It was one hundred thirty years ago today, on January 3, 1891, that L. Frank Baum published an editorial in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre that called for the total annihilation of the Native American population. Baum would, nine years later, write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Read on for Baum’s editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, followed by an excerpt on the massacre from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Concluding this post is Dee Brown’s chapter on this heartbreaking episode from U.S. history from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
All photography below has been added by the RR editor and is in the public domain.
The Wounded Knee Editorial
Written by L. Frank Baum for The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, January 3, 1891
The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at its best, is a disgrace to the war department. There has been plenty of time for prompt and decisive measures, the employment of which would have prevented this disaster.
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.
An eastern contemporary, with a grain of wisdom in its wit, says that “when the whites win a fight, it is a victory, and when the Indians win it, it is a massacre.”
‘Ghost Dancing’ (p. 153)
Chapter Eight “Indian Country” from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014.
Disarmed, held in concentration camps, their children taken away, half starved, the Indigenous peoples of the West found a form of resistance that spread like wildfire in all directions from its source, thanks to a Paiute holy man, Wovoka, in Nevada. Pilgrims journeyed to hear his message and to receive directions on how to perform the Ghost Dance, which promised to restore the Indigenous world as it was before colonialism, making the invaders disappear and the buffalo return. It was a simple dance performed by everyone, requiring only a specific kind of shirt that was to protect the dancers from gunfire. In the twentieth century Sioux anthropologist Ella Deloria interviewed a sixty-year-old Sioux man who remembered the Ghost Dance he had witnessed fifty years before as a boy:
Some fifty of us, little boys about eight to ten, started out across the country over hills and valleys, running all night. I know now that we ran almost thirty miles. There on the Porcupine Creek thousands of Dakota people were in camp, all hurrying about very purposefully. In a long sweat lodge with openings at both ends, people were being purified in great companies for the holy dance, men by themselves and women by themselves, of course…
The people, wearing the sacred shirts and feathers, now formed a ring. We were in it. All joined hands. Everyone was respectful and quiet, expecting something wonderful to happen. It was not a glas time, though. All wailed cautiously and in awe, feeling their dead were close at hand.
The leaders beat time and sang as the people danced, going round to the left in a sidewise step. They danced without rest, on and on, and they got out of breath but still they kept going as long as possible. Occasionally someone thoroughly exhausted and dizzy fell unconscious into the center and lay there “dead.” Quickly those on each side of him closed the gap and went right on. After a while, many lay about in that condition. They were now “dead” and seeing their loved ones. As each one came to, she, or he, slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began to wail inconsolably……
Waking to the drab and wretched present after such a glowing vision, it was little wonder that they wailed as if their poor hearts would break in two with disillusionment. But at least they had seen! The people went on and on and could not stop, day or night, hoping perhaps to get a vision of their own dead, or at least to hear the visions of others. They preferred that to rest or food or sleep. And so I suppose the authorities did think they were crazy – but they weren’t. They were only terribly unhappy.
When dancing began among the Sioux in 1890, reservation officials reported it as disturbing and unstoppable. They believed that it had been instigated by Hunkpapa Teton Sioux leader Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull), who had returned with his people in 1881 from exile in Canada. He was put under arrest and imprisoned at his home, closely guarded by Indian police. Sitting Bull was killed by one of his captors on December 15, 1890.
All Indigenous individuals and groups living outside designated federal reservations were considered “fomenters of disturbance,” as the War Department put it. Following Sitting Bull’s death, military warrants of arrest were issued for leaders such as Big Foot, who was responsible for several hundred civilian refugees who had not yet turned themselves in to the designated Pine Ridge Reservation. When Big Foot heard of Sitting Bull’s death and that the army was looking for him and his people – 350 Lakotas, 230 of them women and children – he decided to lead them through the subzero weather to Pine Ridge to surrender. En route on foot, they encountered US troops. The commander ordered that they be taken to the army camp at Wounded Knee Creek, where armed soldiers surrounded them. Two Hotchkiss machine guns were mounted on the hillside, enough firepower to wipe out the whole group. During the night, Colonel James Forsyth and the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old regiment, arrived and took charge. These soldiers had not forgotten that Lakota relatives of these starving, unarmed refugees had killed Custer and decimated his troops at the Little Bighorn fourteen years earlier. With orders to transport the refugees to a military stockade in Omaha, Forsyth added two more Hotchkiss guns trained on the camp, then issued whiskey to his officers. The following morning, December 29, 1890, the soldiers brought the captive men out from their campsites and called for all weapons to be turned in. Searching tents, soldiers confiscated tools, such as axes and knives. Still not satisfied, the officers ordered skin searches. A Winchester rifle turned up. Its young owner did not want to part with his beloved rifle, and, when the soldiers grabbed him, the rifle fired a shot into the air. The killing began immediately. The Hotchkiss guns began firing a shell a second, mowing down everyone except a few who were able to run fast enough. Three hundred Sioux lay dead. Twenty-five soldiers were killed in “friendly fire.” Bleeding survivors were dragged into a nearby church. Being Christmastime, the sanctuary was candlelit and decked with greenery. In the front, a banner read: PEACE ON EARTH AND GOOD WILL TO MEN.
The Seventh Cavalry attack on a group of unarmed and starving Lakota refugees attempting to reach Pine Ridge to accept reservation incarceration in the frozen days of December 1890 symbolizes the end of Indigenous armed resistance in the United States. The slaughter is called a battle in US military annals. Congressional Medals of Honor were bestowed on twenty of the soldiers involved. A monument was built at Fort Riley, Kansas, to honor the soldiers killed by friendly fire. A battle streamer was created to honor the event and added to other streamers that are displayed at the Pentagon, West Point, and army bases throughout the world. L. Frank Baum, a Dakota Territory settler later famous for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, edited the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer at the time. Five days after the sickening event at Wounded Knee, on January 3, 1891, he wrote, “The Pioneer [sic] has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
Three weeks after the massacre, General Sherman had made clear that he regretted nothing of his three decades of carrying out genocide. In a press conference he held in New York City, he said, “Injins must either work or starve. They never have worked; they won’t work now, and they never will work.” A reporter asked, “But should not the government supply them with enough to keep them from starvation?” “Why,” Sherman asked in reply, “should the government support 260,000 able-bodied campers? No government that the world has ever seen has done such a thing.”
The reaction of one young man to Wounded Knee is representative but also extraordinary. Plenty Horses attended the Carlisle school from 1883 to 1888, returning home stripped of his language, facing the dire reality of the genocide of his people, with no traditional or modern means to make a living. He said, “There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school.” Historian Philip Deloria notes: “The greatest threat to the reservation program … was the disciplined Indian who refused the gift of civilization and went ‘back to the blanket,’ as Plenty Horses tried.” But it wasn’t simple for Plenty Horses to find his place. As Deloria points out, he had missed the essential period of Lakota education, which takes place between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Due to his absence and Euro-American influence, he was suspect among his own people, and even that world was disrupted by colonialist chaos and violence. Still, Plenty Horses returned to traditional dress, grew his hair long, and participated in the Ghost Dance. He also joined a band of armed resisters, and they were present at Pine Ridge on December 29, 1890, when the bloody bodies were brought in from the Wounded Knee Massacre. A week later, he went out with forty other mounted warriors who accompanied Sioux leaders to meet Lieutenant Edward Casey for possible negotiations. The young warriors were angry, none more than Plenty Horses, who pulled out from the group and got behind Casey and shot him in the back of his head.
Army officials had to think twice about charging Plenty Horses with murder. They were faced with the corollary of the recent army massacre at Wounded Knee, in which the soldiers received Congressional Medals of Honor for their deeds. At trial, Plenty Horses was acquitted due to the state of war that existed. Acknowledging a state of war was essential in order to give legal cover to the massacre.
As a late manifestation of military action against Indigenous peoples, Wounded Knee stands out. Deloria notes that in the preceding years, the Indian warrior imagery so prevalent in US American society was being replaced with “docile, pacified Indians started out on the road to civilization.”
Luther Standing Bear, for example, recounts numerous occasions on which the Carlisle Indian Industrial School students were displayed as docile and educable Indians. The Carlisle band played at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and then toured several churches. Students were carted around East Coast cities. Standing Bear himself was placed on display in Wanamaker’s Philadelphia department store, locked in a glass cell in the center of the store and set to sorting and pricing jewelry.”
Chapter nineteen from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, published 1970.
There was no hope on earth, and God seemed to have forgotten us. Some said they saw the Son of God; others did not see Him. If He had come, He would do some great things as He had done before. We doubted it because we had seen neither Him nor His works.
The people did not know; they did not care. They snatched at the hope. They screamed like crazy men to Him for mercy. They caught at the promise they heard He had made.
The white men were frightened and called for soldiers. We had begged for life, and the white men thought we wanted theirs. We heard that soldiers were coming. We did not fear. We hoped that we could tell them our troubles and get help. A white man said the soldiers meant to kill us. We did not believe it, but some were frightened and ran away to the Badlands.
HAD IT NOT BEEN for the sustaining force of the Ghost Dance religion, the Sioux in their grief and anger over the assassination of Sitting Bull might have risen up against the guns of the soldiers. So prevalent was their belief that the white men would soon disappear and that with the next greening of the grass their dead relatives and friends would return, they made no retaliations. By the hundreds, however, the leaderless Hunkpapas fled from Standing Rock, seeking refuge in one of the Ghost Dance camps or with the last of the great chiefs, Red Cloud, at Pine Ridge. In the Moon When the Deer Shed Their Horns (December 17) about a hundred of these fleeing Hunkpapas reached Big Foot’s Minneconjou camp near Cherry Creek. That same day the War Department issued orders for the arrest and imprisonment of Big Foot. He was on the list of “fomenters of disturbances.”
As soon as Big Foot learned that Sitting Bull had been killed, he started his people toward Pine Ridge, hoping that Red Cloud could protect them from the soldiers. En route, he fell ill of pneumonia, and when hemorrhaging began, he had to travel in a wagon. On December 28, as they neared Porcupine Creek, the Minneconjous sighted four troops of cavalry approaching. Big Foot immediately ordered a white flag run up over his wagon. About two o’clock in the afternoon he raised up from his blankets to greet Major Samuel Whitside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Big Foot’s blankets were stained with blood from his lungs, and as he talked in a hoarse whisper with Whitside, red drops fell from his nose and froze in the bitter cold.
Whitside told Big Foot that he had orders to take him to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek. The Minneconjou chief replied that he was going in that direction; he was taking his people to Pine Ridge for safety.
Turning to his half-breed scout, John Shangreau, Major Whitside ordered him to begin disarming Big Foot’s band.
“Look here, Major,” Shangreau replied, “if you do that, there is liable to be a fight here; and if there is, you will kill all those women and children and the men will get away from you.”
Whitside insisted that his orders were to capture Big Foot’s Indians and disarm and dismount them.
“We better take them to camp and then take their horses from them and their guns,” Shangreau declared.
“All right,” Whitside agreed. “You tell Big Foot to move down to camp at Wounded Knee.” 1
The major glanced at the ailing chief, and then gave an order for his Army ambulance to be brought forward. The ambulance would be warmer and would give Big Foot an easier ride than the jolting springless wagon. After the chief was transferred to the ambulance, Whitside formed a column for the march to Wounded Knee Creek. Two troops of cavalry took the lead, the ambulance and wagons following, the Indians herded into a compact group behind them, with the other two cavalry troops and a battery of two Hotchkiss guns bringing up the rear.
Twilight was falling when the column crawled over the last rise in the land and began descending the slope toward Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee. The wintry dusk and the tiny crystals of ice dancing in the dying light added a supernatural quality to the somber landscape. Somewhere along this frozen stream the heart of Crazy Horse lay in a secret place, and the Ghost Dancers believed that his disembodied spirit was waiting impatiently for the new earth that would surely come with the first green grass of spring.
At the cavalry tent camp on Wounded Knee Creek, the Indians were halted and carefully counted. There were 120 men and 230 women and children. Because of the gathering darkness, Major Whitside decided to wait until morning before disarming his prisoners. He assigned them a camping area immediately to the south of the military camp, issued them rations, and as there was a shortage of tepee covers, he furnished them several tents. Whitside ordered a stove placed in Big Foot’s tent and sent a regimental surgeon to administer to the sick chief. To make certain that none of his prisoners escaped, the major stationed two troops of cavalry as sentinels around the Sioux tepees, and then posted his two Hotchkiss guns on top of a rise overlooking the camp. The barrels of these rifled guns, which could hurl explosive charges for more than two miles, were positioned to rake the length of the Indian lodges.
Later in the darkness of that December night the remainder of the Seventh Regiment marched in from the east and quietly bivouacked north of Major Whitside’s troops. Colonel James W. Forsyth, commanding Custer’s former regiment, now took charge of operations. He informed Whitside that he had received orders to take Big Foot’s band to the Union Pacific Railroad for shipment to a military prison in Omaha.
After placing two more Hotchkiss guns on the slope beside the others, Forsyth and his officers settled down for the evening with a keg of whiskey to celebrate the capture of Big Foot.
The chief lay in his tent, too ill to sleep, barely able to breathe. Even with their protective Ghost Shirts and their belief in the prophecies of the new Messiah, his people were fearful of the pony soldiers camped all around them. Fourteen years before, on the Little Bighorn, some of these warriors had helped defeat some of these soldier chiefs—Moylan, Varnum, Wallace, Godfrey, Edgerly—and the Indians wondered if revenge could still be in their hearts.
“The following morning there was a bugle call,” said Wasumaza, one of Big Foot’s warriors who years afterward was to change his name to Dewey Beard. “Then I saw the soldiers mounting their horses and surrounding us. It was announced that all men should come to the center for a talk and that after the talk they were to move on to Pine Ridge agency. Big Foot was brought out of his tepee and sat in front of his tent and the older men were gathered around him and sitting right near him in the center.”
After issuing hardtack for breakfast rations, Colonel Forsyth informed the Indians that they were now to be disarmed. “They called for guns and arms,” White Lance said, “so all of us gave the guns and they were stacked up in the center.” The soldier chiefs were not satisfied with the number of weapons surrendered, and so they sent details of troopers to search the tepees. “They would go right into the tents and come out with bundles and tear them open,” Dog Chief said. “They brought our axes, knives, and tent stakes and piled them near the guns.”
Still not satisfied, the soldier chiefs ordered the warriors to remove their blankets and submit to searches for weapons. The Indians’ faces showed their anger, but only the medicine man, Yellow Bird, made any overt protest. He danced a few Ghost Dance steps, and chanted one of the holy songs, assuring the warriors that the soldiers’ bullets could not penetrate their sacred garments. “The bullets will not go toward you,” he chanted in Sioux. “The prairie is large and the bullets will not go toward you.”
The troopers found only two rifles, one of them a new Winchester belonging to a young Minneconjou named Black Coyote. Black Coyote raised the Winchester above his head, shouting that he paid much money for the rifle and that it belonged to him. Some years afterward Dewey Beard recalled that Black Coyote was deaf. “If they had left him alone he was going to put his gun down where he should. They grabbed him and spinned him in the east direction. He was still unconcerned even then. He hadn’t his gun pointed at anyone. His intention was to put that gun down. They came on and grabbed the gun that he was going to put down. Right after they spun him around there was the report of a gun, was quite loud. I couldn’t say that anybody was shot, but following that was a crash.”
- Big Foot in death. Photographed at the Wounded Knee battlefield.
“It sounded much like the sound of tearing canvas, that was the crash,” Rough Feather said. Afraid-of-the-Enemy described it as a “lightning crash.”
Turning Hawk said that Black Coyote “was a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody.” He said that Black Coyote fired his gun and that “immediately the soldiers returned fire and indiscriminate killing followed.”
In the first seconds of violence, the firing of carbines was deafening, filling the air with powder smoke. Among the dying who lay sprawled on the frozen ground was Big Foot. Then there was a brief lull in the rattle of arms, with small groups of Indians and soldiers grappling at close quarters, using knives, clubs, and pistols. As few of the Indians had arms, they soon had to flee, and then the big Hotchkiss guns on the hill opened up on them, firing almost a shell a second, raking the Indian camp, shredding the tepees with flying shrapnel, killing men, women, and children.
“We tried to run,” Louise Weasel Bear said, “but they shot us like we were a buffalo. I know there are some good white people, but the soldiers must be mean to shoot children and women. Indian soldiers would not do that to white children.”
“I was running away from the place and followed those who were running away,” said Hakiktawin, another of the young women. “My grandfather and grandmother and brother were killed as we crossed the ravine, and then I was shot on the right hip clear through and on my right wrist where I did not go any further as I was not able to walk, and after the soldier picked me up where a little girl came to me and crawled into the blanket.”
When the madness ended, Big Foot and more than half of his people were dead or seriously wounded; 153 were known dead, but many of the wounded crawled away to die afterward. One estimate placed the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women, and children. The soldiers lost twenty-five dead and thirty-nine wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel.
After the wounded cavalrymen were started for the agency at Pine Ridge, a detail of soldiers went over the Wounded Knee battlefield, gathering up Indians who were still alive and loading them into wagons. As it was apparent by the end of the day that a blizzard was approaching, the dead Indians were left lying where they had fallen. (After the blizzard, when a burial party returned to Wounded Knee, they found the bodies, including Big Foot’s, frozen into grotesque shapes.)
The wagonloads of wounded Sioux (four men and forty-seven women and children) reached Pine Ridge after dark. Because all available barracks were filled with soldiers, they were left lying in the open wagons in the bitter cold while an inept Army officer searched for shelter. Finally the Episcopal mission was opened, the benches taken out, and hay scattered over the rough flooring.
It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
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 … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.