Dance of the Ghosts

1887February 4, U.S. Congress creates Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads. June 21, Britain celebrates Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. July 2–4, Union and Confederate veterans hold reunion at Gettysburg.

1888May 14, Brazil abolishes slavery. November 6, Grover Cleveland receives more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison, but Harrison wins Presidency by electoral votes.

1889March 4, Benjamin Harrison inaugurated as President. March 23, President Harrison opens Oklahoma (former Indian Territory) to white settlement. March 31, Eiffel Tower is completed in Paris. May 31, five thousand lose lives in Johnstown Flood. November 2–11, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington become states of the Union.

1890January 25, Nellie Bly wins race around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. June 1, population of United States reaches 62,622,250. July 3–10, Idaho and Wyoming become forty-third and forty-fourth states of the Union.

If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it he will find it, and that is what the Indians are doing now when they ask you to give them the things that were promised them in the past; and I do not consider that they should be treated like beasts, and that is the reason I have grown up with the feelings I have. … I feel that my country has gotten a bad name, and I want it to have a good name; it used to have a good name; and I sit sometimes and wonder who it is that has given it a bad name.


Our land here is the dearest thing on earth to us. Men take up land and get rich on it, and it is very important for us Indians to keep it.


All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back all game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. They all be strong just like young men, be young again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit comes this way, then all the Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can’t hurt Indians then. Then while Indians way up high, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that, water go way and then nobody but Indians everywhere and game all kinds thick. Then medicine man tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good time will come. Indians who don’t dance, who don’t believe in this word, will grow little, just about a foot high, and stay that way. Some of them will be turned into wood and be burned in fire.


WHEN THE TETON SIOUX tribes surrendered after the wars of 1876–77, they had lost the Powder River country and the Black Hills. The government’s next move was to change the western boundary of the Great Sioux Reservation from the 104th to the 103rd meridian, thus slicing off another fifty-mile strip adjoining the Black Hills, and taking an additional triangle of valuable land between the forks of the Cheyenne River. In 1877, after the government drove the Sioux out of Nebraska, all that was left to them was an anvil-shaped block between the 103rd meridian and the Missouri River—35,000 square miles of Dakota land which was believed to be virtually worthless by the surveyors who marked off the boundaries.

Some government officials wanted to transfer all the Tetons to Indian Territory; others wanted to establish agencies for them along the Missouri River. After strong protests by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, a compromise was eventually reached. Red Cloud’s Oglalas were settled in the southwest corner of the reservation at Wazi Ahanhan, Pine Ridge. Here the various bands of Oglalas made permanent camps along creeks flowing north to White River—the Yellow Medicine, Porcupine Tail, and Wounded Knee. East of Pine Ridge, Spotted Tail and his Brulés settled along the Little White River; their agency was called the Rosebud. For the remaining Sioux tribes four other agencies were established—Lower Brulé, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock. The agencies would remain there for almost a century, but most of the 35,000 square miles of the Great Sioux Reservation would gradually be taken from the Indians.

As the Tetons were settling into their new villages, a great wave of emigration from northern Europe poured into eastern Dakota, pressing against the Missouri River boundary of the Great Sioux Reservation. At Bismarck, on the Missouri, a westward-pushing railroad was blocked by the reservation. Settlers bound for Montana and the Northwest clamored for roads to be built across the reservation. Promoters eager for cheap land to be sold at high profits to immigrants hatched schemes to break up the Great Sioux Reservation.

In the old days the Sioux would have fought to keep all these interlopers out of their territory, but now they were disarmed, dismounted, unable even to feed and clothe themselves. Their greatest surviving war leader, Sitting Bull, was an exile in Canada. He and his three thousand followers were free, armed, and mounted. Someday they might return.

Like Geronimo free in Mexico, Sitting Bull free in Canada was an abomination to the United States government, a dangerous symbol of subversion. The Army became frenetic in its attempts to force the Hunkpapa leader and his followers to return to its control. At last, in September, 1877, the War Department arranged with the Canadian government for General Alfred Terry and a special commission to cross the border under escort of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and proceed to Fort Walsh. There Terry was to meet with Sitting Bull and promise him a complete pardon, provided he would surrender all firearms and horses and bring his people back to the Hunkpapa agency at Standing Rock on the Great Sioux Reservation.

Sitting Bull was at first reluctant to meet with One Star Terry. “There is no use in talking to these Americans,” he told Commissioner James MacLeod of the Mounted Police. “They are all liars, you cannot believe anything they say.” Only the urging of Commissioner MacLeod, who was hopeful of getting Sitting Bull out of Canada, finally persuaded the Hunkpapa to come into Fort Walsh on October 17 for a council. 1

One Star Terry made a short opening speech. “This band of yours,” he said to Sitting Bull, “is the only one which has not surrendered. … We have come many hundred miles to bring you this message from the Great Father, who, as we have told you before, desires to live in peace with all his people. Too much white and Indian blood has already been shed. It is time that bloodshed should cease.”

“What have we done that you should want us to stop?” Sitting Bull retorted. “We have done nothing. It is all the people on your side that have started us to do all these depredations. We could not go anywhere else, and so we took refuge in this country. … I would like to know why you came here. … You come here to tell us lies, but we don’t want to hear them. I don’t wish any such language used to me; that is, to tell me such lies in my Great Mother’s [Queen Victoria’s] house. Don’t you say two more words. Go back home where you came from. … The part of the country you gave me you ran me out of. I have now come here to stay with these people, and I intend to stay here.”

Sitting Bull let several of his followers speak, including a Santee and a Yankton who had joined his band. Their statements reinforced his previous remarks. Then he did a most unusual thing; he introduced a woman into the council, The-One-Who-Speaks-Once. Some Indians afterward said that it was a deliberate insult to Terry, permitting a woman to speak in council with a visitor. “I was over to your country,” she said to Terry. “I wanted to raise my children over there, but you did not give me any time. I came over to this country to raise my children and have a little peace. That is all I have to say to you. I want you to go back where you came from. These are the people that I am going to stay with, and raise my children with.” 2

After the meeting ended, One Star Terry knew that it was useless to make any further pleas to Sitting Bull. His last hope was Commissioner MacLeod, who agreed to explain the Canadian government’s position toward the Hunkpapas. MacLeod informed Sitting Bull that the Queen’s government considered him an American Indian who had taken refuge in Canada, and that he could not claim to be a British Indian. “You can expect nothing whatsoever from the Queen’s government,” he said, “except protection so long as you behave yourselves. Your only hope are the buffalo, and it will not be many years before that source of supply will cease. You must not cross the border with hostile intent. If you do you will not only have the Americans for your enemies, but also the Mounted Police and the British government.”

Nothing MacLeod said changed Sitting Bull’s decision. He would remain in the Grandmother’s land.

Next morning, One Star Terry started back to the United States. “The presence of this large body of Indians, bitterly hostile to us, in close proximity to the frontier,” he warned the War Department, “is a standing menace to the peace of our Indian territories.” 3

Sitting Bull’s exiles stayed in Canada four years, and had the government of that country been more cooperative, they probably would have lived out their lives on the plains of Saskatchewan. From the beginning, however, the Queen’s government viewed Sitting Bull as a potential troublemaker, as well as an expensive guest, because additional Mounted Police had to be assigned to watch him. Sometimes he was the butt of parliamentary jokes. On February 18, 1878, a member of the Canadian House of Commons raised a question as to how much added expense the government had incurred as “the result of the crossing of our frontier by Sitting Bull.”

Sir John McDonald: I do not see how a Sitting Bull can cross the frontier.

Mr. McKenzie: Not unless he rises.

Sir John: Then he is not a Sitting Bull. 4

This was the usual level of discussion reached in the Canadian Parliament whenever the problem of the exiled Sioux arose. No aid of any kind was offered—not even food or clothing; and in the bitter winters, the Indians suffered for lack of shelter and blankets. Wild game was sparse, and there was never enough meat, or skins to make clothes and tepee covers. Nostalgia seemed to affect the young more than the old. “We began to feel homesick for our own country where we used to be happy,” said one of the young Oglalas. 5 As the seasons passed, a few hungry and ragged families drifted south across the border to surrender at the Sioux agencies in Dakota.

Sitting Bull begged the Canadians to give his people a reservation where they could support themselves, but he was repeatedly told that he was not a British subject and therefore was not entitled to a land reserve. During the bad winter of 1880, many Sioux horses froze to death in a blizzard, and when spring came more of the exiles began trekking southward on foot. Several of Sitting Bull’s most loyal lieutenants, including Gall and Crow King, gave up and headed for the Great Sioux Reservation.

At last, on July 19, 1881, Sitting Bull and 186 of his remaining followers crossed the border and rode into Fort Buford. He was wearing a tattered calico shirt, a pair of shabby leggings, and a dirty blanket. He looked old and beaten when he surrendered his Winchester rifle to the commanding officer. Instead of sending him to the Hunkpapa agency at Standing Rock, the Army broke its promise to give him a pardon and held him at Fort Randall as a military prisoner.

During the late summer of 1881, the return of Sitting Bull was overshadowed by the assassination of Spotted Tail. The murderer was not a white man, but was one of Spotted Tail’s own people, Crow Dog. Without giving any warning, Crow Dog shot the famed Brulé chief as he rode horseback along a trail on the Rosebud reservation.

White officials at the agency dismissed the killing as the culmination of a quarrel over a woman, but Spotted Tail’s friends said that it was the result of a plot to break the power of the chiefs and transfer it to men who would bow to the will of the Indian Bureau’s agents. Red Cloud believed that a cowardly assassin was found to remove Spotted Tail because he stood strong for the improvement of his people. “This was charged upon the Indians because an Indian did it,” he said, “but who set on the Indian?” 6

After the furor over Spotted Tail’s death had subsided, the Sioux everywhere on the Great Reservation turned their attention toward Sitting Bull’s presence at Fort Randall. Many chiefs and subchiefs came to visit him, wish him well, and do him honor. Newspapermen came to interview him. Instead of being beaten and forgotten as he had thought, Sitting Bull was famous. In 1882 representatives from the different Sioux agencies came to ask his advice concerning a new government proposal to break up the Great Reservation into smaller areas and sell about half the land for white settlement. Sitting Bull advised them not to sell; the Sioux had no land to spare.

In spite of their resistance, the Sioux in 1882 came very near losing 14,000 square miles of territory to a commission headed by Newton Edmunds, an expert at negotiating lands away from Indians. His colleagues were Peter Shannon, a frontier lawyer, and James Teller, a brother of the new Secretary of the Interior. Accompanying them was a “special interpreter,” none other than the Reverend Samuel D. Hinman, who had been a missionary to the Sioux since the days of Little Crow. Hinman believed that what the Indians needed was less land and more Christianity.

As the commission traveled from one agency to the other, Hinman told the chiefs that he was there to lay out different parts of the reservation for the six agencies. This was necessary, he said, so that the different Sioux tribes could claim the areas as their own and have them as long as they lived. “After we have laid out the reservations,” Hinman told Red Cloud, “the Great Father will give you 25,000 cows and 1,000 bulls.” 7 To obtain the livestock, however, the Sioux had to sign some papers which the commissioners had brought along. As none of the Sioux chiefs could read, they did not know that they were signing away 14,000 square miles of land in exchange for the promised cows and bulls.

At agencies where the Sioux were reluctant to sign anything, Hinman alternately wheedled and bullied them. In order to obtain an abundance of signatures, he persuaded boys as young as seven years old to sign the papers. (According to the treaty, only adult male Indians could sign.) In a meeting at Wounded Knee Creek on Pine Ridge reservation, Hinman told the Indians that if they did not sign they would not receive any more rations or annuities, and furthermore they would be sent to Indian Territory.

Many of the older Sioux, who had seen the limits of their land shrink after “touching the pen” to similar documents, suspected that Hinman was trying to steal their reservation. Yellow Hair, a minor chief at Pine Ridge, stood strong against signing but then was frightened into doing so by Hinman’s threats. After the ceremony of signing was completed and the commissioners departed, Yellow Hair took a round ball of earth and mockingly presented it to the Pine Ridge agent, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy. “We have given up nearly all of our land,” Yellow Hair said, “and you had better take the balance now, and here I hand it to you.” 8

Early in 1883 Edmunds and Hinman journeyed to Washington with their bundle of signatures and succeeded in getting a bill introduced in Congress ceding about half the lands of the Great Reservation to the United States. Fortunately for the Sioux, they had enough friends in Washington to question the bill and to point out that even if all the signatures were legal, Edmunds and Hinman still had not obtained the names of the required three-fourths of all adult male Sioux.

Another commission, headed by Senator Henry L. Dawes, was immediately dispatched to Dakota to inquire into the methods used by Edmunds and Hinman. Its members soon discovered the chicanery of their predecessors.

During the inquiry Dawes asked Red Cloud if he believed Mr. Hinman was an honest man. “Mr. Hinman fools you big men,” Red Cloud replied. “He told you a lot of stuff, and you have to come out here and ask us about it.”

Red Dog testified that Hinman had talked about giving them cows and bulls, but had said nothing about the Sioux giving up any land in exchange for them. Little Wound said: “Mr. Hinman told us that the way the reservation was now no Indian could tell his own ground, and the Great Father and his council thought it best to lay out different reservations and that is the reason we signed the paper.”

“Did he say anything about the Great Father having what was left?” asked Senator Dawes.

“No, sir; he did not say anything about that.”

When White Thunder told Dawes that the paper they had signed was a piece of rascality, the senator asked him what he meant by rascality.

“The rascality was that they came to take the land so cheap; that is what I call rascality.”

“Do you mean that the Indians here would be willing to let the land go if they could be paid more for it?” Dawes asked.

“No, sir; they would not be willing to do that,” White Thunder replied. “Our land here is the dearest thing on earth to us. Men take up land and get rich on it, and it is very important for us Indians to keep it.” 9

Shortly before the Dawes commission came to Dakota, Sitting Bull was released from imprisonment at Fort Randall and transferred to the Hunkpapa agency at Standing Rock. On August 22, when the commissioners arrived there to hear testimony, he came up to the agency headquarters from his assigned camp on Grand River to attend the council. The commissioners deliberately ignored the presence of the most famous living Sioux chief, inviting testimony first from Running Antelope and then from young John Grass, son of Old Grass, the chief of the Blackfoot Sioux.

At last Senator Dawes turned to the interpreter and said: “Ask Sitting Bull if he has anything to say to the committee.”

“Of course I will speak to you if you desire me to do so,” Sitting Bull responded. “I suppose it is only such men as you desire to speak who must say anything.”

“We supposed the Indians would select men to speak for them.” Dawes said, “but any man who desires to speak, or any man the Indians here desire shall talk for them, we will be glad to hear if he has anything to say.”

“Do you know who I am, that you speak as you do?”

“I know that you are Sitting Bull, and if you have anything to say we will be glad to hear you.”

“Do you recognize me; do you know who I am?”

“I know you are Sitting Bull.”

“You say you know I am Sitting Bull, but do you know what position I hold?”

“I do not know any difference between you and the other Indians at this agency.”

“I am here by the will of the Great Spirit, and by his will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, because whatever passes near me puts out its tongue to me; and yet you men have come here to talk with us, and you say you do not know who I am. I want to tell you that if the Great Spirit has chosen anyone to be the chief of this country it is myself.”

“In whatever capacity you may be here today, if you desire to say anything to us we will listen to you; otherwise we will dismiss this council.”

“Yes; that is all right,” Sitting Bull said. “You have conducted yourselves like men who have been drinking whiskey, and I came here to give you some advice.” He made a sweeping motion with his hand, and every Indian in the council room arose and followed him out. 10

Nothing could have dismayed the commissioners more than the thought of the Sioux rallying around a strong leader like Sitting Bull. Such a development endangered the entire Indian policy of the government, which aimed to eradicate everything Indianamong the tribes and make them over into white men. In less than two minutes, right before their very eyes, they had let Sitting Bull demonstrate his power to block that policy.

Later that day the other Hunkpapa leaders talked with Sitting Bull; they assured him of their loyalty, but told him he should not have offended the commissioners. These men were not like the land thieves who had come there the previous year; these representatives of the Great Father had come to help them keep their land, not to take it away from them.

Sitting Bull was not so sure about the trustworthiness of any white men, but he said that if he had made a mistake he was willing to apologize for it. He sent word to the commissioners that he would like another council.

“I am here to apologize to you for my bad conduct,” he began, “and to take back what I said. I will take it back because I consider I have made your hearts bad. … What I take back is what I said to cause the people to leave the council, and want to apologize for leaving myself. … Now I will tell you my mind and I will tell everything straight. I know the Great Spirit is looking down upon me from above and will hear what I say, therefore I will do my best to talk straight; and I am in hopes that someone will listen to my wishes and help me to carry them out.”

He then reviewed the history of the Sioux during his lifetime, listing the government’s broken promises, but said that he had promised to travel the white man’s path and would keep his promises. “If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it he will find it, and that is what the Indians are doing now when they ask you to give them the things that were promised them in the past; and I do not consider that they should be treated like beasts, and that is the reason I have grown up with the feelings I have. … The Great Father sent me word that whatever he had against me in the past had been forgiven and thrown aside, and he would have nothing against me in the future, and I accepted his promises and came in; and he told me not to step aside from the white man’s path, and I told him I would not, and I am doing my best to travel in that path. I feel that my country has gotten a bad name, and I want it to have a good name; it used to have a good name; and I sit sometimes and wonder who it is that has given it a bad name.”

Sitting Bull went on to describe the condition of the Indians. They had none of the things that white men had. If they were to become like white men they must have tools, livestock, and wagons, “because that is the way white people make a living.”

Instead of accepting Sitting Bull’s apology graciously and listening to what he had to say, the commissioners immediately launched an attack. Senator John Logan scolded him for breaking up the previous council and then for accusing the committee members of being drunk. “I want to say further that you are not a great chief of this country,” Logan continued, “that you have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the suffrance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. I merely say these things to you to notify you that you cannot insult the people of the United States of America or its committees. … The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.”11

To speed the process of making the Sioux as white men, the Indian Bureau assigned James McLaughlin to head the agency at Standing Rock. McLaughlin, or White Hair, as the Indians called him, was a veteran of the Indian Service, was married to a half-breed Santee woman, and his superiors were confident that he could efficiently destroy the culture of the Sioux and replace it with the white man’s civilization. After the departure of the Dawes commission, White Hair McLaughlin attempted to diminish Sitting Bull’s influence by dealing with Gall in matters involving the Hunkpapas and with John Grass for the Blackfoot Sioux. Every move that White Hair made was calculated to keep Sitting Bull in the background, to demonstrate to the Standing Rock Sioux that their old hero was powerless to lead or help them.

White Hair’s maneuvers had no effect whatsoever on Sitting Bull’s popularity with the Sioux. All visitors to the reservation, Indian or white, wanted to meet Sitting Bull. In the summer of 1883, when the Northern Pacific Railroad celebrated the driving of the last spike in its transcontinental track, one of the officials in charge of ceremonies decided it would be fitting for an Indian chief to be present to make a speech of welcome to the Great Father and other notables. Sitting Bull was the choice—no other Indian was even considered—and a young Army officer who understood the Sioux language was assigned to work with the chief in preparation of a speech. It was to be delivered in Sioux and then translated by the officer.

On September 8 Sitting Bull and the young Bluecoat arrived at Bismarck for the big celebration. They rode at the head of a parade and then sat on the speakers’ platform. When Sitting Bull was introduced, he arose and began delivering his speech in Sioux. The young officer listened in dismay. Sitting Bull had changed the flowery text of welcome. “I hate all the white people,” he was saying. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” 12 Knowing that only the Army officer could understand what he was saying, Sitting Bull paused occasionally for applause; he bowed, smiled, and then uttered a few more insults. At last he sat down, and the bewildered interpreter took his place. The officer had only a short translation written out, a few friendly phrases, but by adding several well-worn Indian metaphors, he brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for Sitting Bull. The Hunkpapa chief was so popular that the railroad officials took him to St. Paul for another ceremony.

During the following summer the Secretary of the Interior authorized a tour of fifteen American cities for Sitting Bull, and his appearances created such a sensation that William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody decided he must add the famous chief to his Wild West Show. The Indian Bureau offered some resistance to the proposal at first but when White Hair McLaughlin was queried, he was enthusiastic. By all means, he said, let Sitting Bull go with the Wild West Show. At Standing Rock, Sitting Bull was a constant symbol of Indian resistance, a continual defender of the Indian culture that McLaughlin was determined to eradicate. White Hair would have liked to see Sitting Bull go on tour forever.

And so, in the summer of 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, traveling throughout the United States and into Canada. He drew tremendous crowds. Boos and catcalls sometimes sounded for the “Killer of Custer,” but after each show these same people pressed coins upon him for copies of his signed photograph. Sitting Bull gave most of the money away to the band of ragged, hungry boys who seemed to surround him wherever he went. He once told Annie Oakley, another one of the Wild West Show’s stars, that he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor. “The white man knows how to make everything,” he said, “but he does not know how to distribute it.”

After the season ended, he returned to Standing Rock with two farewell presents from Buffalo Bill—a huge white sombrero and a performing horse. The horse had been trained to sit down and raise one hoof at the crack of a gunshot.

In 1887 Buffalo Bill invited Sitting Bull to accompany his show on a tour of Europe, but the chief declined. “I am needed here,” he said. “There is more talk of taking our lands.” 13

The land-grab attempt did not come until the following year, when a commission arrived from Washington with a proposal to carve the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller reservations, leaving nine million acres open for settlement. The commissioners offered the Indians fifty cents an acre for this land. Sitting Bull immediately went to work to convince Gall and John Grass that the Sioux would not stand for such a swindle; they had no more land to spare. For about a month the commissioners tried to persuade the Standing Rock Indians that Sitting Bull was misleading them, that the land cession was for their benefit, and that if they failed to sign they might lose the land anyhow. Only twenty-two Sioux signed at Standing Rock. After failing to obtain the required three-fourths of signatures at Crow Creek and Lower Brulé agencies, the commissioners gave up. Without even venturing into Pine Ridge or Rosebud, they returned to Washington and recommended that the government ignore the treaty of 1868 and take the land without consent of the Indians.

In 1888 the United States government was not quite ready to abrogate a treaty, but the following year Congress took the first step toward such action—if it became necessary. What the politicians preferred was to force the Indians into selling a large portion of their reservation out of fear that it would be taken away from them if they refused to sell. Should this scheme work, the government would not have to break the treaty.

Knowing that the Indians trusted General George Crook, officials in Washington first convinced him the Sioux would lose everything unless they voluntarily agreed to break up their reservation. Crook agreed to serve as chairman of a new commission, and was authorized to offer the Indians $1.50 per acre instead of the fifty cents offered by the previous commission.

With two earnest politicians, Charles Foster of Ohio and William Warner of Missouri, Crook journeyed to the Great Sioux Reservation in May, 1889. He was fully determined to obtain the required three-fourths of adult male signatures. Three Stars left his blue uniform in Chicago, and prepared to meet his former enemies in rumpled gray flannels. He deliberately chose the Rosebud agency for his first council. Since the assassination of Spotted Tail, the Brulés were split into factions, and Crook believed they were unlikely to offer a united front against signing their land away.

He reckoned without Hollow Horn Bear, who insisted that the commissioners call all the chiefs of the six agencies together for one council instead of traveling from one to the other. “You want to make everything safe here,” Hollow Horn Bear said accusingly, “and then go on to the other agencies and tell them we have signed.”

Crook replied that the Great Father had ordered the commissioners to consult with the Indians at the different agencies “because it is spring now and if you all come together at one place your crops will all suffer.” Hollow Horn Bear refused to cooperate, however, and so did High Hawk. “The land you have now surveyed out for us is but a very small piece,” High Hawk said. “And I expect my children to have children and grandchildren, and get all over the country, and now you want me to cut off my ‘tool’ and not make any more children.”

Yellow Hair said: “Whenever we give you any land we never take it back, so this time we want to consider well before we give up this land.”

“The white men in the East are like birds,” Crook told them. “They are hatching out their eggs every year, and there is not room enough in the East and they must go elsewhere; and they come west, as you have seen them coming for the last few years. And they are still coming, and will come until they overrun all of this country; and you can’t prevent it. … Everything is decided in Washington by the majority, and these people come out west and see that the Indians have a big body of land they are not using, and they say ‘we want the land.’” 14

After nine days of discussion, a majority of the Brulés followed Crook’s advice and signed. The first signature on the agreement was that of Crow Dog, the assassin of Spotted Tail.

At Pine Ridge in June, the commissioners had to deal with Red Cloud, who demonstrated his power by surrounding the council with several hundred of his mounted warriors. Although Red Cloud and his loyal lieutenants stood firm, the commissioners managed to secure about half of the Oglalas’ signatures. To make up the difference they moved on to the smaller agencies, obtaining signatures at Lower Brulé, Crow Creek, and Cheyenne River. On July 27 they arrived at Standing Rock. Here the decision would be made. If a majority of the Hunkpapas and Blackfoot Sioux refused to sign, the agreement would fail.

Sitting Bull attended the first councils but remained silent. His presence was all that was needed to maintain a solid wall of opposition. “The Indians gave close attention,” Crook said, “but gave no indication of favor. Their demeanor was rather that of men who had made up their minds and listened from curiosity as to what new arguments could be advanced.”

John Grass was chief spokesman for the Standing Rock Sioux. “When we had plenty of land,” he said, “we could give it to you at your own prices, whatever you had in mind to give, but now we have come down to the small portion there is to spare, and you wish to buy the balance. We are not the ones who are offering our lands for sale. It is the Great Father that is after us to sell the land. That is the reason that the price that is put on the land here we think is not enough, therefore we don’t want to sell the land at that price.” 15

Sitting Bull and his followers, of course, did not want to sell at any price. As White Thunder had told the Dawes commission six years earlier, their land was “the dearest thing on earth” to them.

After several days of fruitless discussion, Crook realized that he could win no converts in general councils. He enlisted agent James McLaughlin in a concerted effort to convince individual Indians that the government would take their land away if they refused to sell. Sitting Bull remained unyielding. Why should the Indians sell their land in order to save the United States government the embarrassment of breaking a treaty to get it?

White Hair McLaughlin arranged secret meetings with John Grass. “I talked with him until he agreed that he would speak for its ratification and work for it,” McLaughlin said afterward. “Finally we fixed up the speech he was to make receding from his former position gracefully, thus to bring him the active support of the other chiefs and settle the matter.” 16

Without informing Sitting Bull, McLaughlin arranged for a final meeting with the commissioners on August 3. The agent stationed his Indian police in a four-column formation around the council grounds to prevent any interruptions by Sitting Bull or any of his ardent supporters. John Grass had already delivered the speech, which McLaughlin had helped him write, before Sitting Bull forced his way through the police and entered the council circle.

For the first time he spoke: “I would like to say something unless you object to my speaking, and if you do I will not speak. No one told us of the council, and we just got here.”

Crook glanced at McLaughlin. “Did Sitting Bull know that we were going to hold a council?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” McLaughlin lied. “Yes, sir, everybody knew it.” 17

At this moment John Grass and the chiefs moved forward to sign the agreement. It was all over. The Great Sioux Reservation was broken into small islands around which would rise the flood of white immigration. Before Sitting Bull could get away from the grounds, a newspaperman asked him how the Indians felt about giving up their lands.

“Indians!” Sitting Bull shouted. “There are no Indians left but me!”

In the Drying Grass Moon (October 9, 1890), about a year after the breaking up of the Great Reservation, a Minneconjou from the Cheyenne River agency came to Standing Rock to visit Sitting Bull. His name was Kicking Bear, and he brought news of the Paiute Messiah, Wovoka, who had founded the religion of the Ghost Dance. Kicking Bear and his brother-in-law, Short Bull, had returned from a long journey beyond the Shining Mountains in search of the Messiah. Hearing of this pilgrimage, Sitting Bull had sent for Kicking Bear in order to learn more about the Ghost Dance.

Kicking Bear told Sitting Bull of how a voice had commanded him to go forth and meet the ghosts of Indians who were to return and inhabit the earth. On the cars of the Iron Horse he and Short Bull and nine other Sioux had traveled far toward the place where the sun sets, traveled until the railroad stopped. There they were met by two Indians they had never seen before, but who greeted them as brothers and gave them meat and bread. They supplied the pilgrims with horses and they rode for four suns until they came to a camp of Fish Eaters (Paiutes) near Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

The Fish Eaters told the visitors that Christ had returned to earth again. Christ must have sent for them to come there, Kicking Bear said; it was foreordained. To see the Messiah they had to make another journey to the agency at Walker Lake.

For two days Kicking Bear and his friends waited at Walker Lake with hundreds of other Indians speaking in dozens of different tongues. These Indians had come from many reservations to see the Messiah.

Just before sundown on the third day the Christ appeared, and the Indians made a big fire to throw light on him. Kicking Bear had always thought that Christ was a white man like the missionaries, but this man looked like an Indian. After a while he rose and spoke to the waiting crowd. “I have sent for you and am glad to see you,” he said. “I am going to talk to you after a while about your relatives who are dead and gone. My children, I want you to listen to all I have to say to you. I will teach you how to dance a dance, and I want you to dance it. Get ready for your dance, and when the dance is over, I will talk to you.” Then he commenced to dance, everybody joining in, the Christ singing while they danced. They danced the Dance of the Ghosts until late at night, when the Messiah told them they had danced enough. 18

Next morning, Kicking Bear and the others went up close to the Messiah to see if he had the scars of crucifixion which the missionaries on the reservations had told them about. There was a scar on his wrist and one on his face, but they could not see his feet, because he was wearing moccasins. Throughout the day he talked to them. In the beginning, he said, God made the earth, and then sent the Christ to earth to teach the people, but white men had treated him badly, leaving scars on his body, and so he had gone back to heaven. Now he had returned to earth as an Indian, and he was to renew everything as it used to be and make it better.

In the next springtime, when the grass was knee high, the earth would be covered with new soil which would bury all the white men, and the new land would be covered with sweet grass and running water and trees. Great herds of buffalo and wild horses would come back. The Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up in the air and suspended there while a wave of new earth was passing, and then they would be set down among the ghosts of their ancestors on the new earth, where only Indians would live.

44. Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

45. Kicking Bear. Photo by David F. Barry, from the Denver Public Library Western Collection.

46. Short Bull of the Sioux. Photo by David F. Barry, from the Denver Public Library

47. John Grass. Photo by David F. Barry, from the Denver Public Library Western Collection.

After a few days at Walker Lake, Kicking Bear and his friends learned how to dance the Ghost Dance, and then they mounted their horses to return to the railroad. As they rode along, the Messiah flew above them in the air, teaching them songs for the new dance. At the railroad, he left them, telling them to return to their people and teach what they had learned. When the next winter was passed, he would bring the ghosts of their fathers to meet them in the new resurrection.

After returning to Dakota, Kicking Bear had started the new dance at Cheyenne River, Short Bull had brought it to Rosebud, and others were introducing it at Pine Ridge. Big Foot’s band of Minneconjous, Kicking Bear said, was made up mostly of women who had lost husbands or other male relatives in fights with Long Hair and Three Stars and Bear Coat; they danced until they fainted, because they wanted to bring their dead warriors back.

Sitting Bull listened to all that Kicking Bear had to relate about the Messiah and the Ghost Dance. He did not believe it was possible for dead men to return and live again, but his people had heard of the Messiah and were fearful he would pass them by and let them disappear when the new resurrection came, unless they joined in the dancing. Sitting Bull had no objections to his people dancing the Ghost Dance, but he had heard that agents at some reservations were bringing soldiers in to stop the ceremonies. He did not want soldiers coming in to frighten and perhaps shoot their guns at his people. Kicking Bear replied that if the Indians wore the sacred garments of the Messiah—Ghost Shirts painted with magic symbols—no harm could come to them. Not even the bullets of the Bluecoats’ guns could penetrate a Ghost Shirt.

With some skepticism, Sitting Bull invited Kicking Bear to remain with his band at Standing Rock and teach them the Dance of the Ghosts. This was in the Moon of Falling Leaves, and across the West on almost every Indian reservation the Ghost Dance was spreading like a prairie fire under a high wind. Agitated Indian Bureau inspectors and Army officers from Dakota to Arizona, from Indian Territory to Nevada, were trying to fathom the meaning of it. By early autumn the official word was: Stop the Ghost Dancing.

“A more pernicious system of religion could not have been offered to a people who stood on the threshold of civilization,” White Hair McLaughlin said. Although he was a practicing Catholic, McLaughlin, like most other agents, failed to recognize the Ghost Dance as being entirely Christian. Except for a difference in rituals, its tenets were the same as those of any Christian church.

“You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always,” the Messiah commanded. Preaching nonviolence and brotherly love, the doctrine called for no action by the Indians except to dance and sing. The Messiah would bring the resurrection.

But because the Indians were dancing, the agents became alarmed and notified the soldiers, and the soldiers began to march.

A week after Kicking Bear came to Standing Rock to teach Sitting Bull’s people the Ghost Dance, White Hair McLaughlin sent a dozen Indian police to remove him from the reservation. Awed by Kicking Bear’s aura of holiness, the policemen referred McLaughlin’s order to Sitting Bull, but the chief refused to take action. On October 16 McLaughlin sent a larger force of police, and this time Kicking Bear was escorted off the reservation.

The following day McLaughlin notified the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that the real power behind the “pernicious system of religion” at Standing Rock was Sitting Bull. He recommended that the chief be arrested, removed from the reservation, and confined to a military prison. The commissioner conferred with the Secretary of War, and they decided that such action would create more trouble than it would prevent.

By mid-November Ghost Dancing was so prevalent on the Sioux reservations that almost all other activities came to a halt. No pupils appeared at the schoolhouses, the trading stores were empty, no work was done on the little farms. At Pine Ridge the frightened agent telegraphed Washington: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. … We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.” 19

Short Bull led his band of believers down White River into the Badlands, and in a few days their numbers swelled to more than three thousand. Disregarding the wintry weather, they donned their Ghost Shirts and danced from each dawn far into the nights. Short Bull told the dancers not to fear the soldiers if they came to stop the ceremonies. “Their horses will sink into the earth,” he said. “The riders will jump from their horses, but they will sink into the earth also.” 20

At Cheyenne River, Big Foot’s band increased to six hundred, mostly widows. When the agent tried to interfere, Big Foot took the dancers off the reservation to a sacred place on Deep Creek.

On November 20 the Indian Bureau in Washington ordered agents in the field to telegraph the names of all “fomenters of disturbances” among the Ghost Dancers. A list was quickly assembled in Washington, and transmitted to Bear Coat Miles’s Army headquarters in Chicago. Miles saw Sitting Bull’s name among the “fomenters” and immediately assumed that he was to blame for all the disturbances.

Miles knew that a forced arrest by soldiers would create trouble; he wanted Sitting Bull removed quietly. To accomplish this, Bear Coat called on one of the few white men that Sitting Bull ever liked or trusted—Buffalo Bill Cody. Buffalo Bill agreed to visit Sitting Bull and try to persuade him to come to Chicago for a conference with Miles. (The record is unclear as to whether or not Cody knew that if he succeeded in his mission he would be taking Sitting Bull to a military prison.)

When Buffalo Bill arrived at Standing Rock he met with an uncooperative agent. Fearful that Cody would botch the arrest attempt and only arouse Sitting Bull’s anger, McLaughlin quickly arranged for Washington to rescind the showman’s authority. Without even seeing Sitting Bull, Cody left Standing Rock in a bad humor and returned to Chicago.

Meanwhile, at Pine Ridge, the Army had already brought in troops, creating a tense situation between the Indians and the military. A former agent, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, was sent there to make recommendations for a resolution of the difficulties. “I should let the dance continue.” McGillycuddy said. “The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare their ascension robes for the second coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.” This viewpoint, however, was not to prevail. On December 12 Lieutenant Colonel William F. Drum, commanding troops at Fort Yates, received orders from General Miles “to secure the person of Sitting Bull. Call on Indian agent [McLaughlin] to cooperate and render such assistance as will best promote the purpose in view.” 21

Just before daybreak on December 15, 1890, forty-three Indian police surrounded Sitting Bull’s log cabin. Three miles away a squadron of cavalry waited as a support force if needed. Lieutenant Bull Head, the Indian policeman in charge of the party, found Sitting Bull asleep on the floor. When he was awakened, the chief stared incredulously at Bull Head. “What do you want here?” he asked.

“You are my prisoner,” said Bull Head. “You must go to the agency.”

Sitting Bull yawned and sat up. “All right,” he replied, “let me put on my clothes and I’ll go with you.” He asked the policeman to have his horse saddled.

When Bull Head emerged from the cabin with Sitting Bull he found a crowd of Ghost Dancers gathering outside. They outnumbered the police four to one. Catch-the-Bear, one of the dancers, moved toward Bull Head. “You think you are going to take him,” Catch-the-Bear shouted. “You shall not do it!”

“Come now,” Bull Head said quietly to his prisoner, “do not listen to anyone.” But Sitting Bull held back, making it necessary for Bull Head and Sergeant Red Tomahawk to force him toward his horse.

At this moment, Catch-the-Bear threw off his blanket and brought up a rifle. He fired at Bull Head, wounding him in the side. As Bull Head fell, he tried to shoot his assailant, but the bullet struck Sitting Bull instead. Almost simultaneously, Red Tomahawk shot Sitting Bull through the head and killed him. During the firing, the old show horse that Buffalo Bill had presented to Sitting Bull began to go through his tricks. He sat upright, raised one hoof, and it seemed to those who watched that he was performing the Dance of the Ghosts. But as soon as the horse ceased his dancing and wandered away, the wild fighting resumed, and only the arrival of the cavalry detachment saved the Indian police from extinction. 22

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