But what exactly did happen on the morning of December 29, 1890?
With nothing to stop it, sound travels easily on a landscape this barren. So imagine the bleat of reveille cutting through the morning cold. It’s eight o’clock, and the sun rises magnificently, albeit late, winter solstice just a few days behind. Many of the women, some of them singing, are packing for the 17-mile trip to Pine Ridge, where they anticipate meeting relatives and friends. Children play innocently around the ragged tipis and wagons, and for the first morning in many, most have eaten well.
By Indian messenger, Col. Forsyte, the commanding office, calls the men of Big Foot’s band to come to parley directly southeast of us, at the spot where the chief’s tent stands, maybe 300 yards down the hill. Spread around the entire encampment like a huge lariat, even beyond the dozens of Indian ponies just west of Big Foot’s camp and the ravine behind it, 76 unmounted sentries, equally spaced, watch the movement. On the rise beyond the ravine and set against the horizon, a long line of mounted bluecoats wait menacingly, just in front of them, some several dozen of the cavalry’s Indian scouts. From the vantage point of the soldiers, the field seems well in hand, the position geometrically arranged to prevent escape. There is no chaos, yet.
As they were commanded, something close to one hundred men—no one knows for sure—from Big Foot’s band take their places in the council circle. Behind them, those lines of bluecoats move quickly to separate the men from their women and children.
The command is given to disarm. In the face of such untoward odds, the Sioux men are wary—not only does the positioning all around them seem ominous, but to a culture created on institutional violence—a boy becomes a man by proving himself in battle—giving up one’s means to fight is giving up oneself. What’s more, they’d been promised the day before that they could keep their arms until they arrived at Pine Ridge.
Troops are dispatched to search and seize what arms they can turn up in the encampment behind them. What happens is not pleasant. The women do not take kindly to their mistreatment, the sometimes brutal ways the bluecoats plunder their selves and their possessions. When the soldiers return, they have more guns, but also axes, knives, bows and arrows, tent stakes, even beadwork awls.
It is early winter, remember, but there is more than enough emotion in the air to ignite the landscape. Fear, prejudice, a history of deception, mutually defiant cultural values, and nothing less than hate lay beneath us here like so much kindling, waiting for the pop of a flame; the whole place is combustible. What exactly happened next may be debated forever, but the trajectory of events is no more debatable than the outcome.
Somewhere on the peripheries of the council circle stands a man variously described as half-crazed or desperate. He was, by all accounts, a man of faith, a medicine man, who considered it his duty to advise the men in council circle of their dignity and their calling. One account describes him this way: “. . .a grand figure. . .with green-colored face and a yellow nose, terrifying to behold. He wore with pride his floating crown of eagle feathers, while his costume was a wonder of wild adornments.” Some name this man Yellow Bird, while others claim Yellow Bird was nowhere near Big Foot’s camp. Whatever his identity, his eccentric look and behavior calls upon the dignity of Lakota history and culture. What he espouses is at least something of the doctrine of the Ghost Dance. He tells the men not to fear. As Crazy Horse, by legend, once exhorted his men before Little Big Horn, this man reportedly cried and sang to his people, told them this was a good day to fight and a good day to die. He promises eternal life.
The sound produced in Native songs and chants begins in the front of the throat; for centuries, white musicians have been exhorted to sing from the diaphragm. The difference is startling. To white folks unaccustomed to the keening, me among them, the sound produced seems more like a shriek than a hymn. As you stand there, those Hotchkiss guns poised just beneath you, listen the medicine man’s seemingly mad music and try to stop your fists from tightening.
“The men are hiding guns,” an officer says.
It’s December, still early in the morning, and the Sioux men are wrapped in blankets. A search follows. In a pile in the middle, almost seventy old rifles lie over each other like fallen branches.
Then, something happens—nobody knows exactly what. The bluecoats draw their rifles and swords. Rifle magazines click open and close; guns are brought into position to fire.
Tomorrow: the massacre