Sunday, November 04, 2007

America's Westward Expansion, the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

I haven't done an article as long as this since this article from early last year. I did not anticipate it when I started writing - I wanted to convey certain points simply and concisely, but as so often happens, this piece grew on me. And though it can use some trimming, I'll let it stay the way it is. Given its size, I'll probably still be editing and finding typos for a week from now.

I'd like to note also that the notorious Wounded Knee incident that I write about here is based on Dee Brown's famous non-fiction narrative Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Dee Brown has his biases; his is a deliberate attempt to write history from the Native American point of view, which of course doesn't mean that he got his facts about the massacre right.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 was a turning point in the Indian independence struggle against the British. In an unfathomable act, Brigadier Reginald Dyer ordered soldiers in his command to fire on an unarmed crowd gathered for peaceful protest. Hundreds of men, women and children died in the shooting. The massacre alienated many Indians who had until then been ambivalent about the British. It catalyzed the freedom struggle and set into a motion a new series of rebellions and protest movements – including Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement of 1920 – that led India to its independence in 1947.

Comparisons can sometimes be simplistic. But Jallianwala Bagh was the first thing that came to mind when I visited the site of the Wounded Knee massacre in Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota. Here too, on a wintry December morning in 1890, the United States’ Seventh Cavalry had opened fire and needlessly killed Sioux men, women and children. But what struck me was the contrast: whereas the anger Indians felt about Jallianwala Bagh had revitalized their freedom struggle, Wounded Knee is associated in United States’ history with the end of Native American resistance. In the years that followed there was no renewed vigor borne of outrage. The United States had all but won the frontier by then: most tribes to the west of the Mississippi had been subdued and shepherded into reservations. Wounded Knee merely marked the formal end to the threat posed by an already weakened Sioux. It was the last in the roster of tragic 19th century events – such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Long Walk of the Navajos, to name just two – that were direct consequences of the frenetic westward expansion of the United States.

Manifest Destiny

The roots of this expansion go back to the beginning of the 19th century. The United States was less than three decades old at the time and confined to a cluster of east coast states. That changed in 1803, however, when the Louisiana Purchase was finalized under Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. And the very next year, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition set off to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. Both events were pivotal. They gave the United States a glimpse of its immense territorial possibilities: the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country giving it its future middle, while the Lewis and Clarke expedition seeded the idea of a nation stretching “from sea to shining sea”.

There is much to be admired in the energy and courage of Americans who emigrated to these new lands in the decades that followed. Their perseverance in face of countless difficulties is endlessly commemorated, and rightly so. Every little town founded on the frontier at the time and that still exists today venerates these pioneers through museums, monuments and writings. At the Akta Lakota museum in Chamberlain (South Dakota) I found this description that bears witness to the travails that attended the great westward movement:
Deep wagon ruts marking the paths west scarred the land. Trails were littered with broken equipment, discarded possessions, and the graves of those had died along the way.
And Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail provides us invaluable, first-hand accounts of emigrant parties traveling in long wagon trains across the Great Plains:
Those were the first emigrants we had overtaken, although we had found abundant and melancholy traces of their progress throughout the course of the journey. Sometimes we passed the grave of one who had sickened and died on the way. The earth was usually torn up, and covered thickly with wolf-tracks. Some had escaped this violation. One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it apparently with a red-hot piece of iron:-

DIED May 7th, 1845

Such tokens were of common occurrence.
Something very profound was happening in the United States at the time. The Native Americans would have had an inkling of this from adventurous white trappers and mountain men who preceded the wave of emigrants. These men would have told of the “coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.” [from Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder]

But no warning could have prepared them for what followed. As the frontier inexorably shifted west and gold was discovered in many places, dozens of tribes were swindled of their lands. (An article needs to be written on just how many tribes there were, if only to dispel the common perception that the land was empty, or at best consisted of a mere smattering). Treaties were broken at will. The grandiose term Manifest Destiny was used to justify settlement. Dee Brown launches a scathing attack on Manifest Destiny in his 1970s’ classic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:
To justify these breaches of the ‘permanent Indian frontier’, the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny, a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane. The Europeans and their descendants were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race and therefore responsible for the Indians – along with their lands, their forests, their mineral wealth. Only the New Englanders, who had destroyed or driven out all their Indians, spoke against Manifest Destiny.

Perhaps there exists no better illustration of Manifest Destiny than John Gast’s painting American Progress (circa 1872). The angel-like figure in the painting is Columbia, the female representation of America (just as Uncle Sam is the male one). Columbia is a beacon of progress leading men westward. She is stringing telegraph wires as she travels; and marching along with her are covered wagons, trains, and pioneers with cattle. At the back of the painting are boats and ships on what is possibly the Mississippi river. And ahead of her, fleeing from the advance, are Native Americans and wild animals. One of the depictions is that of a fleeing herd of buffalo to the left-center. This last feature encapsulates a fundamental dynamic of the time: not only were the Plains Tribes swiftly losing their lands, but large herds of buffalo, which they depended on for sustenance, were disappearing fast. Settlers often needlessly killed large numbers of buffalo, thus making the tribes' situation even more precarious.

The Ghost Dance movement and the road to Wounded Knee

In the late 1880s, just when hope appeared to be at its lowest ebb for the Native Americans, there emerged an astonishing religious revival movement. At its center was the messiah Wovoka, a Northern Paiute from Nevada. His belief was simple: that Native Americans should dance to emancipate themselves and regain their past glory. It is striking how quickly his message spread and that too among very diverse groups of Native Americans. Clearly, Wovoka had articulated something special – intentionally or otherwise we shall never unequivocally know. Had the social context been different and had Wovoka backed his beliefs with a pragmatic agenda, his following could have transformed itself into an effective political force. A few decades later and in a different part of the world, Mahatma Gandhi used his own singular methods to evoke the nationalist sentiment in the vast Indian subcontinent that had up to then been divided along the lines of caste, language, region and religion. Some such unifying force is the first step to greater demands. The Native Americans needed it on a vast scale for their resistance to be successful. But European diseases – and this is where the colonization of the Americas is radically different from that of other continents – coupled with decades of land conquest had greatly reduced their numbers. There was no cohesive political entity that could put up a stiff resistance.

The Wovoka inspired movement, though, gave a glimpse of what was possible. It was called the Ghost Dance and its tenets were infused with Christian ideas. Wovoka spoke of Christ coming again to earth, not as a white man, but as a Native American. He spoke also of a resurrection that would come the following spring. As Ian Frazier writes in On the Rez:
Essentially, the Ghost Dance was an Indian version of the religious revivals so popular on the frontier; but in this case, the Promised Land it evoked would be here on earth, with all the Indians who had ever lived restored to life, and the buffalo herds as well. In this paradise the earth itself would be renewed and would cover all white people and their works to a depth of five times the height of man. What believers must do to hurry the arrival of paradise was dance, leaders of the Ghost Dance said.
The Ghost Dance spread like wildfire: all over the West, from Dakota to Arizona to Okhlahoma to Nevada. It was an act of prayer and gave Native Americans hope. Kicking Bear, one of the Sioux leaders, even claimed that if Indians donned the sacred garments of the Ghost Dance – shirts with magic symbols – they would come to no harm. Not even bullets, he said, could penetrate such shirts. By November of 1890,
Ghost Dancing was so prevalent on Sioux reservations that almost all other activities came to a halt. No pupils appeared at schoolhouses, the trading stores were empty, no work was done on the little farms. At Pine Ridge a frightened agent telegraphed Washington: ‘Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy…We need protection and need it now.’ [from Bury my heart at Wounded Knee]
Though the dance itself did not imply aggression (Wovoka had spoken against violence), many Americans found it alarming because of the breadth of its appeal and the intensity of the dances. The government mobilized troops by the thousands and made a list of leaders who they felt were perpetuating these dances, and whom they wanted in captivity. Sitting Bull, a Sioux leader of great standing, was on this list. But the lieutenant of the Indian police, while arresting Sitting Bull, accidentally killed him. The shot was meant for a Sioux Ghost Dancer who was protesting the arrest along with other dancers.

In other circumstances, the death of such an influential leader might have sparked a large-scale revolt. But the Sioux had great faith in what the dances would bring in just a few months - in spring “the grass would be knee high, the earth would be covered with new soil which will bury all the white men…Great herds of buffalo and horses would come back.” But the very next month came an even bigger tragedy, enough to numb the most enthusiastic and hopeful Ghost Dancer.

The final sequence of events that led to Wounded Knee began with the arrest of Big Foot, the leader of the Minneconjou Sioux band, which numbered more than 300. The War Department wanted Big Foot prisoner as he, like many other leaders, had encouraged the Ghost Dance. The arrest happened when Big Foot was leading his people to Pine Ridge, to join Red Cloud’s Oglala Sioux: the troops of the Seventh Cavalry intercepted them en-route and took the group to Wounded Knee creek. It was the evening of December 28th, 1890. Since light was fading and it was bitterly cold, Major Samuel Whitside of the cavalry decided that the Big Foot’s people would be disarmed the next morning. Whitside even allowed a stove to be placed in Big Foot’s tent and a surgeon to attend to his pneumonia, which had worsened during the journey.

The search for weapons next morning was intense: tents were scoured for axes, knives, and tent stakes; the warriors in the Big Foot’s group were asked to remove their blankets, which angered them particularly. Around this time a stray shot was fired by a Sioux who apparently possessed a Winchester rifle. The shot doesn’t seem to have killed or hurt anyone. But the atmosphere was so charged with suspicion and hostility – many of the Seventh Cavalry had been involved in bloody past battles with the Sioux – that the soldiers needed only the slightest provocation. The loud report from the stray shot was the tipping point, and this is what followed:
In the first seconds of violence, the firing of carbines was deafening, filling the air with powder smoke. Among the dying who lay sprawled on the frozen ground was Big Foot. Then there was a brief lull in the rattle of arms, with small groups of Indians and soldiers grappling at close quarters, using knives, clubs and pistols. As few Indians had arms, they soon had to flee, and then the big Hotchkiss guns on the hill opened up on them, firing almost a shell a second, raking the Indian camp, shredding the teepees with flying shrapnel, killing men, women and children…When the madness ended, Big Foot and more than half of his people were dead or seriously wounded; 153 were known dead, but many of the wounded crawled away to die afterward…The soldiers lost twenty five dead and thirty nine wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel. [from Bury my heart at Wounded Knee]
What happened that morning was first called a battle and was subsequently termed as a massacre. A hundred years later, in 1990, the government of the United States formally apologized to the Sioux for the actions of the Seventh Cavalry.

It is easy to be sentimental about Wounded Knee – even though it pales in comparison to the clinical large scale exterminations that were to plague the world in the 20th century. Wounded Knee has a special significance because it spelled an end to the possibilities of resistance for the American Indian. The Ghost Dance slowly faded out; the spring of 1891 came and went, and nothing happened of course.

I'll end this essay with a quote of Spotted Tail (1823-1881), another in the pantheon of famous Sioux leaders. Spotted Tail was a great statesman, who preferred negotiations to battles. I jotted this quote down at the Akta Lakota museum in Chamberlain, South Dakota. There is a lyrical quality to it, and there is profoundness too: Spotted Tail clearly had an understanding of where the calamities and decline that Native Americans faced fit in the grand scheme of things:
There is a time appointed for all things. Think for a moment how many multitudes of animal tribes we [the Sioux or perhaps Native Americans] ourselves have destroyed; look upon the snow that appears today – tomorrow it is water. Listen to the dirge of dry leaves that were green and vigorous but a few moons before! We are part of that life and it seems our time has come.


Assorted Notes

1. Pictures: The first picture is of the cemetery at Wounded Knee that I took this summer when I visited the site. The allegorical depiction of Manifest Destiny is from this page. And the third picture of the dead Big Foot, lying in the snow at Wounded Knee after the massacre, is from here. For a description of the landscape of the Great Plains see this post.

2. South Dakota has several reservations today – remnants of the Great Sioux reservation of the 19th century. One of them is Pine Ridge, where the village of Wounded Knee is. I have lots to write about the other aspects of my trip and the people I met there. I also passed through the Rosebud reservation where Spotted Tail is buried.


Kartik said...

This is an amazing post- I can't believe you actually found the time to write all of that down :-)

I've been reading a lot of American history recently (to get rid of certain humanities requirements, that's a different story for another day :-)

Manifest Destiny - what a lovely rationalization.

Hari said...

Oh, yes, Manifest Destiny is beautiful, isn't it? The very sound of it suggests something grand and rife with possibilities. With that to motivate people, it's not surprising why things went the way they did!

Atanu Dey said...

Hari, have you seen a movie called "Soldier Blue"? If you have not, you must.

Thanks for the post. Quite simply eye-opening.

Hari said...

Thanks, Atanu - it's a pleasure to have you here. I will see "Soldier Blue".

Ralph Hitchens said...

Other accounts of Wounded Knee tell a different story. From what I've read the 7th Cavalry neither wanted nor expected a battle that day. Big Foot had agreed to the disarming, but the soldiers sent into the camp that morning found very few weapons. At some point several warriors suddenly opened fire on the soldiers in the camp with concealed weapons, and after some delay the rest of the soldiers (some distance away) opened fire, having seen their comrades shot down. It was a bleak, dark winter day; Indians of both sexes were swaddled in blankets, indistinguishable at a distance. That it was not a one-sided massacre is attested by the fact that 25 soldiers were killed -- a large number by comparison with other engagements in the Indian Wars, the Custer and Fetterman massacres excepted. This was certainly a tragedy, possibly an avoidable one, but readers should be aware that Dee Brown's book is not history.

Hari said...

Hi Ralph,

Your make some very good points. I agree: what happened at Wounded Knee is not known with absolute certainty, and it probably wasn’t as one sided as Dee Brown puts it. I’ve acknowledged this caveat now right at the beginning of the essay.

But certainly, there’s nothing wrong with the broader narrative of Native American dispossession (a very extensive one caused very much due to the westward expansion of the US) that it is the subject of this post? The specific details of Wounded Knee may be disputed, but there’s no denying what happened over a period of hundred years, is there? Do let me know if you happen to have any thoughts – would be very interested in knowing a different perspective, if there is one.

Anonymous said...

This article helped me quite a lot actually! Not only did I realize what was going on back then, but I got a load of information for an essay I had to right for one of my classes. Thank you for writing this!

Hari said...

Glad to know my post was useful!

Anonymous said...

Manifest destiny is the biggest load of crap propaganda! Though its little wonder why the masses want to believed it, it justifies evil done. Nothing like a great excuse to ease a troubled conciouse.
The term or "propaganda" of Manifest Destiny fits perfectly with the style of propaganda the Nazi's used against the jews. and also a quote from Hitler "The masses will believe a big lie more easily than a small one." (ADOLF HITLER).
Wake up People! wrong is wrong! I only did it because... is only a childish excuse, immigration was triggered by the the hopeless poverty and lack of resources and intolerance and oppression that existed at the time of "manifest destiny" Which was caused by the greedy heartless nobles of our race. Who might I ad, justified their wrongs to our ancestors and could have used the same excuse "providence" or manifest destiny.
Being a white man myself, I have to accept mans pain inflicted on other men. I don't buy into manifest destiny. Whats wrong is wrong. Thank you hari for the piece, but it is, at it's core an attempt to justify what was, and is still wrong with men.
Keep picking through the hay stack of history, we need people like you to justify our wrongs, then we'll have less sins to atone for and we won't have to change.

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