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by William H. Benson

December 30, 1999

     Fifty years ago anthropologists believed that the number of Native Americans living in North America, north of the Rio Grande, in 1492 was somewhere between one and three million.  In recent years researchers have pushed those numbers up much higher, perhaps to tweny-five million, with probably the best estimate coming in at about twelve million.  Whatever the number at Columbus’s arrival, it is well-documented that by 1850 the Native American population had plummetted drastically–to an all-time low of about 250,000.

     How had this happened?  The obvious answers include: disease, murder, warfare, and starvation.  The less obvious answer was the physical and emotional stress that accelerated this decline.  The Native Americans were herded onto crowded reservations, torn from their families and their sacred lands, and submitted to egregious indignities.  Disillusioned, death was aggreable.

     Their alternatives were few; they could fight, run away, give in to liquor, passively accomodate, or occasionally reach out for a false hope.  One example of this latter option was the Ghost Dance religion craze that swept like a prairie fire through the Sioux reservations in1890.

     Bewildered and humiliated by the dissolution of their cultural identity, the Sioux clutched wildly at this religion that taught that a messiah was coming who would deliver their people from bondage.  If the people danced the Ghost Dance that winter, they would be taken up and suspended in the air.  The next spring, when the grass greened, new soil would bury the white people.  Herds of buffalo and wild horses would return.  The ghosts of the Indians’s anscestors would resurrect and join the living Indians then permitted to return to Earth. 

     In October of 1890 Kicking Bear, the major proponent of the new religion, explained to Sitting Bull at Standing Rock that if they wore sacred garments of the messiah–Ghost shirts painted with magic symbols–no harm could come to them.  The bullets would not penetrate. 

     By mid-November all activity on the reservations had halted, except for the Ghost Dance.  Indians danced in the snow daily.  The U.S. government was alarmed, and soon official word came down, “Stop the Ghost Dance!”

     On December 15th U.S. Army officers arrested Sitting Bull, and in the fracas he was shot in the head and killed.  The grieving Sioux were completely distraught.  Then, late in December Big Foot’s tribe of 120 men and 230 women were herded toward Wounded Knee Creek, for the Army had orders to transport this tribe by railroad to a military prison at Omaha.

     On December 29th at Wounded Knee the soldiers requested that Big Foot and his men turn in their guns.  They dutifully obeyed, dumping their guns into a pile, and while doing so they danced and chanted repeatedly in Sioux, “The bullets will not go toward you.”  Unfortunately, one crazed Indian, Black Coyote, fired upon the white soldiers, and in a frenzy they hotly returned the fire, opening up with big Hotchkiss guns.    

     Almost 300 of the 350 tribe members were killed that day, including Big Foot.  (The white soldiers lost 25 dead and 39 wounded, struck by their own bullets and shrapnel.)  The few living Sioux, torn and bleeding, were permitted sanctuary in the Episcopal mission at Pine Ridge.  Those still conscious lay on hay on the floor and stared up at the Christmas greenery hanging from the rafters, and above the pulpit was strung a crudely-lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.

     This Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended the Ghost Dance religion.  The Native American had lost his faith in its message, for he had learned too late that the Ghost shirt did not stop the bullets.  And when the grass greened in the spring, the white people were not buried under Mother Earth.


     By December of 1890 the few living Native Americans realized that they were the remnants of–a Holocaust.  They understood what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a merciless juggernaut, and for them Armageddon was not some future event in the by and by, but had already happened to them–at places like Wounded Knee, South Dakota.