“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”

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All the frustrated fantasies of the conquered western Indians went into this new religious dream: the Messiah would not only appear to living red men, but would also bring back to the world the dead ones, and the vanished buffalo, and the shy, frolicsome antelope; the Indian would be a free master of his lands again, and perhaps a great catastrophe would sweep away whites and renegade Indians, and bury them under the ground, five times as deep as the height of a man. Wovoka himself preached peace. But the Sioux around Sitting Bull, with an eye to their white enemies, nevertheless found war-magic in the new religion, enough to throw panic into the white West. Their neighbors and allies, the Cheyenne, also took up the new magic with fervor.

The basic ritual was the frenetic Ghost Dance itself. Around a tree hung with prayer cloths, the dancers spun in a huge circle, shouting, screaming, building up to a hypnotic frenzy. Then one dancer, and another, would fall to the ground in a trance. These were the lucky ones: they would leave their bodies to visit the Messiah. When they came back to the physical world, they would have messages from the spirit world for the other dancers—insights, explanations, promises. The promises grew, and were elaborated. And one fantasy in particular, an old, familiar dream of the Indian brave, was seized upon by the battle-starved warriors of the Sioux: a miraculous shirt, the flimsy cotton Ghost Dance shirt, sometimes emblazoned with magic symbols—the sun, the moon, the stars, other nature signs—which would make the wearer bulletproof.

This magic of invincibility, made doubly sure because the Messiah was expected to render the white man’s gunpowder useless, lent a weird, dangerous note to the hysteric religion. Many whites in the Dakotas were fearful of a holy war against them, led by fanatics certain they could not be killed; some settlers fled the area. The alarm soon spread to Washington. In November, army reinforcements were sent, and on December 3, 1890, a resolution was offered in the Senate authorizing the Secretary of War to issue the governors of North and South Dakota each a thousand rifles and fifty thousand rounds of ball cartridges, to be distributed to citizens and militia for protection against the Indians.

A few voices spoke for the Sioux and the Cheyenne. Senator Daniel Voorhees of Indiana rose to call the government policy “a crime, revolting to man and God.” He reminded a hushed Senate that General Miles had said the Indians were being “starved into hostility.” The Sioux needed feeding, not fighting: “If the proposition were to issue one hundred thousand and more rations to the starving Indians, it would be more consistent with Christian civilization.” The Secretary of the Interior urged Congress to feed and pay the Indians according to promises already made. Congress would take the necessary action—much too late.

The violence toward which white and red men were headed was fed by passions on both sides. The Indians, and especially Sitting Bull, were made figures of terror in much of the nation’s press: the old chief was “that wily medicine man,” “sagacious, cruel, and bloodthirsty.” On their side, the Indians were near desperation. A cold November had given way to an icy December; there was no relief, and the discontent and restlessness of the Sioux and the Cheyenne steadily mounted, the more so because they were sickening and dying from epidemics of “white” diseases like “grippe,” whooping cough, and measles. There were three centers of disaffection: under Sitting Bull, at his Grand River camp in the Standing Rock Reservation; under Red Cloud, at the Pine Ridge Reservation near the Nebraska border; and, between the two, under Hump and Big Foot, on the Cheyenne River Reservation. More and more they danced the Ghost Dance, clamored for the old glory promised them, and complained about inadequate rations. Some of the Cheyenne Indians simply stole cattle when insufficient food was given them.

It was that or starve, as General Miles would point out; but white tempers were naturally aroused. Efforts were made to outlaw the Ghost Dance, and this interference with their religion further irritated the Indians. McLaughlin, Sitting Bull’s adversary, felt he could handle the situation at Grand River if he could get the chief out of the way. He had already recommended his removal through official channels. Cautious, Sitting Bull was not coming to the agency now, even for his own rations. He sat and pondered the only hope left to him: the new religion. He seems to have been skeptical when Kicking Bear first brought the revelation of the Messiah. Yet it fitted exactly the dreams and hopes of the Indians; and perhaps it seemed to promise him the renewed leadership of his free people …

True, there were disturbing rumors of miracles that didn’t come off, of a dancer who tested a bulletproof shirt, and was wounded; and some believers fell away, wooed by the agents and agency Indians. But the “hostiles” generally held firm because they needed faith so desperately. Throughout late November the fanatic dances had excited Sitting Bull’s camp, growing in frequency and intensity, and he waited for a sign. For it now seemed that the Messiah, concerned for his troubled people, might not wait for spring, but would come soon, perhaps any day.