American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Plains Indians and the Tragic Lure of the Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance movement that swept through the western Indian tribes in the late 1800s formed a tragic trajectory from Sitting Bull’s death to the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.

After the U.S. government corralled Indians onto reservations, Congress promptly cut appropriations, drastically reducing rations for Indians at a time when crops were failing. A wave of epidemics followed, and Indians watched helplessly as their children starved or died of disease.

In explaining the appeal of the Ghost Dance shortly after the Wounded Knee massacre, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud said: “We were faint with hunger and maddened by despair.”

The Paiute medicine man Wovoka started the Ghost Dance movement with a vision of a paradise on Earth.

In 1889, the Paiute shaman Wovoka began preaching about a great renewal that was coming in the spring of 1891. Mixing elements of Christianity and Indian beliefs, he promised tribes that Indians who had died at the hands of white men or their diseases would return, along with the buffalo that had nearly been exterminated by whites as part of their effort to subdue the Indians. And the white men would disappear.

Until then, Indians could visit that paradise by participating in what curious whites dubbed Ghost Dancing. But first they had to undergo purification and could not engage in fighting, drinking alcohol, lying, stealing or cruelty. Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs” describes it this way:

“The ritual dance was the essence of simplicity: the worshippers—each of them painted with a sacred red pigment—shuffled counterclockwise in a circle, moving slowly at first but then picking up tempo while singing songs acclaiming the resurrection. Many participants succeeded in their quest for a trance and awoke to tell marvelous tales of meeting with dead kinsmen and seeing the hosts of the past marching into the present.”

Wovoka’s vision was spread through letters written by boarding-school trained Indians and personal pilgrimages, like the one undertaken by Kicking Bear and several other Lakota who traveled to Nevada to hear Wovoka preach. Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull in the fall of 1890 with news of the Ghost Dance. Sitting Bull tried the dance but experienced no vision and remained skeptical, saying dead men don’t come back to life. But he did not discourage interested Lakota from dancing.

Kicking Bear, a key proponent of the Ghost Dance among the Lakota, said special ghost shirts would protect dancers from the white man’s bullets.

In a move that would prove disastrous, Kicking Bear added his own touch, saying special ghost shirts would make the dancers impervious to bullets and hinting that the Lakota might hasten the prophecy about the whites vanishing from the Earth.

People began to dance at all the Lakota agencies (the forerunners of today’s reservations). An unnamed Pine Ridge pupil quoted in “The West: An Illustrated History” said, “To think I should see my dead mother, grandmother, brothers, and sisters again!” He traveled 30 miles with his classmates to join thousands of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Porcupine Creek:

“Occasionally, someone…fell unconscious into the center and lay there ‘dead.’ After a while, many lay about in that condition. They were now ‘dead’ and seeing their dear ones. As each one came to, she, or he, slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably.”

All that activity, in particular the wearing of “bulletproof” shirts, made whites nervous. The politically appointed agent at Pine Ridge, Daniel Royer, pleaded with the government to send troops to take the Ghost Dancers to a military prison. (Royer was so easily alarmed that the Lakota called him Young Man Afraid of Indians.)

In the photo above, hundreds of Indians in Oklahoma Territory perform the Ghost Dance ritual in the hopes of bringing back their old way of life.

The Army obliged by sending troops, prompting the dancers to flee from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud agencies to a plateau surrounded by cliffs that whites began calling “the Stronghold.”

Former agent Valentine McGillycuddy argued that the government was overreacting and issued a prescient warning:

“If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare the 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 the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.”

Sitting Bull, who had come to value the dancing because it represented a return to the old ways, sent word to Indian agent James McLaughlin seeking permission to travel from Standing Rock to join the Indians at the Stronghold near Pine Ridge.

Instead, McLaughlin sent 43 Indian policemen, backed by two troops of cavalry, to arrest Sitting Bull. Things quickly went awry. Indian policeman Lt. Bull Head was shot and, firing his pistol as he fell, struck Sitting Bull in the chest. In the same moment, another policeman named Red Tomahawk shot the chief in the head, killing him.

After Sitting Bull’s death, Chief Big Foot, who had lost faith in the Ghost Dance, began leading his band of 120 men and 230 women and children toward Pine Ridge seeking rations and protection from Chief Red Cloud. But the Army misinterpreted the action and intercepted them.

The next day, at Wounded Knee Creek, the soldiers began taking guns, knives and any kind of weapon they could find from Big Foot’s people. Troops surrounded the camp, and cannons were trained on the increasingly nervous Indians. Charles W. Allen, a Nebraska newspaperman who was at the scene, wrote that a medicine man began dancing and telling the Lakota that their ghost shirts would protect them:

“He was an orator of the first water. I remarked to some troopers nearby that if the man were an ordained minister of some Christian church he would convert the world.”

Allen said the medicine man threw a handful of dirt in the air, raised his arms to heaven and implored the Great Spirit to scatter the soldiers like the dirt. At the same time, the soldiers struggled with an Indian who initially refused to give up his gun. Someone fired a shot, and all hell broke loose. When it was over, some 300 Indians were dead.

Afterward, the last 4,000 Ghost Dancers came together in one village, which the Army surrounded. Finally, on January 15, 1891, the dancers surrendered. Kicking Bear was reportedly one of the last to turn in his rifle. It was the end of the Plains Indians’ armed resistance in the West.

According to Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” when the shots were fired that killed Sitting Bull:

“The old show horse that Buffalo Bill had presented to Sitting Bull began to go through his tricks. He sat upright, raised one hoof, and it seemed to those who watched that he was performing the Dance of the Ghosts.”

American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Remembering the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.

It’s a bit overwhelming to write a post about Wounded Knee, both because of the complexity of the events leading up to the massacre and the enormity of the heartbreak, but I wanted to note the date—126 years ago today.

What was originally called a battle and now widely acknowledged as a massacre happened two weeks after Sitting Bull was killed. Wounded Knee marked the end of the Indian wars by crushing the last vestige of the Plains Indians’ resistance. It still resonates as a shocking tale of cruelty and wanton disregard for life.

In the immediate aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death during a botched arrest, bands of Sioux panicked and fled. Some joined up with Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot and his people, who were on their way to procure rations at the Indian agency near Fort Bennett in South Dakota. They were intercepted by the 8th Cavalry, which had orders to arrest Big Foot because U.S. authorities believed he was a troublemaker. The Indians went with the soldiers toward Camp Cheyenne, but when they got close to their village, they refused to go any further. During the night, amid reports of more troops coming from the east, the Indians fled toward the Badlands.

Another cavalry unit caught up with them on December 28 and demanded that they surrender, which the Indians did, being in no condition to fight the Army. The troops hurried them to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians set up camp as the soldiers took up positions around them.

More soldiers arrived in the morning, bringing the military escort to 470 for some 350 hungry, tired Indian men, women and children led by a chief who was suffering from pneumonia.

On the morning of December 29, Col. James Forsyth sought to disarm the Indians first voluntarily then by force. Soldiers tore through the tipis in the hunt for weapons then tried to search the warriors themselves. In the confusion, a young Indian fired wildly. “Instantly, the soldiers retaliated with a point-blank volley which cut down nearly half the warriors,” according to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs.” “The rest of them drew concealed weapons and charged the soldiers.”

The Army’s rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns shredded the tipis and set them on fire, mowing down women and children as they and a few warriors fled into a ravine. The soldiers repositioned the Hotchkiss guns to “sweep the ravine and cut down anything that moved.”

Chief Big Foot’s frozen body lays in the snow at Wounded Knee.

Big Foot was shot and killed as he tried to rise from his sickbed. Some of the wounded managed to run two miles from the camp before being killed by cavalry members who rode after them, while other soldiers finished off the wounded in the camp, including children coaxed from their hiding places.

The Army suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded. But because the Indians had few guns and the troops were firing from all sides at once, the soldiers likely caused many of their own casualties. To add insult to injury, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.

burial_party_wounded_knee-640Some 300 dead Indians were left where they fell for three days as a blizzard swept through. On New Year’s Day 1891, a burial party was sent to retrieve the bodies. Civilians were paid $2 per body to drag the Indians from under the snow and dump them into a mass grave.

According to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs”:

“Four babies were discovered still alive, wrapped in their dead mothers’ shawls. Most of the other children were dead. ‘It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone,’ said one member of the burial party, ‘to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit.’”

In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown writes that only four Indian men and 47 women and children survived the massacre. Soldiers loaded them onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Indian agency.

The last words of Brown’s book fittingly belong to Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota leader born in 1863:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”


American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Where is Sitting Bull Buried?

You’d think the answer would be simple, but the question sent me down one rabbit hole of research after another.

sitting-bullSitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota leader, was killed on December 15, 1890, at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota during a botched arrest. He had surrendered to federal authorities several years earlier, but when the Ghost Dance movement swept across Indian Country in the late 1800s, Indian agent James McLaughlin feared Sitting Bull’s influence and ordered his arrest.

According to

“The Indian police rousted the naked chief from his bed at 6:00 in the morning, hoping to spirit him away before his guards and neighbors knew what had happened. When the fifty-nine-year-old chief refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and a few hotheaded young men threatened the Indian police. Someone fired a shot that hit one of the Indian police; they retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest and head. The great chief was killed instantly. Before the ensuing gunfight ended, twelve other Indians were dead and three were wounded.”

Sitting Bull was buried at the Fort Yates Military Cemetery, but he has not rested in peace.

The Army abandoned Fort Yates in 1903, and all the graves were moved, except for Sitting Bull’s. By the 1950s, according to Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, “One of the most significant Native American leaders ever had almost simply returned to Mother Earth with not much more than a concrete slab and a pile of rocks to mark his passing.”

That’s when a group of businessmen from Mobridge, South Dakota, received permission through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move Sitting Bull’s remains from the neglected grave in Fort Yates to Mobridge—in an effort to attract tourists to their town.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski’s memorial to Sitting Bull in Mobridge, South Dakota.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski agreed to create a memorial to Sitting Bull on the site of the relocated remains “only after a heated argument over the exploitation of Native Americans, the consent to the project of Sitting Bull’s heirs, and a commitment not to exploit the monument as a tourist site,” states. However, he ended up boycotting the monument’s dedication ceremony because he believed the South Dakota governor was using it for political gain.

Ziolkowski’s statue of Sitting Bull still overlooks the Missouri River but has unfortunately been the victim of neglect and vandalism. Another monument at Fort Yates is now under the management of the Standing Rock Reservation.

In 2007, Sitting Bull’s four surviving great-grandchildren launched a movement to have their ancestor’s remains moved to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, where he played a key role in the defeat of Gen. George Custer and the U.S. Army. The New York Times also ran an article about it, but as near as I can tell, that effort failed.

And then there are those who say Sitting Bull is in Manitoba, Canada. In a 2007 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Sioux historian and elder Gordon Wasteste claimed “Sitting Bull’s remains were secretly spirited across the border at Turtle Mountain and buried on Canadian soil…over a century ago.”

Wasteste said Sitting Bull’s body was moved from the grave in Fort Yates long before the Mobridge businessmen dug it up in the 1950s. The tribe was motivated by concerns that Americans or Europeans would make a wax effigy of the great leader’s body from his bones, a not uncommon practice at the time.

So where is Sitting Bull buried? I have no idea, but judging by his enduring fame, it doesn’t matter where his body lies. His spirit remains indomitable.

Footnote: Incidentally, Fort Yates was renamed from Standing Rock Cantonment to honor Capt. George Yates, who was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the Army left, the fort’s buildings came under the control of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Annie Oakley: Little Sure Shot in action

Annie Oakley_Buffalo Bill posterWhile we’re on the subject of Annie Oakley and her shooting prowess, PBS’ American Experience did an excellent show on her a few years back. Here’s the transcript.

Sitting Bull nicknamed her Little Sure Shot (Watanya Cicilla), and she was incredibly accurate, only missing when it was part of her act. She would shoot glass balls thrown in the air, the thin edge of playing cards, dimes, the flame from a candle and the ashes off the cigarette in the mouth of her husband, Frank Butler.

According to HistoryNet: “On November 3, 1926, she died of pernicious anemia at the age of 66. Frank mourned so deeply he stopped eating and died 18 days later on November 21.”

You can watch footage of Oakley shooting online. The film was taken by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1894 and is the same film people would have paid a nickel to see at one of those new-fangled Kinetoscope parlors.