Like Grass Before the Sickle
By 1890, no Indian people anywhere in the West lived freely on their own land -- and even the reservations on which they struggled to survive were being broken up under the Dawes Act. Congress had cut appropriations. Rations were drastically reduced. There were deadly epidemics of measles, influenza, whooping cough.
On the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, the Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull was living quietly in his cabin He was still regarded with respect by those Lakotas who remembered the eerie accuracy of his visions during the days when they had fought Custer. But the Lakota were divided now, as they struggled to come to terms with the white man's world.
And Sitting Bull had had another, more disturbing vision. This one told him that the worst fate that could befall a Lakota awaited him -- to die at the hands of his own people.
That fall Sitting Bull had a visitor, a Miniconjou Lakota named Kicking Bear, just back from a train trip to the far West and bearing remarkable news. A ceremony called the Ghost Dance was sweeping through many tribes of the West. It was part of a message of hope for all Indian peoples being preached by a Paiute medicine man and prophet named Wovoka.
My brothers, I bring you word from your fathers, the ghosts, that they are marching now to join you, led by the Messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them... I bring to you the promise of a day in which there will be no white man to lay his hand on the bridle of the Indians' horse; when the red men of the prairie will rule the world.
Wovoka's gospel of salvation was filled with Christian as well as Indian elements. Men and women were first to purify themselves and forswear alcohol and violence. Then they were to dance in a large circle, chanting and appealing to the spirits of their ancestors. When they did, Wovoka promised, the whites would vanish, the buffalo would cover the earth again.
"The Ghost Dance, I think, was a desperate prayer. They thought that, well, it may be possible that all of this has been a bad dream, or all of this is passing and there will be the restoration of the world we knew and loved."
Like most Indians, Sitting Bull remained skeptical of the ceremony's promised powers. But he agreed to let the Ghost Dance be taught to those people at Standing Rock who wanted to learn it. In the Lakota version of the ceremony, the dancers wore special shirts, said to be stronger than the white man's bullets.
The people, wearing the sacred shirts and feathers, now formed a ring. We boys were in it. All joined hands. Everyone was respectful and quiet, expecting something wonderful to happen... The leaders beat time and sang as the people danced, going round to the left in a sidewise step. Occasionally, someone... fell unconscious into the center... As each one came to, she, or he slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably.
Pine Ridge Agency
Responding to the pleas of a frightened Indian agent, Washington dispatched General Nelson A. Miles with 5,000 troops, including the Seventh Cavalry, Custer's old command. At Pine Ridge and Rosebud in South Dakota, the ghost dancers feared that the soldiers had come to attack them, and fled to a remote plateau surrounded by cliffs which nervous whites soon began calling "the Stronghold."
Meanwhile, at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, Indian police -- charged with keeping peace among their own people -- heard a rumor that Sitting Bull was about to join the Ghost Dancers. Forty-three Lakota policemen were dispatched to bring him in. Two troops of U.S. cavalry followed at a distance.
Before dawn on December 15th, 1890, the police burst into Sitting Bull's house, ordered him to his feet, and pushed him toward the door. Outside, Sitting Bull's followers began to gather, taunting the Lakota police, vowing to keep them from taking their leader. Sitting Bull hesitated, unsure what to do.
Then, one of his supporters raised his rifle and shot one of the policemen. Both sides began firing. A Lakota policeman put a bullet through Sitting Bull's head. The last of his great visions had come to pass. Sitting Bull had been killed by his own people.
"My grandfather's mother was one of the people who was from Sitting Bull's camp. And my grandfather would tell me that when Sitting Bull was killed they had very few horses, so the few horses they had, they put the young children on, and they walked to Big Foot's camp, and she wept as she walked. And she wept not only for Sitting Bull being killed the way he was, but also wept because she feared that she would not live to have children. And if she did have children, would they be Lakota?"
Sitting Bull's grieving followers fled toward the Cheyenne River Reservation where they joined a Miniconjou band led by a chief named Big Foot. He had once been an enthusiastic Ghost dancer but he was no longer certain that the world would be transformed. Big Foot decided to take his band in to Pine Ridge and see if there wasn't some way to reconcile things.
But General Miles misunderstood what Big Foot was doing and ordered the 7th Cavalry under Colonel John Forsyth to intercept him. They caught up with Big Foot three days after Christmas. The chief was riding in a wagon, too ill with pneumonia even to sit up, but he flew a white flag to show his peaceful intentions.
The soldiers transferred Big Foot to an army ambulance and then led his band down to a little creek for the night. It was called Wounded Knee.
There were 120 men and 230 women and children. The soldiers distributed rations. An army doctor did what he could for Big Foot. But the soldiers also posted four cannon on the top of a rise overlooking the camp. The following morning, Charles Allen, a reporter for a Nebraska newspaper, watched from the hilltop.
At the southeast edge of the group of standing Indians there was a fair-sized plat of grass where, in all the exuberance of early youth, were eight or ten Indian boys dressed in the gray school uniforms of that period. The fun they were having as they played "bucking horse," "leap frog," and similar games, carried the mind for a fleeting moment back to the days of boyhood.
Troops began moving from tipi to tipi, confiscating knives and axes from the women, sometimes seizing a rifle. A medicine man began to dance. "Do not fear," he told the warriors,"but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured the bullets cannot penetrate us."
Suddenly, scooping up a handful of dirt, he tossed it scattering in the air, and with eyes turned toward heaven, implored the Great Spirit to scatter the soldiers likewise.
"Almost simultaneously with him throwing a handful of dirt into the air, soldiers tried to disarm a man who was deaf. And he hung on to his rifle and they kind of struggled over it and it went off. These two things happened at the same time and -- bang -- I mean, it just blew everything up."
The soldiers opened fire -- with rifles, revolvers, and finally, the cannon that hurled exploding shells into the tipis. The Lakotas did their best to fight back. When the shooting finally stopped, some 250 men, women and children were dead.
I walked around viewing the sad spectacle. On reaching the corner of the green where the schoolboys had been so happy in their sports but a short time before, there was spread before me the saddest picture I had seen or was to see thereafter, for on that spot of their playful choice were scattered the prostrate bodies of all those fine little Indian boys, cold in death... The gun-fire had blazed across their playground in a way that permitted no escape. They must have fallen like grass before the sickle.
For several days the dead Lakotas were left where they had fallen. While the army contended with sporadic fighting that broke out on the reservation. Finally, after a heavy snowfall, a burial party arrived at Wounded Knee, dug a pit, and dumped in the frozen bodies.
In the shine of photographs are the slain,
On January 15th, 1891, the 4,000 remaining Ghost dancers finally surrendered to General Miles. Armed Indian resistance in the West had ended.
"Wounded Knee happened yesterday. For Lakota people, Wounded Knee is today. Wounded Knee represents all the frustrations of those years and years and years on the reservation. Even though it happened in 1890, it's fresh in Lakota peoples' minds and in their hearts. That tragedy, that destruction, that devastating thing that happened to them, it exists today. It exists in our hearts and our minds, the way we think when we see about, when we talk about Indian-White relations, that's the first thing that comes to mind. We'll never forget Wounded Knee."
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA