Myth & Lore

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The Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee
Brule Sioux

This is a story about the massacre of Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee in December 1890. Under the false impression that the Ghost Dance was the signal for a general Indian uprising, the white agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota called in the regular army to suppress the Ghost Dancers. One band under Chief Big Foot surrendered to the Seventh Calvary--Custer's old command. Among its men and officers were many who had served under Custer and who were eager to avenge his death. At Wounded Knee Creek eighteen miles northeast of Pine Ridge, the army opened fire with many quick-firing Hotchkiss cannon upon Big Foot's people and killed some two hundred fifty, men, women, and children. The mass grave in which they were buried is still there.

In 1973 Indian civil rights activists occupied the site and withstood a siege by U.S. Marshals, the F.B.I., and local vigilantes. During this siege, which lasted 73 days, two Indians were killed, one of them a local Sioux buried next to his massacred ancestors. Dick Fool Bull told this story on many occasions. Each time, he remembered something else connected with it. he was the last flute maker and player at Rosebud. He died in 1976. Some say he was 103; others say he was in his nineties. Nobody knows for sure.

This is a true story; I wish it weren't. When it happened I was a small boy, only about six or seven. To tell the truth, I'm not sure how hold I am. I was born before the census takers came in, so there's no record.

When I was a young boy, I liked to stick around my old uncle, because he always had stories to tell. Once he said, "There's something new coming, traveling on the wind. A new dance. A new prayer." He was talking about Wanagi-wachipi, the Ghost Dance. "Short Bull and Kicking Bear traveled far," my uncle told me. "They went to see a holy man of another tribe far in the south, the Piute tribe. They had heard that this holy man could bring dead people to life again, and that he could bring the buffalo back."

My uncle said it was very important, and I must listen closely. Old Unc said: "This holy man let Short Bull and Kicking Bear look into his hat. There they saw their dead relatives walking about. The holy man told them, "I'll give you something to eat that will kill you, but don't be afraid. I'll bring you back to life again."

They believed him. They ate something and died, then found themselves walking in a new, beautiful land. They spoke with their parents and grandparents, and with friends that the white soldiers had killed. Their friends were well, and this new world was like the old one, the one the white man had destroyed. It was full of game, full of antelope and buffalo. The grass was green and high, and through long-dead people from other tribes also lived in this new land, there was peace. All the Indian nations formed one tribe and could understand each other. Kicking Bear and Short Bull walked around and saw everything, and they were happy. Then the holy man of the Paiutes brought them back to life again.

"You have seen it," he told them, "the new Land I'm bringing. The earth will roll up like a blanket with all that bad white man's stuff, the fences and railroads and mines and telegraph poles' and underneath will be our old-young Indian earth with all our relatives come to life again."

Then the holy man taught them a new dance, a new song, a new prayer. He gave them sacred red paint. He even made the sun die: it was all covered with black and disappeared. Then he brought the sun to life again.

Short Bull and Kicking Bear came back bringing us the good news. Now everywhere we are dancing this new dance to roll up the earth, to bring back the dead. A new world is coming.

This Old Unc told me. Then I saw it myself: the dancing. People were holding each other by the hand, singing, whirling around, looking at the sun. They had a little spruce tree in the middle of the dance circle. They wore special shirts painted with the sun, the moon, the stars and magpies. they whirled around; they didn't stop dancing.

Some of the dancers fell in a swoon, as if they were dead. The medicine men fanned them with sweet-smelling cedar smoke and they came to life again. They told the people, "We were dead. We went to the moon and the morning star. We found our dead fathers and mothers there, and we talked to them." When they woke up, these people held in their hands star rocks, moon rocks, different kinds of rocks from those we have on this earth. They clutched strange meats from the star and moon animals. The dance leader told them not to be afraid of white men who forbade them to dance this Wanagi-wachipi. They told them that the ghost shirts they wore would not let any white man's bullets through. So they danced; I saw it.

The earth never rolled up. The buffalo never came back, and the dead relatives never came to life again. It was the soldier who came; why, nobody knew. The dance was a peaceful one, harming nobody, but I guess the white people thought it was a war dance.

Many people were afraid of what the soldiers would do. We had no guns any more, and hardly had any horses left. We depended on the white man for everything, yet the whites were afraid of us, just as we were afraid of them.

Then the news spread that Sitting Bull had been killed at Standing Rock for being with the Ghost Dancers, the people were really scared. Some of the old people said: "Let's go to Pine Ridge and give ourselves up, because the soldiers won't shoot us if we do. Old Red Cloud will protect us. Also, they're handing out rations up there."

So my father and mother and Old Unc got the buggy and their horse and dove with us children toward Pine Ridge. It was cold and snowing. It wasn't a happy ride; all the grown-ups were worried. Then the soldiers stopped us. They had big fur coats on, bear coats. They were warm and we were freezing, and I remember wishing I had such a coat. They told us to go no further, to stop and make a camp right there. They told the same thing to everybody who came, by foot, or horse, or buggy. So there was a camp, but little to eat and little firewood, and the soldiers made a ring around us and let nobody leave.

Then suddenly there was a strange noise, maybe four, five miles away, like the tearing of a big blanket, the biggest blanket in the world. As soon as he heard it, Old Unc burst into tears. My old ma started to keen as for the dead, and people were running around, weeping, acting crazy. I asked Old Unc, "Why is everybody crying?"

He said, "They are killing them, they are killing our people over there!"

My father said, "That noise--that's not the ordinary soldier guns. These are the big wagon guns which tear people to bits--into little pieces!" I could not understand it, but everybody was weeping, and I wept too. Then a day later--or was it two? No, I think it was the next day, we passed by there. Old Unc said: "You children might as well see it; look and remember."

There were dead people all over, mostly women and children, in a ravine near a stream called Chankpe-opi Wakpala, Wounded Knee Creek. The people were frozen, lying there in all kinds of postures, their motion frozen too. The soldiers, who were stacking up bodies like firewood, did not like us passing by. They told us to leave there, double-quick or else. Old Unc said: "We'd better do what they say right now, or we'll lie there too."

So we went on toward Pine Ridge, but I had seen. I had seen a dead mother with a dead baby sucking at her breast. The little baby had on a tiny beaded cap with the design of the American flag.

*From versions told by Dick Fool Bull at Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 1967 and 1968. Recorded by Richard Erodoes.

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