts by chiefs such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have shone a more accurate light on the plight of these proud people.
Most Americans are quite familiar with the true accounts of the treatment of Native Americans in the history of the United States. For years Hollywood depicted the “red man” as savage and fierce warriors who threatened the life and dreams of “peaceful” white men. Early history books supported such accounts of Native Americans as peoples who had to be conquered. The true story behind the Ghost Dance performed by Native Americans is steeped in influence of the Christian missionaries.
With Geronimo in Mexico and Crazy Horse dead, the great chief Sitting Bull had fled to Canada with his people. Canada did not recognize them as native to the country and refused any assistance. After four years, Sitting Bull and his people returned to the United States and were located on the Great Sioux Reservation.
Against the counsel of Sitting Bull many chiefs signed a new treaty that broke up the Great Sioux Reservation. The Sioux were left with many small islands of land surrounded by lands available for white settlers to inhabit. About a year later in October, Kicking Bear a Minneonjou from the Cheyenne River Agency, came to visit Sitting Bull at Standing Rock. He told the chief about a Paiute Messiah by the name of Wovoka who founded the religion of the Ghost Dance.
The Story of the Ghost Dance
Kicking Bear told the great chief about his journey to find the messiah and how he along with hundreds of other Indians waited at Walker Lake to see the messiah. He told the chief he expected Christ to be a white man, but when the messiah finally came, he was an Indian. He taught them the Dance of the Ghosts. Kicking Bear told Sitting Bull he saw the wounds from the crucifixion on the wrists and face of the messiah. The messiah told the crowd God made the earth and sent Christ to teach the people, but the people had treated Christ badly, leaving scars on his body. Christ went to heaven and came back as an Indian and he was to renew everything and make it better. Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up in the air and once the new earth was established, set back down among the ghosts of their ancestors on the new earth where only Indians would live.
Sitting Bull did not believe the story of the Ghost Dance, but many of his people did and were worried they would be passed by during the resurrection. The great chief told Kicking Bear he had heard soldiers were breaking up the dance on other reservations and he was concerned soldiers would come in and frighten maybe even shoot his people. Kicking Bear told the chief the dancers could wear sacred garments of the Messiah. The Ghost Shirts were painted with magic symbols that would protect the dancers from harm repelling even the bullets of the bluecoats. Though Sitting Bull was still skeptical, he invited Kicking Bear to stay and teach the dance to his people.
The Ghost Dance Movement
The Ghost Dance spread like wildfire across the Indian reservations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official stance was to stop the Ghost Dancing. Even the most religious of the agents failed to see the Ghost Dance as a Christian ritual; yet the dance adhered to many tenets of any Christian church. The agent in charge of Standing Rock, White Hair McLaughlin was Catholic, yet did not see the Christian aspects of the dance.
The Messiah commanded “You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anybody. You must not fight. You must do right always.” The doctrine of the dance was nonviolence and brotherly love. No action was to be taken by the Indians except to sing and dance. However, the dancing alarmed agents of the BIA and they notified soldiers who began to march.
Kicking Bear had only been teaching Sitting Bull’s people the dance for a week when McLaughlin sent a dozen Indian police to remove Kicking Bear from the reservation. They referred the arrest to Sitting Bull who refused to take action. McLaughlin later sent a larger contingent of police and Kicking Bear was escorted from the reservation. McLaughlin sent the Commissioner of Indian Affairs a notification stating Sitting Bull was real power behind the religion and should be arrested and removed from the reservation. The commissioner, after consulting with the Secretary of War, concluded it would cause more trouble than it would prevent and declined to arrest the great chief.
By mid-November, the Ghost Dance was the most prevalent of any activity on the Sioux reservations. Trading stores and schools were virtually empty and farm work ceased. Agents were becoming more and more alarmed. At the end of November the BIA in Washington ordered field agents to telegraph the names of all “fomenters of disturbances.”
Removing Sitting Bull from the Reservation
Washington quickly created a list and sent it to Bear Coat Miles at his army headquarters in Chicago. Seeing Sitting Bull’s name on the list, Miles immediately surmised he was behind all the trouble. He convinced Buffalo Bill Cody to visit Sitting Bull and persuade him to come to Chicago to meet with Miles. The great chief had once been a participant in Cody’s Wild West Show and trusted Cody. It is unclear whether Cody knew the hidden agenda of Miles, which was to imprison Sitting Bull when he reached Chicago.
When Cody reached Standing Rock, McLaughlin arranged for Washington to rescind Cody’s authority as he believed Cody would ruin the arrest and only anger the chief. Thus, Cody never met with the great chief.
Not all agents agreed with stopping the Ghost Dance. A former agent, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, who was consulted and asked to make recommendations for resolving the situation, stated the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare ascension robes for the second coming of the Savior without any army interference and he saw no reason why the Indians were not allowed to do the same. However, on December 12, Lieutenant Colonel William F. Drum was ordered to arrest Sitting Bull.
On December 15, 1890, 43 Indian police went to arrest Sitting Bull at his cabin. Nearby, a whole squadron of cavalry waited to assist if necessary. Lieutenant Bull Head was in charge of the police and brought the great chief out of the cabin without incident. However, when the two exited the cabin, a crowd of Ghost Dancers had gathered and gave notice to Bull Head he would not take their chief. Sitting Bull hung back which forced Bull Head and Sergeant Red Tomahawk to force him toward his horse.
The Ghost Dancers outnumbered the police and when one of them saw their chief being forced onward, he pulled a rifle and shot Bull Head. Bull Head tried to return fire, but ended up hitting Sitting Bull instead. At the same time, Red Tomahawk fired at Sitting Bull and hit him in the head, killing him instantly. Intense fighting ensued until he cavalry arrived to save the Indian police who were left standing.
The religion of the Ghost Dance kept the Indians from retaliating for the killing of their chief. However, hundreds fled Standing Rock and took up residence in other Ghost Dance camps, Red Cloud’s camp at Pine Ridge or Big Foot’s Minneconjou camp near Cherry Creek. The War Department issued arrest orders for Big Foot as he was on their list of fomenters of the Ghost Dance. Big Foot was moving his people to Red Cloud’s protection at Pine Ridge.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee
An ill Big Foot was halted before he reached Pine Ridge and redirected to a cavalry camp at Wounded Knee Creek. Somewhere along the creek, the heart of Crazy Horse lay in a secret place. The Ghost Dancers believed his spirit was waiting for the new earth to come. When the cavalry arrived at the Wounded Knee camp, the commanders decided to wait until the next day to disarm and take the horses from the Indians. Big Foot’s group consisted of 120 men and 230 women and children. The Indians were assigned a camp just south of the military camp.
During the night, more troops arrived surrounding the Indian camp. New orders were given to move the Indians to a military prison the next day. When dawn arose, the Indians were assembled in the center of their camp and told to disarm. The Indians piled their rifles in the center but the army was not satisfied. The army searched their tents and confiscated all axes, knives and tent stakes. The Indians were then told to remove their blankets and were searched further.
Though all of the warriors were angry, the only protest came from the medicine man, Yellow Bird. He began to dance a few steps of the Ghost Dance and chant a holy song. One warrior named Black Coyote, reportedly a deaf warrior, was found with a rifle. He raised it above his head and shouted he had paid money for the rifle and it was his. The soldiers grabbed him and spun him around.
There was a deafening report of a gunshot. By all accounts, it is not clear where the shot originated, but many believe it was from Black Coyote’s Winchester. In the following melee, many lay dead, including Big Foot. There was a brief lull with close combat among the soldiers and Indians. Then big Hotchkiss guns from up on the hill opened fire and massacred the Indian group, leaving the Indian camp in shreds. Indians tried to flee but were no match for the big guns. When the smoke cleared, 153 Indians, men, women and children were dead and many of the wounded died later. It is estimated only about 50 of the 350 Indians survived the onslaught. Twenty-five soldiers were killed and 39 wounded, most of them by their own weaponry.
As a blizzard was approaching, the dead were left where they fell while the four men and 47 women and children who survived were taken by wagons to Pine Ridge. No barracks were available and the Indians were left in the cold while an army officer searched for shelter. An Episcopal mission was opened, the benches removed and hay thrown on the floor for the Indians. Four days after Christmas, the church still had a banner strung reading: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
It could be said all the battles and massacres of Native Americans boiled to such a fervor it was inevitable the Indian nation would rally around a concept such as the Ghost Dance. The doctrine of the dance, as previously stated, was parallel to the Christian faith taught by the missionaries. It gave hope to the Indians. Hope of return to a life lost in the battles with the government in Washington. Just as Christians have faith in the resurrection, the Native Americans believed their peoples would prevail and populate the new earth. In essence, the last battle for the Native Americans was a religious battle. After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Native Americans lost all hope for freedom and their way of life.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an Indian History of the American West. New York: An Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, 1991.
Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. 500 Nations an Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.
The copyright of the article “The Ghost Dance and Massacre at Wounded Knee” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.