Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Summary and Analysis Chapter 18: Dance of the Ghosts

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Kicking Bear: A Minneconjou who had a vision of Christ in Nevada and began the Ghost Dance religion.

Buffalo Bill Cody: The stager of Wild West Show in which Sitting Bull performed.

After the Sioux are forced off their Black Hills and Powder River country territories in 1876 and 1877, they are put on the Great Sioux Reservation between the 103rd meridian and the Missouri River, in Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull, in exile in Canada with 3000 Sioux, meets with Army General Terry in October 1877, but nothing results from the talks. On July 19, 1881, Sitting Bull and 186 of the Sioux still with him ride into Fort Buford on the Sioux reservation to surrender. After a scheme to get the Sioux to give up half their reservation fails in Congress in 1883, Sitting Bull is transferred in August of that year to Standing Rock, the site of the Hunkpapa agency. After several years of inaction, the Sioux sign a new agreement fragmenting their reservation into many small, disconnected lands in July 1889. Then, in October 1890, the Ghost Dance religion arises.

Kicking Bear, a Minneconjou of the Cheyenne River agency, says that he and ten other Sioux had gone to Nevada by rail, and there they saw the returned Christ, who taught them the Dance of the Ghosts. He also tells them that in the next springtime, new soil would cover the earth and bury all white men, then sweet grass, streams, and trees would cover the ground. The buffalo and wild horses would return, and all Indians dancing the Ghost Dance would go up in the air to wait for the new earth to emerge, at which point they and the ghosts of their ancestors would live on the new earth. The religion sweeps through the Sioux reservations despite resistance from the Indian Bureau. On December 12, 1890, the arrest of Sitting Bull is ordered by General Miles as a way to quell the Ghost Dance “disturbance,” and on December 15, Sitting Bull is killed by Bull Head and Red Tomahawk, two of the Indian policemen sent to arrest him.

Sitting Bull, though free in Canada, learned that Canadian whites were not much more willing to help his people than American whites were. Therefore, he eventually decided to come back to America where, again, the Army treated him harshly. It is interesting to note, in the midst of the wrangling between Sioux and the various government commissions, the mention of Reverend Hinman, who thought the Indians needed “less land and more Christianity.” This is exactly what will happen, with the Sioux first adopting the Ghost Dance faith, then being massacred at Wounded Knee in the next chapter.

The juxtaposition of Sitting Bull’s appearances at the council, where the commissioners bluntly criticize the Sioux and state the desire to make them as white men, with his wildly popular appearances in cities across the country, is intriguing. Why did Americans flock in such great numbers to see the unbowed Sitting Bull, “a constant symbol of Indian resistance,” if they also wanted to make the Indians into whites?

The whites’ ignorance of the essentially Christian nature of the Ghost Dance religion may be explained by their focus, not on the Christian tenets of the faith but on its prophecy of a re-emergence of the Indian race and the disappearance of the white race. It seems likely that the government agents were more concerned by that prophecy than they were satisfied to see the Indians finally being brought into the Christian religion. In light of that prophecy, the killing of Sitting Bull by Indian police appears especially tragic. The Indians, rather than coming to live on a blissful new earth, were turning against each other and helping finalize their subjugation before the white man.

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