Disposable Americans: Native Americans
Manifest Destiny: Dominion Over the 'Heathens'
I have come to kill Indians, and I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. --Col. John M. Chivington, Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, November 1864.
A brilliant feat of arms. --Rocky Mountain News, after the Sand Creek massacre.
A sense of superiority was embedded in the very cornerstone of the Eurocentric new world of America. Columbus embraced the doctrine from the start, putting himself above the Arawak Indians in Haiti: "Great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes and very handsome...I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased."
Conquer them is what he did, forcing them to find gold for the Spanish explorers, cutting off their hands if they failed. And when the natives resisted, Columbus was ready with orders for his men: "The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and with Godís aid soon gained a complete victory."
Columbus started a global child-sex trade, writing to a friend, "There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand." Spanish missionary Pedro Cordoba later wrote that "the Indians choose and have chosen suicide...Many...have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery."
We Are Civilized, and They Are Savages
In the 1600s the Puritans deemed themselves preeminent, justifying their beliefs with a quote from the Psalms: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession."
On September 10, 1608 John Smith was elected the colony leader of Jamestown, Virginia. But he and the early settlers faced a much different lifestyle than originally expected in the "land of plenty," as food was scarce, the land was a swampy wilderness, and London kept sending new settlers with little support or planning. Fortune-seeking newcomers wasted time loading their ships with iron pyrite (fool's gold). John Smith's greatest accomplishment may have been to command his fellow Englishmen to build shelters, and spend their time hunting and planting, admonishing them, "he who shall not work, shall not eat."
He had help, at least for awhile, from Powhatan Indians bearing food. But the Native Americans were alarmed by the steady stream of ships bringing not only new settlers, but also indentured servants and slaves. The Indians were also dying from infectious diseases from which they had no immunity. Yet it was little better for the white men, who were suffering through a "starving time," which forced many of them, including servants and slaves, to desert to the well-adapted Indians. Before long, Smith was using military threats to acquire food and supplies from the Powhatan. Aggression was building on both sides.
When Chief Powhatan was ordered, at the end of winter, to return the runaway servants, he refused, and at dawn on May 26, 1637, partly in retaliation for Indian attacks on the colonists, an armed band of Puritans began the Pequot Wars, killing 500 Native American women, men, and children.
With the brutality of war devastating both sides, it became apparent to the colonists that a better system of Indian removal was needed. Historian Edmund Morgan wrote: "The method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn.." Added author Edmund Morgan: "If you were a colonist...you knew that you were civilized, and they were savages...The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did...So you killed the Indians...It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures."
The First Biological Warfare
In 1763, Native American tribes headed by Ottawa chief Pontiac attacked British-held posts in the area of the Great Lakes. "Pontiac's Rebellion" was an attempt to remove the British from Indian-occupied land.
On May 29, 1763 Pontiac began a siege of Fort Pitt, in the area that would become the city of Pittsburgh. On that same day General Jeffery Amherst wrote about the "treacherous behavior" of the Indians; they were, in his words, "contemptible" for "violating the most solemn promises of friendship, without the least provocation on our side." He later demanded that the natives be "sufficiently punished for the depredations and barbarities." On June 29, 1763 Amherst wrote in a letter to a fellow officer: "Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians?" Then, on July 16, 1763: "You will do well to try to innoculate the Indians by means of blanketts, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execreble race."
As it turned out, Amherst' idea had already been put into place. William Trent, an Indian trader and militia commander, kept a meticulous diary of events at Fort Pitt, and on June 23 he recorded the visit to the fort by two representatives of the Delaware tribe, who tried to convince the British to leave the post. They refused. Upon departing, the Indians made a customary request for "provisions and liquor, to carry us home." Trent noted, "we gave them two blankets and an handkerchief out of the small pox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."
Some historians have argued that smallpox had already infected the Native American population, possibly from warriors returning from attacks on white camps. But Trent's records are considered accurate. And Fort Pitt accounting ledgers confirm that the British military sanctioned the ill deed.
Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, called the decimation of the Indian population from 12 million to 1/4 million in 400 years "a vast genocide." David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, termed it the "worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people." Disease did most of the killing; perhaps 75 to 90 percent of the deaths were caused by smallpox and other pathogens.
Equality for All
Peace would be decreed in the words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But exceptions were made. George Washington's intentions for the Iroquois Indians in 1779 were to "extirpate them from the country." The Native Americans called Washington the "town destroyer." Washington was the first of many Presidents who believed in American exceptionalism.
Manifest Destiny, Creeping West
On May 2, 1803 Thomas Jefferson agreed to pay France $15 million for the land from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from Louisiana to Canada, in total about a third of the present-day continental United States. It came to about three cents an acre.
Land that was originally considered valueless, except as a new home for primitive peoples, was beginning to look attractive to white men eager to homestead. Speculators like George Washington and Patrick Henry were buying up huge tracts of land. Territories recently deeded to the Chickasaw were suddenly on the market. Native Americans were increasingly an impediment to expansion.
Jefferson, who believed in the superiority of the white man, was certain that Native Americans, if given the chance, would jump at the opportunity to give up their primitive ways for a 'civilized' white lifestyle. But native traditions were little understood. The great Shawnee chief Tecumseh tried to rally his braves against the white incursion. "Let the white race perish," he proclaimed. "They seize your land; they corrupt your women, they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven." But the trail would be of tears, trodden by the former caretakers of the land.
Indian Removal Begins
On November 10, 1808 the Osage Indians surrendered their land in Missouri and Arkansas for a reservation in Oklahoma. Such forced migrations usually proved disastrous for Native Americans. The Kansa Sioux, for example, lost 1,500 of their 1,700 people when they were relocated to an unfamiliar and barren western land. The Osage proved more adaptable, though, and ultimately quite fortunate, as their new land turned out to be rich with oil.
The Osage were an imposing people, alternately described as "the tallest race of men in North America," some at seven feet; "uncommonly fierce, courageous, warlike"; and, according to Washington Irving, the "finest looking Indians I have ever seen in the West." They were resourceful, leasing their land for cattle grazing. Certainly they suffered, especially in the depression of the 1870s when federal rations were cut. But by 1900 oil had been discovered, and they managed production wisely, soon becoming the wealthiest Native American tribe in America.
But wealth, and the inevitable greed in those who covet it, has a way of turning prosperity into misery. Over 60 Osage Indians were killed for their oil royalties in the 1920s. The murders were apparently committed by - or arranged by - white lawyers and businessmen who were charged with the responsibility, thanks to a racist and condescending U.S. Congress, of managing the financial affairs of a people deemed unfit to manage themselves. In 1925 the case went to the FBI, one of the first assignments for the new Bureau. But corruption in the white-dominated Osage County in Oklahoma made it nearly impossible to bring charges against the suspects.
Andrew Jackson a hero of the War of 1812 and an advocate for the common man over the greed of the wealthiest landowners. Yet he was the worst enemy of Native Americans. His views on Indian removal jibed with the majority of 'civilized' men who saw only these inferior beings in the way of progress. In his First Annual Message to Congress in 1829, Jackson stated: "Emigration should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the States they must be subject to their laws. In return for their obedience as individuals they will without doubt be protected in the enjoyment of those possessions which they have improved by their industry."
For ten years Jackson arranged 'treaties' with Indians in the American southeast, setting up his own friends as land agents, traders, and surveyors while encouraging white squatters to take over the land. Eventually recognizing Florida as vital to "national security," he initiated raids on Seminole villages, burning down homes and forcing out residents, all in the name of the "immutable laws of self-defense."
Indian removal, according to Jackson, would help the Native Americans to "cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community." He condescendingly added, "Say to the chiefs and warriors that I am their friend...[their land] they shall possess as long as grass grows or water runs."
A few Americans, including Henry Clay and Ralph Waldo Emerson, tried to defend the rights of the land's original inhabitants. But a great many more believed it was their country's right to take what it wanted. Best remembered is the Trail of Tears that led thousands of sick and starving Cherokees across the Mississippi in the middle of winter to unfamiliar and unproductive land far from their home. By 1838 President Van Buren was proclaiming, "It affords sincere pleasure to apprise the Congress of the entire removal of the Cherokee nation of Indians to their new homes."
On November 5, 1862 over 300 Dakota Sioux were found guilty of slaughtering white settlers, and sentenced to hang. Although President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences, 38 Native Americans were hanged on the day after Christmas in a public execution attended by a cheering crowd of white Minnesotans.
The "Minnesota Massacre" was the culmination of a half-century of white encroachment, broken treaties, the surrender of 28 million acres of Native American land, the promise of payment that never came, and the banishment of the Sioux to a piece of land just ten miles wide by 150 miles long. In the summer of 1862 the corn crops failed. Just before the Sioux uprising, federal agents withheld food from the Indians because customary bribes had not been paid. One agent remarked, "Let them eat grass." When his body was found, his mouth was stuffed with grass.
Events leading up to the massacre had given little indication of what was to come. Although deprivation was severe in the Indian villages, with resentment running deep, the tragedy only began to unfold when four young Dakota men took eggs from a nest on a white farm. An argument ensued, and then escalated, and the four men lost control and killed five whites. Upon learning of the incident, Dakota leaders knew revenge was at hand, so they acted first, attacking white settlements and killing 500 before U.S. forces could stop them. Army troops traveled as far as North Dakota to round up Sioux warriors, and ended up putting more than 2,000 Native Americans on trial. The hanging of 38 men is the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
A Minnesota newspaper made this announcement in 1863: "The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory."
Sand Creek Massacre
On November 29, 1864 U.S. soldiers wiped out a Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, Colorado.
Numerous negotiated and broken treaties had preceded the bloody Indian Wars, and the rush for gold in the Rocky Mountains ended any chance for Native American control of their promised lands. The renegotiated treaties kept reducing the size and desirability of reservations.
Colonel John Chivington was an apt symbol of the times. He and his Colorado volunteers represented settlers who resented Native American resistance to the white intrusion, and who viewed the long-time residents as disruptive to civilized occupation of the territory, and best eliminated as quickly as possible, with little regard to the means of removal. Chivington, a former preacher, believed even the harshest tactics would be supported. The attack at Sand Creek made this clear, as the majority of slaughtered villagers were women and children.
The massacre was supported by the public at first. But as the facts came out even the staunchest supporters of Indian removal were appalled. With most of the Cheyenne men away on a buffalo hunt, drunken soldiers entered a village displaying an American flag, stabbed and shot women awakening from their sleep, mutilated them, and took scalps and body parts as souvenirs.
Chivington said, "Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.
Witnesses said, "I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces...the women cut all to pieces...scalped, their brains knocked out; children two or three months old...the body of White Antelope...the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles - the last for a tobacco pouch..."
Kit Carson reflected: "I tell you what, I don't like a hostile red skin any more than you do...But I never yet drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I despise the man who would."
In response to the massacre, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of the Little Arkansas in 1865, promising land and cash reparations to the surviving descendents of Sand Creek. The treaty was cancelled two years later.
Red Cloud's War
On December 22, 1866 a civilian by the name of "Portugee" Philips began a 236-mile ride on horseback, through a blizzard and its aftermath, to inform the army at Fort Laramie, Wyoming that Indians led by Lakota warriors Red Cloud and Crazy Horse had slaughtered 81 soldiers at Fort Phil Kearney, in the greatest Native American victory till Little Big Horn ten years later. Philips interrupted a Christmas night party at the fort to deliver his message.
Tensions had been growing for three years, since white settlers began using the Bozeman Trail to reach the Montana gold fields. The trail passed through hunting lands granted to the Indians ten years earlier. The massacre of 200 peaceful Cheyenne at Sand Creek had blown apart the treaty, and the Native Americans had begun to attack whites in retaliation, including travelers along the Bozeman Trail. Negotiations for peace were attempted. The U.S. offered considerable sums of money for an end to the attacks, but despite a U.S. negotiator's reporting that a "most cordial feeling prevails" among whites and Indians, the new treaty promises were little trusted.
Now "Red Cloud's War" was heating up. The Indians, perhaps 2,000 warriors in all, had advantages in knowledge of the land, guerilla fighting, horsemanship, and manpower. U.S. forces, led by Colonel Henry Carrington, numbered only about 700. In addition, Carrington was a political appointee, and his officers, eager for battle, were inexperienced in Indian fighting, and overconfident in their plans for upcoming battles. One of the top officers, Captain William Fetterman, boasted that given 80 men he "would ride through the Sioux nation."
The one advantage for the army was that the Indians fought with short-range bows better suited for buffalo hunting. But Red Cloud and Crazy Horse had a strategy: a few warriors, serving as decoys, approached Fort Kearney, taunting the soldiers, and then running away in apparent panic when shots rang out. When the troops charged out of the fort and into a nearby valley, they were ambushed by the 2,000 warriors. Eighty-one soldiers were killed. The dead bodies were scalped, disemboweled, and otherwise mutilated, with only the bugle boy spared this final indignity, purportedly because he impressed the Indians by fighting without a gun.
Colonel Carrington, who had remained in the fort, spent the rest of his days defending his command, blaming Fetterman for entering the deadly valley against orders. The Indians continued their assault on settlers, prompting Journalist Henry Stanley (of Stanley & Livingstone fame) to write, "Murders are getting to be so tame from their plurality, that no one pays any attention to them." Until 1876, that is, when General Custer rode in.
General George Armstrong Custer: Haughty, Impulsive, Flamboyant
In April of 1868 the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Black Hills to the Sioux nation. Just six years later, on June 8, 1874, General George Custer was sent on a fact-finding mission, to determine the worth of the land, for both agricultural use and mineral withdrawal. As the cavalry band played Custer's Civil War battle song, the General marched regally into the hills. It was like a picnic at first, with camping and hunting near the rushing river waters under the future site of Mt. Rushmore, as two hired gold miners tested the creek beds. They found plenty of gold. With self-righteous indifference to the natives there long before him, Custer wrote his wife: "We have discovered a rich and beautiful country."
Back east, as the New York Tribune heralded the "New Gold Country," thousands of first-time miners saw their escape from an economic downturn that had started in 1873. President Ulysses S. Grant and all of Congress ignored the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty. The U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs ordered all Native Americans to move to reservations by January 1, 1876. They refused. The Great Sioux War had begun, and a pending date with history at Little Bighorn was less than six months away.
On November 27, 1868 General George Armstrong Custer had attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village in Wyoming, and killed numerous residents who were living on a government-sanctioned reservation. Many squaws and children were hacked or shot to death.
Custer, who had graduated 34th out of 34 cadets at West Point, was described as a "profane, libidinous, and alcoholic" student. In the Civil War he was a reckless leader, losing more men than any other commandant, and treating his men cruelly, often whipping and caging them for trivial offenses like stealing fruit. Yet he was a fearless fighter. And lucky, always escaping injury in the heat of battle. So, while hated by his underlings, he ascended rapidly to the rank of General.
He was haughty, impulsive, flamboyant. As he advanced into the Indian Wars, he often took a 16-piece band with him on the battlefield. But his true nature was revealed over time. The Western Historical Quarterly explained: "From a symbol of courage and sacrifice in the winning of the West, Custer's image was gradually altered into a symbol of the arrogance and brutality displayed in the white exploitation."
His mistreatment of soldiers earned Custer a suspension from the ranks in 1868. But once reinstated, he wasted no time. On November 26, 1868 he approached the Cheyenne settlements, and decided to wait till morning for a sneak attack. He apparently never bothered to inquire about their rights. Instead, his four columns of soldiers slaughtered residents indiscriminately, slashing open pregnant women, grabbing other women as human shields, hurling children against the frozen ground, shooting fleeing residents in the backs as they ran to a nearby river.
Yet such was the mood of the country, and the power of creatively altered reports of the massacre, that Custer was hailed as the first hero of the Indian Wars. As a prelude to the battles the Wyoming Weekly Leader told its readers that the Indians "threaten to kill or drive out of the northern country the hardy pioneers and industrious miners who have reclaimed the northern country from the possession of the barbarians."
To most Americans, it was a great man who could overcome such an enemy.
The discourse gets repetitive, and the stories must include the fact that atrocities were committed by both sides. But the mass destruction was mostly one-sided. Another incident occurred on January 23, 1870, when U.S. Colonel Eugene Baker slaughtered a sleeping camp of peaceful Blackfeet Indians at the Marias River in northern Montana.
Revenge had been on the minds of white settlers and the military since the previous fall, when a prominent Montana rancher named Malcolm Clarke had beaten a Blackfoot warrior named Owl Child for stealing horses. In retribution for the great insult, Owl Child and several others murdered Clarke and his son, and then fled north toward Canada. Locals were outraged. They appealed to the U.S. Army, which demanded that the killers be delivered to them within two weeks. When the order was ignored, General Philip Sheridan dispatched a cavalry unit led by Colonel Baker to hunt down the offenders.
Baker's plan was to find the Blackfoot village and then attack at dawn, while the Native Americans were still sleeping, or otherwise unprepared to start fighting. But he had strict orders to avoid friendly Indians. He had brought along an experienced scout named Joe Kipp to help make that determination. Kipp quickly recognized the signs of a peaceful village. But Baker, a known alcoholic who had reportedly been drinking throughout the night, responded, "That makes no difference, one band or another of them; they are all [Blackfeet] and we will attack them." He threatened to have Kipp shot if he interfered.
As the army approached, a Blackfoot villager walked toward them with papers verifying a peace agreement. He was shot dead. Immediately the rest of the cavalry began firing, and then they charged the Indian huts, stabbing and burning the defenseless Blackfeet, most of them women and children, perhaps 200 in all. About 150 survivors were to be taken to Fort Ellis, but when Baker learned some were infected with smallpox, he abandoned them without food or shelter in the dead of winter.
Many Americans back east were outraged when they learned about the slaughter. But the army supported Baker. So did the people of Montana, and the local media, one of whom called critics "namby-pamby, sniffling old maid sentimentalists."
It was called, as others might have been called before it, "the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops." But the butchering of women and children at Marias has been long forgotten, with not even a monument at the mass grave of the Blackfeet victims.
Nearing the End of the 'Indian' Problem
What Andrew Jackson started a half-century earlier, General George Custer brought to culmination: the national sentiment against the "Indian problem." Although not in the way Custer had envisioned. His demise, and that of 265 U.S. soldiers under his command, would hasten the inevitable elimination of the Native American way of life.
The Sioux had been ceded South Dakota, largely considered wasteland, by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, but the territory had taken on a whole new look with the discovery of gold. Sentiments changed. New settlers came by the thousands. The Indian Inspector advised the government "to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection." An Army Colonel concluded that "nothing short of their annihilation will get it from them."
But it wasn't the strategy to annihilate them, at least in the typical manner of war. Rather, said Congress, relocate them to "Indian territiry" in Oklahoma. Which prompted Spotted Tail to speak for his people: "If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone."
But neither was it the strategy to initiate an unprovoked war. So in early 1876 the U.S. government ordered Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne to relocate to a reservation. Their refusal to do so gave the Indian fighters, including General George Custer, a reason to take up arms - modern arms - against Native Americans equipped with short-range buffalo hunting bows. The Indians were fighting for their very survival.
Libbie Custer's last glimpse of her husband would come as his Seventh Cavalry marched off in the direction of the Little Bighorn, with the cavalry's ever-present army band playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me." On June 25, 1876 General Custer approached Sitting Bull's encampment at the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Choosing to proceed without expected reinforcements, he attacked; but outnumbered and quickly surrounded, the troops were wiped out within an hour.
The Battle of Little Bighorn united white America against the last vestige of Native American independence in the west. The news of Custer's demise had reached the east coast in the midst of patriotic celebration on the July 4, 1876 American Centennial, and most of the country, still enamored of their golden-haired Civil War hero, wanted revenge, and the sooner the better. Federal troops flooded the Black Hills. At dawn on November 25, 1876 General Ranald Mackenzie destroyed a Cheyenne village at the Powder River in Wyoming. Most of the Powder River natives were still sleeping when they were attacked. Mackenzie's 1,500 troops and scouts killed everyone except for leader Dull Knife and some of his warriors, and a few others who escaped, half-naked, into the frozen woods. The survivors would begin a ten-day walk through the hills to an Oglala camp for refuge. Many died enroute.
Retaliation escalated, with the Army seizing guns and horses from friendly tribes, and convincing Congress to rescind all the rights once granted to the Lakota Sioux. Native Americans were forced to depart for the American southwest, where they faced malaria and other diseases, hunting grounds without buffalo, and inadequate government rations. Many others fled to Nebraska. There they were captured by soldiers, confined to a barracks without food or heat, and cut down if they tried to escape.
Custer wasn't soon forgotten. The army, the media, and even President Grant blamed him for the disastrous events at Little Bighorn. But the widow Libbie waged a personal campaign to exonerate her husband. Through her prolific writing, and her many speeches and appearances, she convinced the public that her "martyred" general had fought bravely against impossible odds, defending his country as no man had before. Her efforts paid off. The legend of "Custer's Last Stand" became part of American lore, where it remains today.
Libbie never visited the battlefield where her husband died. She lived to the age of 91, with her only regret that she hadn't borne a son to carry on the Custer name.
On January 8, 1877 Crazy Horse and his Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, outnumbered and insufficiently armed with outdated weapons, lost the final major battle against the United States. It was just six months after his greatest victory, as part of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
As a boy in the South Dakota hills in the 1840s Crazy Horse had proved himself in battle and taken the name of his father. He grew to prominence in the 1860s, first serving as a decoy in a daring maneuver that resulted, in a preview of Little Big Horn, in the ambush and slaughter of 80 U.S. militia. He survived the Wagon Box Fight, in which soldiers equipped with new 10-round-per-minute rifles mowed down charging Indians from a barricade of wheelless wagons. Fiercely independent, he resented the white man's intention of removing his people from their home in the Black Hills.
At Little Big Horn in 1876, an Arapaho warrior said of Crazy Horse: "He was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit."
But his great victory was also a great defeat. The U.S. Army was relentless in their pursuit of the Lakota Sioux responsible for their losses. Weakened by hunger and cold, and reduced to fighting with bows and arrows, the Native Americans were forced to give up. Crazy Horse spent the spring and summer of 1877 at an Indian Agency at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. It was said later that Crazy Horse lived up to his name, becoming increasingly irrational as the end drew near. When false rumors spread that he was planning an uprising, authorities tried to lock him in a prison cell, and in his desperate effort to escape confinement, he was fatally stabbed with a bayonet on September 5, 1877. Even as he died, he refused to lie on a white man's cot.
On May 5, 1877 the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull led his followers into Canada to escape a U.S. military seeking revenge for the 1876 massacre at Little Big Horn.
Sitting Bull, a warrior from the age of 14, had always hated white settlers, for their encroachment on Indian land and the slaughter of the buffalo that provided sustenance for Native Americans. But now his own people were deserting him, succumbing in great numbers to the promise by U.S. emissaries of a better life on American reservations. He was left in charge of a band of old and disabled Indians. Just four years after leading his people to the promised land, Sitting Bull conceded, leading the remaining Sioux back to America, where he was held in confinement for two years, and stripped of his dignity by being forced to labor in the fields.
When Sitting Bull was eventually released, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show as a symbol of the old west, with little to do but ride in processions and collect his pay. He helped draw big crowds. He was treated with reverence by Annie Oakley. But he was mocked by Cody as an "inveterate beggar," derided by newspapers as "mild mannered a man as ever cut a throat or scalped a helpless woman," and even attacked once by the brother of a soldier killed at Little Big Horn. He never adapted to the American lifestyle, the "every man for himself" attitude that enriched a few and impoverished many. He quit the show. "The wigwam," he said, "is a better place for the red man."
In 1889 Native Americans began performing mysterious "ghost dances" that were believed to be an appeal to the gods and a curse to the white man. With more and more Indians, including the followers of Sitting Bull, joining the movement, federal officials became alarmed and sent troops to arrest the most influential leaders. At dawn on December 15, 1890, soldiers forced their way into Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside, where someone put a bullet through his head.
And Still More Slaughter
August 10, 1877 was the second day of a battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Indians at the Big Hole River in Montana. The Nez Perce, numbering only a few thousand, had been known as a peaceful tribe as far back as the early 1800s, when Lewis and Clark befriended them and sought needed food and horses. But the discovery of gold in 1860 lured thousands of fortune seekers to their land. Soon after, the U.S. Government demanded that the Nez Perce move to a nearby reservation that was much smaller than their familiar home and hunting grounds.
The Nez Perce had no real concept of "owning" land. About 800 of them - perhaps 200 men - refused to accept confinement in a reservation, choosing instead to head east across the mountains and then north to Canada, away from the Army's jurisdiction. This was to be a grueling four-month journey of 1,200 miles by men, women, and children across remote, rugged territory.
Stunningly, U.S. forces refused to let them go. Over those four months 200 warriors fought off 2,000 soldiers in numerous battles that took the lives of about 100 on each side. The memory of Custer's stand at nearby Little Bighorn a year earlier had fostered a spirit of revenge in the army troops.
On August 9 and 10 in 1877, at the Big Hole River in present-day western Montana, the Nez Perce were surprised in the middle of the night by about 200 soldiers. Once again, most of the dead were women and children. The end of the Native American lifestyle was drawing near. A few weeks later, just 50 miles from the Canadian border and freedom, the remaining Nez Perce were captured and returned to the reservation. The surrendering chief issued a famous statement to his Indian brothers: "Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
And Yet One More Slaughter
The assault at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on December 29, 1890 stands out for many Americans, perhaps because it was the last and one of the deadliest attacks, and perhaps because many of the Lakota Sioux stood beneath a white flag of truce as they faced the soldiers.
In the months preceding the slaughter, as concerns had arisen about the Native American ghost dance, Indian agent James McLaughlin had become increasingly frightened, and finally telegraphed a warning to Washington, D.C.: "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection now."
On December 29 the U.S. cavalry surrounded the Sioux camp and demanded a surrender of weapons. Before the Indians could comply, a nervous soldier fired his weapon, and an over-anxious military began firing. The hapless Sioux brandished knives against rapid-fire repeating artillery. Captain Edward S. Godfrey recounted, "I know the men...were greatly excited...it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs...went down before that unaimed fire."
The few survivors had gruesome stories to tell. Lakota Chief American Horse: "A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing...a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys...came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there."
Even a member of the army's burial party recalled how it would "melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone, to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit." Ghost shirts were taken from the bodies to be sold as souvenirs.
Grabbing Any Land That Remained
On September 16, 1893 over 100,000 people participated in the biggest land grab in U.S. history, as 6.5 million acres of former Cherokee territory in Oklahoma was made available to white settlers. Like a modern-day Black Friday sale, a signal sounded and families rushed from the Kansas-Oklahoma border into the "Cherokee Strip" to claim their 40 acres.
About a half-century earlier, the Oklahoma land was considered almost worthless. Whites had coveted the American southeast, Cherokee land at the time, until government demands forced the Native Americans to trudge the "Trail of Tears" into the barren Oklahoma land. It was to remain theirs "as long as the grass grows and the water runs." So it stood until the Civil War. Then, as the U.S. government sought to revise treaties with the Confederacy-supporting Indians, and as new farming techniques were suddenly adding value to the western scrapland, pressure grew to take it back. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison did just that, and the western stampede was underway.
Just before the cannon boomed to start the land grab at noon on September 16, horses and wagons and bicycles and foot traffic waited anxiously at the border. An eyewitness reported: "First in the line was a solid bank of horses; some had riders, some were hitched to gigs, buckboards, carts, and wagons, but to the eye there were only the two miles of tossing heads, shiny chests, and restless front legs of horses...While we stood, numb with looking, the rifles snapped and the line broke with a huge, crackling roar. That one thundering moment of horseflesh by the mile quivering in its first leap forward was a gift of the gods, and its like will never come again. The next instant we were in a crash of vehicles whizzing past us like a calamity."
The removal of Native Americans, for all practical purposes, had been completed.
Native Americans: The Present Day
The True Sioux Hope Foundation rekindles the sordid memories of Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge with its report on present-day survival. The reservation is still home to the Lakota Sioux, still bereft of resources, still a repository of hopelessness and impoverishment.
According to the report:
---Alcoholism affects eight out of 10 families, contributing to a death rate that is 300 percent higher than the remaining U.S. population.
---97 percent of the population lives far below the U.S. federal poverty line with a median household income ranging between $2,600 and $3,500 per year.
---Pine Ridge Reservation has no industry, and thus has a 90 percent unemployment rate.
---There is a 70 percent high school dropout rate.
---The average life expectancy on the Reservation is 47 years for men and 52 years for women.
---The teenage suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the U.S. national average.
---There is an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home, a home that may only have two to three rooms.
---There are no banks, motels, discount stores or movie theaters and the one grocery store of moderate size is tasked with providing for the entire community.
Our nation's ill-treatment of its original natives has never ended.