"Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre"
By Heather Cox Richardson
Heather Cox Richardson’s superb new book should come labeled: Warning! Reading the contents may lead to depression.
A disclaimer might also be helpful: Author is not responsible for disturbing recurring historical themes such as: the perils of partisan politics, patronage, and news reporting; the dangers of doing the bidding for big business; the battle for turf between the military and the civilian bureaucracy; the mistreatment of the disenfranchised in the name of American prosperity; and the cover-up of a deadly military miscalculation.
The depressing, avoidable miscalculation that draws Richardson’s unforgiving eye is the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. On a chilly day in late December 1890, long-simmering tensions came to a boil there when the U.S. Army fired on hundreds of Lakota Sioux. After the smoke cleared, nearly 300 Native Americans were dead. So, too, were 25 soldiers, many of them killed by friendly fire.
Among the Sioux victims were scores of women, children, and unarmed men shot as they attempted to flee or hide. George Bartlett, the head of the Pine Ridge Indian police, who was asked to survey the scene for survivors, later remembered: “In some places there were five and six squaws in a pile and in one pile of squaws was that Indian baby alive—right in the bunch of squaws that were frozen stiff and cold.”
Others have chronicled this stain on the American experience, most notably Dee Brown in his 1970 bestseller, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Richardson, a professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, holds her own with these books on the storytelling front. Her account of the confrontation that precipitated the massacre is riveting: “…a deaf Indian, Black Coyote, insisted he would not give up his gun. He couldn’t see why he should—he had done nothing wrong….Tense and on edge by now, two or three soldiers jumped Black Coyote from behind and began to struggle with him for possession of the gun. Other soldiers leveled their weapons at Black Coyote while the men wrestled. Suddenly, Little Bat shouted, ‘Look out. Look out. They are going to shoot.’ Elevated at a forty-five-degree angle toward the east, Black Coyote’s gun went off, firing into the clear blue sky. With the report of the gun, all hell broke loose.”
While her description of that hell packs a wallop, Richardson’s greatest contribution is her meticulously researched, groundbreaking analysis of the tragedy’s root causes. Her conclusion? Wounded Knee was the result of political machinations in Washington, D.C., in particular those of the administration of our twenty-third president, Benjamin Harrison. She writes: “The Harrison administration has wrongly been buried in obscurity, for its effects were far-reaching… Its rosy promises for the West—and the subsequent need to make those promises come true—spelled disaster for the western landscape. Its focus on economic development doomed the Sioux to poverty….”
Harrison, a Republican, was elected in 1888, thanks in large part to big business. Once in office, he proffered programs pleasing to the titans of industry and those who believed that national prosperity was dependent on unrestricted individualism. This, he hoped, would serve his principal goal—getting reelected.
High tariffs were central to the Harrison strategy. Making foreign goods more expensive would give American businesses a competitive advantage, the Republicans reasoned. True, but the policy put many working class Americans at a disadvantage because prices for goods went up in a less competitive marketplace.
What does this have to do with Wounded Knee? Richardson connects the dots. The Republicans realized that the electorate was growing increasingly unhappy with the impact of the tariffs and that such unhappiness might be reflected in the midterm elections of 1890 and the presidential election of 1892. Rather than significantly change that policy, the administration—boosted by a press eerily reminiscent of today’s Fox News-- opted to offset anticipated Senate seat losses by turning Republican-friendly territories into new states that would send Harrison supporters to Congress. In November 1889, the Dakota territory was transformed into South Dakota and North Dakota.
Giving settlers Indian land and contracts to supply the Indians with provisions helped the administration solidify western support. So, too, did patronage. Many of the political appointees given the plum job of Indian agent knew little about the Sioux and other tribes, disliked Indians, and were corrupt. They broke promises and cheated the Indians who had been moved to reservations in the Dakotas and elsewhere.
Their way of life destroyed, many Native Americans turned to a new religion, called the Ghost Dance by white people. The religion grew out of a vision by a Paiute shaman named Wovoka. He foresaw that an Indian messiah would soon liberate the tribes. Looking for miracles, the Indians gathered in various locales and, among other things, danced.
Such large gatherings and other rumblings resulting from U.S. policy scared Indian agents, particularly those who didn’t understand the Indians. One particular agent in South Dakota feared an uprising and relentlessly wired Washington to send in the military. Irresponsible reporters also filed stories exaggerating the situation.
Responsibility for keeping the peace fell to General Nelson Miles. Miles had previously fought the Indians, but he understood them and enjoyed their respect because he was a man of his word. Disdainful of the civilian bureaucrats in Washington and the Indian agents in South Dakota, Miles believed the military should control policy on the ground. (Shades of the recent wrangling between General Stanley McChrystal and the Obama administration.)
Sadly, intemperate agents and trigger-happy soldiers combined to create a climate in which Black Coyote’s act of individual defiance was interpreted as a full-fledged uprising. Almost as sad was the investigation of the massacre. Angered by the unnecessary loss of soldiers as well as Sioux, Miles lobbied for a no-holds-barred post-mortem. To his dismay, he got a whitewash. The commanding officer whom Miles sought to remove from authority was exonerated and praised. Some of the participants were even awarded the Medal of Honor.
Among the many interesting characters populating the pages of “Wounded Knee” is a judge named Eli Ricker. Richardson writes: “From 1903 until his death in 1926 (Ricker) traveled around South Dakota to interview individuals associated with the events at Wounded Knee. He tried to figure out what had really happened there.”
In 1890 Ricker had been one of many citizens in Chaldron, Nebraska , signing a resolution that criticized the Sioux and demanded Washington impose a solution to Indian outbreaks. By the time he concluded his investigation, he saw things differently. “The affair at WK was a drunken slaughter of white soldiers and innocent Indians—for which white men were responsible—solely responsible,” he wrote. “A little reason and patience &forbearance would have avoided the murderous clash.”
Unfortunately, the journey down the road to the massacre had begun years earlier--in Washington as well as the west. And as Richardson so skillfully demonstrates, this was not a road paved with good intentions.
Postscript: In 1892: Benjamin Harrison was defeated in his bid for reelection—convincingly—by Grover Cleveland.
Steve Fiffer is the co-author of “Hate On Trial: The Case Against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi.”
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