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THE LAST DAYS OF THE SIOUX NATION
By Robert M. Utley
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 1963 Yale University
All rights reserved.
THE FIELD OF WOUNDED KNEE
On New Year's Day of 1891, a bright sun broke over the creeks that drained northward into White River. It glared on the three-inch blanket of snow and formed icicles on the scrub pines dotting the ridges that separated the valleys. Three days earlier, on December 29, 1890, the battle had been fought. The next day the first blizzard of the season had swept the Sioux reservations. It raged for two days before roaring southward into Nebraska and Kansas.
Residents of the cluster of dingy frame buildings in the valley of White Clay Creek cleared the snow from porches and walks. On the south, between rank upon rank of neatly aligned A-tents and Sibleys, 700 cavalrymen muffled in muskrat caps and heavy yellow-lined cape overcoats moved about in the snow preparing breakfast and tending horses. Nearby, four times as many Indians, brightly colored blankets drawn around their heads, kindled cookfires among hundreds of conical canvas tepees.
Soon after breakfast a long procession of people, some mounted, others in wagons, wound up the ridge east of Pine Ridge Agency. The road led to the valley of Wounded Knee Creek, eighteen miles distant. There were about seventy-five Oglala Sioux led by the agency physician, Dr. Charles A. Eastman, a full-blooded Santee Sioux. They were anxious to learn if any wounded kinsmen of the Miniconjou Sioux tribe had survived both the terrible conflict of December 29 and the howling blizzard that followed. It seemed improbable. There were also in the group about thirty white men under Paddy Starr, who had negotiated a contract with the military authorities to bury the dead Indians at two dollars a body. And there was a troop of the Seventh United States Cavalry Regiment to see that the burial detail suffered no harm from the hundreds of vengeful warriors roaming the neighborhood.
Shortly after noon the cavalcade drew up at the Wounded Knee battlefield. In silence the people stared at the scene. The crescent of more than 100 tepees that had housed Chief Big Foot's followers had been all but flattened. Strips of shredded canvas and piles of splintered lodgepoles littered the campsite, together with wrecked wagons and twisted pots, kettles, and domestic utensils. Here and there the skeleton of a tepee rose starkly from the wreckage, bits of charred canvas clinging to the poles. Snow-covered mounds cluttered the ground from one end of the camp to the other; beneath them lay the shattered bodies of the victims of the battle. Other mounds dotted the floor and sides of a deep ravine along the edge of the campsite; and beyond, where Colonel Forsyth had tried to parley with the Indian men, the mounds lay thick and numerous.
The Indians with Dr. Eastman burst into cries of anguish, the sharp wails of the men mingling with the sustained moaning of the women. Some sang death songs. "It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle," recalled the doctor, "and of the excitement and grief of my Indian companions." The whites, worried lest the Indians lose control of themselves, fidgeted with nervousness. Eastman sent them to examine the mounds for signs of life.
Each mound hid a human form, torn by shrapnel and carbine bullets, caked with blood, frozen hard in the contortions of violent death. They were of all ages and both sexes. The storm of shot and shell had spared none. Paddy Starr found three pregnant women shot to pieces, another woman with her abdomen blown away, a ten-year-old boy with an arm, shoulder, and breast mangled by an artillery shell. Others made similar discoveries.
In the council square, where the bodies lay thickest, one of the mounds yielded the remains of Chief Big Foot. Bundled against the chills of pneumonia in heavy clothes and head scarf, he had died in the first fire. Frozen in a half-sitting position, he now looked out over the snowy field as if surveying in horror the disaster that had befallen his people. Nearby, with the charred remains of a tent surrounding him, lay the burned and swollen body of Yellow Bird, the fiery medicine man who had incited the young men of Big Foot's band to fight rather than give up their guns to the soldiers.
Not all were dead. Beneath a wagon, partly protected from the storm, Eastman found a blind and helpless old woman who had escaped injury and lived through three days of freezing temperature. In Louis Mosseau's trading post, where the road crossed the creek, the searchers found more sparks of life. Several wounded people had dragged themselves into the store. Some had died but others still lived. Beneath a mound of snow, Eastman discovered a little girl, about four months old, lying beside her dead mother, who had been pierced by two bullets. The infant was wrapped in a shawl, and on her head was a buckskin cap bearing in embroidered beadwork the design of the American flag. She was mildly frostbitten but otherwise unharmed. In all, the searchers collected five adults and two children who were still living. "All of this," observed the Indian doctor, "was a severe ordeal for one who had so lately put all his faith in the Christian love and lofty ideals of the white man."
The wounded were eased into wagons and driven back to Pine Ridge Agency. There they joined the other wounded survivors brought in by the soldiers on the night of the battle in the hospital improvised by Reverend Charles Cook (another educated Indian) in his mission chapel. One old man, badly wounded, was tearfully greeted by his wife and children, who had supposed him dead. Two days later he died.
The infant in the buckskin cap, now an orphan, was adopted by Brig. Gen. L. W. Colby, commander of the Nebraska militia troops recently mobilized to protect the settlements, and was reared in his home as Marguerite Colby. Some of the Indian women called her Zintka Lanuni, "Lost Bird"; others named her Ikicize-Wanji-Cinca, "Child of the Battlefield." Two other children, also orphaned by the battle, had been saved on the 29th. They, too, found foster homes—one, a son of Yellow Bird, with schoolteacher Lucy Arnold; the other, a girl of five, with Capt. George Sword, head of the Pine Ridge Indian Police.
Working at their grim task, the burial detail remained on the field through the following day, January 2. On top of the hill from which the artillery had raked the Indian camp, the men dug a rectangular pit to serve as a mass grave. The bodies were gathered up and stacked on the hill. In all, there were 146. William Peano, member of the burial party, recorded 102 men and women of adult age, 24 old men, 7 old women, 6 boys between five and eight years old, and 7 babies under two.
Some whites stripped part of the corpses for Ghost Shirts and other mementos of the occasion. Then, still frozen stiff, the bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the hole. "It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone," said one observer, "to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit." When the last body had been rolled into the grave, the whites lined up around it and had their picture taken. Then they shoveled dirt into the pit and rode back to the agency.
Later, the missionaries built a church in front of the grave, and in 1903 the Indians erected a monument over it. The inscription reads:
This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogalalla and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in memory of the Chief Big Foot Massacre Dec. 29, 1890. Col. Forsyth in command of U.S. troops. Big Foot was a great chief of the Sioux Indians. He often said, "I will stand in peace till my last day comes." He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
It was true. Many innocent women and children died there. What is more, the Sioux Nation died there. Before Wounded Knee, despite more than ten years of reservation life, the Sioux had never really accepted the reality of their conquest by the United States Army. They still harbored illusions that the day of liberation would come, that somehow, someday, they would return to the way of life their fathers had known, to the time when no white men interfered with their religion, their economic system, their government, their society. Indeed, this was the meaning behind the Ghost Dance movement that culminated in Wounded Knee.
After Wounded Knee, even though only a tiny fraction of the Sioux Nation met death, the reality of the conquest descended upon the entire Nation with such overwhelming force that it shattered all illusions. Progressively, after December 29, 1890, the cohesion that bound the Teton Sioux tribes to one another grew looser. Progressively, the unity of tribes and bands weakened. Progressively, the individuals fitted into the mold of the reservation system.
The Sioux thus suffered two conquests: a military conquest and a psychological conquest. It was the latter that destroyed them as a nation and left emotional scars that persist today. But the road that ended in the second conquest began before the first. It began in the old life.
THE OLD LIFE
Sioux of the 1880s recalled with nostalgia the way of life that the white man had set out to destroy after the military conquest. It was a way of life, they seemed to think, that had endured changeless since antiquity and that had no place in it for white men. Actually, as the life span of a people is reckoned, the old life was not so very old. Paradoxically, it had been made possible by the white man, and the white man had played a continuing, vital role in it.
There were many varieties of Sioux. This story is about the Teton Sioux, or Teton Dakota. "Dakota" and "Sioux" are the same people—"Dakota" meaning allies and "Sioux" a name given them by their enemies, meaning enemy. Originally the Sioux were forest people who dwelt in the lake region around the head of the Mississippi River. They lived in semipermanent houses of pole, earth, and bark and subsisted on berries, fish, and game, procured on foot. Then, during the first half of the eighteenth century, French traders moved up from the southeast, equipping the Chippewas, bitter enemies of the Sioux, with firearms. No longer could the Sioux hold their own against the Chippewas, and, with food growing increasingly scarce anyway, they drifted westward, up the Minnesota River Valley.
Some of the Sioux continued to the treeless prairies beyond and around 1760 began to reach the Missouri River in mounting numbers. These people who pushed westward to the Missouri, and later still farther west, became the Teton Sioux. By the opening of the nineteenth century they had evolved into one of seven well-defined divisions of the Sioux confederation. The Teton division was itself a loose confederation of seven tribes: Oglala, Brulé, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, and Blackfeet. Each of the seven tribes in turn subdivided itself into numerous bands of changing size and composition.
The Teton division, like the parent Sioux confederation, had no form of central government, and the tribe and band thus commanded the largest share of the allegiance and affection of the people. But kinship and similar customs, history, and danger forged strong bonds among the Teton tribes. Even though they rarely achieved unity of action, there was a unity of spirit that more or less justified the label applied to the Tetons in later years by the white man—the Sioux Nation.
Two significant gifts of the white man, combined with and applied to the economic imperatives of the land in which they had now chosen to live, dramatically changed the life of the Tetons from that of the lake and forest country. In the decades of the migration they at last began to acquire firearms from the French traders to the east. And from the Indian tribes to the west and south they acquired the horse, which had been introduced into the Southwest by the Spanish two and a half centuries earlier. These innovations made possible the political, economic, social, and religious life that evolved in the century preceding the conquest.
The great herds of buffalo ranging the new Teton homeland profoundly shaped this way of life. Indeed, in few other areas of the world has a single animal played so conspicuous a role in the culture of a people. Although the Tetons hunted all game animals, it was the buffalo that furnished the means of supplying nearly every material want. Buffalo meat was the staff of life and constituted the largest item of diet. Folklore credits the Indian with making use of every part of the animal, and in fact he did in times of scarcity; in times of plenty he enjoyed only the choice parts, like the tongue and hump, and discarded the rest. The hide of the buffalo provided material for clothing and moccasins, for bed covers, for "bull boats" used in stream crossings, and for every kind of container. Dressed hides sewn together and stretched over a conical framework of poles formed the familiar tepee, which provided an easily transported yet comfortable year-round shelter. Hoofs, horns, and bones found a variety of uses—ceremonial trappings, cooking utensils, awls, chisels, hide-scrapers, and other tools. Intestines and bladders were used to carry water. Sinews furnished rope, thread, and bowstrings. Hair was put to a wide range of utilitarian purposes. On the treeless prairie even the droppings were burned as fuel. Occupying so prominent a place in the material culture of the Tetons, the buffalo loomed significantly in the Tetons' conception of the universe and in their body of religious beliefs and practices. For the Plains Indians the disappearance of the buffalo was a catastrophe.
Because the buffalo were migratory, the Tetons became nomads. Living in portable skin tepees, with mobility afforded by the horse, they scattered over the plains west of the Missouri River and north of the Arkansas River. Individual bands of a tribe went their separate ways during part of the year. Each spring they gathered at a pre-arranged rendezvous and took their places in the tribal circle. As a tribe they devoted a major share of the summer to killing game and preparing the meat for winter. The organization and conduct of the hunt required elaborate rituals and for its duration consumed the energy and enthusiasm of the entire tribe. In late autumn the tribe again broke up, and the bands scattered for the winter.
Vital though the buffalo was, the Teton economy was never purely primitive. White traders supplied numerous useful items —firearms, pots, kettles, knives, awls, even beads for decoration —and in return received animal furs and skins. The Tetons regarded trade goods as indispensable, and they rarely got through a year without a journey to the trading post or a visit from an itinerant trader. Even before the close of the eighteenth century, traders had appeared on the Upper Missouri. After Lewis and Clark showed the way, the great fur companies spread up the Missouri and the Platte to play a cherished and essential role in the Teton way of life.
Ranging over a vast country, ceaselessly on the move, ever-active whether in war or in the hunt, the Teton warrior despised restraint. Self-discipline was the strongest curb on individual desires that conflicted with group welfare. But group living required group restraint, and a simple political organization evolved.
Each band had its own chief, but he was not an absolute despot ruling the destinies of his people. His duties were to carry out the will of the majority and to guard the band's customs, traditions, and religion. He could influence opinion, but he rarely acted in important matters without a mandate from the people. The rank of chief might be inherited, or attained through force of character, success in war, and acquisition of wealth. No single chief ruled the entire tribe. When the bands assembled in the summer months, such authority as existed rested in the tribal council, which governed through executive deputies and a corps of tribal soldiers. Among the Oglalas, for example, the council consisted of seven band chiefs chosen by the older men of the tribe. Their deputies, four distinguished young men, wore shirts fringed with hair as badges of office, and were called the Shirt Wearers. They governed in the name of the council and within the policy framework set by the council. They enforced their authority and that of the council through tribal soldiers, or policemen, chosen from a men's society called the Akicita. Given the individualistic temperament of the Sioux, these policemen commanded surprising obedience. The Oglalas explained to the anthropologist Clark Wissler that the Akicita were
those who see that there is general order in camp when traveling from one place to another; those who attend to the duties of overseeing the buffalo hunt so that no one may chase the buffalo singly; those who see that all can charge the buffalo at once or split the party so that when one chases the buffalo one way, the other band closes in; and those who supervise the chase to get better results. They also see that no one kills another, but in case one does, they either kill him or destroy all his property, kill his horses, destroy his tipi, etc.
Excerpted from THE LAST DAYS OF THE SIOUX NATION by Robert M. Utley. Copyright © 1963 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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