American Pogrom:

Wounded Knee, South Dakota
December 29, 1890

“Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone.”
– Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, US Army

Having learned well during the Civil War that destruction of enemy resources was quite an effective strategy, Generals Sherman and Sheridan applied this lesson to solving the “Indian Problem”. These efforts resulted in the near extinction of the American bison—outside Yellowstone and other national parks, a few private ranches, and zoos, their numbers reached a low of some 200&ndash300.

The US government made close to 400 treaties with Plains Native Americans—and broke most of them in the face of pressure from “the Gold Rush, … Manifest Destiny, and land grants for railroad construction.” With the bison, a critical source of food, clothing, and shelter, gone, Plains Native Americans had little choice but to accept the limits of reservations and to adapt to farming. However,

Indian reservations occupied poor land that had little game and few wild plants of any use. In the withering heat, what grass was left by cattle and sheep (most of them owned by White ranchers) quickly shriveled. Scarce game vanished. By 1885, many Indians had turned their hand to farming, but in 1890 their crops wilted.

The Ghost Dance, a combination of traditional beliefs and millenarianism, began to spread across the Plains:

… an evangelical revival that synthesized ancient Indian beliefs with new millenarian teaching. Strange stories made their way from neighbor to neighbor, from one people to the next, stories of distant laughter on the breeze, dead loved ones brought back to life, and an earth again made green and bountiful.

[I]n 1890, in the midst of the drought, a few of the shaggy beasts appeared suddenly on one of the Sioux reservations in South Dakota. Had the spirits returned their favor? How else could one explain this miraculous event?

Native Americans on some 30 reservations danced, holding hands, circling sunwise, often until they collapsed. And the authorities became increasingly worried. Most nations professed that the Ghost Dance would return bison and the green grass but also bring harmony. The Lakotas’ practice of the Dance incorporated more of their traditional practices—and the belief that the Ghost Dance would “remove non-Indians from their lands.”

The summer passed more or less quietly, but Indian Agents and other officials’ concerns continued to escalate. In November, President Harrison deployed approximately one-third of the US Army to the Sioux Reservation. The tone of press coverage of the Dance morphed from “curiosity” to “bloodthirsty savages are coming for you.”

In mid-December, James McLaughlin, the agent at Standing Rock Reservation (some 275 miles north of Wounded Knee), sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull, the most renowned Lakota chief still living. McLaughlin had long harbored a personal grudge against Sitting Bull. Now, since Sitting Bull had allowed Ghost Dances to take place at his camp, McLaughlin hoped to exploit the Ghost Dance tumult to have him removed from the reservation. When the detachment arrived at Sitting Bull’s home at dawn on December 15 and took him into custody, however, some of Sitting Bull’s enraged followers opened fire, and in the conflagration that followed the police shot the famed chief in the head and chest. The killing of Sitting Bull sent waves of panic and fear across the reservation, and when Lakota [people] there and at other reservations heard the news, they began to crisscross the countryside looking for refuge from the troops.

On the morning of December 29, some of these refugees surrendered to the Seventh Cavalry. The next day, during a search for weapons, a shot rang out—most likely the accidental discharge of a Lakota man’s rifle. Neither the troops nor the man was hurt, but the soldiers, of Custer’s old regiment, on the edge of the ravine opened fire with

[F]our rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns … [They] loosed an exploding shell nearly every second from each of the big guns—and a fusillade of rifle and pistol fire besides—into the mass of mostly unarmed villagers below.

The Seventh tallied 30 dead and dozens wounded. They collected 38 wounded Lakota, and left the rest to the tender mercies of the winter night and the incoming blizzard. When the weather let up, three days later, a burial party

[F]ound several wounded Lakotas yet clinging to life and some surviving infants in the arms of their dead mothers. All but one of these babies and most of the others soon succumbed.

The gravediggers lowered the bodies of 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children into the ground. More had died, but many had been taken by kin or managed to leave the field before dying, perhaps in another camp, or alone on the darkling plain. We can look at old photographs, read crumpled letters, and scan columns of crumbling newspaper, but death is final and pitiless, and its tracks soon vanish. We cannot account for all who were killed at Wounded Knee.

Secretary of the Interior John Willock Noble’s November 30, 1890 report had included the observation that

If all were given allotment as provided In existing laws and treaties. each Indian would receive not more than an average of 50 acres of agricultural land, or 160 acres of grazing land. The surplus held in reservations appears therefore to be unreasonably large. A large proportion of it is laying idle, and is a bar to the Indians’ progress and our country’s development. To restore this to the public domain will work no hardship to the Indians … It would be better for each tribe to part with its claim for a money consideration that would create a fund to be securely held by the United States and upon which it could depend for the support of its members until, by proper use of individual homesteads, they may support themselves.

The report went on to assert that a Rosebud Sioux census had overstated that tribe’s numbers and that as a consequence, rations would be reduced going forward, but continued on the note, “If the terms of the recent agreement made with them are speedily provided for and enforced, it is believe that this tribe will presently be distinguished for its rapid progress toward civilization as it has heretofore been for bravery and intelligence if savage warfare …”

Read more at The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, American Experience (the source for the quotes above), and “Records of Rights” at the National Archives.

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