Where this is going will not be a surprise. What was to happen on December 29, 1890, is a story as well-known as the name of the almost incidental creek where the horror played out— Wounded Knee. But understanding what happened is greatly significant in understanding how it is that Marcella LeBeau became the person she is.
The Lakota people put a special spin on the Ghost Dance phenomenon, something no other tribe added. The origin of that spin was in the mind and heart of Kicking Bear, from Cheyenne River, himself a mystic, and one of those who’d visited Wovoka in Nevada. Kicking Beat returned a true believer, and somehow began to sing a new song with a unique promise. Kicking Bear began to preach that wearing a specially created ghost shirt or ghost dress meant that those who did could assume themselves resistant to hurt or injury—therefore, even to cavalry bullets. Properly and purposefully dressed, dancers could not die. They were holy. Their dancing made possible the coming of the Messiah in the spring, when the old days would return with the buffalo and the old ones.
There was no dancing on December 28, 1890. Not all the men and women and children in Big Foot’s band were dancers. At Cheyenne River, generally one in five men, women, and children were converts, although the percentages increased within the southern reservations. Hundreds danced at Pine Ridge. Red Cloud had asked Big Foot to come to Pine Ridge because of the frenzy the Ghost Dance had created between those who became true believers and those who remained skeptical or uncommitted.
So what exactly did happen on the morning of December 29, 1890? There were no phones; there is no video. There is far more certainty to what we know resulted than what we know of how exactly it began.
That Big Foot was a man with a peaceable heart doesn’t mean all his people were. After Sitting Bull was murdered on the Standing Rock Reservation, many of his people were in shock, horrified by the outright murder of their leader, the most famous Lakota of them all in the late 19th century. Some were ready to fight—and die. Amid the frenzy of the Ghost Dances, the government had asked reservation agents to create a list of warriors they believed to be dangerous. Another Minneconjou chief, Hump, had determined that he and his camp would turn themselves in to the cavalry, Sitting Bull was now gone, murdered; Big Foot was left almost alone among those called “hostile” for refusing to go back to or stay on their appointed reservation.
Often in his later years, Big Foot, like many aging leaders of all tribes and in all times, found it difficult to control his braves, the young, the headstrong given to fighting. What’s more, the old chief was fighting off pneumonia, so sick he often had to be carried to talks with the appointed cavalry officers. By temperament a peaceable man, physically weak and unquestionably ill, he was in no shape to fight the thousands of soldiers who’d assembled that day, the largest encampment of American troops since the Civil War.
By Indian messenger, the commanding officer, Col. Forsyte, called the men of Big Foot’s band to parley at the spot where the chief’s tent stood, 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, watched the movement. On the rise beyond the ravine and set against the horizon, a long line of mounted bluecoats waited menacingly, just in front of them some dozens of the cavalry’s Indian scouts. From the vantage point of the soldiers, the field seemed well in hand, the position geometrically arranged to prevent escape. There is no fighting, 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.