Doctor Sally Wagner
Testifies At
Wounded Knee

Part One

My name is Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner. I received my Ph.D. in 1978 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, one of the first doctorates awarded in the country for work in Women's Studies. Currently a Research Affiliate at the University of California, Davis, I've taught, lectured and written in the filed of Women's Studies for twenty years.

A native of Aberdeen, South Dakota, my roots are deep in the state. Both sets of grandparents settled here before the turn of the century, and my family has been active in political and community activities. Granpa Aldrich was mayor of Aberdeen for four terms, and I grew up with senators and governors as family friends. My mother always reminded the current governor that she taught him how to swim when he was a little boy. I've recently come home to reside with my elderly father following the death of my mother.

I became interested in Wounded Knee while researching the book series I'm editing on South Dakota pioneer women entitled Daughters of Dakota. The biggest surprise for me has been the frequency of stories indicating a cooperative and friendly relationship between Indians and settlers, generating the obvious research question, "what went wrong?" The answer ultimately led me to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

What I'd like to share with you is some of that research journey. A solid grounding in my discipline of women's history has given me a healthy skepticism of current historians, so in my work I limit myself to first-hand accounts of people who were present at the event, and/or had access to the most knowledge of it. Hence, I went to the words of the commanding generals, soldiers in the fields, Indian agents, government officials, teachers, those who cared for the wounded, etc. I decided initially to limit myself to the accounts of non-indians, and concentrate on the testimony of the men in charge, to see how they described the events at Wounded Knee. There are only a few key white women included; the only Indian voice you'll find in this testimony is quoted by Governor Sigurd Anderson.

Let us begin with the final story in the second volume of my book series, Daughters of Dakota, which is essentially where I began:

"One of the oldest friends of the Ashcrofts was the famous Sioux Indian leader, Sitting Bull. He often visited them and bought butter and chickens from Grandmother. One day he came to buy potatoes from their garden. Grandfather was busy and did not want to take the time to dig them, so his daughter Ethel, ten years old, slipped away and dug a half-sack of potatoes and dragged them up to the house for Sitting Bull. He was so pleased that he promised her a pony, and soon a little bay horse was delivered to her. He was named "Two-John" and she had him until she was married to Jack Jacobs in 1896.

The Role Of The Press

This story, I discovered, was in marked contrast to the newspapers throughout the nation at the time, which were calling for the total "extermination" of the Sioux nation, beginning with Sitting Bull. For example, the Minneapolis Tribune after his death, regretted only that he "should have been hung higher than Hamar and with less ceremony than is observed by a Texas lynching party towards a horse thief." As the press whipped-up fear, the fact was lost that Sitting Bull had been residing in friendship and peace with his white neighbors, with his only "crime" taking part in a religious worship, the Ghost Dance, labeled the "Messiah craze" by the press.

A frightening lynch mob mentality prevailed, with one North Dakota paper declaring: "The most wholesome way to put the quietus on the Messiah racket is to hang old Sitting Bull, and the other disturbance plotters, for conspiracy..."

It was clearly not just the papers back East that created an atmosphere that made genocide thinkable, but it was the local small-town papers, as well. In my home town of Aberdeen, which is in the opposite corner of the state from the Pine Ridge reservation, there was a kind and mild-mannered newspaper editor named L. Frank Baum who starred in an opera with my grandmother during the state fair in 1890. Mr. Baum wrote,

"The PIONEER 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 with one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth." Ten years later, L. Frank Baum published his children's classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Observers at the time held the newspapers accountable for creating a genocidal frenzy and an unwarranted fear in the settlers that could only lead to bloodshed. "Take away the spectacular military display, with the theatrical and almost farcical deploying of troops at a cost of $2,000,000, and we reduce the trouble to a minimum."

Calling in the Army

The white people closest to the scene "deeply resented the soldiers," wrote Elaine Goodale Eastman, who was Supervisor of Education for the two Dakotas at the time. "Army officers frankly admitted that 'the army doesn't know what it is here for' and even asserted that 'these Indians don't deserve punishment,' but we heard that the men were bored with inaction and spoiling for a fight."

The notable exception was the hysterical new agent at Pine Ridge, Dr. Daniel Royer, who reportedly later lost his license to practice medicine in California because of his sever drug addiction. A man with "no previous experience with the Indians," whose appointment was "purely a political one," according to his wife, Dr. Royer repeatedly and frantically called for the army, and reluctantly, for the first time in the twelve year history of the reservation, troops came in to Pine Ridge.

Business Interests

There was one group that wanted the army to come into the area, according to Elaine Goodale Eastman, who wrote,

"No one wanted war - unless there were a few border towns, who saw a cash market for local produce and a chance of taking over in the end the lands they coveted. All Indians wars had ended so."

The Wall, South Dakota, Chamber of Commerce believed that the business pressure Eastman mentions had been a major force leading up to Wounded Knee, as an historical brochure published by them in 1972 shows:

This unrest among the Indians and the Indian Agent's [Royer] request for soldiers fit well into the slow economy of the area and the business men in Rapid City and other towns in the west saw an opportunity to improve it. They joined with the Indian Agents in sending telegrams to Washington urging that troops be sent west. This was also welcome news to the Army that had been inactive for so long. They responded promptly and within a short time there was a cordon of regular army completely surrounding southwestern South Dakota. According to one newspaper report, this was the greatest peacetime concentration of U.S. Troops that had ever been staged. The soldiers were stationed from the Rosebud to Hot Springs, North to Slim Buttes and East to the Missouri River. The newspapers sent out great numbers of reporters and photographers. Business in the frontier towns was never better."

My friend Vic Runnels, an Oglala Lakota artist whose Uncle Jim High Hawk was shot and wounded by a soldier at Wounded Knee in 1890, reminds me that it must be remembered that the Indians read the newspapers calling for genocide against them. Graduates from boarding schools and day schools were reading, speaking and writing English by this time. They knew what the white nation was saying about them, and had reason to fear that would all be killed. Emma C. Sickels, who established the Indian school at Pine Ridge, wrote that the Indians were getting

"reports (circulated in newspapers and authorized by the almost universal sentiment of the terrified settlers) that all the Indians were going to be killed, their arms taken away, and men, women, and children slaughtered without discrimination."

The Conditions Leading Up to Wounded Knee

Brigadier General L.W. Colby was in command of The Nebraska National Guard, which was sent to defend the Nebraska border at this time. General Colby is an excellent source as he was in constant communication, privy to the inside military information and scuttlebutt, and wrote the history of his time. He says,

Colby :

"On November 19th, the telegraph dispatches contained rumors of fighting. On the 20th, some of the newspapers had reports of an important battle with the Indians, the sole function of which, however, was the imaginative brain of the reporter. General Brooke immediately left Omaha for the Pine Ridge Agency, taking command in person."

Colby :

"On November 27th," General Colby continued, "there was an issue of beef to the Indians at Pine Ridge. The issue was made to about 2,600 Indians. The steers were all lean and in poor condition. Twelve hundred soldiers were moved in near the agency, and four guns were planted in a position to command the main avenues of approach to the agency, during the afternoon of the same day."

The large Oglala boarding school became a virtual prison, "the doors...were kept locked by day as well as by nights and the ground, surrounded by a high fence of barbed wire, constantly patrolled by armed guards," according to Elaine Goodale Eastman. "These boys and girls," she said, were "held partly as hostages for the good behavior of their parents..."

Eastman , who was Supervisor of Education in the two Dakotas, witnessed the Ghost Dance "on a bright November night," the only white person present. "No one with imagination could fail to see in the rite a genuine religious ceremony, a faith which, illusory as it was, deserved to be treated with respect," she wrote. Nearly every person familiar with the Lakota people, from General Miles to the missionary Thomas Riggs, echoed the same sentiment, whether or not they respected the religious worship it represented: the Ghost Dance did not promote a war-like spirit among the Indians, and it should not be interfered with.

The critical survival problems facing the Indians were of most concern to the whites closest to the Indians.

Colby :

"The drouth and consequent failure of crops were everywhere general throughout the western states and territories and especially in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska. This affected the Indians as well as the white population in this section. This misfortune, to which was added the failure on the part of the government to supply the customary rations, produced actual suffering among the Indian tribes occupying the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and other reservations in the northwest. They were in need of the necessaries of life; a long cold winter was approaching, and starvation menaced them."

General Nelson Miles , commander of the Military Department of the Missouri, was the man in charge of the army in this area, and therefore is the most important single non-Indian source of information on Wounded Knee.

During this time, General Miles warned Washington:

"Discontent has been growing among the Indians for six months. The causes are numerous. First was the total failure of their crops this year. A good many of them put in crops and worked industriously; and were greatly discouraged when they failed, as they did utterly in some districts. Then the government cut down their rations, and the Appropriation Bill was passed so late that what supplies they received came unusually late. A good many of them have been on the verge of starvation. They have seen the whites suffering, too, and in many cases abandoning their farms."

Elaine Goodale Eastman , visiting Indian schools during the fall of 1890, also was alarmed: "In persistent hot winds the pitiful little gardens of the Indians curled up and died. Even the native hay crop was a failure. I had never before seen so much sickness. The appearance of the people shocked me. Lean and wiry in health, with glowing skins and the look of mettle, many now displayed gaunt forms, lackluster faces, and sad, deep-sunken eyes."

And then on December 15, what they all feared became reality. Sitting Bull was killed, in what General Colby, characterized as a "gentleman's agreement" to assassinate him.

Colby wrote that there was an

"understanding between the officers of the Indian and military departments that it would be impossible to bring Sitting Bull to Standing Rock alive, and even if successfully captured, it would be difficult to tell what to do with him. It is therefore believed that there was a tacit arrangement between the commanding officers and the Indian police, that the death of the famous old Medicine man was much preferred to his capture, and that the slightest attempt to rescue him should be the signal for his destruction."

General Miles sent this telegraphic dispatch from Rapid City to General Schofield in Washington, D.C. on December 19:

"The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations which the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing. They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures. The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses."

General Miles :

"The trouble has been gathering for years. Congress has been in session now for several weeks, and could in a single hour confirm the treaty and appropriate the funds for its fulfillment; and, unless the officers of the army can give positive assurance that the Government intends to act in good faith with these people, the loyal element will be diminished, and the hostile element increased."

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs took the same stand in a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, dated December 26:

"I desire to ask your attention briefly to the situation as viewed from the Indian standpoint."

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs :

"Prior to the agreement of 1876, buffalo and deer were the main support of the Sioux. Food, tents and bedding were the direct outcome of hunting. And with furs and pelts as articles of barter or exchange, it was easy for the Sioux to procure whatever constituted for them the necessities, the comforts, or even the luxuries of life. Within eight years from the agreement of 1876 the buffalo had gone, and the Sioux had left to them alkali land and Government rations."

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs :

"It is hard to over-state the magnitude of the calamity, as they viewed it, which happened to these people by the sudden disappearance of the buffalo, and the large diminution in the number of deer and other wild animals. It was as if a blight had fallen upon our grain fields, orchards and gardens, and a plague upon all our sheep and cattle.. Their loss was so overwhelming, and the change of life which it necessitated so great, that the wonder is that they endured it as well as they did. For not only did the vast herds of buffalo, and exhaustless supply of deer and other animals, furnish them with food, clothing, shelter, furniture and articles of commerce , but the pursuit of these animals and the preparation of their products furnished to the great body of them continuous employment and exciting diversion. Suddenly, almost without warning, all this was changed, and they were all expected to settle down to the pursuits of agriculture in a land largely unfitted for use. The freedom of the chase was to be exchanged for the idleness of the camp. The boundless range was to be abandoned for the circumscribed reservation; and abundance of plenty to be supplanted by limited and decreasing Government subsistence and supplies. Under these circumstances it is not in human nature not to be discontented and restless, even turbulent and violent."

Dr. V. T. McGillycuddy, former Indian Agent In Charge of Pine Ridge wrote,

"It must also be remembered that in all of the treaties made by the Government with the Indians a large portion of them have not agreed to, or signed the same. Noticeably was this so in the agreement secured by us with them the summer before last, by which we secured one-half of the remainder of the Sioux reserve, amounting to about 16,000 square miles. The agreement barely carried with the Sioux nations as a whole, but did not carry at Pine Ridge or Rosebud, where the strong majority were against it; and it must be noted that wherever there was the strongest opposition manifested to the recent treaty, there, during the present trouble, has been found the elements opposed to the Government."

McGillycuddy :

"The staple articles of food at Pine Ridge and some of the other agencies had been cut down below the subsisting point, noticeably the beef at Pine Ridge, which from an annual treaty allowance of 6,250,000 lbs., gross was cut down to 4,00,000 lbs. The contract on that beef was violated in-so-much as that contract called for Northern ranch beef, for which was substituted through beef from Texas, with an unparalled resultant shrinkage in winter, so that the Indians did not actually receive half ration of this food in winter, the very time the largest allowance of food is required."

McGillycuddy :

"By the fortunes of political war, weak agents were placed in charge of some of the agencies at the very time that trouble was known to be brewing."

McGillycuddy :

"Noticeably was this so at Pine Ridge, where a notoriously weak and unfit man was placed in charge. His flight, abandonment of his agency and his call for troops have, with the horrible results of the same, become facts in history."

McGillycuddy :

"Now as for facts in connection with Pine Ridge, which agency has unfortunately become the theater of the present "war:" was there necessity for troops? My past experience with those Indians does not so indicate."

McGillycuddy :

"Why was this? Because in those times we believed in placing confidence in the Indians; in establishing, as far as possible, a home rule government on the reservation. We established local courts presided over by the Indians with Indian juries; in fact we believed in having the Indians assist in working out their salvation."

McGillycuddy :

"When my Democratic successor took charge in 1886, he deemed it necessary to make changes in the system at Pine Ridge...The Democratic agent was succeeded in October last by the recently removed Republican agent, [Royer was removed after Wounded Knee] a gentleman totally ignorant of Indians and their peculiarities; a gentleman with not a qualification in his make-up calculated to fit him for the position of agent at one of the largest and most difficult agencies in the service to manage: a man selected solely as a reward for political services. He might have possibly been an average success as an Indian Agent at a small, well regulated agency."

McGillycuddy :

"As for the "Ghost Dance" too much attention has been paid to it. It was only the symptom [sic] or surface indication of a deep rooted, long existing difficulty; as well treat the eruption of small pox as the disease and ignore the constitutional disease."

McGillycuddy :

"As regards disarming the Sioux, however desirable it may appear, I consider it neither advisable, nor practicable. I fear it will result as the theoretical enforcement of prohibition in Kansas, Iowa and Dakota; you will succeed in disarming and keeping disarmed the friendly Indians because you can, and you will not succeed with the mob element because you cannot."

McGillycuddy :

"If I were again to be an Indian Agent, and had my choice, I would take charge of 10,000 armed Sioux in preference to a like number of disarmed ones; and furthermore agree to handle that number, or the whole Sioux nation, without a white soldier. Respectfully, etc., V.T. McGillycuddy.

P.S. I neglected to state that up to date there has been neither a Sioux outbreak or war. No citizen in Nebraska or Dakota has been killed, molested or can show the scratch of a pin, and no property has been destroyed off the reservation."

What Happened At Wounded Knee?

What followed next can perhaps best be told by the Commanding General, Nelson A. Miles:

General Miles :

"I was in command of that Department in 1889, 1890 and 1891, when what is known as the Messiah Craze and threatened uprising of the Indians occurred...the Indians had been in almost a starving condition in South Dakota, owing to the scarcity of rations and the nonfulfillment of treaties and sacred obligations under which the Government had been placed to the Indians, caused great dissatisfaction, dissension and almost hostility...During this time the tribe, under Big Foot, moved from their reservation to near Red Cloud Agency in South Dakota under a flag of truce. They numbered over four hundred souls. They were intercepted by a command under Lt. Col. Whitside, who demanded their surrender, which they complied with, and moved that afternoon some two or three miles and camped where they were directed to do, near the camp of the troops."

General Miles :

"During the night Colonel Forsyth joined the command with reinforcements of several troops of the 7th calvalry. The next morning he deployed his troops around the camp, placed two pieces of artillery in position, and demanded the surrender of the arms of the warriors. This was complied with by the warriors going out from camp and placing the arms on the ground where they were directed. Chief Big Foot, an old man, sick at the time and unable to walk, was taken out of a wagon and laid on the ground."

General Miles :

While this was being done a detachment of soldiers was sent into the camp to search for any arms remaining there, and it was reported that their rudeness frightened the women and children. It is also reported that a remark was made by some one of the soldiers that "when we get the arms away from them we can do as we please with them," indicating that they were to be destroyed. Some of the Indians could understand English. This and other things alarmed the Indians and [a] scuffle occurred between one warrior who had [a] rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed."

General Miles :

"The Official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children."

This generally-accepted interpretation of events, that Wounded Knee was a massacre, continued up into the 1950's, when South Dakota Governor Sigurd Anderson explained his understanding of the situation in a 1956 speech:

Governor Sigurd Anderson :

"General Miles had campaigned against the Sioux in 1876 and 1877. He knew something of their camps, their actions, their fears. He had issued orders that white soldiers "were not" to go into Indian camps. He had understood the possibility of some bad incident setting off a fight if the Indians and the soldiers, neither able to understand the other, came into too close contact."

Governor Sigurd Anderson :

"Colonel Forsythe violated that order. During the night he deployed his troops about that camp as the map here indicates and the markers where various elements were located plainly shows. In the morning he sent some of the troops INTO the camp. There they were searching the Indians in groups of ten for the unsurrendered weapons."

(Before moving on to Part Two please visit the Medals of dis-Honor Rescindment site and sign your name to the Petition requesting rescindment of medals granted for the massacre. There is an input form for your convenience.)

Part Two ,Wagner Testimony

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