The Eradication of the Red Man: Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre

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Pine Ridge Native American camp in South Dakota in 1891.
Photo: Library of Congress


“History is written by the victor.” Winston Churchill

It is impossible to cover the entirety of the Red Man’s story. It spans more than 500 years, and over half the globe, and involves thousands of different tribes. From the first Spanish ships landing in Mexico and California to the first pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower to now with changing the names of sports teams.

Two infamous events that unfolded, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Ghost Dance, are largely ignored by history books.

First, almost everything America has been shaped by Native Americans, or has ties to the Red Man. Almost every state and city are named after a tribe – even Chicago.

In school, I was never taught about the Red Man’s history. Was that due to the lack of knowledge or was it something a little more devious about trying to rewrite history? Whatever it may have been or still is, there are two events that most people don’t know about, unless they grew up on a reservation.


The Ghost Dance

In November 1998, the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland agreed to return this Ghost Dance Shirt – taken from a Lakota warrior after the Wounded Knee Massacre. The shirt was supposed to save the wearer from death.
Photo by Jim Kent

The moral for the Red Man was at an all-time low, they were beaten and broken. There were only a few tribal leaders still alive, the rest had been killed.

One was curly, the strange one, or as he is most commonly known, Crazy Horse. But in 1877, he was betrayed by his people and bayonetted by a US solider. His death was the nail in the coffin for the Red Man.

There was another that was still alive that could be a beacon of light: Sitting Bull.

Those two were the leaders that defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn. It is widely accepted that Sitting Bull was the brains, and Crazy Horse was the brawns, but that wasn’t all true.

Both were extremely fierce when it came to fighting and both extremely tactical. But Sitting Bull, after his many years of fighting when he was younger, took up the roll as diplomate, and Crazy Horse, 10 years younger, looked to Sitting Bull’s counsel.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull had gone to Canada where he lived with his now dwindling tribe. Then he was forced back on The Standing Rock Reservation on the North Dakota/South Dakota border and said “Let it be recorded that I am the last of my people to lay down my gun.”

While there, he was given the opportunity to travel with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he would narrate the daily life of the Red Man. He would speak in his native tongue and the translator was, well wasn’t one, so he had free range to say anything he wanted to and the crowds were none the wiser.

In 1886, a “Messiah,” a Native American, appeared performing a new ritual called the Ghost Dance, not to be mistaken for the Sun Dance, another well-known Native dance.

Wovoka, the self-described prophet, was raised mainly by Mormons because his father died at age 14 and he was adopted. This is most likely where he came up with the Ghost Shirts, having seen many religious practitioners with special robes.

One day while working, he fainted while chopping wood and had a vison of renewal, brotherhood, and better times for Natives. Then, he started preaching his newfound faith. It was slow at first and only reached a small group. He started holding Ghost Dances regularly.

His followers came after he performed three miracles. One was to make ice appear in the river, in summer in Nevada, and ice appeared by the power of God it seemed. (It wasn’t his brothers upriver dumping ice in the river.)

The second was a complete solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, in the western states. During this time of total darkness Wovoka was ill, bed ridden, most likely with scarlet fever. And when the sun arose so did the prophet.

The third occurred during a severe drought in 1889. An Indian police captain asked for rain and Wovoka told the captain in three days water would appear. It wasn’t rain, but the river had overflowed its banks and the lowlands were flooded.

Those miracles cemented the zeal of his followers.

Word traveled of Wovoka’s miracles and the new dance; The Ghost Dance. This dance was able to let the Indians see the dead, and when they returned, they came back with visons of dead whites and the dead of all those who helped the whites. They would wear “Ghost” shirts that would make them invulnerable to the white man’s gun.

Each one would dance until their spirit visited the other side. They believed if they kept performing the Ghost Dance all the white man would be wiped from the face of the earth and all their Native American ancestors would come back from the other side.

All of this came to the Lakota tribe, where Sitting Bull lived. He was an old man by now, and when word of the dance reached him, he was dubious. He wasn’t a true believer, but he let his people dance, he knew it gave them something that he couldn’t anymore, it gave them hope.

This hope spread like wildfire and the news of the dance soon reached United States Army generals.

Word was sent to arrest Sitting Bull, who was shot by a Native American just like Crazy Horse, who was betrayed and killed by his people. Now the last leader who famously defeated Long Hair Custer had perished – all the people had left, was the Ghost dance.


Wounded Knee Massacre

Chief Big Foot was shot on the ground where he was lying sick.

With word of Sitting Bull being murdered by one of his own, and the news of Indians dancing till they collapsed, the military had a hair trigger. The military at the time had a saying. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”

Big Foot was the leader of the Miniconjou Sioux tribe and like so many other tribes, his needed food and supplies. He went to Colonel Samuel W. Sumner at the Eighth Cavalry and informed him that he would be traveling east to Fort Bennett, located along the Missouri River, with his tribe and wanted no problems.

After the tribe left, Sumner got orders to arrest and hold Big Foot and his tribe until further notice. While traveling, members of Big Foot’s tribe ran into Sitting Bull’s people, and they heard of how he had been murdered. They danced the dance of the Ghost and some of Sitting Bulls people joined Big Foots’ tribe. They traveled for two days, before Sumner caught up to the tribe and arrested them.

During the night, word came down to Big Foot’s people that another army column, which was camped in the Badlands, was on their way to kill the Ghost Dancers.

Big Foot with his people left immediately. Their aim was to reach Red Clouds people in northwestern Nebraska. But Big Foot got sick, and a storm halted their movement while they were at Pine Ridge.

They were caught, surrendered unconditionally to the cavalry, and were to be brought to Wounded Knee (now on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota).

Colonel James Forsyth took command at Wounded Knee and on December 29 demanded that all Indians give up their weapons.

“Disarm the Indians. Take every precaution to prevent their escape it they choose to fight, destroy them,” Forsyth said.

Handing over weapons was considered a deep insult, but they complied. Forsyth was not satisfied and told his men to search the camp.

During this time, Yellow Bird started the Ghost Dance, and was told to stop. But Black Coyote joined him.

This is where events are in question, some say that Black Coyote was deaf and could not hear the commands to stop, some say that the interpreter was not the best and the meaning got lost in translation. Some say there was a knife, some say there was a rifle that Black Coyote would not give up. Then, a shot rang out and fighting ensued.

The U.S. Army’s death count was 39 wounded and 25 dead. Six would die later.

Initially, the Lakota death count was 51 wounded – four men and 47 women and children – but the dead on the field counted as 150.

A blizzard raged on January 1 and 2, and after it lifted, about 300 natives were found dead at Wounded Knee, most likely from hypothermia and frigid temperatures of the snow and wind.

Eighteen congressional medals of honor were awarded to the U.S. Army for action at Wounded Knee.

Mass burial of Native Americans in 1891 at Wounded Knee.
Photo: Library of Congress

The video game Modern Warfare 2 has a quote from Captain Price, that builds on Churchill’s quote.

“This is for the record. History is written by the victor. History is filled with liars. If he lives, and we die, his truth becomes written – and ours is lost. Shepherd will be a hero, ’cause all you need to change the world is one good lie and a river of blood. He’s about to complete the greatest trick a liar ever played on history. His truth will be the truth. But only if he lives, and we die.”


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5 Responses to The Eradication of the Red Man: Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre

  1. Elizabeth Alford says:

    Thank you for an insightful and crushing article

  2. Tom Meade says:

    At the very least a public apology’s required for
    the injustices detailed here – and others preceding.

  3. M says:

    Extremely interesting…..

  4. 'joy' says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  5. Kathy says:

    Thank you very much. The truth is now starting to be shared. And we grew up learning how this great country was built by grabbing land and killing native nations. I’m sure more is to come. There is so much to learn.

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