by Jerry Green

The Lakota Nation, consists of the confederation of seven tribes: Oglala, Brule, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle and Blackfeet. The Lakotas were among the largest and strongest tribes living on the Great Plains until the last century. In spite of war, disease, and loss of game and land, caused by white migration, their population exceeded 25,000 in 1890.1

The treaty negotiated following the Red Cloud War of 1868 designated the western half of South Dakota as a reservation for the Lakota people. The Lakota retained the exclusive right to hunt within the traditional boundries of their old range, which included parts of present day Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota.2

The Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed agents to oversee the reservations and issue rations and annuity goods. The government also promised to set up schools, provide physicians, and resident farmers to teach agricultural skills. The Military built posts around their lands effectively encircling them, and the railroad laid track adjacent to their hunting lands.

The coming of the railroad brought emigrants and hunters. The buffalo on which all Plains Indians depended for most of their necessities were exterminated. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills, within the reservation brought an influx of people to that beloved land, which by treaty belonged exclusively to the Lakota.

The conclusion of the war of 1876, which included Custer's attack on Sioux and Cheyenne camped at the Little Big Horn, brought another pact. The Treaty of 1876 reduced the reservation further. Included in the land lost to the Lakota was their beloved Black Hills. In 1889, after several attempts the government succeeded in reducing the Great Sioux reservation by more than nine million acres.3 These "surplus" Indian lands were needed to accommodate a growing influx of European immigration. Railroad access from the eastern half of the state was needed to accommodate cattlemen, farmers freighters and mining operations. These commercial interests put pressure on the government for the cession of the Sioux lands that effectively cut the state in half.

The Sioux Land Agreement of 1889 divided the great reservation into smaller agencies. These reservations were Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud. The remaining reservation lands were arid, sandy, and not suited to agriculture. Droughts commonly resulted in massive crop failures.4

Prolonged drought had begun in central South Dakota in 1886.5 Many whites opted to use the land to graze livestock. The country was better suited for grazing than farming. The Lakota did not have that option. They had no choice but to attempt to raise crops in spite of the governments refusal to provide the full allowances of seed, agricultural tools, oxen, or cows.

The late 1880's brought a series of catastrophes to the Indian people living on the reservation. Crop failures due to drought caused widespread hunger on the reservations, in some cases leading to starvation. An outbreaks of blackleg disease among the Indian's cattle took a heavy toll. The situation grew worse after the government reduced rations. In 1889 and 1890 epidemics of la grippe, measles, and whooping cough caused suffering and death to many Indians.6

Perhaps the most serious blow was the reduction of rations in 1890. After signing the Land Agreement of 1889 surrendering over nine million acres of their land congressional inaction cut their rations further. The Lakotas had been assured, by the land commission who negotiated the agreement, that their rations would not be reduced. Congress reduced the appropriations for rations severely the next year. For example, the beef ration was cut on the Rosebud reservation by two million pounds, on Pine Ridge by one million pounds. Similar reductions took place at the other agencies.7

The Land Agreement of 1889 and the events surrounding it created problems among the Lakota. The schism between the progressive Lakota, who would willingly follow government policy and traditionalist, Lakota who constantly opposed any further concessions to the government widened.

The Lakota people then living on the reservations had, from sheer desperation turned to a new religion, looking for hope in their dismal existence. When ordered to stop the practice of this new religion, they refused. Asking for the same religious freedom granted by the constitution to the whites, they were perceived as hostile and warlike. Their intentions were not warlike, they did not possess a standing army, and were without the means to fight, especially in the winter.

The lack of food was recognized as one of the causes for the dissatisfaction among the Lakota by the Interior Department. On December 1, 1890 Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble ordered the commissioner of Indian Affairs to issue rations. "Even if you have to draw on supplies intended to extend throughout the fiscal year, or on appropriations or funds unusual for this purpose."8 Secretary Noble's response came only after complaints from military officials concerning the lack of adequate food and the general condition of the Indians.9

The annuity goods due the Lakota under the treaty were issued late if at all. The issues of winter clothing and equipment due on August 1 were not issued until mid or late winter. As late as December 12, 1890, the annuity goods were issued to the Indians at Cheyenne River. The goods had remained in a Pierre warehouse due to the lack of transportation. One report stated they were waiting for the river to freeze to transport the goods across that way instead of utilizing the ferry.10 This would save money for someone, but cause great suffering among the Lakota.

The removal of their children to attend boarding schools in far off Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Hampton, Virginia, instead of providing schools on the reservations, caused dissatisfaction among many Lakotas. When their children returned to the reservation from these school, jobs were unavailable.11 The reduction of their lands caused by questionable actions and methods of the Sioux Land Commission of 1889, generated much ill will toward the whites.

Just when the Lakotas' world appeared to be disintegrating, rumors of a Messiah in the far west began to filter to the reservations. The source of the rumors was a Paiute medicine man by the name of Wovoka who lived near Walker Lake, Nevada. This man, known to local whites as Jack Wilson, had experienced a vision. The vision became a new religion, one which said the white man would disappear from the country. The prophecies also called for the resurrection all of the Indian's dead ancestors, the return of the buffalo and other game animals destroyed by the whites, and the reestablishment of the dominance of the Indian people.12

In the fall of 1889 delegations were sent from several Lakota reservations to investigate this Messiah first hand. They returned with the good news that all they had heard was true.13 The second coming of God to earth would benefit the red man, not the white.

The spring of 1890 saw another delegation leave for Nevada to confirm what they had heard from the first group. These men learned the tenets of this new religion from Wovoka and became devoted to its doctrine. The men of this delegation became leaders of the new religion among the Lakota.14 This new religion, which would become known by its most publicized ceremony, the Ghost Dance, featured this new dance as its principal expression of worship. The Lakota people saw the religion as a new hope, and some embraced it with exhilaration. The majority however did not subscribe to the doctrine, and joined the camps of Ghost Dancers only after the appearance of troops on the reservation.15

Contrary to the beliefs of the whites, the doctrine of this new religion was not warlike. Wovoka preached peace. He directed his followers to go to work, send their children to school, and wait peacefully for the prophecies to come true. As the summer of 1890 passed, the religion and the dancing associated with it, spread throughout the western reservations.16

Events of the summer and fall of 1890 brought alarm to settlers living near the Sioux Indian Reservations in South Dakota. Fear spread out of control, eventually causing troops to be sent to quell what many whites perceived to be an uprising in the making.

This was an opportunity for the army to attempt its first mass deployment of troops since the Civil War. Generals could test new weapons, equipment and tactics under field conditions. The medical department tested its ability to pull medical personnel and hospital equipment from around the country.

The situation which resulted has been labeled many things. "The Great Sioux War of 1890-1891," "The Ghost Dance War," "The Sioux Uprising," "The Messiah War." From the perspective of hindsight, it could be called nothing more than a civil disturbance.

To nearby settlers, and the less experienced Indian agents, the new religion among the Lakotas caused great alarm. As the dancing spread so did the fear of the settlers. Out of ignorance, they thought any Indian dance was a war dance. Fear that the Lakota would stage an uprising to drive the whites from their former lands swept the frontier. These fears were totally unfounded, for the doctrine of the religion advocated peace. As the number of dancers increased so did the pressure on the Indian agents to stop the dancing.

Daniel F. Royer, a physician and former druggist, without prior experience dealing with Indians, was appointed agent at Pine Ridge in October 1890. His appointment at the hand of Senator R.F. Pettigrew was strictly for political reasons.17

On October 3, 1890, shortly after assuming his duties Royer received orders to stop the Ghost Dance on Pine Ridge.18 Unable to do so Royer called for troops as early as October 12, 1890, to stop the dancing.19 On November 11, 1890, Agent Royer issued a warrant for the arrest of Little an Indian accused of stealing beef. Little resisted arrest and was subsequently rescued by a group of fellow of Ghost Dancers.20 Two days later Royer wrote to the commissioner of Indian affairs, "We have no protection and are at the mercy of these crazy dancers." Perain P. Palmer, the agent at Cheyenne River, also requested aid.21

Royer feared the Lakotas. The Indians called him "Young Man Afraid of His Indians."22 A more experienced agent could have kept the situation under control. His behavior was reported as erratic and unreliable.23 Royer's lack of experience and fear of the Indians led to armed intervention on the reservation.24 The possibility exists that he was using drugs during his short term as Pine Ridge Agent. Some years later he lost his license to practice medicine due to substance abuse.25

Agents had been instructed by the commissioner of Indian affairs to supply the names of the Ghost Dance leaders for possible arrest.26 Agent Reynolds on the Rosebud submitted the names of twenty-one men. McLaughlin, the long time agent on Standing Rock only requested Sitting Bull and five others be arrested and removed. Palmer, the agent on Cheyenne River. wanted Hump, Big Foot, and three others removed. Agent Dixon at Crow Creek reported no problems.27 Agent Royer at Pine Ridge submitted a list of sixty-four names to be arrested, and added that may not be enough.28 He later said "60 or 70 should be arrested to insure peace here."29

Many people who had been among the Indians and knew the Lakota, knew there was no reason for concern. As reported by Dr. V.T. McGillycuddy, the former agent at Pine Ridge reservation he said, "As for the ghost dance, too much attention has been paid to it."30 His belief was that when the spring came and the prophecies of the Ghost Dance failed to materialize, the dancing would stop of its own accord.

Mary Collins, at the time a school teacher on the Standing Rock Reservation, thought the fears prevalent among the settlers were groundless.31 James McLaughlin, the experienced agent at the Standing Rock Reservation saw no need for panic. He was so confident the situation was not a problem that he requested to take five days annual leave in November 1890.32

Reporters amplified and spread, the fear and panic. Twenty-one correspondents were at Pine Ridge at one time or another during the four months the troops occupied the reservation.33 Many of these people were "space writers" not accredited reporters.34 Some such as William F. Kelly who was an office clerk for the Nebraska (Lincoln) State Journal had no previous experience or knowledge of Indians.35 Because no one else could be found, Kelly was made a "reporter" and sent to the "seat of war." His reports are filled with embellishment, misrepresentations, and outright lies.36

These reporters would gather in the back room of the reservation trading post and make up stories to send their editors.37 Their reports of "Unverified rumors were presented as reports from reliable sources or eyewitness accounts, idle gossip became fact . . . a large number of the nations newspapers indulged in a field day of exaggeration, distortion and plain faking."38

Even the commissioner of Indian affairs blamed the "exaggerated accounts in the newspapers" for causing the fear that brought on the flight of many Indians into the Bad Lands.39 Because of forced attendance in government schools, literacy was common among the younger Lakota. In addition, many mixed bloods in the employ of the government on the reservations, could also read and write. The Indians were just as frightened as the settlers by the newspaper accounts they had read. They did not want the Army to occupy their reservations, and feared harm from the soldiers when they came.

Pressure on the government from panic-stricken settlers and the inexperienced agents finally brought troops to the reservations. On November 18, 1890 Maj.Gen. Nelson A. Miles, commander of the Division of the Missouri, ordered Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke Commander of the Department of the Platte, to proceed from his headquarters in Omaha Nebraska, to Pine Ridge with troops. Miles instructed Brooke to protect the Agency and to avoid hostile action if possible. Miles also advised Brooke that Agent Royer was "alarmed and inexperienced."40 Brooke arrived on November 19, 1890.

Before the campaign was over the following units would be present in the Dakotas; First, second, seventh, eighth, seventeenth, and twenty-first Infantry and the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth Cavalry. In addition, units of the first, and second Artillery would also serve in the campaign. This would comprise the largest consolidated force of the U.S. Army since the Civil War. In addition units from the Nebraska National Guard stationed themselves on the southern border of the reservations, to protect the citizens of Nebraska in case of hostilities.

The Federal government at the request of the Governor of South Dakota, issued arms and ammunition to private citizens who had settled along the reservations boundaries. Colonel M. H. Day, of the South Dakota Militia under orders of Governor Mellette distributed guns and ammunition to settlers surrounding the reservations, most notable the Cheyenne River reservation. In one newspaper account over 100 guns are distributed to civilians.41

The appearance of troops naturally alarmed the Lakota. Who were already confused by the reduction of rations, the intertribal strife caused by the 1889 land agreement, and excitement over the Ghost Dance. Fear intensified to the point that some leaders took their people to a remote area of the Bad Lands where they thought they would be safe from attacks by the soldiers, and be free to dance. Many who accompanied the dancers to the Bad Lands were not followers of the new religion but fled only out of fear of the soldiers.42 As many as 3,500 Indians were reported in the Bad Lands.43 They gathered on a portion of the high inaccessible plateau called Cuny Table. This area would become known by the Army, as the Stronghold. There the Indians felt safe from the Army.

General Nelson A. Miles, was the overall commander of the troops. Working from his headquarters in Chicago, Miles knew the Indians and respected them. Miles had many years experience dealing with, and fighting Indians. He saw action against the Sioux in the 1870's. Miles had been involved in campaigns against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Lame Deer. He captured Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce in 1877. Miles was credited with the capture of Geronimo and his Apaches in the 1880's.44 He was sympathetic to the Lakota's problems.45

Miles had hopes of concluding the troubles without bloodshed. To this end he devised a plan to bring the troubles to a peaceful end. This plan included attempting to persuade as many ghost dancers as possible to return to their homes.46

The army would then encircle those who remained defiant. The plan involved placing troops on three sides of the "hostiles," who remained in the Bad Lands, leaving the south end open. Miles stationed troops in a line from Oelrichs, South Dakota, northeast down the Cheyenne River to the mouth of Rapid Creek. The line then went east to the White River. This would keep the Indians on the reservation and out of the settlements. Miles hoped the Indians would move toward the reservation at Pine Ridge and surrender peacefully.47

In mid December Miles moved his headquarters to Rapid City. This move would allow direct supervision of his plan. The plan was working on December 18 some 1,500 of the "hostiles" had returned to the agency at Pine Ridge.48 However, in some outlying camps and remote reservations the new religion was thriving.

At the Cheyenne River reservation, the dancing continued. Bands of Miniconjou, Lakotas under the leadership of Chiefs Hump and Big Foot continued to dance on the Both groups had made their camps near Cherry Creek.

On the Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa's also continued to dance. These leaders and their followers had been classified as "hostile" by the army because of their traditionalists beliefs. They believed in the new religion, and resisted the cultural changes eventuality forced on them by the whites.

Troops in the Cheyenne River area were under the command of Colonel E. V. Sumners. He was assigned the task of observing Hump, Big Foot, and their bands, and to protect the settlers in the area. These troops had been in the area for several weeks. Sumners had met with Big Foot several times. The two leaders developed a mutual trust and respect for each other. Through their meetings Big Foot had convinced Sumners of his peaceful intentions.

General Miles, devised a plan that would reduce the number of dancers at Cherry Creek. He knew of the friendship based on mutual trust and respect between Hump and Captain Ezra P. Ewers of the Fifth Infantry. Miles issued orders for Ewers to report to Fort Bennett, from his station in Texas. Ewers met with Chief Hump and persuaded him and most of his followers to renounce the Ghost Dance and return to Fort Bennett. Some of Hump's followers chose to remain with Big Foot's band on Cherry Creek.49

After Hump's defection, Sumners received orders to bring Big Foot and his band to Fort Bennett. This action would prevent them from joining the "hostile" force in the Bad Lands. The two leaders held talks and Big Foot consented to move his people under Sumners escort to the Fort.

Historians disagree on the role played by Sitting Bull in the Ghost Dance movement. Some claim that he was an ardent supporter and urged his people to the new religion. Others argue that he merely tolerated the movement. Though he did not support it, he believed in his peoples right to dance if they so chose.50

On December 15, 1890, a party of Lakota policemen, following orders of the government agent, killed Chief Sitting Bull while attempting to arrest him. The circumstances surrounding his death are still the subject of much debate, and beyond the scope of this paper. Regardless of the circumstances, most Lakotas believed that he was assassinated. His demise came because of his long standing opposition to any further secession of lands or cooperation with the whites in any way. His death greatly affected all the Lakota people.

After the death of Sitting Bull, many of his followers fled in fear of their lives. On December 17, about 38 of them found their way to Big Foot's camp on Cherry Creek. Big Foot opened his camp to the refugees. He and his followers fed and clothed them as best they could, sharing what little they had and made the refugees feel welcome.51

The arrival of Sitting Bull's Hunkapapa's and the news of his death brought more fear and alarm to Big Foot's people. Sitting Bull, was very much respected by the Lakotas. His honor and courage as a statesman, warrior, and respected leader were never in question by his followers. His death, was the latest in a long string of assassinations of prominent Indian leaders. Leaders who did not conform to what the government considered progressive. If they would murder such a prominent man they would not hesitate to kill again to force their policies on the Lakota.

Accepting an invitation from Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge, Big Foot set off to the agency at Pine Ridge.52 The Lakota, under the leadership of Chief Big Foot, numbered approximately 370 of which no more than 111 were "warriors." This figure includes some of Hump's band and Sitting Bull's followers.

By going to Pine Ridge, Big Foot broke his word to Colonel Summers who had the responsibility to bring Big Foot and his band to Fort Bennett.53 Big Foot had promised the Colonel he would take his people to Fort Bennett.Several things factored into Big Foot's decision to go to the reservation at Pine Ridge.

Perhaps the most compelling reason was the message Big Foot received from a settler named John Dunn who was sent by Col. Sumners to talk to Big Foot. Dunn's mission was to find out when Big Foot intended to take his people to Fort Bennett. Instead of conveying Sumners message Dunn told Big Foot that if he stayed the soldiers would open fire on the village during the night. According to Dunn the only way for Big Foot to avoid a fight with Sumner was to flee to Pine Ridge.54 Dunn's motives are known only to him, but one must suspect his interest in acquiring additional land or profit in some other way should hostilities break out. Interestingly, Dunn was among those fearful settlers who wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on September 26 1890 to request military protection from the Indians. Their letter specifically named Big Foot as a possible source of trouble.55 Following the will of his people, who would feel safe from the troops with their kinsmen at Pine Ridge, Big Foot and his people departed their camp for Pine Ridge on what would be their final journey.

The Army speculated Big Foot was on his way to join the other "hostiles" assumed to be in the Bad Lands. Units were ordered to the field to locate and obtain the surrender of Big Foot and his followers.

On December 28, 1890 elements of the seventh Cavalry under the command of Major Sammuel M. Whitside, intercepted this cold, tired hungry band of Lakota on the main road near Porcupine Butte. The point of interception offers further evidence of Big Foot's peaceful intentions. He was leading his people to Pine Ridge, and not to the Stronghold in the Bad Lands as the army contended. Big Foot, being ill with pneumonia and not wanting a fight, promptly surrendered to Whitside. Had Big Foot's intentions been hostile he most likely would have fought here, as he held the high ground and his women and children were well behind the lines.56

Without further incident, the Lakota and their captors moved to Wounded Knee Creek to camp for the night. They would start for the agency at Pine Ridge some 17 miles distance the next morning.

During the night Whitside was reinforced by the remainder of the seventh Cavalry, lead by Colonel James Forsyth who assumed command of the entire force. The Army units included the seventh US Cavalry and Light Battery E of the first Artillery. The Artillery unit came equipped with 4 rapid fire Hotchkiss Mountain Cannons. These guns fire explosive shells weighing 2 pounds 10 ounces at the rate of 50 per minute and had an effective range of 4,200 yards. Total command strength was in excess of 487.57 Also present was one company of Indian Scouts under the Command of Captain C. W. Taylor.

Forsyth's orders were to disarm the Lakotas and take them to the railhead at Gordon, Nebraska. Where they would be transported south, and held until the troubles passed.

Comments to the author, Jerry Green...

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