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Course: US history > Unit 6
- The Gold Rush
- The Homestead Act and the exodusters
- The reservation system
- The Dawes Act
- Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans in the age of westward expansion
- The Indian Wars and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee
- Westward expansion: economic development
- Westward expansion: social and cultural development
- The American West
- By the end of the nineteenth century, due to a series of forced removals and brutal massacres at the hands of white settlers and the US Army, the native population of North America had dwindled to a mere fraction of what it had once been.
- Because forced assimilation had nearly destroyed Native American culture, some tribal leaders attempted to reassert their sovereignty and invent new spiritual traditions. The most significant of these was the Ghost Dance, pioneered by Wovoka, a shaman of the Northern Paiute tribe.
- The massacre at Wounded Knee, during which soldiers of the US Army 7th Cavalry Regiment indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of Sioux men, women, and children, marked the definitive end of Indian resistance to the encroachments of white settlers.
The Ghost Dance
Clash of cultures: white europeans and native americans, the massacre at wounded knee, what do you think, want to join the conversation.
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The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890
464 pages 9 photos, 3 maps, 1 table
About the Book
Table of contents, also of interest.
The 1870 Ghost Dance
The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890
The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game
Wovoka and the Ghost Dance
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What Happened at the Wounded Knee Massacre?
By: Christopher Klein
Updated: July 12, 2023 | Original: May 13, 2022
The slaughter of some 300 Lakota men, women and children by U.S. Army troops in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre marked a tragic coda to decades of violent confrontations between the United States and Plains Indians .
In the years leading up to the massacre, the Indigenous Lakota Sioux had suffered a generation of broken treaties and shattered dreams. After white settlers poured into the Dakota Territory following the 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills, they seized millions of acres of land and nearly annihilated the native buffalo population. As their traditional hunting grounds evaporated and culture eroded, the Lakota, who once roamed as free as the bison on the Great Plains, found themselves mostly confined to government reservations.
Throughout 1890, the Lakota endured droughts and epidemics of measles, whooping cough and influenza. “The Lakota were very distraught at that time,” says Lakota historian Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College and a descendant of both survivors and victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre. “They lost massive amounts of land under the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, and many of them were dealing with the recent surrender to the reservation system, which forbade the Sun Dance, their most important religious ceremony, and required permission to leave.”
A glimmer of hope, however, arose with a religious movement that swept across the Great Plains. The Ghost Dance movement, which first appeared in Nevada around 1870, gained popularity among the Lakota after its 1889 revival by the Paiute prophet Wovoka. Its adherents believed that participants in a ritual circular dance would usher in a utopian future in which a cataclysm would destroy the United States, eradicate white colonists from the continent and bring about the resurrection of everything they had lost—their land, their buffalo herds and even their dead ancestors.
Wearing white muslin shirts that they believed would protect against danger and even repel bullets, nearly one-third of the Lakota had joined the messianic movement by the winter of 1890. “They saw the Ghost Dance as a panacea,” Sprague says. “All these great transitions were happening in their lives, and they thought this new religion offered them something.”
US Troops Mobilized Against Ghost Dancers
As the Ghost Dance movement spread, frightened white settlers believed it a prelude to an armed uprising. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” federal agent Daniel F. Royer telegrammed U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in November 1890. “We need protection, and we need it now.”
“This is a big problem on the reservations because federal agents thought those who danced were going on the warpath, like the stereotype,” Sprague says. “I suppose the authorities did think they were crazy—but they weren’t,” a Lakota at Pine Ridge later recalled. “They were only terribly unhappy.”
The federal government banned Ghost Dance ceremonies and mobilized the largest military deployment since the Civil War . General Nelson Miles arrived on the prairie with part of the 7th Cavalry, which had been annihilated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn 14 years earlier, and ordered the arrest of tribal leaders suspected of promoting the Ghost Dance movement.
When Indian police attempted to take Chief Sitting Bull into custody on the Standing Rock Reservation on December 15, 1890, the noted Sioux leader was killed in the ensuing melee. With a military warrant out for his arrest, Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk (sometimes referred to as Chief Big Foot), fled Standing Rock with a band of Lakota for the Pine Ridge Reservation more than 200 miles away on the opposite side of the state.
On December 28, the U.S. cavalry caught up with Spotted Elk and his group of mostly elders, women and children near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek , which winds through the prairies and Badlands of southwest South Dakota . The American forces arrested Spotted Elk—who was too ill with pneumonia to sit up, let alone walk—and positioned their Hotchkiss guns on a rise overlooking the Lakota camp.
As tensions flared and a bugle blared the following morning—December 29—American soldiers mounted their horses and surrounded the Lakota. A medicine man who started to perform the ghost dance cried out, “Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us.” He implored the heavens to scatter the soldiers like the dust he threw into the air.
The cavalry, however, went tipi to tipi seizing axes, rifles and other weapons. As a soldier attempted to wrestle a weapon out of the hands of a Lakota, a gunshot suddenly rang out. It was not clear which side shot first, but within seconds the American soldiers launched a hailstorm of bullets from rifles, revolvers and the rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns that tore through the Lakota.
Spotted Elk was shot where he lay on the ground. Boys who only moments before were playing leapfrog were mowed down. Through the dust and smoke, women and children dove for cover in a ravine. “Remember Custer!” one cavalryman cried out as soldiers executed the defenseless at point-blank range.
When the shooting stopped hours later, bodies were strewn in the gulch. Some were breathing, most not. Victims who had been hunted down while trying to flee were found three miles away. Some had been stripped of their sacred shirts as macabre souvenirs. At least 150 Lakota (historians such as Sprague put the number at twice as high) were killed along with 25 American soldiers, who were mostly struck down by friendly fire. Two-thirds of the victims were women and children.
Massacre Participants Received the Military’s Highest Honor
The dead were carried to the nearby Episcopal church and laid in two rows underneath festive wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Days later a burial party arrived, dug a pit and dumped the frozen bodies in a mass grave.
“To add insult to injury, some of the survivors were taken to Fort Sheridan in Illinois to be imprisoned for being at Wounded Knee,” Sprague says, until William “Buffalo Bill” Cody took custody of them for inclusion in his Wild West Show. “The show was not a positive portrayal of their people, but it beat sitting in a jail cell.”
Although Miles, who wasn’t present at Wounded Knee, called the carnage “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children,” the U.S. Army awarded the Medal of Honor, its highest commendation, to 20 members of the 7th Cavalry who participated in the bloodbath.
“When I look back now from this high hill of my old age,” survivor Black Elk recalled in 1931, “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still 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.”
It was not the last time blood flowed next to Wounded Knee Creek. In February 1973, activists with the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the site for 71 days to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. The standoff resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.
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- Studies in American Indian Literatures
The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890 (review)
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The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890 Hardcover – Illustrated, November 1, 2008
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- Print length 464 pages
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- Publisher : University of Nebraska Press; Illustrated edition (November 1, 2008)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0803210736
- ISBN-13 : 978-0803210738
- Item Weight : 1.81 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.2 x 1.6 x 9 inches
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About the author
Dr. Rani-Henrik Andersson served as the interim McDonnell Douglas Chair, Professor of American Studies at the University of Helsinki Finland during 2014-2016. In 2017 he was appointed a CORE Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and a University Lecturer of North American Studies at the University of Helsinki. He author or editor of ten books including the Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890 (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), and Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country: Lakota Voices of the Ghost Dance that focuses on Lakota accounts of the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre (University of Oklahoma Press 2018). His most recently published book edited with Boyd Cothran and Saara Kekki is entitled Bridging Cultural Concepts of Nature: Indigenous People and Protected Spaces of Nature (Helsinki University Press 2021). His newest book with david C. Posthumus is Lakȟóta: an Indigenous History is published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2022.
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The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance
Religious Ritual Became a Symbol of Defiance By Native Americans
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The ghost dance was a religious movement that swept across Native American populations in the West in the late 19th century. What started as a mystical ritual soon became something of a political movement and a symbol of Native American resistance to a way of life imposed by the U.S. government.
A Dark Moment in History
As the ghost dance spread through western Native American reservations , the federal government moved aggressively to stop the activity. The dancing and the religious teachings associated with it became issues of public concern widely reported in newspapers.
As the 1890s began, the emergence of the ghost dance movement was viewed by white Americans as a credible threat. The American public was, by that time, used to the idea that Native Americans had been pacified, moved onto reservations, and essentially converted to living in the style of white farmers or settlers.
The efforts to eliminate the practice of ghost dancing on reservations led to heightened tensions which had profound effects. The legendary Sitting Bull was murdered in a violent altercation sparked by the crackdown on ghost dancing. Two weeks later, the confrontations prompted by the ghost dance crackdown led to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre .
The horrific bloodshed at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Plains Indian Wars . The ghost dance movement was effectively ended, though it continued as a religious ritual in some places well into the 20th century. The ghost dance took a place at the end of a long chapter in American history, as it seemed to mark the end of Native American resistance to white rule.
Origins of the Ghost Dance
The story of the ghost dance began with Wovoka, a member of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Wovoka, who was born about 1856, was the son of a medicine man. Growing up, Wovoka lived for a time with a family of white Presbyterian farmers, from whom he picked up the habit of reading the Bible every day.
Wovoka developed a wide-ranging interest in religions. He was said to be familiar with Mormonism and various religious traditions of native tribes in Nevada and California. In late 1888, he became quite ill with scarlet fever and may have gone into a coma.
During his illness, he claimed to have religious visions. The depth of his illness coincided with a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, which was seen as a special sign. When Wovoka regained his health, he began to preach of knowledge which God had imparted to him.
According to Wovoka, a new age would dawn in 1891. The dead of his people would be restored to life. Game which had been hunted nearly to extinction would return. And the white people would vanish and stop afflicting the indigenous peoples.
Wovoka also said a ritual dance which had been taught to him in his visions must be practiced by native populations. This "ghost dance," which was similar to traditional round dances, was taught to his followers.
Decades earlier, in the late 1860s , during a time of privation among western tribes, there had been a version of the ghost dance which spread through the West. That dance also prophesied positive changes to come to the lives of Native Americans. The earlier ghost dance spread through Nevada and California, but when the prophecies did not come true, the beliefs and accompanying dance rituals were abandoned.
However, Wovoka's teachings based on his visions took hold throughout early 1889. His idea quickly spread along travel routes, and became widely known among the western tribes.
At the time, the Native American population was demoralized. The nomadic way of life had been curtailed by the U.S. government, forcing the tribes onto reservations. Wovoka's preaching seemed to offer some hope.
Representatives of various western tribes began to visit Wovoka to learn about his visions, and especially about what was becoming widely known as the ghost dance. Before long, the ritual was being performed across Native American communities, which were generally located on reservations administered by the federal government.
Fear of the Ghost Dance
In 1890, the ghost dance had become widespread among the western tribes. The dances became well-attended rituals, generally taking place over a span of four nights and the morning of the fifth day.
Among the Sioux, who were led by the legendary Sitting Bull , the dance became extremely popular. The belief took hold that someone wearing a shirt that was worn during the ghost dance would become invulnerable to any injury.
Rumors of the ghost dance began to instill fear among white settlers in South Dakota, in the region of the Indian reservation at Pine Ridge. Word began to spread that the Lakota Sioux were finding a fairly dangerous message in Wovoka's visions. His talk of a new age without whites began to be seen as a call to eliminate the white settlers from the region.
And part of Wovoka's vision was that the various tribes would all unite. So the ghost dancers began to be seen as a dangerous movement that could lead to widespread attacks on white settlers across the entire West.
The spreading fear of the ghost dance movement was picked up by newspapers, in an era when publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were beginning to champion sensational news. In November 1890, a number of newspaper headlines across America linked the ghost dance to alleged plots against white settlers and U.S. Army troops.
An example of how white society viewed the ghost dance appeared in the form of a lengthy story in the New York Times with the subheadline, "How the Indians Work Themselves Up to a Fighting Pitch." The article explains how a reporter, led by friendly Indian guides, trekked overland to a Sioux camp. "The trip was extremely hazardous, owing to the frenzy of the hostiles." The article described the dance, which the reporter claimed to have observed from a hill overlooking the camp. 182 "bucks and squaws" participated in the dance, which took place in a large circle around a tree. The reporter described the scene:
"The dancers held on another's hands and moved slowly around the tree. They did not raise their feet as high as they do in the sun dance, most of the time it looked as though their ragged moccasins did not leave the ground, and the only idea of dancing the spectators could gain from the motion of the fanatics was the weary bending of the knees. Round and round the dancers went, with their eyes closed and their heads bent toward the ground. The chant was incessant and monotonous. 'I see my father, I see my mother, I see my brother, I see my sister," was Half Eye's translation of the chant, as the squaw and warrior moved laboriously about the tree. "The spectacle was as ghastly as it could be: it showed the Sioux to be insanely religious. The white figures bobbing between pained and naked warriors and the shrill yelping noise of the squaws as they tottered in grim endeavor to outdo the bucks, made a picture in the early morning which has not yet been painted or accurately described. Half Eyes says the dance which the spectators were then witnessing had been going on all night."
On the following day the other side of the country, the front-page story "A Devilish Plot" claimed that Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation planned to hold a ghost dance in a narrow valley. The plotters, the newspaper claimed, would then lure soldiers into the valley to stop the ghost dance, at which point they would be massacred.
In "It Looks More Like War," the New York Times claimed that Little Wound, one of the leaders at the Pine Ridge reservation, "the great camp of the ghost dancers," asserted that the Indians would defy orders to cease the dancing rituals. The article said the Sioux were "choosing their fighting ground," and preparing for a major conflict with the U.S. Army.
Role of Sitting Bull
Most Americans in the late 1800s were familiar with Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Hunkpapa Sioux who was closely associated with the Plains Wars of the 1870s. Sitting Bull did not directly participate in the massacre of Custer in 1876, though he was in the vicinity, and his followers attacked Custer and his men.
Following the demise of Custer, Sitting Bull led his people into safety in Canada. After being offered amnesty, he eventually returned to the United States in 1881. In the mid-1880s, he toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, alongside performers like Annie Oakley.
By 1890, Sitting Bull was back in South Dakota. He became sympathetic to the movement, encouraged young Native Americans to embrace the spirituality espoused by Wovoka, and apparently urged them to take part in the ghost dance rituals.
The endorsement of the movement by Sitting Bull did not go unnoticed. As the fear of the ghost dance spread, what appeared to be his involvement only heightened tensions. The federal authorities decided to arrest Sitting Bull, as it was suspected he was about to lead a major uprising among the Sioux.
On December 15, 1890, a detachment of U.S. Army troops, along with Native Americans who worked as police officers on a reservation, rode out to where Sitting Bull, his family, and some followers were camped. The soldiers stayed at a distance while the police sought to arrest Sitting Bull.
According to news accounts at the time, Sitting Bull was cooperative and agreed to leave with the reservation police, but young Native Americans attacked the police. A shoot-out occurred, and in the gun battle, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.
The death of Sitting Bull was major news in the East. The New York Times published a story about the circumstances of his death on its front page, with subheadlines described him as an "old medicine man" and a "wily old plotter."
The ghost dance movement came to a bloody end at the massacre at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890. A detachment of the 7th Cavalry approached an encampment of natives led by a chief named Big Foot and demanded that everyone surrender their weapons.
Gunfire broke out, and within an hour approximately 300 Native men, women, and children were killed. The treatment of the native peoples and the massacre at Wounded Knee signify a dark episode in American history . After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the ghost dance movement was essentially broken. While some scattered resistance to white rule arose in the following decades, the battles between Native Americans and whites in the West had ended.
Resources and Further Reading
- “ The Death of Sitting Bull .” New York Times , 17 Dec. 1890.
- “ It Looks More Like War .” New York Times , 23 Nov. 1890.
- “ The Ghost Dance .” New York Times , 22 Nov. 1890.
- “ A Devilish Plot .” Los Angeles Herald , 23 Nov. 1890.
- History of the Wounded Knee Massacre
- Timeline from 1890 to 1900
- Indian Wars: Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles
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Rapid City KOTA-TV
Wounded Knee descendants group plans ceremony to burn returned artifacts
Posted: January 2, 2024 | Last updated: January 3, 2024
Editor’s Note: This story was originally co-published by the Rapid City Journal and ICT , through a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area.
(South Dakota Searchlight) - Last November, more than 150 items stolen from mass graves of Wounded Knee massacre victims were returned to a group of descendants, the Si’Tanka Ta’ Oyate O’mniceye (Descendants of the Si’ Tanka Nation). Now, a year later, the group plans to burn the artifacts to mark the end of the one-year traditional bereavement period called wasigla.
In 1890, more than 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the United States military. The military had been sent to Pine Ridge to stop a potential “Indian uprising.” Instead, they encountered a band of Mniconju Lakota led by Chief Spotted Elk (nicknamed Big Foot by the military). The military misinterpreted the group’s ghost dance songs as an intent to attack and opened fire on the band. Now 133 years later, the descendants of those who survived the massacre are working to preserve the memory of what happened that day.
A majority of the items are clothing, mostly moccasins and ghost dance shirts. All of the clothes had been removed from the victims of the massacre by grave robbers. Some moccasins have blood splatters on them. The rest are peace pipes, dolls, two tomahawks, a bow and arrows and a few beaded lizard and turtle amulets/pouches containing umbilical cords.
Mixed in amongst the artifacts are items from other tribes, Ojibwe moccasins, Dakota and Cheyenne beadwork and other items from other tribes were scattered in. Those items will also be burned.
All repatriated items came from the Woods Memorial Library’s Founders Museum Collection in Barre, Massachusetts. The museum qualifies as a private collection.
The Founders Museum did not respond to a request for comment. It is unclear if the museum’s entire “Native American Collection” was given to the Wounded Knee descendants or just the Wounded Knee-related items.
Out of fear for the items being stolen in the future and a desire to honor Lakota traditions, the group is choosing to burn all artifacts except for the peace pipes, on the 133rd anniversary of the massacre.
The group’s leader Cedric Broken Nose, Oglala Lakota and a descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, said burying them wouldn’t successfully return the items to the ancestors, rather the smoke created from the fire would carry the items up. The group has been advised by a medicine man as to what they should do with the artifacts.
“We don’t want these items to end up in a museum, they don’t belong in there,” Broken Nose said. “If we were to bury them the grave robbers would steal them, that’s how they ended up in a museum in the first place.”
Broken Nose said all groups that had been gathering seasonally since the initial repatriation had all agreed to burn the items by October 2023.
“Every year the ancestors come back for their items, but since they can’t take the items they take relatives,” Broken Nose said. “One hundred and thirty-three years later we need to give those items back to them. They’re trying to come back for the items but they can’t, so they take a spirit, they take a life, that’s how powerful they are.”
The group has been working with Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out on how to properly handle the objects and ceremony.
“These items don’t belong to us, they belong to the ancestors,” Broken Nose said.
Despite the group’s plans, some Wounded Knee survivor descendants claim they were left out of the process. The group said there are more than 500 descendants of Wounded Knee survivor James Pipe on Head alone, the grandson of Chief Spotted Elk.
Broken Nose said just in Oglala, South Dakota over 30 families descend from Spotted Elk. This specific group is comprised of descendants who have met since 1980.
Calvin Spotted Elk, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said he feels the descendants have not been properly included in the decision-making process, especially those who live out of state. Spotted Elk lives in California.
“What really matters is that one family is making the decisions,” he said. “It is not our way for one family to make the decisions.”
Spotted Elk said he feels burying the items is more in line with Lakota tradition.
Broken Nose said out of respect for maintaining good intentions around the items during the mourning period, the group will not be commenting on the claims made by Spotted Elk.
Spotted Elk also alleged the group has not followed guidelines set out by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Under the 1990 legislation, museums or other institutions that accept federal funding must compile an inventory of Indigenous cultural items and initiate repatriation of the collections and remains to tribes or family members.
While the act does set guidelines for the repatriation of Native American items, including remains and funerary objects, it does have its limitations. It only applies to museums or other institutions that accept federal funding, including the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act). Private collections are not subject to the federal legislation.
In a typical NAGPRA-guided repatriation, items would be returned to direct descendants or the tribe from which the items came.
A press release from the Founders Museum dated April 2022 stated the items were repatriated in “the Spirit of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act,” not under NAGPRA. In January 2022 the museum began to take steps to repatriate the library’s Native American collection.
In the meantime, the survivors’ descendants group has discussed sending the items to the Oglala Lakota College, Red Cloud Museum and Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently, the items are on a loan to the college. The Crazy Horse Memorial is too far from the reservation and community members couldn’t easily access items to pray, Broken Nose said.
The group said the Red Cloud Museum doesn’t have an adequate temperature-controlled climate the items require but will reconsider once the Heritage Museum is constructed.
For now, the peace pipes will remain at Oglala Lakota College, as will the other items until they’re burned.
South Dakota Searchlight publishes news and commentary that prioritizes accuracy, fairness, insight and civility.
Amelia Schafer covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area as part of a partnership between the Rapid City Journal and ICT, an independent, nonprofit news enterprise that covers Indigenous peoples.
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- Keepers of the Stronghold: Lakota are once again defending Ghost Dancers’ burial places
Posted by Native Press | Oct 23, 2021 | Culture |
STRONGHOLD TABLE, S.D.
When the Ghost Dance arrived in 1890, Lakota danced to bring back the buffalo and a good way of life. They were persecuted and fled to the Badlands to a place Lakota call “Oonakizin,” or the Stronghold.
“Here, they made their last stand. It was the last pocket of resistance for our ancestors and their families,” said Ed Two Bulls, Jr., Oglala Lakota.
Men, women, children and old people were fired upon by the Home Guard, now the South Dakota National Guard. When the bullets stopped, at least 70 Ghost Dancers were dead.
“It is said that the militia went upon this plateau and threw frozen bodies off of the sides of the Stronghold Table.
“My grandfather was a Ghost Dancer and for that he along with Kicking Bear was sent to prison,” Two Bulls said.
From his home on Red Shirt Table, Two Bulls faces the Badlands, where his grandfather was a Ghost Dancer. Today, his wife Lovey and sons Tony and Ernie carry on patrols to protect the massacre site and the Ghost Dancers resting in shallow graves from the onslaught of a fossil dig.
Lakota are now planning to gather on the Stronghold June 21.
Jim Toby Big Boy, among the Oyate organizing expanded resistance camps, said new camps are being established at the entrances to South Unit of the Badlands National Park.
“On Stronghold Table, the Lakota Grassroots Oyate continue to protect the Sacred Site where eighty women, children and men were killed and pushed over the edges of Stronghold,” Big Boy said.
“Today, the Oyate do not want to negotiate with National Park Service on any further agreements pertaining to the Badlands South Unit.
“The 1976 Memorandum of Agreement between the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Parks Service is dead. The National Park Service has violated an agreement, and that is a clear violation of a Treaty. The Land must be returned to the Lakota People.”
In the 1940s Lakota were forced to move from their homes in the Badlands when the U.S. military used the land for a bombing range.
Big Boy said, “In 1942, our own Tribal Council ran their own people out of both Units, and gave the land to the Air Force to bomb. In 1968, our own Tribal Council again, gave away 133,300 acres to the Government. Its time for this Council to say enough is enough.
“This land does not belong to President John Steele or the Tribal Council, it belongs to the people. If the National Park Service wants to meet, they will have to include the grassroots people too. And they will come to us,” Big Boy said.
For the second year, Oyate Lakota are prepared to defend the gravesites of the Ghost Dancers from the planned fossil excavation of the National Park Service.
The traditional Tokala Society (Kit Fox Warrior Society) has manned the resistance camp on Stronghold Table, the mesa that overlooks the Badlands.
It has been a long, cold winter since August 2002, when Lakota traditional societies met with the National Park Service at the resistance camp and told them, during a daylong confrontation, to clear out of the Badlands.
“We want the National Park Service out of the Badlands!” George Tall, Tokala Society, told the Badlands Park Service. His comment came on a guided tour of the proposed site that Lakota said was insulting to them and their ancestors.
Badlands Park Paleontologist Rachel Benton told Lakota she applied for a research grant to excavate titanothere fossils, dated 35 million years ago.
With sharp reactions, traditional elders and young people, joined by Indian activist Russell Means, told Park Service officials that the memorandum of agreement, allowing them to operate the park here on Oglala tribal land, was null and void.
Park Service officials, however, did little more than snicker.
It was just last spring, when the first of the Ghost Dancers’ bones made its appearance on a steep slope down from Stronghold Table. The thighbone of a young woman, about five feet tall, was found by a Lakota walking in the Badlands.
Ed Two Bulls asks, “Was it just a coincidence that the thighbone of this woman emerged just months before the fossil excavation was to begin?
“This dig was to be going on for three years without the permission of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.”
Two Bulls believes the thighbone emerged from its shallow grave for a reason.
“Wakan Takan had a plan for this good Lakota woman and although she has been gone for 113 years the purpose of her life and death on this earth has been fulfilled. She has returned in the form of her thighbone to give the Mako Sica back to her people.
“We are the keepers of the Stronghold Dream.
“We are camped on top of the Stronghold to protest what the National Park Service is planning to do and come what may we will protect the bones of our relatives, the Lakotas and our friends and allies, the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”
What has emerged here is more than the protection of the gravesites of Ghost Dancers, it has become a fortress of resistance, an anchor in a world out of balance.
Last summer, Lakota youth rode horseback here late into the night, elderly came with their stories, women and men came with soup and bread for those who patrolled and watched with binoculars, for the unexplained helicopters, late into the night. Those who camped here said they were held by a powerful force of spirit.
“It captured my spirit,” was often said.
Spirit, however, is not what paleontologists are here for.
Two Bulls said since the late 1880s the South Dakota School of Mines and U.S. government have taken millions of dollars worth of fossils out of these Badlands with no kind of benefit going to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The excavation is to take place right in the location where there are burial grounds, tepee rings, prayer rings, fire pits and other sacred sites. The disregard, disrespect and arrogance are unbelievable, he said.
“We all know what the Ghost Dance was about. It was a dance that the Indian people would bring back the buffalo and a way of life that was so good for the wandering Lakota.
“In a trance they would travel to the Spirit world and visit and mingle with departed loved ones. The Dance terrified non-Indians so the United States government decided they were going to put a stop to this terrorism.
“Ghost Dancers were pursued and arrested and persecuted so they fled to the Badlands to a place called in Lakota Oonakizin or the Stronghold.”
Contact: Jim Big Boy [email protected]
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The Lakota Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee
How the American drive to force Indian assimilation turned violent on the plains of South Dakota.
April 16, 2021 | Louis S. Warren
FROM THE COLLECTION: NATIVE AMERICANS
Native Americans performing ritual Ghost Dance. One standing woman is wearing a white dress, a special costume for the ritual dance, 1890. Photo by James Mooney, an ethnologist with US Dept. of Interior. Alamy
Editor’s note: When L. Frank Baum and other white settlers arrived in Aberdeen, South Dakota in the 1880s, they were entering land that had been part of the homeland of the Western Sioux or Lakota. On the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge reservations west of Aberdeen, conditions were dire for the over 10,000 Lakota living there. In the following excerpt from God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America , Louis S. Warren recounts the Lakota struggle to resist assimilation and survive in the face of violent suppression from the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.
In the west, drought had baked the earth bare. Indian reservations occupied poor land that had little game and few wild plants of any use. In the withering heat, what grass was left by cattle and sheep (most of them owned by white ranchers) quickly shriveled. Scarce game vanished. By 1885, many Indians had turned their hand to farming, but in 1890 their crops wilted. Starvation, that old monster, circled the camps.
It was thus not surprising that some Indians had turned to a new faith. In doing so, Indian believers unwittingly launched upon a collision course with the anxious American public. What swept the West that summer was an evangelical revival that synthesized ancient Indian beliefs with new millenarian teaching. Strange stories made their way from neighbor to neighbor, from one people to the next, stories of distant laughter on the breeze, dead loved ones brought back to life, and an earth again made green and bountiful.
Bison hunting had ceased by the early 1880s, for the animals were nearly extinct. The only survivors of the great herds were living in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, on a few private ranches far to the south or in Canada, and in zoos and traveling Wild West shows. But in 1890, in the midst of the drought, a few of the shaggy beasts appeared suddenly on one of the Sioux reservations in South Dakota. Had the spirits returned their favor? How else could one explain this miraculous event?
Stories like these spread among friends and acquaintances, raising unanswerable questions and inspiring new faith. And all that fall, Indians danced. They danced from the deep Southwest to the Canadian border and into Alberta. They danced from the Sierra Nevada to eastern Oklahoma. They danced in southern Utah, and in Idaho. They danced in Arizona.
In Nevada, a thousand Shoshones danced all night, and as the eastern sky turned pale shouts rang out that the spirits of deceased loved ones were appearing among the faithful. A thousand voices shouted in unison, “Christ has come!,” and they fell to the ground, or perhaps to their knees, weeping and singing and utterly exhausted. Although many had dismissed the springtime talk of a messiah somewhere in the mountains of western Montana, the rumor seemed only to grow over time. From the Southwest to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and on into the plains of South Dakota, Indians spoke of a redeemer to the north.
Ghost Dance Drum by George Beaver, wood, rawhide and pigment, late 1890s, Fenimore Art Museum. Public Domain
By the fall of 1890, authorities who read the telegrams and heard the reports had become uneasy. Thirty Indian reservations were transfixed by the prophecies of the Messiah, but the teachings had a particularly enthusiastic following among the Lakota Sioux, also known as the Western Sioux. Because of the relatively recent history of US hostilities with these people—the notorious Sitting Bull was learning the new faith—it was there that government agents soon focused their attentions.
It is almost impossible to overstate how vehement officials and other Americans eventually became over the need to break up the dances. Of all the features of the new ritual that garnered commentary, the physical excitement of the dancers received the most attention. The central feature of the Ghost Dance everywhere was a ring of people holding hands and turning in a clockwise direction—“men, women, and children; the strong and the robust, the weak consumptive, and those near to death’s door,” as one observer described them. Lakotas had grafted onto the Ghost Dance some symbols of their primary religious ritual, the Sun Dance. Thus, Sioux believers felled a tree, often a young cottonwood, and re-erected it at the center of their dance circle. On it they hung offerings to the spirits, including colored ribbons and sometimes an American flag. Near the tree stood the holy men, supervising the event and assembling the believers, who began by taking a seat in the circle around the tree. There was a prayer, and sometimes a sacred potion was passed for participants to drink. Then dancers might together utter “a sort of plaintive cry, which is pretty well calculated to arrest the ear of the sympathetic.” Once these preliminaries were completed, the dancers rose and started singing—unaccompanied, without drums or other instruments—and the circle began to turn.
Astonished and disturbed by the enthusiasms of the ritual, some American witnesses were moved to dire warnings. One agent reported that the Indians favored “disobedience to all orders, and war if necessary to carry out their dance craze.” “The Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” hyperventilated the agent at Pine Ridge. Another denounced the actual dance as “exceedingly prejudicial” to the “physical welfare” of the Indians, who became exhausted by it. “I think, “the agent went on, “steps should be taken to stop it.” Fearful that unconscious women might be molested, one white witness at Pine Ridge claimed that women “fall senseless to the ground, throwing their clothes over their heads, and laying bare the most prominent part of their bodies, viz., ‘their butts’ and ‘things.’” Concluded still another, “The dance is indecent, demoralizing, and disgusting.”
Bird’s-eye view of a large Lakota camp of tipis, horses, and wagons–probably on or near Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Photographer John C. H. Gabriel, 1891. Library of Congress
For these observers, the dance was a physical manifestation of irrationality, a refusal to be governed in body or in spirit by the codes of Victorian decorum handed down from missionaries. In one sense, at least, this view was substantially correct. For the Lakota and for other Indians, however, the Ghost Dance was both strikingly new—even radical—and reassuringly familiar. Ghost Dancers were searching for a new dispensation, seeking to restore an intimacy with the Creator that seemed to have vanished. And for followers, the religion’s key attractions included the chance to worship in a form that reconstituted Indians as a community and expressed their history, families, and identity—in a word, their Indianness. The Ghost Dance invited believers, as one Sioux evangelist put it, to “be Indians” again.
The real “messiah craze” of 1890 was the fixation of Americans on Indian dancing and their relentless compulsion to stop it, and the root of that craze was this American passion for assimilation, which was, after all, every bit as millennial a notion as the Second Coming itself. What more utopian a dream could there be for a rapidly globalizing society riven by fractures of race, culture and class than that a day would come when differences between people had simply disappeared? So it was that, in a show of hostility to physical exaltation reminiscent of the Puritans, policymakers waged war on Indian dances. In 1882 US Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller issued new orders to suppress “heathenish dances, such as the sun dance, scalp dance, &c.,” in order to bring Indians into line with conventional Christian practice.
The situation was all the more frustrating because it should have been easy. Indians had practically no power. They held no citizenship and remained federal subjects unable to vote. With no political representatives, they depended on appointed officials—reservation supervisors known as “Indian agents”—for their very survival. Dawes and others believed that education, example, and compulsion could turn Indians into good citizens. If Congress would mandate (and Indians agents would follow) a stern policy of assimilation, surely it would “kill the Indian and save the man,” as one prominent assimilationist put it. Thus would Indians enter the fold of the civilized, pointing the way for millions of immigrants and African Americans and preparing the ground for that glorious day when all dark skins would somehow whiten and racial strife would vanish.
The Ghost dance by the Ogallala [sic] Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency, Frederic Remington, Pine Ridge, S. Dakota, 1890. Library of Congress
For Americans, then, the challenge of assimilation was the great social question whirling at the center of the Ghost Dance of 1890. A millennial enthusiasm for assimilating others, as well as a deep anxiety that they might refuse to be assimilated, explains much of what made the Ghost Dance so troubling. To most white Americans, the dance itself was proof that assimilation had failed to dampen the savage impulse and that America’s irresistible conquest might prove resistible after all. In this light, the dances in South Dakota were more than just dances, and more than another Indian uprising. For Americans, something more, much more, was on the line.
Still, well into the fall of 1890, Ghost dances were nothing more than a curiosity, titillating fare for newspaper readers in distant cities. Although the dances had increased in intensity early in the fall, officials on the scene were mostly unconcerned. As late as the first week of November, only one Indian agent in South Dakota had requested military intervention; the others believed that the dance would die out of its own accord. Most local newspapers carried little to no news of the Ghost Dance.
But on November 13, President Harrison ordered the army into the Sioux reservations to shore up beleaguered officials and prevent “any outbreak that may put in peril the lives and homes of the settlers of the adjacent states.” With one-third of the entire US Army descending on some of the most remote and impoverished communities in the United States, the “Ghost Dance War” quickly became the largest military campaign since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The arrival of columns of soldiers panicked the Indians and, in conjuring the possibility of war, terrified many settlers, who until that moment had not felt threatened. After treating the Ghost Dance mostly as a curiosity, the press now sank to new lows, riveting a considerable portion of the nation’s 63 million people with stories about imminent “outbreaks” by bloodthirsty savages—never mind that fewer than a quarter of a million Indians remained in the United States, and only 18,000 of these were Lakota Sioux. Never mind that there were only about 4,200 Ghost Dancers, and that most of them were children, their mothers, and the very old. The New York Times quoted estimates of 15,000 “fighting Sioux,” and others picked up rumors of an impending Sioux “outbreak.” Some even reported that thousands of armed Indians had surrounded the reservation and killed settlers and soldiers.
Sitting Bull by D F Barry, 1883 Dakota Territory, Public Domain
In mid-December, James McLaughlin, the agent at Standing Rock Reservation (some 275 miles north of Wounded Knee), sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull, the most renowned Lakota chief still living. McLaughlin had long harbored a personal grudge against Sitting Bull. Now, since Sitting Bull had allowed Ghost Dances to take place at his camp, McLaughlin hoped to exploit the Ghost Dance tumult to have him removed from the reservation. When the detachment arrived at Sitting Bull’s home at dawn on December 15 and took him into custody, however, some of Sitting Bull’s enraged followers opened fire, and in the conflagration that followed the police shot the famed chief in the head and chest. The killing of Sitting Bull sent waves of panic and fear across the reservation, and when Lakota Indians there and at other reservations heard the news, they began to crisscross the countryside looking for refuge from the troops.
So it was that on December 28 a starving band of Ghost Dancers who had fled their homes on Cheyenne River Reservation surrendered to Colonel James Forsyth’s Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning troops upended Sioux lodges in a hunt for weapons. Two soldiers were attempting to seize a weapon from a Lakota man when it discharged. No one was hurt, but it did not matter. The ranks of soldiers opened fire. With four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns on the edges of the ravine, Custer’s old regiment loosed an exploding shell nearly every second from each of the big guns—and a fusillade of rifle and pistol fire besides—into the mass of mostly unarmed villagers below. Indian men who were not instantly cut down did their best to fend off the troops with a few guns, some knives, rocks, and their bare hands as the ranks of women, children and old people fled up the creek.
Among the Sioux men at Wounded Knee were a handful of the continent’s most experienced close-range fighters, and when the conflict was over, the army did not emerge unscathed. The Seventh left the field with dozens of wounded, and thirty troopers died. The army took thirty-eight wounded Indians with them but left the Indian dead and more of their wounded to the mercy of the Dakota sky. As night fell, winter descended in all its high-country fury. Temperatures dropped far below freezing, and a fierce blizzard howled in from the north. Corpses turned to ice. When soldiers and a burial party returned three days later, they found several wounded Lakotas yet clinging to life and some surviving infants in the arms of their dead mothers. All but one of these babies and most of the others soon succumbed.
Soldiers heaped wagons with the Indian dead, who looked eerily like the haunting plaster casts of the Pompeii victims of Mount Vesuvius, some having frozen in the grotesque positions in which they had hit the ground. Others were curled up or horribly twisted, their hands clawing at the air and mouths agape, each a memorial to the agony of open wounds, smothering cold and the relentless triumph of death. A photographer arrived to take pictures (which immediately became a popular line of postcards).
Big Foot’s camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background, Dec. 29, 1890. Library of Congress
The gravediggers lowered the bodies of 84 men, 44 women and 18 children into the ground. More had died, but many had been taken by kin or managed to leave the field before dying, perhaps in another camp, or alone on the darkling plain. We can look at old photographs, read crumpled letters and scan columns of crumbling newspaper, but death is final and pitiless, and its tracks soon vanish. We cannot account for all who were killed at Wounded Knee.
Religion is an affair of the heart, but it offers relief and guidance for people living in a hard-edged world. Indians became Ghost Dancers partly in response to changing material conditions that had created an existential crisis. Much of the religion’s allure came from how it addressed a radically shifting material world and helped Indians cope with the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying juggernaut of modernity, the rise of corporate structures to economic dominance in the United States, and the expanding bureaucracy of the state and modern education. The Ghost Dance served the needs of Indians hoping to adjust to life under industrial capitalism in a nation where literacy was key to negotiating courtrooms and the government offices that administered so much of Indian life.
In other words, in the aftermath of American invasion, the Ghost Dance helped believers find ways to negotiate and assert new dimensions of control not only over their own spiritual lives but also over their governance. In this sense, the massacre at Wounded Knee marks a brutal suppression not of naive, primitive Indians but of pragmatic people who sought a peaceful way forward into the twentieth century.
It is testament to its modernity that the religion was not so easily killed. The promise of the Ghost Dance was so great that Indian people carried on its devotions long after Wounded Knee. It survived on the Southern Plains and in Canada well into the twentieth century. In many places, it made lasting contributions to Indian ritual, some of which survive to the present day.
Louis S. Warren
Louis S. Warren is W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches the history of the American West, California history, environmental history, and U.S. history. His most recent book, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America . His other books include The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America and Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show.
Excerpted from God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America by Louis S. Warren . Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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