the morning of December 29, 1890, the Sioux chief Big Foot and some 350
of his followers camped on the banks of Wounded Knee creek. Surrounding
their camp was a force of U.S. troops charged with the responsibility
of arresting Big Foot and disarming his warriors. The scene was tense.
Trouble had been brewing for months.
The once proud Sioux found their free-roaming life destroyed, the buffalo
gone, themselves confined to reservations dependent on Indian Agents for
their existence. In a desperate attempt to return to the days of their
glory, many sought salvation in a new mysticism preached by a Paiute shaman
called Wovoka. Emissaries of the Sioux in South Dakota traveled to Nevada
to hear his words. Wovoka called himself the Messiah and prophesied that
the dead would soon join the living in a world in which the Indians could
live in the old way surrounded by plentiful game. A tidal wave of new
soil would cover the earth, bury the whites, and restore the prairie.
To hasten the event, the Indians were to dance the Ghost Dance. Many dancers
wore brightly colored shirts emblazoned with images of eagles and buffaloes.
These "Ghost Shirts" they believed would protect them from the
bluecoats' bullets. During the fall of 1890, the Ghost Dance spread through
the Sioux villages of the Dakota reservations, revitalizing the Indians
and bringing fear to the whites. A desperate Indian Agent at Pine Ridge
wired his superiors in Washington, "Indians are dancing in the snow
and are wild and crazy....We need protection and we need it now. The leaders
should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter
is quieted, and this should be done now." The order went out to arrest
Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull was
killed in the attempt on December 15. Chief Big Foot was next on the list.
When he heard of Sitting Bull's death, Big Foot led his people south to
seek protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The army intercepted the
band on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to
camp. The next morning the chief, racked with pneumonia and dying, sat
among his warriors and powwowed with the army officers. Suddenly the sound
of a shot pierced the early morning gloom. Within seconds the charged
atmosphere erupted as Indian braves scurried to retrieve their discarded
rifles and troopers fired volley after volley into the Sioux camp. From
the heights above, the army's Hotchkiss guns raked the Indian teepees
with grapeshot. Clouds of gun smoke filled the air as men, women and children
scrambled for their lives. Many ran for a ravine next to the camp only
to be cut down in a withering cross fire.
When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux
were dead, Big Foot among them. Twenty-five soldiers lost their lives.
As the remaining troopers began the grim task of removing the dead, a
blizzard swept in from the North. A few days later they returned to complete
the job. Scattered fighting continued, but the massacre at Wounded Knee
effectively squelched the Ghost Dance movement and ended the Indian Wars.
Eyewitness to a Massacre
Philip Wells was a mixed-blood Sioux who served as an interpreter for
the Army. He later recounted what he saw that Monday morning:
"I was interpreting for General Forsyth (Forsyth was actually a colonel)
just before the battle of Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890. The captured
Indians had been ordered to give up their arms, but Big Foot replied that
his people had no arms. Forsyth said to me, 'Tell Big Foot he says the
Indians have no arms, yet yesterday they were well armed when they surrendered.
He is deceiving me. Tell him he need have no fear in giving up his arms,
as I wish to treat him kindly.' Big Foot replied, 'They have no guns,
except such as you have found.' Forsyth declared, 'You are lying to me
in return for my kindness.'
During this time a medicine man, gaudily dressed and fantastically painted,
executed the maneuvers of the ghost dance, raising and throwing dust into
the air. He exclaimed 'Ha! Ha!' as he did so, meaning he was about to
do something terrible, and said, 'I have lived long enough,' meaning he
would fight until he died. Turning to the young warriors who were squatted
together, he said 'Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers
are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot
penetrate us. The prairie is large, and their bullets will fly over the
prairies and will not come toward us. If they do come toward us, they
will float away like dust in the air.' I turned to Major Whitside and
said, 'That man is making mischief,' and repeated what he had said. Whitside
replied, 'Go direct to Colonel Forsyth and tell him about it,' which I
Forsyth and I went to the circle of warriors where he told me to tell
the medicine man to sit down and keep quiet, but he paid no attention
to the order. Forsyth repeated the order. Big Foot's brother-in-law answered,
'He will sit down when he gets around the circle.' When the medicine man
came to the end of the circle, he squatted down. A cavalry sergeant exclaimed,
'There goes an Indian with a gun under his blanket!' Forsyth ordered him
to take the gun from the Indian, which he did. Whitside then said to me,
'Tell the Indians it is necessary that they be searched one at a time.'
The young warriors paid no attention to what I told them. I heard someone
on my left exclaim, 'Look out! Look out!' I saw five or six young warriors
cast off their blankets and pull guns out from under them and brandish
them in the air. One of the warriors shot into the soldiers, who were
ordered to fire into the Indians. I looked in the direction of the medicine
man. He or some other medicine man approached to within three or four
feet of me with a long cheese knife, ground to a sharp point and raised
to stab me He stabbed me during the melee and nearly cut off my nose.
I held him off until I could swing my rifle to hit him, which I did. I
shot and killed him in self-defense.
Troop 'K' was drawn up between the tents of the women and children and
the main body of the Indians, who had been summoned to deliver their arms.
The Indians began firing into 'Troop K' to gain the canyon of Wounded
Knee creek. In doing so they exposed their women and children to their
own fire. Captain Wallace was killed at this time while standing in front
of his troops. A bullet, striking him in the forehead, plowed away the
top of his head. I started to pull off my nose, which was hung by the
skin, but Lieutenant Guy Preston shouted, 'My God Man! Don't do that!
That can be saved.' He then led me away from the scene of the trouble."
Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971); Jensen, Richard, et.
al, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (1991); Utley, Robert M., The Last Days
of the Sioux Nation (1963); Wells, Philip, "Ninety-six Years among
the Indians of the Northwest", North Dakota History, 15, no. 2 (1948).
"Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com