Letters from an American: December 28, 2019

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Bird's eye view of Sioux camp at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. November 28, 1890. National Archives at College Park [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today Trump continued to rage tweet at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, and retweeted people who called Democrats “rats” and an account that called former President Barack Obama “Satan’s Muslim Scum.” Also today, the New York Times ran an article by Astead W. Herndon exploring the world of far-right Trump supporters who traffic in conspiracies and fear and who believe the president is reclaiming America for people like them. One man says he has been stockpiling weapons in case Trump loses in 2020. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he said. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”

American politicians and their followers used similar language about American Indians in the nineteenth century, and their rhetoric helped to spark a catastrophe almost exactly 129 years ago.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, three U.S. soldiers tried to wrench a valuable Winchester away from a young Lakota man who refused to give up his hunting weapon, the only means he had to keep his family from starving. As they struggled, the gun fired into the clear blue sky. Before the echoes died, troops fired a volley that brought down half of the Lakota men and boys they had captured the night before, as well as a number of soldiers standing on the other side of the Indians. The uninjured Lakota men attacked the soldiers with knives, guns they snatched from wounded soldiers, and their fists. As the men fought hand-to-hand, the Lakota women who had been hitching their horses to wagons for the day’s travel tried to flee along the nearby road or up a dry ravine behind the camp. The soldiers placed on a slight rise above the camp turned rapid-fire mountain guns on the running people. Then, over the next two hours, troops on horseback hunted down and slaughtered all the Lakotas they could find: about 250 men, women, and children.

But it is not December 29 that haunts me: it is the night before the killing, the night of December 28. On December 28, there was still time to avert the Wounded Knee Massacre.

In the early afternoon of December 28, the Lakota leader Big Foot– Sitanka– had urged his people to surrender to the soldiers looking for them. Sitanka was desperately ill with pneumonia and his band was hungry, underdressed, and exhausted. They were making their way south from their own reservation in the northern part of South Dakota across the state to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, they planned to take shelter with another famous Lakota chief, Red Cloud. His people had done as Sitanka asked, and the soldiers escorted the Lakotas to a camp on South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Creek, inside the reservation boundaries.

For the soldiers, the surrender of Sitanka’s band marked the end of the Ghost Dance Uprising. It had been a tense month. Troops had pushed into the South Dakota reservations in November, prompting a band of terrified men who had embraced the Ghost Dance religion to gather their wives and children and ride out to the Badlands. But, at long last, army officers and negotiators had convinced those Ghost Dancers to go back to Pine Ridge and turn themselves in to authorities before winter hit in earnest.

Sitanka’s people were not part of the Badlands group and, for the most part, were not Ghost Dancers. They had fled from their own northern reservation two weeks before when they learned that officers had murdered the great leader Sitting Bull in his own home. Army officers were anxious to find and corral Sitanka’s missing Lakotas before they carried the news that Sitting Bull had been killed to those who had taken refuge in the Badlands. Army leaders were certain the information would spook the Ghost Dancers and send them flying back to the Badlands. They were determined to make sure the two bands did not meet.

But South Dakota is a big state, and it was not until late in the afternoon of December 28 that the soldiers finally made contact with Sitanka’s band, and it didn’t go quite as the officers planned: a group of soldiers were watering their horses in a stream when some of the traveling Lakotas surprised them. The Indians let the soldiers go, and the men promptly reported to their officers, who marched on the Lakotas as if they were going to war. Sitanka, who had always gotten along well with army officers, assured the commander that the Indians were on their way to Pine Ridge anyway, and asked his men to surrender unconditionally. They did.

By this time, Sitanka was so ill he couldn’t sit up and was dripping blood from his nose. Soldiers lifted him into an army ambulance—an old wagon– for the trip to the Wounded Knee camp. His ragtag band followed behind. Once there, the soldiers gave the Lakotas an evening ration, and lent army tents to those who wanted them. Then the soldiers settled into guarding the camp.

And they celebrated, for they were heroes of a great war, and it had been bloodless, and now, with the Lakota’s surrender, they would be demobilized back to their home bases before the South Dakota winter closed in. As they celebrated, more and more troops poured in. It had been a long hunt across South Dakota for Sitanka, and officers were determined he would not escape them again. In came the Seventh Cavalry, whose men had not forgotten that their former leader George Armstrong Custer had been killed by a band of Lakota in 1876. In came three mountain guns, which the soldiers trained on the Indian encampment.

For their part, the Lakotas were frightened. If their surrender was welcome, and they were going to go with the soldiers to Red Cloud at Pine Ridge, as they had planned all along, why were there so many soldiers, with so many guns?

On this day and hour in 1890, in the cold and dark of a South Dakota December night, there were soldiers drinking, singing and visiting with each other, and anxious Indians either talking to each other in low voices or trying to sleep. No one knew what the next day would bring, but no one expected what was going to happen.

One of the curses of history is that we cannot go back and change the course leading to disasters, no matter how much we might wish to.

But while we cannot challenge the terrible inevitability of the past, it is never too late to change the future.

Notes:

Originally published at Notes from an American.
Re-posted with permission.


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Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. She is the author, most recently, of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

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