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The Tragedy of Wounded Knee (The Ghost Dance) 17:14min

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By 1980, 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 when there will be no white man to lay his hand on the bridle of the Indian’s horse,
when the red men of the prairie will rule the world
— Wovoka

Wovoka’s gospel of salvation was filled with Christian as well as Indian elements
Men and women were first to purify themselves and foreswear 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 was, 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 a 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

[drum beats and chanting]

Pine Ridge Agency, November 12th, 1890

We need protection and and we need it now
Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy
The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted and this should be done at once
— Daniel F. Royer

Responding to the pleas of a frightened Indian agent, Washington dispatched General Nelson A. Miles with 5000 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 Ddakota
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 Sitting Bull 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 of 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

Black Elk: 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 that she wept as she walked, and she wept not only or 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 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 into 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 seventh 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 men and 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 there was a bugle call
Then I saw the soldiers mounting their horses and surrounding us
It was announced that all men should come to the center for a talk
Big Foot was brought out of his tent and sat, and the older men were gathered around him
— Dewey Beard.

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 plot 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 and … the fun they were having as they played Bucking Horse, Leap Frog and similar games carried the mind or a fleeting moment back to the days of boyhood

Troops began moving from tepee to tepee, 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

[ gunshots ]

The soldiers opened fire —
With rifles
And finally, the cannon that hurled exploding shells into the tepees

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 gunfire had blazed across their playground in a way that permitted no escape
They must have fallen like grass before the sickle

Dead, too, were 25 soldiers

Wounded Lakotas and wounded soldiers alike were taken to the Holy Cross Episcopal Church at Pine Ridge
Its walls were still hung with Christmas decorations
Pews were torn from their fastenings, and armfuls of hay fetched by Indian helpers
Upon a layer of this, we spread quilts and blankets taken from our own beds
The victims were lifted as gently as possible and laid in two long rows on the floor — a pathetic array of young girls and women and babes in arms, little children and a few men, all pierced with bullets

A young girl who had a ghost shirt on underneath her clothes said, “They told me if I put this on, the bullets would not go through and I believed them. Now see where we are.”

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 frozen and black on a simple field of snow
They image ceremony
Women and children dancing, old men prancing, making fun
In autumn there were songs long since muted in the blizzard
In summer the wild buckwheat shone like foxfur and quillwork
And dust guttered on the creek.
Now in serene attitudes of dance
The dead in glossy death are drawn in ancient light

On January 15, 1891, the 4000 remaining ghost dancers finally surrendered to General Miles
Armed Indian resistance in the West had ended

[drum beats]

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 people’s 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


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