Natives during this time were going through extreme hardships. The Lakota people could no longer practice their sacred ceremonies. The Lakotas were not allowed to hunt buffalo any more either. Forced to live on reservations, the government tried to make the natives take up farming. They had to send their children to school to become educated Christians (Viola, 2003, p.180). Lakota children were being taught how to read and write, and at the same time they were being told how they were inferior to white people (Smith, 1981, p. 60).
There was a terrible drought during 1889 and 1890. Epidemics brought death to many families (Gonzales, 1999, p. 252). Influenza and whooping cough plagued the Lakota families. Lakota people did not have the same immunity to these sicknesses that whites had, therefore more natives died.(Smith, 1981, p. 62)
In addition, rations were being reduced to forty percent. This was caused by an appropriation bill that congress passed (Smith, 1981, p. 62). This appropriation bill was in violation with the 1877 Act that congress used to steal the Black hills from the Lakota people. This 1877 act is significant because it was not only used to steal the Black Hills, but it was also used to steal the 1851 treaty lands and the hunting rights that were recognized under the 1868 treaty.
To further reduce native lands, congress initiated the Act of March 2, 1889. The act was used to reduce the great Sioux reservation into six smaller reservations. In order for this act to go into effect, it required the signatures of 3/4 of the adult male Lakotas. The signatures were only obtained by fraud and shady dealings. The government obtained these signatures from whites that were dressed as natives who were married to Lakota women, people under 18 years of age, and natives bribed with alcohol. Some of these people were allowed sign twice and some weren’t allowed to return home unless they signed (Gonzales, 1999, p. 251-252).
With the loss of their lands and the extreme hardships that the native people faced daily, the Lakota people turned to the Ghost Dance religion for salvation. The Ghost Dance was originally started by a Paiute man from Nevada named Tavibo. Tavibo said that he heard the voice of God. God told him that he was going to renew earth with all the tools of the white man, but white men would not be a part of this new earth. In order to bring about this new earth, the natives would have to engage in the Ghost Dance. Tavibo taught this dance to his people, but the belief in it died out.
Then Tavibo died and his son, Wovoka, was 14 years old when he was adopted by a Christian family. Wovoka learned about Christianity through his family, Mormon missionaries, and Shakers on the west coast. Wovoka wasn’t a missionary himself, until one day when he was 30, he heard the voice of God like his father. After hearing the voice of God Wovoka begin performing miracles. Wovoka said that he could make ice appear in the Walker River. Afraid that Wovoka wouldn’t come through on his word, his adopted brothers decided to dump ice in the river. It was this event that made Wovoka’s reputation as prophet and messiah.
Then in 1989, during an eclipse, Wovoka heard the voice of God again. He was instructed that in order to bring about a new peaceful world for the natives, he must first gather leaders from all the tribes. He had to tell the leaders to stop their people from fighting with white people and to work every day, then five days out of every three months the natives were supposed to perform the Ghost dance. Once Wovoka felt that the tribes were properly prepared, he would destroy this world and build a new peaceful world.
Lakota people started hearing stories about Wovoka. After discussing the matter, the Lakota chiefs decided to send a committee to learn more about this messiah. When the delegates returned, they taught their tribes what they learned about the ghost dance. It was the delegate Kicking Bear, that added on the idea of the Ghost shirts. He said that the painted shirts would make their wearer bullet proof. The ghost shirt was not part of the original ghost dance faith, but the Lakotas were the ones that adopted the idea (Smith, 1981, chap. 7).
Many Lakotas took the Ghost Dance Religion as their salvation. The religion was a pacifist movement, but it frightened many of the white settlers that lived near the reservations. Many of the settlers believed it was an uprising. This fear resulted in some clashes between whites and natives during 1890. The state of South Dakota sent guns and ammunition to arm cowboys. This militia was called “Home Guard.” Early in December 1890 they rode across the Cheyenne River, to the Pine Ridge Reservation and shot at Ghost Dancers. When the Dancers pursued, they were ambushed. Seventy-five were killed and scalped. The Ghost Shirts and scalps were scent off to Chicago where they were displayed and sold for profit.
Around this time another small band of natives were killed. The band went to Buffalo Gap to hunt on the ranch of a friendly white man. When they arrived, they were greeted with a gun. They left, but their horses were so tired that they had to make camp. The band was killed by a surprise attack early in the morning by the Home Guard.
The United States Army also took part in killing natives during this time. The 8th Calvary was stationed at Oelrichs, S.D. under the leadership of Captain Almond B. Wells. Wells gave Lt. Joseph C. Byron permission to enter the reservation and murder natives. They killed Chief Two Strikes’ band with cannon fire at Cuny Table. This event has been covered up by the United States Army for over 100 years (Gonzales, 1999, p. 252-253).
Reservation agents also felt threatened by the Ghost Dance. They thought that the Ghost Dance was a threat to their authority and a sign that there would be conflict. A good example of this was the Agent Daniel F. Royer, named Young Man Afraid of Indians by the natives. Agent Royer telegraphed a message to the commissioner of Indian Affairs which said “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy.....We need protection and we need it now” (Viola, 2003, p. 181).
Another agent that was afraid of the Ghost Dance was James McLaughlin. McLaughlin was afraid of the influence Sitting Bull had amongst his people, if he joined the Ghost Dancers. Sitting Bull was killed while resisting arrest from his own home (Viola, 2003, p. 185).
It was this fear in the agents that lead to the pursuit of Spotted Elk. Palmer, a new agent, told General Miles that he heard from friendly natives that Spotted Elk’s band was hostile. Palmer made several of these reports before, which caused General Miles to decide that Spotted Elk should be arrested. Spotted Elk, unaware that he was a wanted man, was leading his people to the Bennet Agency to receive his annuities and then onto the Pine Ridge Agency for council. During this time they were joined by the Hunkpapa’s that told Spotted Elk’s people about Sitting Bull’s death. Not knowing what the white man was up to, Spotted Elk decided to return back to his reservation, when he was intercepted by Lieutenant Colonel E. V. Sumner. Sumner’s orders were to take Spotted Elk and his band to Fort Meade by the Black Hills. Sumner told Spotted Elk that they were going to Camp Cheyenne, and along the way they were not allowed to stop at their own homes. However, the natives were so tired from their journey that when they arrived at their own settlement, they ran into their individual homes. Sumner agreed to let them stay, if Spotted Elk would come to Camp Cheyenne with the natives that fled Standing Rock the next day. Spotted Elk was very sick, so he didn’t show.
Then Sumner sent a man by the name of John Dunn, who was a fluent speaker of Lakota, to tell Spotted Elk to take his band down to Fort Bennet. John Dunn told the natives a lie instead, and said there were 1,000 soldiers coming in the middle of the night to take them to Fort Meade. After hearing this, and finding out that soldiers were nearby, the band decided to flee south from their village towards Pine Ridge Agency (Smith, 1981, p. 163-174).
Along the way, the band became so famished and exhausted from their journey that Spotted Elk ordered the slaughter of one of the colts to feed the camp. (McGregor, 1997, p. 51) On December 28, 1890, Spotted Elk surrendered to Major Samuel Whitside. That night, the soldiers celebrated with a keg of whiskey. Whitside’s orders were to disarm the natives, and prevent them from escaping even if it meant killing them. According to Major Whitside’s numbers, there were 230 women and children and 120 men; bringing the band to a total of 350 Lakota, men, women, and children.
There were a total of 492 soldiers, including thirty Oglala scouts, in the 7th Clavary. The soldiers’ weapons were four Hotchkiss revolving cannons with explosive shells that weighed two and a half pounds. Each soldier had a Springfield rifle and a Colt revolver.
When it was time to disarm the natives, soldiers were arranged around the camp in every direction. The Hotchkiss cannons were on a hill top over looking the camp (Smith, 1981, p. 177-182).
The men were ordered to throw their weapons in a large pile. Meanwhile, soldiers searched the women and took all the tools they could find including crowbars, axes, and knives.(McGregor, 1997, p. 67)
This the turning point where historians debate on what happened. According to some accounts, there was a deaf man by the name of Black Coyote that didn’t want to give up his rifle. Two soldiers struggled to get the weapon from him and a shot was fired. In this version of the story, a medicine man named Yellow Bird threw some dirt into the air. Several young warriors may have considered this as a signal to fight. They fired their Winchester rifles at the nearest group of soldiers. The soldiers began to fire at the natives and half of the men fell from the first wave of bullets. Some of the men attacked but most of them ran after their families. The soldiers begin to fire with the Hotchkiss cannons. The artillerymen later claimed that they tried not to kill women and children, but they couldn’t tell them apart from the men. The artillery men fired on men, women, and children seeking shelter in a nearby ravine (Viola, 2003, p. 189-191).
According to the survivor statements of: White lance, John Little Finger, Donald Blue Hair, Peter Stand, Dog Chief, Richard Afraid of Hawk, and Charlie Blue Arm, the first shots that were fired came from the soldiers first volley (McGregor, 1997, p. 109-128). Women and children were chased as far as two miles from their camp site and killed. There is also evidence that suggests the soldiers were drunk. The bodies of soldiers killed in the massacre were exhumed for reburial fifteen years after the massacre. The bodies were well persevered from a high concentration of alcohol (Gonzales, 1999, p. 255).
The final issue of debate is the body and wounded count, which will never be known. One source gives a count of 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children for a total of 146 dead on the battlefield.(Viola, 2003, p. 190). While another source gives 100 men and 120 women and children.(McGregor, 1997, p. 70) Twenty-five soldiers died from warriors and their own cross-fire. Seven out of fifty-one injured natives died after being taken to Pine Ridge(Viola, 2003).
- Gonzalez, M. & Cook-Lynn, E. (1999). The politics of hallowed ground: Wounded Knee and the struggle for Indian sovereignty. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- McGregor, J.H. (1997). The Wounded Knee massacre: From the viewpoint of the Sioux(12th ed.). Rapid City, SD: Fenske Printing Inc.
- Smith, R.A. (1981). Moon of popping trees. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
- Viola, H.J. (2003). Trail to Wounded Knee: The last stand of the Plains Indians 1860-1890. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.