This long essay, initially published in Books and Culture, tells the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre,
December 30, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota.
On December 28, 1890, four Hotchkiss guns—the Sioux called them the guns that fire in the morning and kill the next day—stood on a small, whitecap hill amid this arid ocean, all four aimed down into the camp of a Minneconjou chief named Sitanka, or Big Foot. There, three hundred men, women, and children were camped, hoping to reach Pine Ridge Agency the next day.
More than a century later, it is almost impossible to stand on that small hill and look down into the valley of Wounded Knee Creek and imagine what the place must have looked like so full of people.
But try. Today, a single battered billboard offers the only available outline of the story, the word “battle” crossed out and “massacre” scribbled in roughly above it. Otherwise, there is little to mark the spot. But try to imagine what this yawning, empty space must have looked like, a couple hundred Lakota just beneath the promontory where we’re standing, their worn and ripped tipis thrown up quickly, campfires floating thin plumes of smoke. These folks have been hungry for days—and tired, having just marched hundreds of miles south towards Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Agency, where they thought they’d be safe.
But there’s more, far more. Across the ravine west—maybe a half mile away on another hill sits is a sprawling encampment of several hundred troops under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth, the largest military encampment since the Civil War. The scene is remarkable. Doubtless, that many people assembled at this remote spot on the Dakota prairie has not happened frequently, if ever, since. If it’s difficult for you to imagine, just picture a campground of nearly a thousand people in tents, then cut down all the trees.
Big Foot’s people were dancers, Ghost Dancers, strong believers in a frenetic, mystic ceremony, a hobgoblin of Christianity, mysticism, Native ritual, and sheer desperation. If they would dance, they thought Christ would return because he’d heard their prayers and felt their suffering. When he’d come for them, he’d bring with him the old ones (hence, the Ghost Dance). And the buffalo would return. Once again the people could take up their beloved way of life. If they would dance, a cloud of dust from the new heaven and the new earth would swallow the wasicu, all of them. If they would dance, their hunger would be satiated, desperation comforted.
Tomorrow: the Ghost Dance