There are a few events which (sadly) define the interaction between the North American Indians and the white man (more specifically, the United States, its military, and its citizens) during the 1800s. There are three in particular. The horrific Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (the least known of the three), the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn (notable as being a victory on the part of the Indians), and the massacre that took place during the winter holidays in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek.

Wounded Knee, 29 December 1890, Dakota Territory. There were other massacres that involved as many or more killed or wounded, others that involved far greater atrocities (again: Sand Creek, as well as many lost to/obscured/or ignored by history), nor was it technically the last Indian resistance in the West. But it did effectively end the Indian Wars and establish the United States and its military as being in control over the its part of the continent. It brought to an end many dreams of a struggle for freedom or the hope for a chance to return to the "old days."

It showed that a movement could not overcome the armed might of a large organized nation bent on "taming" and conquering and inhabiting all the land between its coasts. It was an end of the West as it was seen (largely romanticized and mythologized, not only then but up until the present) and the Indians were a part of the West. No longer were they free to roam and conduct their lives as they saw fit and had for centuries. The white man was not going away and more would continue fill in the spaces left by the dwindling numbers of Indians. It was not just the human tragedy of Big Foot's band, but a symbol of the tragedy of an entire people. A symbol, the meaning of which, everyone understood.


No historical event exists within a vacuum, there are causes and factors that help create the conditions which lead to the outcome (not to be deterministic—as contingency and choice are also important, but the circumstances and available options are often determined or limited by past and contemporaneous events). A number of things led to the circumstances that made what happened possible and a full understanding and appreciation of the event requires a familiarity with those things.

The "Indian Problem"
The interaction between the Indians and the Europeans was, what Helen Hunt Jackson described with the title of her brave 1881 book, a "century of dishonor."1 Besides periodic warfare, scalp bounties, general encroachment, and deliberate dispensing of liquor, the Indians were being what was almost systematically "disposed" of by whatever means possible.

That the "Indian problem" had to be dealt with, was something known even by the earliest citizens and leaders. George Washington, in 1779, instructed a general to attack the Iroquois and make sure that he "lay waste all settlements around...that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed" and not to listen to "any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected." This is not merely a call for punishing supposed raids or other depredations, but an act of total war aimed at extermination of the tribe. No less than Thomas Jefferson said that "if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi." He felt that "in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them" and that the choice the government would eventually (if not sooner) have to make would be "to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach" (all qtd. in Stannard). So the choice was expulsion or extermination. They chose both.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was pushed through Congress by Andrew Jackson—who had once said "the whole Cherokee Nation ought to be scourged" and bragged that he had "on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed." It gave the government a pretense and "legal" way to have the military "remove" most of the Eastern tribes to "Indian Country," west of the Mississippi (much of which later became the state of Oklahoma). Thousands died in transit due to disease, exposure, malnutrition, and in some cases rebellion and attempts to escape. It also brought a burden to the Indians who were already living there.

In the middle of the century, the government began carving up the land and "portioning" it out for the Indians (land that was already theirs by right and habitation—except for " documents" and policy saying it wasn't). Indians were being put onto reservations where they had only the freedom that the government and (often greedy and duplicitous) Indian Agents allowed them.

Rations were of poor quality and often cut either as punishment or to save money. Hunting was usually out of the question and game on reservation land was scarce, at best (and much of the land poor for farming despite the government's expressed desire for the Indians to become farmers). All the while, "buffalo hunters" were coming out west and working at exterminating the bison that was a chief source of food for the plains Indians. Those that dared leave to hunt or attempt a return to the traditional life—even if done peaceably—were subject to more reprisals and mistreatment. The system, itself, helped break down tribal identity and unity. This was further advanced by discouraging or outlawing native religious practices and allowing missionaries free reign on the reservations for the purpose of converting them to Christianity.

Even the land "given" them was being slowly carved up. By 1871, they had lost their most sacred place, Paha Sapa, or the Black Hills (a 1868 treaty said it was theirs but legislature in 1871 decided that the US could not make any treaties with the Indian and the hills were taken—that it was ruled a violation over 100 years later is no consolation to the Indians then or now). In fact, the land designated as the "Great Sioux Reservation" in the 1858 Treaty of Fort Laramie had not only shrunk by over half by 1889, it had also been broken into three separate sections of two reservations each.

In 1887, the General Allotment Act (" Dawes Act") would divide up most the reservation land, giving a certain amount to Indians and the rest auctioned off for sale. It was an attempt to assimilate them into "civilization" and break up what tribal unity remained. To "kill the Indian and save the man." It, along with the institution of missionary day schools and boarding schools, was an attempt to get away from the policy of extermination (despite it "exterminating" their identity as a people).

Indian Wars and massacres
The Indian wars had been going on and the loss of life further disheartened and angered the oppressed people. It also angered their "conquerors," the US military. Any action of one generally brought retaliation from the other. Indians often matched the military massacre for massacre. Many, on the other hand, had decided peace to be preferable to extermination. The problem was that "an Indian is an Indian" and reprisals were meted out against Indians regardless of whether or not they partook in any of the actions of which they were accused. In many cases, it was a matter of revenge.

Following the defeat at Little Big Horn, the military increased its presence and attempts to "tame" and subjugate the Indians (and wipe out any that resisted). Fewer and fewer bands were living off reservation land and fewer and fewer of them were able to successfully sustain their existence. Not only was there less land to live on without interference or harassment, the continuing kill-off of the bison made what hunts they could organize less and less productive. Some who chose to leave the reservation for hunting still had to return to maintain rations (such as they were) of food to supplement their meager supplies of meat.

The Ghost Dance movement
The Indians were being beaten down (despite resistance) and their identity and cohesiveness as a people was being destroyed along with the bison and their "title" to their land. They were a deeply wounded people (really: "peoples," but it simplifies things to speak in somewhat more general terms), in need of hope and meaning to help sustain their drive to survive the circumstances that had been forced upon them. For many, this was fulfilled by the Ghost Dance religion, introduced by the Paiute Indian Wovoka around 1889 (based partly on an earlier version along with considerable references to Christianity).

This religion promised a return to the old ways and traditional life of the precontact days. The wild game would once again be plentiful, the land would revert to its former splendor, sickness would go away, ancestors would rise from the dead, and the white man would vanish forever. The requirements were rather simple. Indians must maintain an ethical, moral existence: abstain from alcohol, treat each other well, tell no lies, not fight or steal, et cetera. In short, "be good and love one another." Additionally, prayer, meditation, ritual bathing, and practice of the circular "Ghost Dance" was necessary. It is hard to see how the promises could not be taken hold of by the Indian need to fill the spiritual void and search for meaningfulness that they desperately desired. Hope.

Along with those features, the message included explicit references to "Jesus" and a story that an Indian messiah would appear in 1891 (interestingly, a self-proclaimed messiah appeared at Pine Ridge Reservation a few days before the massacre; he wasn't convincing and was "escorted" across the border and told to keep going). When the message reached the plains Indians, specifically the Lakota bands of the Sioux Nations, it made an immediate impact and gained numerous converts. Though Wovoka's original teachings specifically called for not harming white people or causing trouble and that the participants should "return home, go to farming, and send all your children to school" (, the Lakota saw it also as "just vengeance" to be dealt the white man for all the things he'd done to the Indians.

Like many religions, it was subject to variation (as the Lakota interpretation). One of these was that when the Indians would don special shirts with magical symbols (called "Ghost Shirts"), they would be impervious to bullets. This was a key development in what happened later.

The movement worried the government and its soldiers. It suggested to them that the Indians were massing and conspiring together for an uprising (something that was a constant cause of concern—especially among the Lakota who had taken part in the Custer debacle). The talk of bulletproof clothing seemed proof of this. Complicating things were newspapers that were telling wild tales of these dancing Indians and the fear spreading because of them (this was nothing new, newspapers tended, then as now, to write what sells best and playing on the fear of Indian uprising sold papers).2

Suppression of the dancing was paramount from the army's point of view and it was enforced (accounts seem to suggest rather ineffectively). The worried army called a former agent, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, to give his recommendations for a course of action. He stated in a letter:

I should let the dance continue. The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare their ascension robes for the second coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If troops remain, trouble is sure to come. (Brown)

This was not what they wanted to hear (how could this movement be peaceful?) and his recommendations were ignored.

The death of Sitting Bull and the newspapers
Part of the concern of an uprising was that Sitting Bull was on one of the reservations and he was always considered a risk for instigating rebellion. Personally, he didn't think the Ghost Dance was all that valid (he knew the dead did not return to life), but allowed it on the reservation because the people insisted and it made them content (relatively speaking). Unfortunately for him, the government decided that he was leading the movement and planning the feared uprising.

On 15 December 1890, soldiers and Indian policemen approached Sitting Bull to arrest him. A man loyal to him fired a shot and in the ensuing scuffle, Sitting Bull was killed (it was felt that death was going to be the ultimate consequence of the arrest, anyway, and that any resistance by him or one of his men would give a pretense to murder him).

Again, the papers stirred up exterminist feelings. Two days later, the St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Missouri), published an editorial stating that "So died Sitting Bull. So was removed one of the last obstacles in the path of progress. He will now make excellent manure for the crops, which will grow over him when his reservation is civilized" and that the

filth and vermin-infested Sioux and other savages who have pretended a desire to live even under starvation rations and broken treaties will be persuaded by Sitting Bull's example, and a little skillful management of the same kind which converted him from a brutal savage into a good Indian, to stand up where they can be shot out of the way of advancing progress....

While one of these barbarians lives to claim an acre of unentered land in the United States he will remain as an obstacle to progress. A firm persistence by the President [Benjamin Harrison] in the admirably progressive policy he has illustrated in Sitting Bull's case will make good Indians of all the rest of them, bucks, squaws and pappooses. (; I have the full text at Sitting Bull)

Another frightening call for extermination came from an editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer (Aberdeen, South Dakota) written by Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum. This was published right after the death of Sitting Bull:

The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.

We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America.

This was not to be his last editorial on the whole situation. And its feelings were mirrored by and stirred up the emotions of quite a few—made worse by this "Ghost Dance" that threatened (so it was thought) to become an uprising or even a war.

Soldiers on the reservations increased in number and worked harder to suppress the dancing. Along with the hope for a better tomorrow, there was a nervousness about reprisals and punishments—and following the death of Sitting Bull, worse.

In just under two weeks worse happened.

Massacre at Wounded Knee

1"Jackson sent a copy to every member of Congress with the following admonition printed in red on the cover: 'Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations.'  To her disappointment, the book had little impact" (

2Newspaper stories exaggerating incidents (anything involving an Indian was termed a "massacre") and stirring up trouble in the days before the Sand Creek massacre helped create the climate of "exterminationism" that led not just to the massacre but the atrocities that took place that day (aided, as seems the case time and time again, by a prodigious amount of alcohol consumption). Also, that Colorado was looking toward statehood and needed to show that they (and those hoping to be part of the soon-to-be government there) could control the "Indian problem" and make the territory "safe" helped stir up feelings and volunteers eager to go and take care of it.

(Sources used or consulted: Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West 1970; David E. Stannard American Holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World 1992; William S. E. Coleman Voices of Wounded Knee 2000; Carl Waldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 rev. ed. 2001; Atlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000;,;,;;;

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