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The Ordeal of Plenty Horses
Caught between two cultures, a young Sioux sought to make himself a hero—by killing an army officer
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
On January 8, 1891, newspapers throughout the United States headlined a tragic event in the Indian troubles rocking the Sioux reservations of South Dakota. A talented and popular army officer attempting to enter a hostile encampment to talk peace had been treacherously slain by a young Sioux warrior. The death of Lieutenant Edward W. Casey shocked and saddened his legions of friends and admirers. For Plenty Horses, his killer, it was part of an ordeal that personalizes in one tragic figure the cultural disaster that befell the American Indians after dwindling land and game forced them to submit to the grim life of the reservation.
The killing of Lieutenant Casey took place as the last important Indian conflict in American history drew to an unhappy close. The Sioux had suffered a decade of cultural disintegration under the impact of reservation programs aimed at “civilizing” them. Old customs and institutions had been perverted or destroyed and no satisfactory new ones substituted. A massive land grab, a succession of broken promises, and hunger and sickness completed the plunge into despair. In desperation many of the people turned to the Ghost Dance religion, which held forth the bright promise of a return to the old way of life—the white people would be swept away, the buffalo would once again blacken the plains, and generations of ancestors would come back to life to dwell with the faithful in paradise.
Among other tribes that danced the Ghost Dance in quest of the millennium, the new religion retained the pacifist teachings of its founder, a Nevada Paiute named Wovoka. But among the Sioux, oppressed by special misfortunes, it took a violent turn. The apostles Short Bull and Kicking Bear urged their followers to hasten the day of deliverance by force, and they invented “ghost shirts” to stop the bullets of any white people disposed to resist. The excitement reached a peak in November, 1890. The agent at Pine Ridge appealed for military support, and in the next few weeks the Army flooded the five Sioux reservations with the largest concentration of troops the nation had seen since the last days of the Civil War.
Some five hundred lodges of the most fanatical dancers, largely Brulé Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation, took refuge in a natural fortress located in the extreme north-western corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was on these Indians that Generals Nelson A. Miles and John R. Brooke focused their attempts to calm the excitement and prevent an armed collision. By the end of December their efforts had largely succeeded, and the dancers made their way, fearfully and hesitantly, up White Clay Creek to Pine Ridge Agency.
Then, on December 29, the 7th Cavalry tried to disarm Big Foot’s band of Miniconjou Sioux on Wounded Knee Creek, twenty miles east of Pine Ridge Agency. The exploding artillery shells that cut down the old chief’s people also shattered the precarious peace. Frightened and angry, Two Strike’s Brulés stampeded back down White Clay Valley. Many Pine Ridge Oglalas, including the venerable old chief Red Cloud, went along. About fifteen miles north of the agency, at a place called No Water, they met the followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear and went into camp. Altogether there were about four thousand Indians, some eight hundred to a thousand of them fighting men. As mangled survivors of Wounded Knee drifted in to stir passions further the chiefs heatedly argued the next move.
General Miles adroitly exploited the divided opinion of the Sioux leadership. He ringed the big camp with an overwhelming array of military power—close enough to make the Indians nervous and to agitate the debate over war or peace but not so close as to set off another stampede. In this tense atmosphere, as Miles carefully applied both military and diplomatic pressure, Plenty Horses and Lieutenant Casey confronted each other.
Senika-Wakan-Ota, Plenty Horses, was a youth of twenty-two in 1891. His family belonged to the band of old Two Strike, since the death of Spotted Tail the most important chief of the Brulé Sioux tribe. Plenty Horses’ father, Living Bear, was a cousin of Two Strike and a respected headman of the band. Plenty Horses himself—tall, handsome, with broad shoulders and deep chest, low forehead, prominent nose, and large brown eyes—looked the very embodiment of the ideal Sioux warrior.
But beneath the veneer Plenty Horses also embodied the cultural dilemma of the Indian generation to which he belonged. In his formative years he had been steeped in the values of the old Indian way of life, which centered on hunting, warfare, and an intensely personal religion bound to the phenomena of nature. The rest of his years had been passed in a reservation environment, where government officials and missionaries assailed these values and sought to transform his people into placid Christian farmers embracing the values of white America. The aim, as one Commissioner of Indian Affairs put it with unintended irony, was to make the Indian feel at home in America.