History Thread: The Last Ghost Dance

On December 29, 1890, the Indian Wars climaxed with the Wounded Knee Massacre, where the 7th US Cavalry killed 300 members of the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota. The massacre’s immediate causes were the government’s decision to dissolve the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, opening the land for white settlement; a messianic movement known as the Ghost Dance, which spread through Plains tribes with its message of universal brotherhood and defiance of white imperialism; the shooting of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull by tribal policemen two weeks earlier. It also encapsulated America’s “century of dishonor,” a brutal police action celebrated as a heroic blow for progress.

After Sitting Bull’s death, Miniconjou leader Spotted Elk (nicknamed Big Foot by white Indian agents) set out from the Cheyenne River Reservation for the reservation at Pine Ridge with 350 men, women and children, seeking refuge with Oglala leader Red Cloud from further white reprisals. On December 28th, troopers of the 7th Cavalry intercepted Spotted Elk’s band and escorted them to a makeshift camp at Wounded Knee Creek. The 7th’s commander, Colonel James Forsyth, had orders to disarm the Lakota and relocate them to Omaha, Nebraska; Spotted Elk himself, a veteran of Little Bighorn and convert to the Ghost Dance, was marked for arrest as a “fomenter of disturbances.”

Spotted Elk (Big Foot)

As the Lakota mingled with cavalry troopers, chatting in broken English, exchanging trinkets and admiring their Hotchkiss mountain guns, chief of scouts John Shangreau attempted to negotiate Spotted Elk’s surrender. Spotted Elk was ill (Shangreau noted that his outfit was splotched with blood from a nosebleed), but remained defiant. When Major Samuel Whitside, commander of the advanced detachment, ordered the chief’s arrest, the scout warned that “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.” In all but the last, Shangreau proved prescient.

The following morning, Colonel Forsyth arrived with the rest of his regiment (438 officers and men), forming a cordon around the camp and assembling its warriors. Shangreau implored Spotted Elk to surrender: “You can buy guns, but if you lose a man you cannot replace him.” Spotted Elk again declined, telling the scout “we will keep the good guns.” Forsyth reacted by ordering twenty of Spotted Elk’s warriors to gather the firearms. The Lakota returned, showing a handful of old carbines (“long used, no doubt, as toys by the children,” one soldier huffed) but none of their Winchester repeating rifles.

James W. Forsyth

At this point, Colonel Forsyth confronted Spotted Elk directly, telling him “yesterday at the time of surrender [Spotted Elk’s warriors] were well armed. I am sure he is deceiving me.” Spotted Elk, reclining outside his tent, dissembled: “I gathered up all my guns at the Cheyenne River Agency and turned them in.” Forsyth remained unconvinced; his troops moved into position as he chatted, while the Lakota took advantage of the pause to hide their rifles. Finally, Forsyth ordered two detachments to search the camp for weapons, in disregard of Spotted Elk’s imprecations.

The Lakota remained passively defiant, as Captain Charles Varnum recalled. “The first rifle I found…was under a [woman] who was moaning and who was so indisposed to the search that I had her displaced, and under her was a beautiful Winchester rifle.” Able to find only 38 Winchesters, they began searching the blankets of Spotted Elk and his chieftains, finding no additional weapons. Dog Chief, an Oglala traveling with Spotted Elk, watched the soldiers “go right into the tents and come out with bundles and tear them open,” confiscating not only guns but knives, hatchets and tent stakes, which they stacked alongside the rifles.

Even so, the Lakota felt no particular alarm. After all, white authorities regularly subjected them to similar indignities, and most seemed willing to part with their weapons if the alternative was violence. Then a medicine man named Yellow Bird, a convert to the Ghost Dance, began to taunt the soldiers while preaching defiance to Spotted Elk’s warriors. “I received assurance that their bullets cannot penetrate us,” he proclaimed, “the prairie is large and the bullets will not go towards you; they will not penetrate you.”

As tensions began to mount, a warrior named Black Coyote (“a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody,” a Miniconjou named White Lance remembered) appeared with a Winchester. He told the soldiers that he had paid good money for his weapon and would not part with it. The Lakota knew Black Coyote’s reputation, that he was a troublemaker but not a violent man. “If they had left him alone,” a warrior named Dewey Beard insisted, “he was going to put his gun down where he should.” 

Ignoring the Lakota’s pleas that he was a “crazy man” and partially deaf, two soldiers came behind Black Coyote and seized him. As the three men struggled, Yellow Beard completed his Ghost Dance by tossing a handful of dust in the air – a motion several troopers of the 7th interpreted as a signal. Panicking, Black Coyote spun away from his assailants, then leveled his rifle. He aimed it over the heads of the troopers and fired a shot into the air.

The effect was instantaneous. Several warriors produced their own weapons and, after “hesitat[ing] for an eternal moment,” fired into the 7th’s ranks. A lieutenant barked for the cavalrymen to return fire, and a ragged volley “like a lightning crash” tore through the assembled Lakota. Dozens of men fell in the initial barrage, including several cavalrymen hit by friendly fire. White Lance saw Spotted Elk “lying down with blood on his forehead and his head to the right side,” killed along with most of his council.

As women and children scattered for cover, the Lakota fought as best they could, reclaiming captured rifles or snatching carbines from wounded troopers. Several white casualties were officers wounded as they tried organizing their men (Captain Varnum had his pipe shot from his mouth). Others grappled hand-to-hand with whatever weapons came to hand; Dewey Beard stabbed a trooper with a dull knife until he bled to death. An interpreter, Phillip Wells, was mutilated by a warrior who left his nose “dropped over his mouth, hanging by two shreds of skin.”

After this initial exchange of blows, the Lakota attempted to flee; courageous though they were, they were heavily outnumbered and couldn’t endure a prolonged fight. Unfortunately, the main body of warriors fled through their encampment, bringing civilians into the line of fire. Then Forsyth’s artillery came into play: rapid-fire Hotchkiss mountain guns, which could fire fifty explosive shells per minute. The result was predictably tragic. Shell after shell tore through the camp, shredding tents and hogans and indiscriminately felling Lakota.

“I was running away from the place and followed those who were running away,” a Miniconjou woman named Hakiktawin recalled. “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.” Another woman “was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing.” Louise Weasel Bear remarked that the soldiers “shot us like we were a buffalo.”

About one hundred Lakota tried fording the creek’s south bank. There, they found two platoons of troopers with carbines blocking their path. The soldiers “fired rapidly,” Captain Edward Godfrey (a survivor of Custer’s Last Stand) recalled, “but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, dogs…went down before that unaimed fire, and I don’t think anything got nearer than a hundred yards.” Others crowded into a ravine where Lieutenant T.Q. Donaldson, showing more humanity, ordered his platoon to hold their fire.

The grimmest fate befell Yellow Bird, the Ghost Dancer who had helped provoke the action. He miraculously survived the Hotchkiss shells and took refuge in a tent on the edge of camp. When one soldier tried to apprehend him, Yellow Bird shot him in the stomach. Other troopers responded by riddling Yellow Bird’s tent with bullets; a Hotchkiss gun then fired two shells directly at him. Not content with this, the troopers surrounded the wrecked tent with straw, which they set on fire. Yellow Bird’s remains were rendered virtually unrecognizable.

By the time the shooting stopped, the camp had become an abattoir. At least 250 Lakota, mostly women and children, had been killed outright; dozens more died within the next few days. White casualties were 31 men killed and 33 wounded, most either in the initial burst of fighting or by their own friendly fire. A heavy blizzard then swept the site; by the time workmen arrived to bury the dead, the bodies were frozen into grotesque shapes, further emphasizing the carnage.

Spotted Elk in death

The massacre was initially reported as a great victory; some accounts framed it as righteous vengeance by the 7th Cavalry for the Little Bighorn defeat fourteen years earlier. Twenty Medals of Honor were awarded to cavalrymen, and Colonel Forsyth became the latest national hero. At least until General Nelson A. Miles, no Lakota sympathizer, toured the battlefield and saw the slaughter firsthand. One of his staffers “suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk,” not an inaccurate assessment. Miles tried to court martial Forsyth for murder; Forsyth, however, was acquitted and promoted to Major General.

Wounded Knee did not formally end the Indian Wars. Indeed, it sparked a short-lived uprising by Lakota at Pine Ridge who engaged the 7th and 9th Cavalry in several desperate fights within the following weeks. But it served as a useful epitaph for the conflicts, and the brutality of settlers towards indigenous Americans (evoked eight decades later when the American Indian Movement engaged in a standoff at Wounded Knee). “Something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard,” the famous Oglala Black Elk recounted. “A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970); Peter Cozzens, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars of the West (2016); Heather Cox Richardson, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre (2010); and Robert M. Utley, Last Days of the Sioux Nation (2004 rev. edition; originally published 1963).