A Paiute named Wovoka out in Utah had a vision to which hundreds of thousands eventually subscribed. Dance and the elders will return, as will titanka, the buffalo. Come together as a people, refrain from strong drink, love one another, and all those white people will disappear tomorrow beginning a glorious resurrection of the old ways and the old good times. Thousands of Native people believed and danced, all over the American west.
The Lakota added this distinction: those who dance will not be harmed by the bullets of the soldiers. In a rain of gunfire, they will ride free as the wind.
The Ghost Dance scared lots of white folks, entertained others. At Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Lakota gathered to dance and the agent, Daniel F. Royer, deathly afraid, called in hundreds of backup troops. Meanwhile, from the north, a ragged band of Minneconjou Sioux led by Big Foot was moving south towards Red Cloud's camp just over the border in Nebraska.
Out on the open land of western South Dakota, Agent Royer's request for more troops created the largest military encampment anywhere in America since the Civil War, the Seventh Calvary among them, Custer's old regiment, whose memory of Wounded Knee, 24 years earlier was still vivid.
The fact is, historians can come up with a dozen reasons why there was a massacre 119 years ago today at a place called Wounded Knee; and while all of them make sense, none of them make reliving the horror any easier. And there is a bottom line: white folks wanted land the Native people thought of as home; and they got it--my own Dutch immigrant great-grandparents among them.
Some years ago, I stumbled across a handsome reprint of an old book by James Mooney, an anthropologist, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, a 1896 study Mooney did himself in an effort to understand the phenomenon. I bought it, read it, and then set out to write a novel that used the massacre as a backdrop.
That novel--Touches the Sky--changed me, because every December 29 I see that wide land along the creek called the Wounded Knee, hundreds of blue coats surrounding an angry and hungry people, late December, and the bloody madness that followed, the deaths of hundreds.
This morning it's cold outside here. At Pine Ridge, it's 18 degrees, although the wind chill makes it feel like five. Sometimes I wish I could coax all of America out to visit Wounded Knee in late December, to stand out there in the cold and the silence.
I'm not interested in white guilt, just history, just the story. For white America, Wounded Knee makes vividly clear that our history is not blameless. No one can stand out there on a cold December afternoon and not be humbled into silence.
Today is December 29.
If you'd like to know more about the story, click on "A White Man Goes to Wounded Knee," in the list of readings to the left.