The death of Anowarkowa

 

 “Go back home where you came from. This country is mine, and
I intend to stay here and to raise this country full of grown people.”

Wounded Knee is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. On December 29, 1890, a massacre took place, which left up to 300 Lakota men, women and children dead. The U.S. government, concerned about the influence of the Ghost Dance movement, had sent in the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Major Samuel M. Whitside, with instructions to prevent a band of warriors (led by Bigfoot, a Lakota Sioux) from proceeding with their religious ritual. Surrounding the camp, and supported by four Hotchkiss mountain guns, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered the natives to surrender their weapons. During the consequent confusion, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote, reluctant to comply with the order, accidentally discharged his rifle. At this, the U.S. army indiscriminately opened fire. The Lakota men, women and children, together with 25 U.S. soldiers, were cut down in a hail of bullets, with a further 39 soldiers badly wounded. The massacre proved to be the last major confrontation between the army of the United States and the Plains natives – although ‘confrontation’ is hardly an appropriate term, given the circumstances.

Quite why the U.S. government was so concerned about the danger of the Ghost Dance, or Nannissaanah, is difficult to fully comprehend.  As a new, short-lived religious movement, it was based on the traditional circle dance, and predicated on the teachings and prophecies of Wovoka, a Northern Paiute spiritual leader from modern-day Nevada. According to Wovoka, proper practice of the dance (which lasted for five days) would reunite the living with the spirits of dead warriors, and these spirits would then fight to force the white colonists from native lands. In the words of John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, the people were told “they could dance a new world into being”.

“There would be landslides, earthquakes, and big winds. Hills would pile up on each other, the earth would roll up like a carpet with all the white man’s ugly things – the stinking new animals, sheep and pigs, the fences, the telegraph poles, the mines and factories. Underneath would be the wonderful old-new world as it had been before the white fat-takers came… The white men will be rolled up, disappear, go back to their own continent.”

An extraordinary vision, but just a vision nonetheless. Given that the natives were regarded as childishly superstitious, lacking in any form of sophistication, unintelligent, brutish, and racially inferior, why the U.S. government took the new religious movement so seriously suggests that, in actual fact, it was the white settlers, with their Judeo-Christian magical rituals, symbols and beliefs, who really thought such a vision was a potential possibility. Whatever the aboriginals were, they weren’t stupid. The Ghost Dance raised spirits, certainly, but not dead ones. In fact, Navajo leaders described the Ghost Dance as “worthless words”. The plain fact of the matter is this: a credulous white government, scared to death of the potential power of a spiritual dance, butchered 300 people. As simple as that – and it wasn’t the only occasion it – the U.S. government – was spooked by ghosts. 14 days before the massacre at Wounded Knee, on December 15, 1890, an arrest was attempted by Indian agency policeman; an arrest which went disastrously wrong.

“Hear me people: We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble
when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely
enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a
disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may
break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak
to support the rich and those who rule.”

Sitting Bull was born near Grand River, Dakota Territory, in 1831. His father, a Sioux warrior by the name of Returns-Again, called the boy Jumping Badger. At the age of ten, he killed his first buffalo, and at fourteen, he helped his father and uncle raid a Crow camp. Impressed by the teenager’s bravery, Returns-Again renamed his son Tatanka Yotanka – Sitting Bull. 

He first fought against the U.S. army in 1863, and then again in 1864. As a result of these encounters, he swore never to sign a treaty which would force his people onto a reservation. Unfortunately, this resolve wasn’t shared by the Chief of the Oglala Teton Dakota Sioux, Red Cloud, who, together with 24 other tribal leaders, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868. This created the Great Sioux Reservation, comprising Dakota Territory, and parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. However, Sitting Bull’s anti-treaty stance won him many followers. In 1869, he was made supreme leader of the autonomous bands of Lakota Sioux, and it wasn’t long before members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes joined him. 

In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, a sacred place for the Sioux, and within the boundaries of the Reservation. Unsurprisingly, white settlers quickly claimed the land as their own, and the government promptly reneged on its own treaty – just as Sitting Bull suspected it would. The tribes were ordered from the land, and anyone who resisted was declared an enemy of the United States. Thus, the stage was set for two bloody confrontations: on the one side,  warriors of the Lakota Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne; on the other side, soldiers of the U.S. army.

On June 17, 1876, Sitting Bull’s forces won a victory against the American army, led by General George Crook, in the Battle of the Rosebud. From the site of the battle, Sitting Bull moved to the valley of the Little Bighorn River, and set up camp. There, he performed in a Sun Dance ceremony, for 36 hours without pause. During the course of the dance, he made 50 sacrificial cuts on each arm, before finally falling into a trance. When he came to, he spoke of a vision; a vision of U.S. soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky. An omen.

On June 25, just eight days after the defeat of Crook’s forces, 600 men of the 7th Cavalry, under the command of General George Custer, entered the valley. Tactically naïve, perhaps, and certainly arrogant, Custer under-estimated the strength of the opposition. He divided his twelve companies into three battalions, dispatching two of them to attack the native encampment, leaving him with only one battalion of 210 men to face an enemy comprising over 3,000 warriors, led by Chief Crazy Horse. Custer and his reduced forces were annihilated – grasshoppers, every last one. 

Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, an enraged U.S. government did everything it could to pursue and punish the perpetrators. Sitting Bull, as a member of the Silent Eaters, a group responsible for tribal welfare, especially the welfare of the woman and children, decided discretion was the better part of valour, and so, in May 1877, he led his followers to the relative safety of Canada. And there he remained for four years. 

“For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not
someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The
warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task
is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for
themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”

Conditions in Canada were, however, far from ideal. It’s impossible to imagine how overwhelmingly alien the situation was, not just for Sitting Bull, the tribal chief and shaman, but also for his people. A great sense of loneliness hung over the camp, a feeling of being abandoned by the Great Spirit, and not helped by a general lack of food and resources. So it was, on July 19, 1881, Sitting Bull and 186 of his family and followers surrendered to Major David H. Brotherton, commanding officer at Fort Bruford. When he handed Brotherton his Winchester, Sitting Bull said, “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.” Two weeks later, Sitting Bull and his band were transferred to Fort Yates, a military post next to the Standing Rock Agency. However, fearing disruption among other captured natives, it was decided to move 172 of the group to Fort Randall, South Dakota, on the southern border of the state, where they were held for the next 20 months. Finally, in May 1883, Sitting Bull, his family of 12, and the remainder of his followers were allowed to return to Standing Rock.  

Although he was designated a prisoner of war, Sitting Bull was permitted to travel beyond the reservation on occasions. Bizarrely, he struck up a close friendship with the renowned sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, who he met in Minnesota. He was genuinely impressed by her firearms skills, and in 1884, he symbolically adopted her as his daughter, naming her Little Sure Shot. Even more bizarrely, in 1885, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show for four months, earning 50 dollars a week – money which he gave away to the homeless and to beggars. He opened every show by galloping round the arena on horseback, as well as giving speeches about reconciliation, while cursing the audience in Lakota.

“Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the Other is good
and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer,
the one I feed the most.”

He returned to the Standing Rock Agency, following his stint as a performer, and there he remained. In 1889, the Ghost Dance Movement reached the reservation. Although Sitting Bull didn’t actually participate in the dance, he did grant permission for the dancers to gather. As far as the white authorities were concerned, this was tantamount to instigation, and alarm bells began to ring. The U.S. Indian Agent at Fort Yates, James McLaughlin, a credulous man, decided that Sitting Bull was about to flee the reservation with the Ghost Dancers. Quite why he thought the 59 years old Lakota leader would want to do such a thing is a mystery, and it says more about McLaughlin’s fevered imagination than it does about Sitting Bull’s intentions. Nonetheless, he drafted a letter to Lieutenant Henry Bullhead, an Indian Agency policeman, with precise details, as regards the capture of Sitting Bull. The arrest was to take place at dawn on December 15, 1890, before – hopefully – any of Sitting Bull’s followers were fully awake. McLaughlin advised using a light spring wagon to remove him as swiftly as possible. Unfortunately, Bullhead chose to ignore this instruction, since he wanted his police officers to force the old Lakota chief to mount a horse immediately after the arrest – an act of humiliation, pure and simple.

About 5.30 on the morning of the 15th, 39 officers and four volunteers surrounded Sitting Bull’s house. Bullhead knocked, entered, and informed him he was under arrest. Sitting Bull and his wife, stalling for time, made as much noise as they could, which had the desired effect. The camp was roused, and Lakota warriors converged on the scene. When their chief was ordered to mount a horse, there was uproar. Catch-the-Bear, a Lakota, shot Bullhead with his rifle, and Bullhead, in response, fired his revolver into Sitting Bull’s chest. Another officer, Red Tomahawk, then shot Sitting Bull in the head. In the ensuing fight, which only lasted a few minutes, 6 policeman and seven natives were killed, along with 2 horses. Bullhead died not long after, and Sitting Bull finally passed away between midday and 1 pm. All in all, an ignoble, inglorious end to the great warrior chief’s life. He deserved better.

Two tragedies, then, which might have been avoided. If only Catch-the-Bear hadn’t fired at Bullhead; if only Black Coyote hadn’t accidentally discharged his weapon; if only the U.S. government hadn’t been so seemingly terrified of a new dance. However, the notion that both events – the killing of Sitting Bull, and the Wounded Knee massacre – were purely accidental ignores the very real possibility that white Americans were determined, one way or another, to exact revenge for the part played by Sitting Bull and his followers in the deaths of Custer and the 210 men of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It wasn’t enough to humiliate Sitting Bull and the Lakota; the government craved bloody recompense. Given the prevalent belief in Manifest Destiny, whereby Americans regarded themselves as God’s Chosen People, it was, perhaps, considered no more than a form of natural justice. In short, Sitting Bull and his people deserved to die violent deaths – they had it coming to them. Vengeance was the Lord’s, after all, and the Lord was both white and American. If this sounds somewhat far-fetched, it’s worth remembering the events which took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 55 years later, when atomic bombs were deployed against the citizens of Japan. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, demands for revenge were broadcast and bill-boarded every day, of every week, of every year, and calls for the complete destruction of Japan and its people were commonplace. Hundreds of thousands of innocent non-combatants were murdered, since no-one was allowed to push white America around and get away with it.

Plus ça change

 

Postscript

As far as I can discover, the following is true, ludicrous as it appears. Sitting Bull was a poet – that is, he created vertical poetry via smoke signals. Hard to believe, perhaps, but, according to Pink Cloud, Sitting Bull’s grand-grand-grand nephew, his burning verses “rose up as columns of smoke into the American skies to whisper an elevated message into God’s ears”. Whether ‘elevated’ is the right word is a debatable point, however, since several of the verses are blunt to the point of downright rude. The following comprises a selection of Sitting Bull’s ‘vertical writing’. 

 

The Burning Soul

 

 “White Man, you think to be better than a Red Man, Black Man and Yellow Man. But your skin is the color of worms, and soft like the belly of a blind mole.”

“You came to this land and you called it America. But we were here before you, and we called it Anowarkowa. Go back to your land, sheepfuckers!”

 “You dig for oil, you dig for gold. You dig your own grave!”

“Keep the rifles, keep the whisky, keep the money for yourself. We are poor but free and happy. We laugh at your skinny belongings, fat cowboys.”

“Fuck Peanut Butter! We eat Bear’s Fat.”

“I love my knife, I love my life, I love my wife”.

 

 

Dafydd ap pedr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.