Wounded Knee took place in 1890, well after the Civil War. It was also after the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, often referred to as Custer's Last Stand. It was at a time when the American frontier development was almost at an end, and Americans felt that it was their destiny to rule the entire American nation. Indians were now simply another impediment in the way of American expansion, and while there was still discussion about their standing, ranging from savage to citizen, and discussion about the best way to "manage the Indian issue" there was little doubt about the outcome.
Wounded Knee took place after the death of Sitting Bull, when the cavalry was beginning to round up and disarm the remaining Indians. White officials became alarmed at the religious fervor and activism. The government called in troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. The military, led by veteran General Nelson Miles, geared itself for another campaign.
General Miles had also ordered the arrest of Big Foot, an Indian leader who had been known to live along the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. But Big Foot and his followers had already departed south to Pine Ridge, asked there by Red Cloud and other supporters of the whites, in an effort to bring tranquility. Miles sent out the Seventh Calvary to locate the renegades. They scoured the Badlands and finally found them on Porcupine Creek, 30 miles east of Pine Ridge. The Indians offered no resistance. Big Foot, ill with pneumonia, rode in a wagon. The soldiers ordered the Indians to set up camp five miles westward, at Wounded Knee Creek. Colonel James Forsyth arrived to take command and ordered his guards to place four Hotchkiss cannons in position around the camp. The soldiers now numbered around 500; the Indians 350, all but 120 of these women and children.
The following morning, December 29, 1890, the soldiers entered the camp demanding the all Indian firearms be relinquished. A medicine man named Yellow Bird advocated resistance, claiming the Ghost Shirts would protect them. One of the soldiers tried to disarm a deaf Indian named Black Coyote. A scuffle ensued and the firearm discharged. At first, the struggle was fought at close quarters, but when the Indians ran to take cover, the Hotchkiss artillery opened up on them, cutting down men, women, children alike, the sick Big Foot among them. By the end of the massacre, which lasted less than an hour, at least 150 Indians had been killed and 50 wounded. In comparison, army casualties were 25 killed and 39 wounded.
Subsequently, the army attempted to portray the troops as heroes who simply defended themselves. There were attempts to make a true investigation, but all of these were blocked by the federal government. Fortunately, there were enough eyewitness reports that the true stories were recorded, and in time were made available to the general public.
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The Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance was an attempt of a group of North American Indian tribes to further separate themselves from the white man and the religious doctrines they were forcing upon the tribal peoples.
Among the Sioux and Arapaho, the Ghost Dance was one of the central rituals of a new religious movement that focused on the restoration of the past, as opposed to a salvation in a new future. The movement was active within limited tribes and mirrored other attempts by previous Indians to escape the civilization of the white man. The earlier movements included the Good Message of the Iroquois and the Dreamers of the Columbia River tribes. All of these movements had similar features including a rejection of the white man's civilization, especially alcohol, weapons and technology. In addition, the movements preached unity among tribes, even those that were once enemies and a revival of Indian customs that were threatened by the civilization of European peoples.
The despair and nostalgia associated with the Ghost Dance reflects that period from which the movement evolved. Plains tribes faced losing their freedom and being overtaken of their homes, their beliefs and their existence. The Ghost Dance was a resurrection of the dead, a bringing back of the customs and way of life that the Indians were trying to hold onto.
The prophet who began the movement of the Ghost Dance was Wovoka, a member of the Paiute Tribe. He was descended of a family of prophets and Shamans. Known as a medicine man, it was said that during an eclipse of the sun and while suffering from a high fever, he had a vision which inspired the development of the movement known as the Ghost Dance. The vision embodied the beliefs that inspired the followers of the movement including that the white man would disappear from the Earth after a natural catastrophe and that the Indian dead would return bringing with them the old way of life that would then last forever.
The dance was unlike other Indian dances with fast steps and loud drumming. The Ghost Dance consisted of slow shuffling movements following the course of the sun. It would be performed for four or five days and was accompanied by singing and chanting, but no drumming or other musical instruments. In addition, both men and women participated in the dance, unlike others in which men were the main dancers, singers and musicians.
The first dance was held by Wovoka around 1889. Word spread quickly and the Ghost Dance was accepted by the Utes, Bannocks and Shoshone tribes. Eventually, the Plains tribes also adopted the Ghost Dance movement and the peaceful message of hope was spreading and uplifting many Indians. While adapting the movement, many tribes added specific customs and rituals to the Dance that reflected their tribe's individuality. The Sioux added two specific elements including the use of hypnosis to bring about trances and aid in the communication with the dead, and a ghost shirt. Made of buckskin or cloth, the shirt was said to make the wearer immune to bullets, a weapon of death known initially only to the white man.
A famous Sioux warrior, Sitting Bull, adopted the Ghost Dance into his way of life. He was a respected leader, medicine man and warrior. His following of this movement alarmed the military and Indian Agencies. In 1890, just a few months after presiding at his first Ghost Dance, Sitting Bull was killed. His followers fled and joined the band of Kicking Bear, one of the first to practice with Wovoka. Donning their ghost shirts and with their beliefs firm in their hearts, the followers of the Ghost Dance were rounded up at Wounded Knee creek and killed while resisting arrest. Among those killed were women and children wearing their ghost shirts, which did not stop the bullets of the Indian Agencies or the military. The Ghost Dance continued to be danced in more southern tribes, but the end of the movement really came with the deaths at Wounded Knee.
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In the 1950s, after decades of failed policies and programs, the Eisenhower administration implemented the "Relocation and Termination" programs as official Federal Indian policies. These programs were designed to lure Indian people off the reservations and into major cities, such as San Francisco, in `order` to complete their assimilation and acculturation into "mainstream" America.
By the mid-1960s, the San Francisco Bay Area's urban Indian community was one of the largest and best organized in the country. Rather than dissolving into the urban "melting pot," Bay Area Indians clung tenaciously to their cultures, formed social and political organizations, and began to mobilize. Echoing the Free Speech, Civil Rights, and anti-war movements and other Sixties' struggles for social justice, Bay Area Indians began their own protests of Indian treaty and civil rights abuses, protests that eventually led to the occupation of Alcatraz.
The occupation took place on November 20, 1969. At about 2 a.m., nearly eighty American Indians from more than twenty tribes pulled up to the island's eastern shore, reclaiming it as Indian land and demanding fairness and respect for Indian peoples. They were a mix of Indian college activists, families with children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what they called the U.S. government's economic, social and political neglect.
By then end, more than 5,600 American Indians joined the occupation; some for all eighteen months and some for just part of a day. American Indians, like many people of color in that era, were frustrated by their current situation. The annual household income of an American Indian family was $1,500, one-fourth the national average. Their life expectancy was 44 when other Americans could expect to reach 65. It was the '60s: Cesar Chavez ignited Chicano farmworkers, sparking a Hispanic civil rights movement that led to better wages and an end to stereotypes. Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movements among Blacks. Many American Indians also felt it was time to speak out once again, for the first time in a century. Representing dozens of Indian nations around North America, the occupiers called themselves Indians of All Tribes.
Not everything on the island was good. Many who lived on the island described life there as near anarchy, as numerous factions tried to carve out their own versions of Indian utopia. Others saw the occupation as an escape from life and held constant parties fueled by drugs and alcohol smuggled past the volunteer security force. By the final two weeks of the occupation, the Indians of Alcatraz had gotten little of what they had demanded, especially the island itself. On June 1, 1971, four buildings on the island went up in flames. Officials increased calls to remove the occupiers. Alcatraz, one said, had become an "island ghetto." Most of the occupiers began to leave on their own, anxious to return to schools and jobs. Only fourteen remained on June 11, 1971, when U.S. Marshals arrived to reclaim the island.
Despite its chaos and factionalism, the mostly peaceful event resulted in major benefits for American Indians. They include passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Act, revision of the Johnson O'Malley Act to better educate Indians, passage of the Indian Financing Act, passage of the Indian Health Act and the creation of an Assistant Interior Secretary post for Indian Affairs. Mount Adams was returned to the Yakama Nation in Washington state, and 48,000 acres of the Sacred Blue Lake lands were returned to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. During the occupation Richard Nixon quietly signed papers rescinding Relocation and Termination.
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Wounded Knee Occupation
While the occupation of Wounded Knee is not portrayed in the opera, it is significant as a turning point for the Indian movement. In the summer of 1968, two hundred members of the Native American community came together for a meeting to discuss various issues that Indian people of the time were dealing with on an everyday basis. Among these issues were, police brutality, high unemployment rates, and the Federal Government's policies concerning American Indians. From this meeting came the birth of the American Indian Movement, commonly known as AIM.
By the end of 1972, corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribal Council was causing tension on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. There was a clear-cut difference between the traditional Lakota people and those Indians who were government supporters. The traditional people wanted more independence from the Federal Government, as well as honoring of the 1868 Sioux treaty, which was still valid. According to the 1868 treaty, the Black Hills of South Dakota still belonged to the Sioux people, and the traditional people wanted the Federal Government to honor their treaty by returning the sacred Black Hills to the Sioux people.
Elders of the Lakota Nation asked the American Indian Movement for assistance. On February 27, 1973, a large group of armed Native Americans "reclaimed" Wounded Knee in the name of the Lakota Nation. For the first time in many decades, those Oglala Sioux ruled themselves, free from government intervention, as is their ancient custom.
When AIM took control of Wounded Knee, over seventy-five different Indian Nations were represented, with more supporters arriving daily from all over the country. Federal Marshals, as well as BIA forces surrounded the site. All roads to Wounded Knee were cut off, but still, people slipped through the lines, bringing supplies into the occupied area. The Native Americans inside Wounded Knee wanted the federal government to launch an investigation into the BIA and the Department of the Interior regarding their handling of the affairs of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. They also demanded an investigation into the 371 treaties between the Native Nations and the Federal Government, all of which had been broken by the United States.
After 71 days, the Siege at Wounded Knee ended without promises of investigations but without any of the demands being met. The investigations never took place and what began was a time often known as the "Reign of Terror". During the three years following Wounded Knee, 64 tribal members were victims of unsolved murder, and over 300 harassed and beaten. Yet only 15 people were convicted of any crime. It was these events and others that created the unsettled situation prior to the incident at Pine Ridge involving Leonard Peltier.
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The situation for traditionalists at Pine Ridge in the early 1970s was critical. Dick Wilson, the modernist tribal chairman, was leading a goon squad, armed and supported by the US government, which was harassing, attacking and murdering traditional Indians. Drive-by shootings were a common occurrence. Despite the presence of over a hundred FBI agents in the small community, very little was done to maintain order. Once again, AIM was called in by the traditionalists for protection. They were living in a compound at the Jumping Bull lodge, a family with strong support for the traditionalists. The unrest on the reservation continued while they were there, in part due to the presence of many armed individuals in all groups.
On the morning of June 26th, FBI Agents Coler and Williams had entered the area around the compound supposedly looking for a man named Jimmy Eagle who had stolen some cowboy boots. They apparently came onto the site quickly, stating they were in pursuit of a vehicle. The agents reported that they were fired on first, and although this has never been proven, it would be understandable that the AIM members might fire in self defense, given the tense climate and the potential for drive-bys.
Norman Brown and Joe Killsright responded to hearing shots and grabbed their weapons. Norman ran to get Dino Butler who was in his tent with his wife Nilak. Nilak ran to collect the women and children and Norman and Dino ran to join the fray. They saw two men who had apparently been pinned down in a field behind their cars, in a gunfight with others up on the hill, including Leonard Peltier.
At some point after the shooting started, one of the agents had stopped firing and apparently had passed out. In the next few minutes one or more people approached the cars and killed both of the agents at close range.
Gunfire continued between the Indians and other agents who had arrived on the scene in response to radio transmissions. Eventually Peltier, Butler and Bob Robideau realized that they would have to make an escape and started packing the cars. They soon realized there was no way out and gathered the women and children to flee on foot. While leaving the scene of the shooting, Joe Killsright was shot and killed.
It seemed almost impossible that the Indians could get away that day. The area was surrounded by FBI agents and they had helicopters and sharpshooters covering the perimeter. The Indians believed that an eagle they saw in the sky led them to safety.
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After Pine Ridge, Peltier had escaped to Canada and was in hiding. Due to the length of the extradition process after his capture, the trial of Dino Butler and Bob Robideau was separate from Peltier and ended with the acquittal of both men. The jury acknowledged that even if there would have been sufficient evidence to convict the two men, they would have considered any shooting to have been done in self defense, given the tense climate on the reservation. The government decided to drop the case against Jimmy Eagle and focus on Peltier. (Although Peltier was not an AIM leader, he was a member of the group that the government had come to identify as a primary threat.)
The government sought and won a number of changes prior to Peltier's trial. Both the location and the judge were changed. Virtually every motion from the defense team was denied by the judge, including the motion to introduce the evidence from the trial of Butler and Robideau that proved FBI misconduct. Some of the most damning testimony against Peltier was from Mike Anderson and Wish Draper, two young men who were present on the day of the killings. Although they said they saw Peltier at the scene, they later recanted their testimony and insisted that they were threatened by the FBI.
Leonard Peltier was eventually sentenced to two consecutive life terms in federal prison.
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