The Sioux Indians & U.S. Imperialism
Table of Contents
In a continent already inhabited by several distinct Native American tribes, Anglo-Saxon discourse regarding the role and value of the white race coupled with westward expansion and the United States’ power eventually led to the collision and attempted domination of the Sioux tribe.
The Sioux consisted of seven major divisions living in what is now called North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado1:
These seven divisions were further split dialectically into the Nakota, the Lakota, and the Dakota.2
“Each of the Seven Council Fires was divided into subgroups known as oyate, a term that can be translated as tribe, people, or nation. In turn, each oyate consisted of several tiyospayes, a term that is commonly glossed as band and literally means a group living together. The tiyospaye was the basic social and political unit. A tiyospaye typically consisted of no more than a few hundred people, all linked by kinship. More than one tiyospaye might camp together for a period of time, and on occasion leaders from several bands might consult and make decisions. But although bands were linked through a common culture, language, and history and there was great deal of interaction, movement, and intermarriage among them, there is little evidence of large multi-band councils before the 1850s.” 3
Every summer all the men of the Sioux nation would gather together to catch up with friends, decide pressing issues, and take part in the sun dance, one of the most important ceremonies for the Plain Tribes. 45 While in general each tribe made decisions independently owing to the fact that much of the year they were separated from one another, the Sioux were led by four chiefs, called shirt wearers.6
Within Sioux culture four values are held above all else – bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom.7 Bravery was the virtue most honored by men and women. This virtue is what led Sioux men to risk their lives in war, and a women in protecting her family. Fortitude as a virtue encompassed two things: “the endurance of physical discomfort and pain, and the ability to show reserve during periods of emotional stress...[and] quality of dignity.”8 Generosity for the Sioux meant giving and helping out those who had less than you, and wisdom – the hardest virtue to acquire – “power-insight received from the supernatural...Wisdom involved the ability to advise others, to arbitrate disputes, to instill confidence as a leader of a war party or as a mentor for young men, and finally the exploration of the realms of shamanism.”9
It is important to keep these virtues in mind when considering the interaction between the U.S. and the Sioux so that one can understand the perspective from which the Sioux were coming from.
In narratives by white observers, the Sioux often appear stolid and stubborn to change. It is important to recognize that this appearance while an integral part of Sioux life, was also played up as a position of power when interacting with Europeans and outsiders.
In 1803, at 4 cents an acre, the French sold 828,000 acres to the United States for $15 million dollars under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.10 This transaction is of particular importance to the Sioux because in the eyes of the Washington nearly all the land these Native Americans lived upon was now owned by the U.S. government. The idea of private ownership of land and fixed dwellings were foreign concepts to the Sioux people who were a nomadic hunter/gatherer society that followed the buffalo herds across the plains. As will be discussed later, this cultural difference was one of the main points of contention between the Anglo-Saxons and Native Americans.
The purchase of the land from the French essentially opened the doors for westward expansion. As described in the journal of Indian Affairs agent D.C. Poole as he brought the Sioux chiefs to meet the president for the first time in 1869, and there seemed to be no place for the Native American in the Western conception America under manifest destiny:
“We are now passing through States whose inhabitants have long since forgotten the savage war whoop and bloody trail familiar to their ancestors. by the policy of that day and treaties of that time, the Indians had been removed from occupation of this land to the unknown West, there, in time, to harass by their presence another generation of frontiers men, who, in their turn, strive to drive the red men still farther west from what has now become a neighboring State…A far-off view of the original occupant of the land enables them to see both sides of the question, and to realize that the Indian has been driven from boundary to boundary across each State until, now that he can go no farther, he has turned back again to shame past generations, who were governed too much by interest and not enough by the philanthropic views of the present inhabitants of the land..”11
Although the phrase manifest destiny was coined by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 – awhile after the Louisiana Purchase and displacement of Native Americans – the idea highlights an important aspect of a hegemonic discourse within the United States during that century. O’Sullivan’s article asserts white supremacy deemed fit by God over everything on the continent, “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” 12 As written in “The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism”: “Most middle- and upper-class white Americans shared a simlar ideological perspective about the United States’ divinely appointed destiny as a continental empire and imagined a future in which Indian people would “disappear’ (through extermination or assimilation).” 13
This and the idea of biological determinism – that certain races are genetically superior to others’ - prevalent at the time gave permission and even approval for settlers to perform their primary function, in a socially darwinistic fashion.
D.C. Poole’s personal account with the Sioux through both his own observations and his description of other’s words give light to the dominant discourse circulating within America regarding Native Americans. Native Americans were seen by most Americans as ignorant, lazy, savage, animalistic, childlike, egotistical, selfish, unenlightened, and prone to alcoholism. This discourse served as a means to contrast White with non-White, asserting white dominance over the Native Americans. Psychologically speaking, one is able to see how the use of language in Poole and other’s criticism of the Sioux was a simultaneous affirmation of White/Western superiority and an attempt to distance White men from Native Americans: “A newly-appointed attaché of the Indian Bureau…perhaps, will unhesitatingly…transform a savage into an enlightened citizen.” 14 When General Harney said to Poole, “They are children, sir, and you must deal with them as such,” he instantly transformed the role of White men into the paternal, authority ideal of the time. 15 Dominating the discourse of the “Indian problem” is also the prevalence of unilineal cultural evolutionism popular at the time. This concept developed by Henry Morgan was a theory of the development of humanity along a line. It asserted that man progressed through stages from barbarity to civilization, and underlay many of Poole’s claims. In the following quotation Poole discusses the arrival of Western-style clothing sent by the government to further the development of the Sioux: “His beaded blanket, in which he took the utmost pride; his ornamented leggings and plain breech cloth, were to be discarded, and he was to be arrayed in attire suitable to his advance in civilization.” 16 Unilineal cultural evolution among many faults was a Western-invented hierarchy that explained and justified western ideas of progress and civilization. It ignored cultural diversity, an idea that would only developed by Franz Boas in the early 20th century.
Historically imperialist domination over a country or people has not occurred without reason. Coupled with the idea of superiority is a vested economic interest in something in or around the culture. The Sioux were no exception: “Jefferson’s theory of empire was consistent with commercial capitalism. Land ownership went beyond simple occupancy; it entailed the right to buy, sell, accumulate, and speculate, and it encouraged claims upon the state to develop internal and overseas markets.” 17
The United States felt that it needed to solve the Indian “problem,” one way or another. They felt it was their duty and charge to raise the Sioux civilization up to their level
“Assimilation resolved the contradiction between a commitment to dispossession with its implications of genocide on the one hand, and Enlightenment and Christian principles of the common humanity of all people on the other. Seen from one angle, assimilation was antithetical to racial thinking, since it presumed that Native Americans possessed the same innate mental and moral capacities as Europeans. Yet the basic premise of assimilation, that Indian ways of life were inferior, was linked to increasingly systematized theories of racial classification of hierarchy that tended to reinforce ontological thinking about race.” 18
And so the United States founded the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1825, which sought to convert enlighten Native Americans to the truth of Christianity, to replace their nomadic hunting with agriculture, which would introduce them to ideas of fixed housing and private ownership, and eventually to taxes and capitalism.
It was realized, however, that, “Before the United States could begin systematically to implement an agenda of assimilation, the Sioux would need to become economically dependent on the government.”19 This was accomplished indirectly through the displacement of the Indians from their main source of food, the Buffalo, and the annuities the government was required to pay for the land it received in a series of treaties.
It may be argued by some that the U.S. had the best of intentions when it came to assimilation into U.S. culture, but government action to a large extent was about control. For example, Sioux Indians were discouraged and arrested for selling annuity goods such as Western-style clothes and shoes even though this, “displayed an entrepreneurialism that arguably coincided with the values of American capitalism”20
A vehicle for assimilation was education of the young. It is always understood implicitly and sometimes explicitly that children are the bearers of cultural future. Men, such as Richard Henry Pratt in 1879 understood this and developed educational programs for Sioux youth. He sold his program to Sioux parents by framing the program as a way for the Sioux to gain power in the United States, through high wages and fair communication with Washington: “The Sioux parents who allowed their children to go to Carlisle probably did not fully grasp Pratt’s larger agenda, as he infamously phrased it before an audience of reformers, to “kill the Indian...and save the man.”21 The Indians as a result saw it as an opportunity to regain lost land.
As more settlers traveled West treaties consistently displaced the Sioux from their hunting grounds in exchange for annuities of money and goods. While the main goal of the Sioux was to maintain a space for them to live, the U.S. sought through the treaties to open up land for white settlement and to promote Sioux assimilation.
The 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien brokered by the United States established a boundary between different warring tribes.22 While one of it’s aims was to stop inter-tribal fighting, it also established hunting boundaries, which upset traditional Sioux food practices. The treaty was between the Sioux and Chippewa, Sacs and Fox, Menominie, Ioway, Sioux, Winnebago, and a portion of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and the Potawattomie. One stipulation of the treaty was that the tribes acknowledge the supremacy of the United States over them.
The 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien was a deal in which the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatamie Indians (or Three Councils Fire) gave the United States that gave the United States a portion of Illinois and Wisconsin in exchange for $16,000 and fifty barrels of salt each year forever, and the right to hunt in the ceded territories.23
On July 21, the Wahpeton and Sisseton bands of the Upper Sioux ceded the lands in southern and western Minnesota Territory, as well as some in Iowa and Dakota. The cost to the U.S. was $1,665,000 in cash in annuities.
The Sioux believed that they were cheated during the transaction because the white men had made them sign “traders’ paper,” the implication of which was not explained. It apportioned $400,000 to traders and mixed-bloods who had claims against the Sioux, money that would otherwise have gone to the Sioux.24
With the treaty of Mendota signed on August 5, the Mdewakaton and Wapekute bands of Lower Sioux signed away most of the area in the southeast quarter of present-day Minnesota for a payment of $1,410,000 over a 50 year period. The gave up 24,000,000 acres of rich agricultural land.24
After the two treaties in 1851, 7,000 Native American Sioux were located on two reservations each 20 miles wide and seventy miles long. The federal government established two administrative centers to oversee the reservations and distribute annuities: the Upper (or Yellow Medicine) Agency and the Lower (or Redwood) Agency. The Upper Sioux were satisfied with their land because it included the sites of their old villages, but the Lower Sioux were unhappy because their reseve was on the prairies, far from their favored woodlands.24
Aside from calling for an end to fighting of Red Cloud’s War, the Treaty of 1868 granted the Sioux land in the Black Hills. It also promoted agricultural assimilation for the Indians:
“If any individual belonging to said tribes of Indians...shall desire to commence farming, he shall have the privilege to select...a tract of land within said reservation, not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres...[which] shall cease to be held in common, but the same may be occupied and held in the exclusive possession of the person selecting it, and of his family, so long as he or they may continue to cultivate it.” 25
In addition to agriculture the treaty promoted privatization and ownership of land, and the Western style concept of family.
The Sioux Uprising, which lasted less than 6 months, was an attempt by the Sioux to remove the white men from their land. By the end of the uprising, between 450 to 800 white settlers and soldiers were killed and a good deal of property damaged was incurred. While their actions may seem harsh and overly violent, one must keep in mind that this was a direct response to the oppressive nature of U.S. imperialism.26
There were many factors that led to the Sioux Uprising of 1862. Although the catalyst for the actions - as will be shown - was unplanned, the Sioux took advantage of the absence of U.S. soldiers, who were off South participating in the Civil War, in an attempt to right the wrongs they felt had been committed against them. These grievances, in short, were slow delivery and fraud of the treaty system, a feeling of being cheated of their sacred land by the aforementioned treaties, and having their way of life systematically rubbed out.26
Episcopal Bishop and sympathizer of the Sioux, Henry B. Whipple called attention to the frauds of the treaty system and wrote that the Sioux, “could not live without law. We have broken up, in part their tribal relations and they must have something in their place.”27 Without a new approach, Sioux resentment grew until it reached its breaking point.
On August 17, four Sioux men were walking near a farm in Action within Meeker County when an argument over an egg began. One of the men was chided by another for being afraid of stealing an egg from the white farm despite the fact that he was starving. The one, his pride and prestige at stake, told the other that if he would come with him into the house he would shoot the family.
The four Sioux went out with the white men of the farm to have a shooting contest. They all fired a round, but with feeling they had little to fear due to the Indians’ friendliness did not reload their weapons. The four Sioux turned on the men, shot and killed them, and stole some horses to rush to their village.
At River Creek Village the Indians explained to their chief, Shakopee (or Little Six) what had happened. Shakopee refused to commit to more violent resistance unless the Lower Sioux were willing to join them. This might have proven difficult because the Lowe Sioux looked down upon River Creek since they had a penchant for causing trouble.28
Nevertheless, a number of chiefs convened at Little Crow’s residence that night, the chief whom alone it was felt had the support of the warriors to sustain an uprising against the U.S. army. While he chastised the four Sioux’s actions, he was in favor of an uprising. It is thought that Little Crow desired to regain the respect lost from his recent defeat in an election as speaker for the Lower Sioux.28
On August 18, a band of Sioux warriors launched a surprise attack in the morning looting and killing 20 whites, capturing 10, and missing 47 who escaped.28
Those who escaped headed towards Fort Ridgely 13 miles away on the other side of the river. Fort Ridgely had only 65 soldiers in its company led by Captain John Marsh, who fought in the first battle of Bull Run. Most of his soldiers had never seen combat. Upon receiving news of the attack by arriving escapees, Marsh recalled the fifty men heading towards Fort Ripley under Lieutenant Sheehan. Meanwhile, Marsh headed out to Redwood Ferry with a plan to stave off any advance by the Sioux warriors.
Captain Marsh was repeated warned that his forces were no match for the superior number of Sioux, but he ignored the warnings. When his company arrived at Redwood Ferry an Indian awaited who spoke the U.S. army’s interpreter. As soon as a shot was fired into the air the Sioux, who were waiting in ambush, popped and began shooting their rifles. At least 13 soldiers died, while only 1 Sioux warrior lost his life.
Eager to flee, Captain Marsh led his soldiers down along the river through thicket that protected his men from Sioux rounds. He decided that the company needed to swim across the river. Although he was a strong swimmer, Marsh got a cramp midway across and drowned.
The Redwood Ferry Ambush was an important moral victory for the Sioux due to the huge kill ratio. As one warrior put it, “They could kill white men like sheep.”29
News soon reached the Upper Agency regarding the Lower Agency’s actions. A council was held to decide whether or not to join the Lower Sioux, but the issue was divided. A main opponent was John Other Day, who along with other Christian Sioux leaders, argued for peace. Other day helped white people including his wife and mixed-blood child by safeguarding them in a warehouse for the night. The next morning, on August 19, he led 62 of them to Fort Ridgely.
Meanwhile, the Sioux continued raids, often acting unpredictably. At times they killed entire families, at other times they killed just the men and either let the women and children go or took them captive, or at other sometimes they let all of them free. White settlers who thought they were on good terms with the Sioux were shocked by the violence. They banded together, but this only provided the Sioux with concentrated targets:
“A good example of this attitude can be found in the story of thirteen families farming near what is now Sacred Heart. Learning that the Indians were making trouble, these Germans gathered on the evening of August 18 at the home of Paul KItzman in Flora Township, Renville ox-drawn wagons, they had covered about half the distance to Fort Ridgely by sunrise. Soon after, a party of Sioux warriors overtook them. The Indians, at least one of whom Kitzman knew well, assured them safely there. When the settlers reached one of the houses, the Indians suddenly turned on them, killing the men and some of the women and children- twenty-five persons in all.”30
With the knowledge that its soldiers had gone to fight against the Confederates, the Sioux’s next target was Fort Ulm, which had the largest settlement near the Sioux reservation.
As was common to many of the areas that the Sioux targeted, Fort Ulm was vastly unprepared for an assault. The people had few arms and ammunition, and only about 100 men to defend the town. In addition, the fort had neither blockades nor stockades. The people did what they could, however, barricading themselves within three blocks of the town near some defendable brick buildings.
The citizens of New Ulm succeeded in defending the town on August 19th – mostly due to the fact that the attacking warriors lacked a chef, and a thunderstorm dissuaded them.
In all, 200 white men, women, and children found their way to Fort Ridgely. Fort Ridgely’s location and construction was not good for defense. The terrain with its deep ravines offered the Sioux an easy approach within firing range. Also devoid of a stockade and really just a series of detached, unfortifed buildings, those who fled to Fort Ridgely were in danger.31
Had the Sioux attacked Ridgely immediately following the Redwood Ferry Ambush as chiefs Little Crow, Mankato, and Big Eagle urged the Sioux would have likely destroyed the fort. The young braves outvoted this plan because New Ulm had stores to loot and women to capture. This gave Lieutenant Sheehan and his men, totaling 180 in all, time to arrive.
Having been repulsed from New Ulm, the Sioux attacked Ridgely with 400 warriors. The Sioux attacked from the west to create a small distraction while most of the Sioux snuck around and attacked the northeast of the fort taking a few outbuildings. The men in the fort at first formed on the parade ground, but quickly took cover to fire at will, especially in support of the cannon, when they began taking hits.
With the help of the cannons the defenders were able to drive the Sioux out of the buildings they had occupied and into the ravine where they continued to fire from for five hours. The artillery fire frightened the Sioux who had never encountered the technology before.
The second attack on Fort Ridgely was double the size with 800 warriors. The Sioux camouflaged themselves with prairie grass and flowers to sneak and try to set the roofs on fire, but the roofs were wet from rain and mostly did not catch.
Having failed to inflict much damage the Sioux came from the southwest in an attempt to overwhelm the settlers by numbers. They made some progress and took cover behind buildings, but those buildings were set on fire by the artillery.
The second attack on Fort Ulm was larger. Because of their superior numbers the Sioux were able to envelope the town, and they attempted to use wind and smoke from fires to advance their position. The warriors were routed once again by Charles E. Flandrau with artillery. Following the victory Flandrau had 40 buildings burned (making 190 buildings destroyed in all) and called for an evacuation from New Ulm due to a shortage of ammunition and food, and an increase in disease.
Following the victory at New Ulm, 170 U.S. soldiers went out to bury the dead. The Sioux discovered them and proceed to ambush the soldiers in their camp in the morning. The spot the soldiers camped on was approachable on all sides with little exposure by the Indians. Had it not been for a cook who noticed that the horses were restless, the encounter would have certainly been won by the Sioux.
Having sounded an alarm to wake the camp, the Sioux opened fire injuring 30 men in the first few minutes. The soldiers used the carcasses of the dead horses as effective barriers and continued fighting until reinforcements of 240 men, artillery, and 50 mounted rangers arrived under the command of Colonel McPhail. In all 13 soldiers and 90 horses died in the 31 hour siege. 47 were wounded. //
Fort Abercrombie, too, was plagued with a poor defensible position. It lacked a stockade and blockhouses and consisted of only a few scattered buildings. In addition, Fort Abercrombie was stocked with the wrong type of ammunition for their weapons. Hornk had requested the proper caliber, but the government had been slow to honor the request due to the Civil War. Three 12-lb mountain howitzers were able to make up for the fort’s shortcomings.
News reached the fort’s leader, Captain John Vander Horck, which gave him time to recall Sioux annuities of two hundred cattle, as well as a military detachment to Georgetown. 80 citizens from the surrounding land came to the fort for protection.
On September 3, Hornk went to check on the guards, but was accidentally shot in the arm when he was mistaken for an Indian. The Sioux happened to attack while his wound was being dressed. The warriors sought to gain access to the stable to obtain horses so that they could prolong the siege, but Lieutenant Groetch held them off with cannon fire.
The fort was very low on ammunition following the first attack, with only 350 rounds left, but the women prepared ammunition from the balls used for the cannon to meet the demand.
The Indians focused on the stable again and maintained it for ten minutes, but were forced out. The Sioux then attacked from all side, but were held off by cannon fire. Reinforcements of 450 arrived on September 23rd. The siege officially ended on the 26th and about 60 citizens were escorted to St. Cloud.
Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley needed to get his troops up to Fort Ridgely, but he was very cautious about heading out without being properly supplied. When he sensed that Little Crow was growing tired of the war he tried to open up negotiations. Little Crow seemed receptive, but closed up when Sibley unfairly demanded that he first return the prisoners and make a truce before negotiations begin. The former was a major point of concern for Sibley, and one of the Sioux’s greatest bargaining chips.
Other chiefs, however, were voicing their desire for a safe truce with the U.S. army. Two secret letters sent by Wabasha and Taopi came with the messenger who delivered Little Crow’s response. Sibley expressed the same demands to them as well, but most of the braves still followed Little Crow. Some Sioux, as shown in the subsequent passage from a speech by Rdainyanka, believed that victory was hopeless but they should die in the Sioux tradition of honor:
“I am for continuing the war, and am opposed to the delivery of the prisoners. I have no confidence that the whites will stand by any agreement they make if we give them up. Ever since we treated with them their agents and traders have robbed and cheated us. Some of our people have been shot, some hung; others placed upon floating ice and drowned; and many have been starved in their prisons. It was not the intention of the [Dakota] nation to kill any of the whites until the four men returned from Acton and told what they had done. When they did this, all the young men became excited, and commenced the massacre. The older ones would have prevented it if they could, but since the treaties they have lost all their influence. We may regret what has happened, but the matter has gone too far to be remedied. We have got to die. Let us, then, kill as many of the whites as possible, and let the prisoners die with us.”32
The 3rd Minnesota Regiment who had just come from fighting in the Civil War joined Sibley’s forces on the march to Fort Ridgely. His army camped on Lone Tree Lake thinking the Sioux were far away, when in fact they were only a few miles away. Little Crow decided that they would hold off on a night ambush to catch them strung out on the road the next morning in an even more vulnerable position.
That morning while the Sioux hid in the grass members of the 3rd regiment broke the rules and left to steal potatoes from the Upper Agency. Not staying on the path they nearly ran over the awaiting ambush, which forced the warriors to attack. This gave warning to the U.S. army and provided them a victory and end to the warfare.
On September 26, 269 captives were freed at Camp Release and 2,000 Sioux taken into custody. Sibley, who felt his job was through tried to resign, but was denied his request. He was to oversee the trials of the Sioux. He also faced trouble feeding both his forces and the Sioux’s mouths due to the overwhelming number of people to care for.
392 prisoners were quickly tried by a military commission (some in as little as 5 minutes), with 307 sentenced to death, and 16 given prison terms. Sibley approved all but the case of John Other Day’s brother, who was given a prison sentence after his brother spoke to him and the flimsy evidence was thrown out.
The Sioux were poorly represented at these trials, not made aware of the way Western court worked. They would admit to fighting, but try to dismiss it under extenuating circumstances such as their shots seldom hit anyone, or as one man said regarding a charge of theft that the, “horse he had stolen was only a very little one,” and, “another reported that he took a pair of oxen for his wife.”32
Following the trials only 39 of the Sioux were approved by President Lincoln for execution. All 303 were moved to be moved to Fort Snelling and then Camp Lincoln starting on November 9. Passing through both Henderson New Ulm along the way the prisoners were attacked by white citizens armed with knives, guns, clubs, and stones.33
On December 26, the Sioux (many of whom were baptized) were publicly hung and then buried in a single shallow grave.
Following the Uprising of 1862, anti-Indian sentiment ran high:
“Most Minnesotans were so enraged over the Indian war that they were not satisfied even by the mass hanging of thirty-eight Sioux. They demanded that the Indians who had escaped to roam the prairies of Dakota territory be pursued and punished and that all the captured Sioux be banished from the state-the 1,700 or so peaceful Indians, mostly women and children, confined near Fort Snelling as well as the 300 or more men imprisoned at Mankato who had been convicted by the commission but not executed...white Minnesotans were not disposed to distinguish between hostile and friendly Indians”34
“A further indication of this unreasoning attitude was the concerted effort to remove the peaceful Winnebago Indians from their reservation in Blue Earth County to some place beyond the state’s borders. The Winnebago had taken little or no part in the Sioux War and had already suffered several removals in the past. The fact that they lived on choice farm lands coveted by the whites raises a presumption that the settlers may well have been prompted by economic motives, coupled with fear and prejudice, in wanting to rid of the unfortunate Winnebago.” 34
On September 9, 1862, Governor Ramsey called for action, “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.”34
Nearly three decades after the uprising, the Sioux had come to realize that resistance through battle would not bring liberation from U.S. forces. As a result the Ghost Dance, given to Wovoka in a vision, as a spiritual resistance resonated deeply with the Sioux and caused much fear among white men for the sense of strength it gave to the Native Americans.
On January 1 of 1989 during a solar eclipse, Sioux Wovoka (meaning cutter or wood cutter) also called Jack Wilson had a spiritual vision, which was described by ethnographer James Mooney that month:
“saw God, with all the people who had died long ago engaged in their old time sports and occupations, all happy and forever young. It was a pleasant land and full of game. After showing him all, God told him he must go back and tell his people they must be good and love one another, have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites; that they must work, and not lie or steal; that they must put away all the old practices that savored of war; that if they faithfully obeyed his instructions they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other world, where there would be no more death or sickness or old age. He was then given the dance, which he was commanded to bring back to his people. By performing this dance at intervals, for five consecutive days each time, they would secure this happiness to themselves and hasten the event.”35
Despite the apocalyptic nature of Wovoka’s prophesy in regards to European Americans, Mooney supported it as a search for a Jesus-like peaceful redeemer. It took on, in his eyes, the Jesus’ love for the oppressed and downtrodden and saw this more as a move in a positive direction towards Christianity.
For a variety reasons, it was possible that the Ghost Dance would not be taken up into Sioux culture. While the dance focused around a center, circling around the center as opposed to in and out and the utter importance of holding hands through the ceremony were foreign to the Sioux.36
Regardless the dance held great power. As many as four hundred dancers participated and there were often a thousand or more observers. After an hour or two dancers would “become effected” ececa, faint or die t’a and have visions of this other world promised to the Native Americans once the great spirit destroy white men.
It is also important to note that the Ghost Dance was not a static ritual. It developed differently among different tribes, especially as participants received information of how to perform the dance from spirits and deceased ancestors. Especially powerful, was this chance to communicate with dead relatives.37
Despite its difference, the Ghost Dance became a powerful movement with for the Sioux.
Not surprisingly, the dance unsettled quite a few whites despite the fact that the focus did, “not necessarily dwell on the actual process by which European Americans would disappear,” but more on the glory of the coming new land. 38 A government observer of the dance after not being able to reply when a chief responded that it was Sunday to his demand that the ritual be stopped wrote that the dance was, “exceedingly prejudicial to [the dancers’] physical welfare” and had the unfortunate effect of “binding them to the customs of their ancestors.”39-]
The government did attempt suppression. At first they used verbal persuasion, issued orders, sent the police who were instructed not to use violence, and cut off violence. The Sioux merely ignored them and continued to dance. Sometimes they would say they were going to stop, but would simply go through with the dance when the white men left.
Eventually, General Nelson A. Miles was brought in to quell it. The general believed that the movement would die out in the winter and that force was not necessary. Pressure increased as fearful settlers made prejudicial claims that the Indians planned, or were in the process of outbreaking. But Indian Bureau Agents reports contained little evidence of that the Ghost Dancers had any violent intentions.
One piece of evidence that became critical in U.S. Army intervention was a speech supposedly made by Short Bull at Red Leaf’s Camp that made it into the Chicago Tribune, though it is now believed to be a fabrication. Short Bull was quoted with saying:
“I will soon start the thing in running order. I have told you that this [the new world] would come to pass in two seasons, but since the whites are interfering so much, I will advance the time from what my Father above told me. The time will be shorter.” Should the soldiers surround his followers, Short Bull instructed: “three of you, upon who I have put holy shirts will sing a song which I have taught you, and some of them will drop dead; then the rest will start to run, but their horses will sink into the earth...and you can do what you desire with them. Now, you must know this, kill all the soldiers, and that race will be dead; there will be only 5,000 of them left living on the Earth.”40
There are several reasons this is thought to be a fabricated speech. For one thing, no scholar has ever seen the telegram or a copy, despite that copies of such documents were forwarded to multiple people and the archival records of that time are very complete. At another point in the sermon Sitting Bull also tells the men and women to remove their clothing, which while perhaps seeming fit for a “savage” would have been culturally foreign to the Sioux.
Regardless, by the first week of December six or seven thousand soldiers were called into duty to subdue between four and five thousand, historically peaceful ghost dancers – the majority of whom were women and children.41 The government’s strategy was to evoke enough fear to force the Indians to give up their new custom. While some buckled, a number, especially those in more remote areas, continued the practice.
In order to under the massacre of Wounded Knee one must start with the murder of chief Sitting Bull, one of the major supporters of the Ghost Dance. While the things that led to his death are interesting, stemming an order for his arrest carried by Buffalo Bill Cody, a sour relationship between a Lieutenant Bullhead, and concerns of James McLaughlin – the factors are not as important as what followed.
On December 15 at 5:50AM, Lieutenant Bullhead and forty-two Indian police burst into Sitting Bull’s camp. The story diverges from this point.
According to the police, Bullhead told Sitting Bull he was to come with them. Sitting Bull’s son Crow Foot criticized his bravery to which his father responded by refusing to leave. Three officers grabbed him and began dragging him out, and in the heat of the moment Catch the Bear shot Bullhead. In turn, Bullhead pulled his gun and shot and killed Sitting Bull. By the end of the hour seven other Sioux and six policemen were dead.
Four Robes, one of Sitting Bull’s wives, gave a different account. She said that the police were drunk and belligerent. They shot Crow Foot and Little Assiniboine in cold blood and then dragged Sitting Bull out of his teepee naked. They circled around him and proceeded to shoot him until he was dead. Another witness, Scarlet Whirlwind shared a similar account.42
On December 19 Big Foot (also called Spotted Elk), who was the so of the Minneconjou chief Lone Horn, learned of sitting Bull’s murder. After reports from a scout that Hump was talking about war against the U.S. and knowing previously that Col. E.V. Sumner and his troops were coming from the west he sent a message that he was his “friend and wished to talk.”43
The chief and colonel met. Sumner, who was supposed to be hard on Indian’s that were resisting the government was tempted to arrest him but feared this provoke conflict with Big Foot’s 400 followers. Instead, he decided to keep Big Foot nearby and under close watch.
News of Sitting Bull’s death and near surrender of Big Foot was sent to General Miles, who overeagerly sent the news on to newspapers and his higher-ups. However, Big Foot did not follow Sumner when he began to develop pneumonia from the harsh cold and Miles embarrassingly had to retract his previous statement. His higher-ups then criticized Miles for missing his opportunity to arrest Big Foot, and that this should be corrected as soon as possible.44
The language Miles used in writing Sumner then took on an implied tone to treat Big Foot as a criminal, saying that Big Foot “has been defiant both to the troops and to the authorities, and is now harboring outlaws and renegades from other bands,” and to disarm and hold him in custody until further orders.’^45^’ The army located Big Foot and his band and brought them to Wounded Knee where they were to spend the night. The women who went out to get water that night came back saying, “the infantry and the cavalry have surrounded us,” and the Indians feared that they would be killed that night.46 It was Sumner’s plan to disarm the Indians at Wounded Knee.
That morning army officers came before the Sioux and asked them for their guns in return for provisions. The Sioux complied, but were then told that they wanted 25 guns, then 5 more, and then all the rest. The Sioux told the men that thirty at which point they began a search for hidden weapons. They found guns in shallow holes and underneath the clothing of Sioux women, but they also confiscated “knives, axes, awls, crowbars, tomahawks, arrows, even tent stakes,” all the while destroying the Sioux’s goods. 47
When the search was complete, the army fired on Big Foot’s people. Hotkiss guns rained shells on them and took at the women and children who were running away and the men who were resisting.
1. Hassrick, “The Sioux”, 3, 6.
2. Ostler, “The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, 23.
3. Hassrick, “The Sioux”, 5.
5. Hassrick, “The Sioux”, 8.
6. Ibid., 32.
7. Ibid., 34-35.
8. Ibid., 39.
10. Poole, Among The Sioux of Dakota, 152.
12. Ostler, “The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, 6.
13. Poole, Among the Sioux of Dakota, 23-4.
14. Ibid., 15.
15. Ibid., 65.
16. Ibid., 23-4.
17. Ostler, “The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, 15.
18. Ibid., 57.
19. Ibid., 130.
20. Ibid., 151.
23. Carley, The Sioux Uprising of 1862, 3.
25. Carley, The Sioux Uprising of 1862, 1.
26. Ibid., 4.
27. Ibid., 10.
28. Ibid., 16.
29. Ibid., 22.
30. Ibid., 26.
31. Ibid., 61.
32. Ibid., 70.
33. Ibid., 76.
34. Ostler, “The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, 244.
35. Ibid., 258.
36. Ibid., 266.
37. Ibid., 259-60.
38. Ibid., 276.
39. Ibid., 295.
40. Ibid., 301.
41. Ibid., 327.
42. Ibid., 328.
43. Ibid., 332.
44. Ibid., 332-333.
45. Ibid., 337.
46. Ibid., 341.
Hassrick, Royal B. The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Poole, D.C. Among the Sioux of Dakota, St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.