“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”

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It had to be soon. The Plains Indians, alarmed by the influx of army troops, particularly of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old command, were apprehensive of a revenge massacre that would wipe them out. Many Sioux, under Kicking Bear, fled to shelter in the Bad Lands. There was a sense of climax in the country, and even the agency Indians grew fearful, and felt the pull of the dancing rituals and the Messiah’s promises brought to them by evangelical “hostiles.” McLaughlin, troubled by the mounting tension, sent some of his police to Sitting Bull to woo his camp away from the new religion; the police came back almost converted themselves. Then McLaughlin went in person to persuade the Hunkpapa that the Ghost Dance was a false religion. Sitting Bull heard him, and suggested a test that had been in his own mind:

Father, I will make you a proposition which will settle this question. You go with me to the West, and let me seek for the men who saw the Messiah; and when we find them, I will demand that they show him to us, and if they cannot do so, I will return and tell my people it is a lie.

McLaughlin refused pointblank; he said this would be like trying to catch up with the wind that blew last year. The confrontation ended in a stalemate, although McLaughlin went back to his agency convinced that Sitting Bull was perhaps in a less belligerent state of mind than had been imagined.

Here a note of comic relief enters the tragic story. General Miles, the military officer responsible for containing the northern Plains Indians, had decided that isolation of the disaffected chiefs would be one corrective measure, and he issued an order for Sitting Bull’s arrest. He issued it, however, to a mutual friend —Buffalo Bill Cody. Apparently the idea was that the two old companions of the Wild West exhibition might talk things over, and that Sitting Bull might then put himself more or less willingly under detention at the Standing Rock Agency.

The plan, such as it was, worked out badly. McLaughlin not only resented Buffalo Bill’s intrusion, but felt that the moment for Sitting Bull’s arrest had not yet come. He therefore arranged for some of the army officers at nearby Fort Yates to entertain Cody with extensive liquid refreshment while a telegram went off to Washington to get an order countermanding Buffalo Bill’s authorization from General Miles. The following day, with the famous showman fighting off what must have been a formidable hangover, McLaughlin had one of his assistants intercept him on the trail to Sitting Bull’s camp, and convey the false impression that the mission was too late: that the Indian chief had already gone to the agency of his own accord. By the time Cody got back there himself, the countermanding order had arrived from Washington, and McLaughlin was once more in control of the situation. The tragic crescendo of events resumed.

Now Sitting Bull made a crucial move. He wanted desperately to see the Messiah, and word had come that the savior would appear at Pine Ridge—soon. In his law-respecting way which was so frustrating to McLaughlin, he wrote asking the agent for permission to travel. Then he started making preparations for the journey to the Pine Ridge Reservation. The report of his movements quickly reached the agency through McLaughlin’s spy network. McLaughlin was alarmed: he could not allow the appealing, powerful personality of the “cunning and malignant” chief to influence the other Indians. Fortunately, from his point of view, orders were received on the twelfth of December finally authorizing the army troops and the agency to bring in the Hunkpapa chief. The arrest had been scheduled for December 20, but now it was set in motion at once.

Sitting Bull had planned to leave for Pine Ridge on December 15. On the night of the fourteenth he went peacefully to sleep in his cabin, with his favorite son, Crowfoot, nearby. The huge horseshoe of the ghost dancer tepees was silent, and in the corral the horses shuffled restlessly to combat the blood-slowing frost. In their quarters a few miles away, the local members of the Indian police force were restless too: the order to arrest the great Hunkpapa chief had been translated to them. They had been picked for their loyalty to the agency and to the new civilization, and for their willingness to thwart the “hostiles”; they were to be led by Lieutenant Bullhead, known to have bad feelings toward some of Sitting Bull’s braves. But their hearts were troubled.

“When everyone was ready,” Lone Man, one of the policemen, said in his account of that night,

we took our places two by two and at the command Hopo we started. We had to go through rough places and the roads were slippery. As we went through the Grand River bottoms it seemed as if the owls were hooting at us and the coyotes were howling around us, and one of the police remarked that the owls and coyotes were giving us a warning. “So beware,” he said.

Lone Man explained that the forty-three police on the mission felt sad to think that the chief had disobeyed orders “due to outside influence,” and so had to be arrested. As for Lone Man himself, he rode along expecting “big trouble.”