It happened despite a treaty signed two decades before in which the United States government guaranteed local tribes rights to their sacred land around the Black Hills.
But in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the treaty was broken.
I was assigned to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a college history course and the book revealed to me my ignorance of American Indian history. And what a sad and terrible history it is.
Part of today’s Writers Almanac gives a short summary of why the event occurred after the tribes were forced off their sacred land and placed on reservations.
People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation, and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders, and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot, and when he found out what had happened, he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.
Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.
The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.
I wrote earlier about one of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre – the famous medicine man, Black Elk, and his book Black Elk Speaks. This was another book I read in college after finishing my assigned reading. Both books were revelatory both in the history and my own spirituality and in forming a philosophy for my own life’s path.
Black Elk said about the massacre:
“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 still 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.”