“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”

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Toward the end, nature itself seemed to join the forces closing in upon Sitting Bull and his Sioux. As they settled down to wait anxiously for their land money, the weeks passed; the months; the cruel winter of 1890 came, and the Indians were empty in stomach and pocket. In 1888 they had lost much of their crops because the commissioners kept them long in conference at harvesttime, while hungry stock broke into their fields; in 1889 and ’90, their land had withered in a terrible drought. The game animals, particularly the buffalo, had been irremediably depleted by white hunters, and the savage winter further reduced the short supply of game on the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas. Between 1886 and 1889 their promised supplementary meat ration had been cut by more than half, according to General J. R. Brooke, on the theory developed in Congress that a hungrier Indian would make a better farmer. In 1890, this shrunken version of an inadequate ration again was drastically cut when, in direct defiance of government regulations, winter-grazed cattle were supplied to the Dakotas. Winter cattle might weigh half as much as summer ones, and were mainly skin, bones, and hoofs. Starvation moved into the camps of the Sioux, an intimate enemy.

Meanwhile a single human opponent was using all his skill and influence to undermine Sitting Bull personally. This was the agent McLaughlin, himself married to a woman of Indian blood, and a stout believer in converting the Indians to civilization and progress. A better man than most Indian agents, he had never supported the savage frontier proverb, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”; but he was firmly convinced that the only good Indian was one who copied the white man and did what he was told. His own job, he said, was to put “the raw and bleeding material which made the hostile strength of the Plains Indians [through] the mills of the white man … transmitting it into a manufactured product that might be absorbed by the nation without interfering with the national digestion.” He accepted the easy division of Indians into the “friendlies” or “progressives”—agency Indians ready to conform to white man’s schooling and culture—and the “hostiles,” who still wanted to live in the old way. The agent had quickly recognized Sitting Bull as a dangerous “hostile,” a center of disaffection especially among those Sioux who lived in the more remote areas of the Standing Rock Reservation.

But beyond this, McLaughlin felt a strong personal irritation: Sitting Bull was the only important chief who would not yield to him. His account of his relations with Sitting Bull is a curious mixture of grudging admiration for the chief’s influence over other Indians, and bitter resentment of his intransigence. Photographs and paintings of Sitting Bull show a face of dignity, even of majesty; General Nelson Miles, who had opposed him in the field and in conference, found him “a fine, powerful, intelligent, determined-looking man … cold, but dignified and courteous.” But to McLaughlin, he was an unreconstructed troublemaker with “an evil face and shifty eyes.”

McLaughlin set out to break him. He intercepted and read Sitting Bull’s mail, and used the press to create an aura of scandal and villainy around his name. Closer to home, he hurt the old chief directly. McLaughlin controlled what rations there were to give away, and when Sitting Bull’s followers came for theirs, they saw the power and comfort of McLaughlin’s camp, the strength of the army troops stationed there, and heard the assurances of “the Grandfather’s” wish for their security. More invidiously, the agent offered a tempting activity to the Sioux warriors, restless and brooding without the war and the hunt. To those who would defect from Sitting Bull—some jealous of the old man’s authority, some dazzled by the white way of life—he gave blue uniforms and brass buttons, and put them into an Indian police force that kept watch on the Indians in Sitting Bull’s Grand River camp.

At this crucial time—when the aging chief’s power seemed to dwindle, when the forces of the earth seemed to be closing in on him and his free Hunkpapas, when it seemed that only a miracle could save him and his dream of the old independence—there came the Ghost Dance.

Far to the West, in Nevada, a Paiute named Wovoka had had an apocalyptic vision of the Christian heaven, and had offered the promise of a second coming of the Messiah. His full blessing was coming soon , in the next spring, the spring of 1891, and this time, directly to the Indians —and indeed why not? He had appeared first to the white man, and look how the white man had treated him! Now the Indians would dance him back to a better reception—and a return of their rightful hunting grounds.

Wovoka’s grand vision sprang in part from a dormant dancing religion aimed at communication with the dead; it flowered into a dream of a heaven on earth for the Indians, and spread over the Plains like a wind. By the fall of 1890, Sitting Bull’s nephew, Kicking Bear, had gone with other Sioux ambassadors to visit Wovoka, and had come back with marvelous tales: the Sioux had been led “way up a great ladder of small clouds … through an opening in the sky” until they came to “the Great Spirit and his wife … Then from an opening in the sky we were shown all the countries of the earth.” The Great Spirit promised that the Indians would now be his chosen people, if they obeyed him.