Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

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