“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”

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Back at the Fort Yates army barracks, Captain E. G. Fechet, in charge of military support for the arrest action, had recovered from his momentary surprise at the speed-up in plans. He and two troops of cavalry, heavily armed and pulling a Hotchkiss gun, had moved out at midnight for their rendezvous with the Indian police. They had over thirty miles to go.

The Indian police filtered into Sitting Bull’s camp in the early hours of the morning, and found their way to the chief’s silent house. As dawn broke, Lieutenant Bullhead knocked sharply at the door, and pushed in. Sitting Bull awoke to find himself beleaguered.

“You are under arrest,” Bullhead told him.

For much of his fifty-six years the chief had commanded these Sioux braves; now they were laying hands on him as if he were a common criminal. Yet he still made no overt resistance; he agreed to dress, and to come with them. They hurried him: they wanted him out, and on his horse, and away, before the camp was aroused. They knew his warriors were fiercely loyal and would be furious at this treatment of a chief. But the alarm was sounded, probably by barking dogs and the lamentations of one of Sitting Bull’s women.

History diverges here; there are many accounts, some justifying and some condemning the subsequent action. The loyal Hunkpapa, running to the aid of their chief, were fended off by the police, led by Bullhead. The official government account says that faithful Catch-the-Bear fought his way into the group, raised his rifle, and shot Bullhead. Bullhead, severely wounded, turned and shot Sitting Bull in the chest. In the gray dawn a bloody fight now developed; and at this point the troops from Fort Yates arrived. Captain Fechet added horror to the chaos by dropping shells from the Hotchkiss gun on the camp and into the nearby timber where some of the ghost dancers had fled. In the din and confusion, a truly ghostly thing happened: Sitting Bull’s trick horse, taking his cue from the shooting, thought himself back at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and all alone, riderless, went through his tricks. His master lay dead—shot, beaten, and mutilated by the furious police.

“The object of the expedition,” Captain Fechet wrote in an unofficial report, “had been more than accomplished.” Was it, then, to kill Sitting Bull? From Standing Rock next day came apparent confirmation, as printed in the New York Herald:
 
It is stated today that there was a quiet understanding between the officers of the Indian and military departments that it would be impossible to bring Sitting Bull to Standing Rock alive, and that if brought in, nobody would know precisely what to do with him. … There was, therefore, cruel as it may seem, a complete understanding from the Commanding Officer to the Indian Police that the slightest attempt to rescue the old medicine man should be a signal to send Sitting Bull to the happy hunting ground.

If most of white America was pleased by the killing, in the Dakotas it was a signal for alarm and flight for all the “hostiles,” now convinced that slaughter by the whites was at hand. When refugees from Sitting Bull’s camp reached Big Foot on the Cheyenne, that chief started a quick retreat into the Bad Lands. He was met by army troops at Wounded Knee with assurances of safe conduct and fair treatment; but the soldiers insisted on surrender of the Indians’ weapons. The braves held back; there was an incident—and a chaotic and furious battle followed. Men died on both sides, but the odds were hopelessly against the Sioux. The troopers poured fire pointblank at the encircled Indians, and in the confusion many women and children were killed, together with nearly a hundred Sioux warriors.

After the tragedy of Wounded Knee, some Indians who had been lured back to the agencies from the Bad Lands fled again; and others from Pine Ridge, certain now of being massacred, went with them. The skirmishing dragged on three more weeks before the military under General Miles could convince the frightened Indians that Americans meant peace. By then it was mid-January 1891—the year the Messiah had promised to come to the Sioux.

Sitting Bull’s bruised and mutilated body was given a secret burial, without the honors his rank and record might have won him. “His tragic fate was but the ending of a tragic life,” General Miles observed. “Since the days of Pontiac, Tecumseh, and Red Jacket no Indian had had the power of drawing to him so large a following of his race and molding and wielding it against the authority of the United States. …” But Sitting Bull had needed a miracle; and there was none.