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Wounded Knee and a Wounded People

Nick at Wounded Knee
I was born on Pine Ridge in South Dakota, and when I was growing up, I spent my summers there. We had a house just outside of Porcupine. That's just a couple of miles from the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. I drove by the Wounded Knee gravesite every time we went to get groceries. Both my mom and my dad told me stories about it, but I never really got a handle on the history of Wounded Knee until high school. Visiting the site this time was kind of emotional, because the older I get, the more I see my culture fading. The Wounded Knee gravesite is an everlasting reminder of what has happened to my people -- the Lakota people -- and what continues to happen to them today.

The main thing to know about the Massacre at Wounded Knee is that it was not an isolated incident; it was part of a philosophy and practice of "Manifest Destiny." As European settlers moved westward, they viewed Indians as an obstacle to their expansion, a glitch in God's plan for Europeans to settle the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. Naturally, Native Americans resisted -- so the settlers fought their way to the west, murdering people and slaughtering buffalo as they went. Massacres like the one at Wounded Knee were part of a whole plan to terminate the Indians and fulfill Manifest Destiny.

Nick at the headstone of the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee

Under these circumstances, Indians across the plains began to lose their way of life. The buffalo were being exterminated, and Native Americans were desperate. Along came the Wovoka Messiah. In January, 1889, Wovoka, a Paiute Indian in Nevada, rose from the dead after a total eclipse of the sun. (Some say he learned of the eclipse through an almanac and planned his "resurrection" -- possibly a recovery from scarlet fever -- to correspond with that event.) Word of Wovoka's resurrection spread throughout Indian country. He made a prophecy: If Indians believed, and sang and danced to certain ritual songs, the buffalo and dead relatives would return, and the non-Indians would be covered by a layer of earth.

Nick thinking about the Massacre

Whether Wovoka's vision was real or not, the Indians of the western United States were in desperate need of community revival, and Wovoka's vision inspired just that. Delegations from tribes all over the west traveled to Nevada to learn more about Wovoka's vision.

They also came to learn about the Ghost Dance, which the Indians believed would save their culture, religion and way of life. Native Americans who practiced the Ghost Dance believed that as long as they did so, the white people could do no harm, Wovoka's vision would come true, and the Indians could return to their traditional ways of life.

The Ghost Dance spread rapidly to tribes all over the west.

Nick thinking about the strong-hearted Oglala war chief Crazy Horse

I know this idea of the Ghost dance might sound kind of weird, but imagine being in these Indians' shoes. They had been oppressed for many, many years, and they were in desperate need of a religious and cultural revival. Wovoka's vision and the Ghost Dance answered that need. If you had been an Indian at those times, hanging onto your culture by one last thread, you might have done the Ghost Dance, too. It might have been your only choice.

In the spring of 1890, a Lakota delegation left for Nevada to confirm what they had heard about Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. These men learned this new religion from Wovoka and became devoted to its doctrine. They became leaders of the new religion among the Lakota. The new religion featured the Ghost Dance as its principle expression of worship, and it became known by that dance. Many Lakota quickly embraced the new religion, but most joined the Ghost Dancers only after U.S. troops appeared on their reservations.

Opposite to the beliefs of the whites, this new religion was not warlike. Wovoka preached peace. He directed his followers to go to work, send their children to school, and wait peacefully for the prophecies to come true. As the summer of 1890 passed, the religion and the dancing associated with it spread peacefully throughout the western reservations. Yet, Despite this unthreatening philosophy, fear spread during summer and fall of 1890 among settlers living near the Sioux Indian Reservations in South Dakota.


We picked up Teddy at the airport, then headed down to Pine Ridge...

Eventually, troops came in to quash what many whites perceived to be an uprising in the making. The U.S. army saw an opportunity to attempt its first mass deployment of troops since the Civil War. Generals could test new weapons, equipment and tactics under field conditions. The medical department could test its ability to pull medical personnel and hospital equipment from around the country. The resulting events have been labeled many ways: "The Great Sioux War of 1890-1891," "The Ghost Dance War," "The Sioux Uprising," or "The Messiah War."

Despite the fear and hostility it inspired among whites, the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull let his band of followers practice the ghost dance. This upset the Indian agents and the U.S. government, who had been watching Sitting Bull very closely ever since the Battle Of The Little Big Horn in 1876. The Indian agents and the government quickly arrested Sitting Bull. During a scuffle after his arrest, Sitting Bull was shot in the back by the Indian police on the Standing Rock reservation. He died a few moments later. It might sound like a mistake for Indian police to kill an Indian leader -- but the truth is they were following orders from the government.

Sitting Bull, a Lakota Chief killed by the Indian Police on the Standing Rock Reservation

After the murder, most of Sitting Bull's band fled the Standing Rock reservation. They met up with Chief Big Foot and continued to practice the Ghost dance. With the U.S. cavalry on their tail, they fled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where eventually they surrendered near Wounded Knee Creek -- just a mile from where I grew up. To represent surrender and peace, Chief Big Foot, who was dying of pneumonia, put a white flag outside of his teepee.

One night, U.S. military troops armed with high-power, rapid-fire guns surrounded Big Foot's encampment. There are two different versions of what happened the next day. Some say that when Big Foot's band was handing over their guns, a scuffle broke out, and it turned into an all-out fire fight. Others say that when the Lakota were to hand over their guns, they blew whistles and started to come together for a ghost dance.

Either way, the result was that nearly 300 men, women and children were gunned down as they stood under a white flag of surrender. Some women and children were found over two miles away, shot. This was the last major fight that the Lakota would have with the United States government. After that cold December day in 1890, the Lakota had no choice but conform as much as possible to the government's will.

But the Lakota struggle did not end at Wounded Knee. What the government did to the Lakota in the past affects the Lakota who live today. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Wounded Knee took place, is now the poorest county in America. That's not just a coincidence.

Keep the peace--

Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - The heroic and fateful quest of the Nez Perce
Irene - We don't need no thought control
Nick - Sitting Bull wins one for the Lakota Indians!
Steph - Potatoes, beans and cornbread. It's the life of a cowboy
Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo
Irene - East Meets West in the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad