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The Wounded Knee Massacre and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance

This time of year is a moment of deep reflection for Lakota people because of the anniversary of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Below is an excerpt from Nick Estes' Our History is the Future, on the history of indigenous resistance.    

Nick Estes12 December 2019

The Wounded Knee Massacre and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance

An excerpt from Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes, on the Ghost Dance as an anti-colonial movement and the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890.

During the late 1880s—disarmed, hungry, horseless, confined to concentration camps, the buffalo nearly exterminated, their land broken up and taken, and their children stolen from them—a new political movement spread like prairie fire across the West, promising Indigenous rebirth. Wovoka, a Paiute holy man, had a vision that assured the restoration of Indigenous peoples to their rightful place in a world taken from them. According to him, dead relatives and the buffalo nations would once again walk the earth. The Ghost Dance prophecy envisioned the end of the present world through the settlers’ erasure from the earth, and the return of human and nonhuman relations that had been vanquished by colonialism. It was foretold that, at some unspecified time in the near future, a cataclysmic event—such as an earthquake or whirlwind—would wipe the United States off the surface of the earth. Once the land was cleansed, life would be free of disease and colonialism, and correct relations among human and nonhuman worlds would be restored. Dakota anthropologist Ella Deloria recorded the following description of the Ghost Dance from the viewpoint of an unnamed Lakota man who participated in the dance at the Pine Ridge Agency as a young runaway from boarding school:

 The rumor got about: “The dead are to return. The buffalo are to return. The Dakota people will get back their own way of life. The white people will soon go away, and that will mean happier times for us once more!” That part about the dead returning was what appealed to me …

           Soon fifty of us, little boys about eight to ten, started out across country over hills and valleys, running all night … There on Porcupine Creek thousands of Dakota people were in camp, all hurrying about very purposefully … A woman quickly spied us and came weeping toward us. “These also shall take part,” she was saying of us. So a man called out, “You runaway boys, come here.” They stripped our ugly clothes from us and sent us inside [a purification lodge]. When we were well purified, they sent us out the other end and placed sacred shirts on us … Everyone wore one magpie and one eagle feather in his hair, but in our case there was nothing to tie them to. The school had promptly ruined us by shaving off our long hair till our scalps showed lighter than our faces!

            The people, wearing the sacred shirts and feathers, now formed a ring … All walked cautiously and in awe, feeling their dead were close at hand … The leaders beat time and sang as the people danced going round to the left in a sidewise step. They danced without rest, on and on, and they got out of breath but still they kept going as long as possible. Occasionally someone thoroughly exhausted and dizzy fell unconscious into the center and lay there “dead” … After a while, many lay about in that condition. They were now “dead” and seeing their dear ones. As each one came to, she, or he, slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably …

            The visions varied at the start, but they ended the same way, like a chorus describing a great encampment of all the Dakotas who had ever died, where the buffalo came eagerly to feed them, and there was no sorrow but only joy, where relatives thronged out with happy laughter to greet the newcomer. That was the best of all!

            Waking up to the drab and wretched present after such a glowing vision, it was little wonder that they walked as if their poor hearts would break in two with disillusionment. But at least they had seen! … They preferred that to rest or food or sleep. And so I suppose the authorities did think they were crazy—but they weren’t. They were only terribly unhappy.

The visions were not escapist, but rather part of a growing anticolonial theory and movement. Participants were transported to a forthcoming world where the old ways and dead relatives lived. It was a utopian dream that briefly suspended the nightmare of the “wretched present” by folding the remembered experience of a precolonial freedom into an anti-colonial future. Upon awakening, dancers were forced to relive the horrors of their current reality. Above all, the visions were a reminder that life need not always be this way, and the Ghost Dance anticipated nothing less than the utter destruction of the colonial relation with the United States. But this was no cultural revitalization movement—anyway, the Ghost Dance did not derive from Oceti Sakowin culture. Also, the Ghost Dance was fundamentally oppositional in spirit. Lakota Ghost Dancers, historian Jeffrey Ostler observes, “hoped to see the present world destroyed and a new one come into being.”[i] Indigenous life could not be remade inside reservations, nor within a colonial system, but only through the complete destruction of both.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropologists and historians have often downplayed (or misconstrued) the revolutionary premises of the Ghost Dance. The most widely used text on the movement, The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, written in 1896 by armchair ethnographer James Mooney, for instance, distorted the meaning of the Ghost Dance. Pandering to the sympathies of a US public in an attempt to make the Ghost Dance more palatable, Mooney used cultural relativism to justify its existence. In his mind, because Ghost Dancers followed a Christ-like messianic figure, Wovoka, the movement had largely embraced elements of Christianity and thus resembled modern Judeo-Christian religions. Further, he claimed, Lakota Ghost Dancers failed to properly adhere to Wovoka’s message of nonviolence and pacifism, warping it into a “hostile expression” and confirming the US military’s later characterization of the Lakota Ghost Dancers as “militants.”[ii] But in reality, Wovoka taught peace—not through perpetual harmony with white settlers, and certainly not through submission to Christian morality or dogmatic pacifism. Rather, his call for peace was pragmatic: under present conditions, armed Indigenous resistance was futile. Thus, the Ghost Dance’s mass appeal had less in common with Christianity than it did with earlier prophet-inspired pan-Indigenous movements. These include the 1760s Lenni Lenape prophet Neolin and his Odawa follower Pontiac (who fought British military occupation in the Great Lakes region); the 1800s Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh, who together fought US occupation of the Ohio River valley; the 1860s Wanapum prophet Smohalla and his follower, the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph; and the 1870s Pauite prophet Wodziwob, Wovoka’s predecessor and the first practitioner of the Ghost Dance.[iii] Each of these successive prophets built upon the messages and doctrines of the others by calling for pan-Indigenous resistance—sometimes through armed struggle—to reject colonial occupation. Each drew upon an accumulation of historical experience, and all were united by a common desire for Indigenous liberation.

Public debate at the time over Lakotas’ adherence to the Ghost Dance’s alleged pacifism served only to divide people fighting for survival into two camps: “legitimate” nonviolent pacifists and “illegitimate” violent militants. Indeed, these divisions cater to the feelings of settler society more than they accurately portray the lived experiences of real Indigenous peoples. The categories of “good Indians” and “bad Indians” purposefully create criminal elements within Indigenous nations and movements, in order to obscure or hide the United States’ own criminal enterprise. But the Ghost Dance was not meant for the US colonizers, nor did its followers seek its recognition as a “legitimate” religion equivalent to Christianity. It was the US state’s criminalization of not only the dancers themselves, but all things defying the civilizing mission, that led the military to conclude that the dance was a “hostile expression.” All dancing—and practicing Indigenous lifeways, in general—was a criminal act punishable by imprisonment or the withholding of rations. To reservation officials, it didn’t matter if the dancers were militant or nonviolent: Ghost Dancing was inherently an oppositional, political act.

Nearly a third of all Lakotas—between four and five thousand—along with many Dakotas, participated in the Ghost Dance, a figure that demonstrates its mass influence. As a resistance movement, its tactics included complete withdrawal from reservation life; opposition to reservation authorities; the creation of resistance camps in remote areas far removed the influence of the agency; the pilfering of annuity distribution centers (and sometimes white settlers’ cattle and crops); the destruction of agricultural equipment; and the refusal to send children to school, to speak English, to participate in censuses, and to attend work, church, or agency and council meetings; their tactics also included the refusal to live on assigned allotments, to obey “agency chiefs,” to cut one’s hair, to quit dancing, to wear white clothing and attire, or to use metal tools. In short, the movement posed a comprehensive challenge to the colonial order of things. At first Indian police were sent to the suppress the dances, which were illegal, but their resolve was shaken when they were met by armed guards willing to defend the dancers with violence if necessary. Upon meeting a strident refusal to quit dancing, some Indian police simply resigned, rather than face the prospect of killing their relatives or imprisoning them.[iv]

The widespread appeal of the Ghost Dance as an anti-colonial movement was in large part due to historical experience of its primary promoters and interlocutors: boarding school–educated Indigenous students. Two of its primary Lakota visionaries, Mato Wanahtake (Kicking Bear) and Tatanka Ptecela (Short Bull), used trains and writing to diffuse the message of the Ghost Dance to the Oceti Sakowin. Boarding school students who could read and write, often in both English and Lakota, transcribed Kicking Bear’s and Short Bull’s reports after the two men traveled by train to meet with Wovoka in Nevada. Ghost Dance prophesies, prayers, and songs were also transcribed and mailed to the various reservations, where boarding school students would read them aloud to fellow Ghost Dancers. Without this means of dissemination, the Ghost Dance would not have been so widespread—a fact Mooney admits in his ethnography. Letters conveying Ghost Dance songs and doctrines poured into Oceti Sakowin reservations from Indigenous nations in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Oklahoma.[v]

When Ghost Dancing began among the Lakotas, it was reported in the press as troubling and unrelenting. The largest deployment of the military since the Civil War arrived on the Northern Plains to crush the movement, and National Guard units from the surrounding states were brought in as backup for the federal troops. The first target was Sitting Bull, the last remaining powerful leader who had never signed a treaty and who still resisted the imposition of reservation life. The Standing Rock Indian agent, James McLaughlin, feared Sitting Bull and his Ghost Dancers would leave the reservation. On December 15, 1890, under heavy surveillance for his role in spreading the Ghost Dance, Indian police attempted to arrest Sitting Bull. Roused from bed early that morning, Indian police dragged Sitting Bull from his log cabin and shot him in the head. A brief firefight ensued, in which Sitting Bull’s followers killed six Indian police and the Indian police killed seven of his followers. Following Sitting Bull’s assassination, military arrest warrants were issued for other Ghost Dance leaders such as Mniconjou chief Hehaka Gleska (Spotted Elk). In an effort to diminish Spotted Elk’s standing among his own people, white soldiers derisively called him “Si Tanka,” or “Big Foot,” because he wore US government–issued shoes that were too small for his feet. Fearing further reprisals, Sitting Bull’s followers joined with Spotted Elk’s people at the Cheyenne River Reservation. The Ghost Dancers then fled to turn themselves in at Red Cloud’s agency in Pine Ridge, where they were detained at Wounded Knee Creek and surrounded by soldiers. The Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old regiment, took command of the camp and began by demanding the group turn over all weapons and surrender. They conducted tipi-by-tipi raids, confiscating anything that could be construed as a weapon, such as hatchets and knives.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, Spotted Elk and all the camp leaders were called to council with soldiers to turn in the last remaining guns. Hotchkiss guns (mobile light artillery) were strategically placed on the hillsides and trained at the starving, surrendering, and mostly unarmed Ghost Dancers. A scuffle broke out and a shot was fired. The Seventh Cavalry massacred between 270 and 300 Lakotas that day, including Spotted Elk. More than two-thirds among the slain were women and children. The Ghost Dancers fought back against the soldiers, inflicting casualties; if not for their struggle, there is no doubt more would have been killed, and that others would not have been able to escape. In the course of several hours, the cavalry chased down and killed the fleeing Lakotas. When the soldiers administered the killing blows, often by point-blank execution, they were heard muttering, “Remember Custer.”[vi]

The military still refers to the massacre of half-starved and surrendering people as a battle against armed militants. Congress awarded twenty medals of honor to the soldiers involved in the massacre. In retaliation for the unprovoked slaughter, Ghost Dancers sought revenge. The story of a young Sicangu Carlisle boarding school graduate who returned to the reservation and joined the Ghost Dance movement is significant in this regard. Tasunka (Plenty Horses) was stripped of his language and culture at a crucial moment in his childhood, returning to his family and community with nothing to offer. “I found that the education I had received,” Plenty Horses recalled, “was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school.”[vii]

His experience was not exceptional. The civilization experiment failed. Growing his hair long and donning pre–boarding school Lakota clothing, Plenty Horses joined armed resisters in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Lieutenant Edward Casey went to meet with the resistance camp that had holed up in the Badlands. Angry at what he had experienced in boarding school, the starving conditions to which he returned on the reservation, and witnessing his people killed with impunity at Wounded Knee, Plenty Horses positioned himself behind Casey as he approached and shot him in the back of the head. Army officials charged Plenty Horses with murder, but he was later acquitted. Had he been guilty of murder, then so too were the soldiers who massacred his people at Wounded Knee, the court reasoned. At trial, the court concluded that a state of war existed, although not formally declared, and therefore that Plenty Horses was not at fault, and neither were the soldiers involved in the Wounded Knee massacre—thus suspending the criminal act of genocidal murder.[viii]

In the aftermath of the October 27, 2016, raid on the 1851 Treaty Camp blockading the Dakota Access Pipeline, a rancid smell permeated the camps. Police and private security had heaped the camp’s remnants—ceremonial items, such as eagle feathers, pipes, medicine bundles, and staffs, along with mangled tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and tipis—into a large pile near the entrance of Oceti Sakowin Camp. Cops and private security had urinated on the items before returning them.

One night, after it was decided to ceremonially burn the urine-soaked remnants, an Ihanktonwan elder gathered young Water Protectors around a fire. She was dressed in the regalia she wore the day of the raid. Hundreds of copper pennies hung by red ribbons from her dark blue trade cloth dress. She told of her ancestors who were killed during the 1862 US-Dakota War. Evicted from their homelands, they fled to present-day Standing Rock, crossing the Missouri River not far from the location of Oceti Sakowin Camp, after US cavalrymen massacred Dakotas and Lakotas in the Whitestone Hill buffalo hunt camp. This was, to the day, exactly 150 years before DAPL private security unleashed attack dogs on unarmed Water Protectors at a nearby pipeline construction site.

The day after Christmas in 1862, soldiers gathered up thirty-eight Dakota men and boys and imprisoned them at Fort Snelling in Mankato, Minnesota. Their medicine bundles were confiscated, heaped in a large pile, and burned as they were led to the gallows, singing their death songs. Their crime? Defending their nation and homelands. The same week that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing Black slaves, he also signed the death sentences of the thirty-eight Dakota patriots. The copper pennies hanging from the elder’s regalia had holes drilled into Lincoln’s ears with red ribbon threaded through. “He didn’t listen,” she said of the Great Emancipator, “so we opened his ears.”

After the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass, Lakota women used awls to carve holes in Custer’s ears so he would hear better in the afterlife. Now, it was President Barack Obama, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier who refused to listen. As singers began a prayer song, the elder reminded the younger ones that the tears flowing from their eyes were their “ancestors speaking through them,” and that they were not tears of trauma but of liberation. “We survived genocide after genocide.”

Then she danced, and the pennies swayed with the flickering fire and billowing smoke. Behind her, armed police were perched on a hill half a mile away, and their bright floodlights glared down on us. Our history is the future.

What continues to sustain Indigenous peoples through the horrors of settler colonialism are the recent memories of freedom, the visions enacting it, and the daring conspiracies to recapture it. The Ghost Dance was not a monolithic movement, but an accumulation of prior anti-colonial experiences, sentiments, and struggles that informed #NoDAPL. Each struggle had adopted essential features of previous traditions of Indigenous resistance, while creating new tactics and visions to address the present reality, and, consequently, projected Indigenous liberation into the future. Trauma played a major role. But if we oversimplify Indigenous peoples as perpetually wounded, we cannot possibly understand how they formed kinship bonds and constantly recreated and kept intact families, communities, and governance structures while surviving as fugitives and prisoners of a settler state and as conspirators against empire; how they loved, cried, laughed, imagined, dreamed, and defended themselves; or how they remain, to this day, the first sovereigns of this land and the oldest political authority.


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[i] Ostler, The Plains Sioux, 262.

[ii] Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion, 777.

[iii] Ostler, The Plains Sioux, 250.

[iv] Ibid., 277–8.

[v] Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion, 819–20.

[vi] Ostler, The Plains Sioux, 351.

[vii] Quoted in Robert M. Utley, “The Ordeal of Plenty Horses,” American Heritage 26:1,1974,

[viii] See Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History, 156–7.

Our History Is the Future
In 2016, a small protest encampment at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, initially established to block construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, grew to be the largest Indigenou...
Hardback (2019)

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