On Dec 15, 1890, After many years of successfully resisting white efforts to destroy him and the Lakota people, the great Lakota chief and holy man Sitting Bull is killed by Indian police at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota.
One of the most famous Native Americans of the 19th century, Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) was a fierce enemy of Anglo-Americans from a young age. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and his followers fled to Canada for four years.
Faced with mass starvation among his people, Sitting Bull finally returned to the United States and surrendered in 1883. Sitting Bull was assigned to the Standing Rock reservation in present-day South Dakota, where he maintained considerable power despite the best efforts of the Indian bureau agents to undermine his influence.
When a spiritual movement known as the Ghost Dance began to grow in popularity among the Lakota in 1890, Indian agents feared it might lead to an Native American uprising.
Wrongly believing that Sitting Bull was the driving force behind the Ghost Dance, agent James McLaughlin sent Indian police to arrest the chief at his small cabin on the Grand River.
The Indian police rousted the naked chief from his bed at 6:00 in the morning, hoping to spirit him away before his warriors and neighbors knew what had happened.
When the fifty-nine-year-old chief refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and a few of the young men threatened the Indian police. Someone fired a shot that hit one of the Indian police; they retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest and head. The great chief was killed instantly.
Before the ensuing gunfight ended, twelve other Native Americans were dead and three were wounded.
The man who had nobly resisted the encroachment of whites and their culture for nearly three decades was buried in a far corner of the post cemetery at Fort Yates. In 1953, Sitting Bull’s Lakota family exhumed what were believed to be his remains, reburying them near Mobridge, South Dakota near his birthplace.
The Ghost Dance had been brought to the Lakota through the teachings of a Paiute medicine man known as Wovoka. It taught that the buffalo herds would soon return and the Lakota would return to their days of power. The Lakota had seen much death among their people and one of the most intriguing aspects of the Ghost Dance was that the participants would see their departed loved ones once more.
The Ghost Dance belief was not one of violence, but of pacifism. And yet, the newspapers of the day quickly took it upon themselves to condemn this spiritual practice labeling it as that of zealot’s intent upon killing all of the white people.
Chief Big Foot, who succeeded Sitting Bull, and some 350 of his followers would next became the victims of the white man’s fear of this new “religion.”
In late December 1890, Big Foot, advised his people to flee the reservation, for the south, in the Badland’s region of South Dakota.
Discussions among tribal leaders, including a Ghost Dance Ceremony, ensued, after which they made their escape from the reservation.
They successfully eluded capture for five days, but were slowed by a number of their tribe who had contracted pneumonia. They were soon apprehended by U.S. troops of the 7th Cavalry, under Col. James W. Forsythe.
On the morning of December 29th, along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, the U.S. troops went to disarm the Lakota. After a council with the fleeing Native Americans, Forsythe demanded they go to the village and bring their guns. They stated they had no guns.
They soon returned with two old pieces, long used, no doubt, as toys by the children, but forming no part of the splendid Winchesters owned by the warriors.
All the Lakota were then assembled, and told their guns must be surrendered. Their expressions were sullen and some attitudes were defiant. It was clear not all would not give up the guns.
One warrior, Black Coyote, refused to surrender his rifle, and in attempting to disarm him a scuffle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, not just with rifles, but with canon as well.
The Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking soldiers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed.
The 7th Cavalry killed mostly women, children and elders, some were part of a peaceful group heading toward Pine Ridge village to help allay fears over the Ghost Dance movement.
They also killed some of their own fellow soldiers.
When the carnage was finally over, the Lakota had suffered 250 dead. 146 of these dead were buried in one mass grave.
The soldiers had lost 25 men.
The U.S. troops had brutally put an end to the Ghost Dance movement.
The “battle” was well covered by the host of reporters and the story was circulated world-wide, complete with gory pictures.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee, as the battle is known, became, and remains, the symbol of the inhumanity of the U.S. government’s policy toward Native Americans.