WOUNDED KNEE, part I: The closing frontier.

Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.
Click here for other parts of this series:
Wounded Knee is a stark, remote place in western South Dakota with freezing winters, blazing hot summers, and hard, rocky ground tough for raising crops.  Wounded Knee Creek itself is a narrow, shallow, twisting stream  — barely 100 miles start to finish — that snakes across the barren landscape through today’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before vanishing into another stream just south of Badlands National Park.  
This creek never held much appeal for the Lakota Sioux Indians.  But just north sat something much better, the Black Hills, a natural wonder of peaks and streams, lush grasslands and deep forests, rich with game — bison, deer, and bighorn sheep.  This was land worth fighting for.   The Sioux — a loose confederation of tribes — had already dominated the North American plains for two centuries by the 1770s when they first moved into this area, captured it from the Cheyennes, and made it central to their culture, religion, and survival.  
By the time white settlers began reaching this area in the early 1800s, they found Sioux tribes — Lakota, Oglala, and others — covering vast stretches from Minnesota to the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and as far west as Montana and Wyoming.  (Note: This wasn’t all their land; Sioux constantly fought with other tribes and permanent borders or settlements had little meaning on this frontier.)   At first, relations between Indians and this handful of white settlers were calm.  Tribes signed dozens of treaties with settlers during the 1820s and 1830s, setting vague boundaries and promising friendships.   But as the trickle of settlers began to grow, demands for land increased.  In 1851, the US government agreed to pay the Lakota Sioux $1.6 million for the entire Iowa territory plus large chunks of Minnesota in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  (Click here for full text.)   Many Sioux objected to this rich deal — ceding 24 million acres in one stroke — but tribal chiefs insisted. 
Red Cloud’s War

The surge of white settlers after the Civil War — prompted in part by gold discoveries in Montana — finally pushed tensions over the edge.  Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in Montana when he joined with Cheyennes and Arapaho in 1866 in a two-year wave of strikes against settlers and cavalry throughout Montana and Wyoming.   It was a bloody guerilla war and culminated in the Battle of the Hundred Slain (or “Fetterman Massacre” to the cavalrymen) when Red Cloud’s warriors managed to wipe out an entire 81-man detachment from Fort Kearny led by a Captain William J. Fetterman.  Red Cloud had used a decoy — the already prominent Crazy Horse — to lure the cavalrymen into a massive ambush. 

Battle of the Hundred Slain (Fetterman Massacre) — by artist Harold von Schmidt.

After this, the US government sought peace and signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie click here for full text.  This treaty gave Red Cloud’s Lakota Sioux perpetual rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” covering a swath of land — far too big to call simply a “reservation” – that included not just the Black Hills but virtually all western South Dakota.  For the foreseeable future, so long as both sides kept promises, it seemed to create a workable peace — enough good land for the Sioux, and enough good land for the settlers.   

The great Sioux War

Contemporary 1875 cartoon of Red Cloud turning
down Grant’s offer of meaningless trinkets.

But it wasn’t good enough.   In 1874, prospectors found gold in the Black Hills, bringing yet another new wave of settlers into Sioux territory.  By now, the mid-1870s, migration from the East had become a torrent. Over 120,000 white settlers would move into the Dakotas during the 1870s, plus hundreds of thousands more into the nearby new states of Iowa and Nebraska.  These settlers, in turn, were followed by over 50,000 miles of new railroad track laid across the west between 1865 and 1875.  The great herds of buffalo — staple food for the Sioux – began to disappear and cavalry forts dotted the landscape.  

Red Cloud himself led a delegation of Sioux leaders to Washington, DC, in 1875 to meet President Ulysses Grant and ask him to keep the US government’s 1868 treaty promises.  Instead, they received an ultimatum from the US Congress — a draft treaty demanding they leave the Dakotas in exchange for a one-time payment of $25,000 and the right to resettle in “Indian Territory” (today’s Oklahoma).   Red Cloud and the others refused to sign it.
This was this spark that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, climaxed by its signature battle in which warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse annihilated General George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  (More on this later.)  
The roundup
Winning this battle and killing Custer ultimately meant doom for the Sioux.  The American public, shocked by the Little Bighorn massacre, rallied around the fallen cavalrymen and turning General Custer into a martyred hero.  They found totally unacceptable the whole idea of armed, hostile frontier tribesmen killing soldiers and settlers while blocking national expansion.  The warring Sioux had to be disarmed and neutralized — immediately.  Within weeks after Little Bighorn, the US government forced Sioux chiefs to sign a new treaty (click here for text) drastically cutting back the size of Red Cloud’s reservation, stripping it of the Black Hills and Badlands, requiring it be crossed by roads, and making most aspects of Indian daily life totally dependent on largesse from the US government.  At the same time, the US Cavalry began a concerted effort to round up in all the remaining nomadic tribes.  

Over the next few years, as more and more Indians were crowded into the reservations and circumstances grew desperate, many Indians began looking for salvation through a cult called the Ghost Dance,which alarmed many white settlers and soldiers.  Cult followers believed they were bulletproof during the dance, and new violence seemed inevitable. 

Things reached a head in December 1890.  By this time, Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers, Sitting Bull had recently been killed during an arrest, and Red Cloud, still on the reservation, was growing increasing frustrated trying to negotiate with Washington.  One day that month, after a brutal winter storm,  soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry happened to come across a group of about 350 Sioux wandering near the Dakota Badlands, led by a chief named Spotted Elk.  All but about 120 of the Indians were women and children.  

The cavalrymen, under Major Samuel Whitside, decided to escort the indians to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation — a small southern carveout from the original 1868 treaty lands.  Rather than try to disarm the Indians immediately, Major Whitside decided to wait for reinforements.  He ordered his cavalrymen to march together with the Indians for about five miles, then camp by Wounded Knee Creek.  

Later that night, a heavily armed column of cavalrymen under Colonel James Forsyth joined Whitside, bringing the cavalry total to some 500 men, including four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) which they mounted around the Indian encampment.  The next morning, December 29, they planned to disarm the Indians and deliver them to the reservation.

It would not be peaceful.

WOUNDED KNEE: Sacred ground for American Sioux Indians. Our June feature.

Red Cloud (on right with feather head-dress), chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, who defeated the US Cavalry in several encounters 1866-1868 (Red Cloud’s War) resulting in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, that gave the Sioux rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the South Dakota Black Hills and surrounding territories.  

It’s an old story, retold many times, but never enough for its full importance to sink in. 

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, the place was already thriving with tens of millions of native Americas, great civilizations covering continents north, south, and central.  Over the next 400 years, waves of Europeans would come and systematically settle the land,  dispossessing native people of their traditional homes along the way, often through brutal violence.  In no place was this done more forcefully than in the USA, and the final stroke, breaking the last resistance, came at a small creek on the South Dakota Sioux reservation called Wounded Knee.

We remember Wounded Knee today mostly for two events: First is the December 29, 1890, massacre of between 150 and 300 Indian men, women, and children, as the men were being disarmed en route to the reservation — often portrayed as the final climax of the Plains Indian Wars of the 1800s.  Then, three generations later, in 1973, came the second event, a siege mounted by 300 descendants of the original Wounded Knee Indians (calling themselves the American Indian Movement) who, in an attempt to protest decades of poverty, corruption, and broken promises, took up arms and seized the town of Pine Ridge on the Reservation.  They held it for 71 days against US marshals, FBI, and military support.

Over the next few weeks, Viral History is proud to bring you a series of posts about Wounded Knee, setting the record straight on this history and updating it to the 21st Century.  

  • Part I: The Closing Frontier, from Red Cloud’s War, to the Little Bighorn, to the events setting the stage for 1890;   
  • Part II: 1890 — The massacre
  • Guest Blogger Marshall Matz on the 1973 siege.  Matz, as a young staff lawyer to US Senator George McGovern (member of a delegation brought to Wounded Knee to negotiate an end to the 1973 siege), had a unique close-up view of those events that he shares for the first time,
  • A take by Johnny Cash on the 1890 massacre.  Cash, the great country singer & song-writer, visited South Dakota after the 1973 siege and wrote a beautiful song about the 1890 episode, which we share here;  
  • WOUNDED KNEE EPILOGUE- Karla Fetrow on the incarceration of Leonard Peltier. A big thank you to our friends at online magazine SUBVERSIFY for this post where Karla Fetrow brings the saga into the 21st Century with the tale of Indian activist Leonard Peltier who in 1975 was accused of murdering two FBI agents under questionable circumstance and who remains in prison today.
  • Finally,  a digression to the famous 1876 battle of Little Bighorn in nearby Montana and a facet that I have always found haunting –  the story of Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command.  Reno survived the battle but came home to accusations of cowardice, two military Court Martial prosecutions, bouts of drinking, a broken marriage, and an early death.  Who paid the bigger price? Custer, who “died with his boots on” in Montana?  Or Reno, who had to come home and face defeat?  

Why Wounded Knee?  Why now?  Yes, this spring marks the 38th anniversary of the 1973 siege.  And, yes, this summer will mark the 135th anniversary of the Little Big Horn battle.  But this story has an importance beyond these dates.  Today in 2011, the descendants of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud (photo above), Crazy Horse, and the other great Sioux chiefs and warriors still live on those same South Dakota reservations in terrible conditions, with unemployment reaching over 50 percent and all the related social problems of intense poverty — too far away from population centers to base an economy on casinos or tourism.  And despite decades of talk, there seems little hope for the next generation without change. 

The legacy of Wounded Knee lives on, and with it the responsibility to make things right.

So stay tuned during June as the drama unfolds.  Enjoy.