“What’s happening in my country is also happening in your country…. You don’t even know it, but you’re the Indians of the 21st Century, and that’s very sad.” –
Russell Means, Indian Activist and Facilitator of the newly created Independent Republic of Lakota.
Shortly before the U.S. Army slaughtered hundreds of starving, desperate Sioux who had been herded to the frozen shore of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, the Census Bureau announced the disappearance of a contiguous frontier line for the first time in American history.
Manifest Destiny had run out of room, and the American Empire – a term used unblushingly in triumphalist literature of the period – now girded the entire North American continent, and its rulers were free to confer the blessings of civilization on untutored masses beyond our shores.
First in line for this unsolicited privilege were the Cubans and Filipinos. Chinese and Mexicans would taste – in the sense of being force-fed – the unpalatable fruits of American imperial benevolence, before Washington, under the reign of the unspeakably vile Woodrow Wilson, dispatched hundreds of thousands of armed missionaries for democracy to the battlefields of Europe.
American intervention broke a stalemate in WWI that could have resulted in a negotiated peace, thereby preserving Christendom. The allied “victory” helped cultivate several nasty strains of totalitarianism and bellicose nationalism, thus effectively inoculating mankind against an outbreak of peace and normalcy. This meant an unending list of imperial errands abroad, with America’s Ruling Elite using means both relatively subtle (bribery through foreign aid) and vulgar (bombing and other forms of lethal “humanitarianism”) to propagate its vision of social justice around the globe.
And as Washington eagerly audited the shortcomings of other regimes, the original beneficiaries of its civilizing mission – the residue of the various American Indian communities – were consigned to a wretched existence marked by intractable poverty, abysmal mortality rates, and pervasive despair. The status of the American Indians offered a reality-based counterpoint to America’s self-enraptured rhetoric, and the reservation system served as a kind of portrait of Dorian Grey for the regime’s image as guardian of liberty and justice. And the mass murder of Sioux at Wounded Knee served as a kind of graduation ceremony for the Regime as it prepared to export imperial violence abroad.
Roughly three years after the December 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, historian Frederick Jackson Turner treated an audience at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago to his soon-to-be-famous “frontier thesis” – namely, that the closing of the western frontier, which he called “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” brought an end to the first phase of America’s national life. The conquest of the frontier, Turner claimed, had refined a distinctly American character, one that was restless and inventive, fiercely individualistic and disdainful of centralized power and hierarchical authority.
Turner’s oration was, in some ways, a scholarly version of the familiar lounge singer ploy of inviting his audience to “give yourselves a round of applause.” Then, as now, Americans were eager to view themselves as hardly, independent folk, even when they were taking part in a militarized, federally subsidized land grab of unprecedented scope and shamelessness.
True, settlers and pioneers were often bold and courageous people, and more than a few of them acquitted themselves honorably both in tragic combat with Indians, and in honest commerce with them when peace was achieved. But taken as a whole, Manifest Destiny represented the triumph of corrupt corporatism.
In Westward the Tide, a typically worthy offering, novelist Louis L’Amour, the justly renowned “Troubadour of the American West” (and an autodidact whose scholarly achievements were easily the equal of Dr. Turner’s) captures the ambivalence of the expansionist period from Appomattox to Wounded Knee.
The dominant human type found on the frontier, he writes, “was a lean and cold-eyed man who feared God and nothing else…. He had courage, hardihood, and a stubborn will that balked at no problem as too great…. He was the man who refused to remain close to forts and so was often killed by Indians, his wife nursed her children with a rifle across her knees, and he tilled his fields with a gun strapped to his plough handles. He dared off Indians, the big cattlemen, the outlaws. He was the nester, the squatter, the man who moved west.”
Whether they knew it or not, L’Amour points out, individualist pioneers acted as icebreakers on behalf of the forces of collectivism.
“Railroads came west on government subsidy and gifts of government land,” he recalled. “They never advanced a foot without government land to sell, government money to spend, and the protection of the Army. The [pioneers] asked no protection from anybody, or if so, not for long, but moved on out ahead of the Army wherever their path was not blocked by too tight a line, and where they stopped they put down roots.”
And wherever these individualists put down roots, the Leviathan State would soon materialize to install the necessary apparatus of coercive conformity. This process was captured by publisher George A Crofutt – an energetic evangelist of Manifest Destiny – in his caption to John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress.”
The American Empire as a winsome maiden: John Gast's seminal 1872 propaganda lithograph "American Progress."
The much-produced lithograph portrayed the American State as a fair-haired, zaftig female precariously clad in a diaphanous robe, her alabaster brow garlanded with the “star of empire,” gazing westward with an expression of benevolent resolution as terrified Indians are driven in terror before her. In her right arm is clutched a volume inscribed “Common Schools,” which Crofutt exultantly described as “the emblem of our education and the testimonial of our National Enlightenment.” With her left hand she threads the countryside with “the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land.”
Before this comely yet omnipotent maiden the land is alluring, yet desolate; in her wake can be found cities, “steamships, manufactories, schools and churches, over which beams of light are streaming and filling the air – indicative of our civilization,” continues Crofutt. From the cities “proceed the three great continental lines” of federally subsidized railway, as well as a stream of pony express riders, pioneer wagons, stagecoaches, gold seekers, and others drawn irresistibly westward.
But the true focus of this artistic celebration of “our country’s grandeur and enterprise,” as Croffut understands, is the handful of Indians who flee before the “beautiful and charming Female” who embodies the American State.
“Fleeing from `Progress,’ and towards the blue waters of the Pacific … are the Indians … with their squaws, papooses, and `pony lodges,’” he wrote in words oozing contempt. The Indians “flee from the presence of the wondrous vision. The `Star’ is too much for them.”
“American Progress,” as captioned by Croffut, coupled civic sanctimony with an undisguised appeal to three of the basest instincts: Simple prurience; the tribalist impulse toward the worship of collective power; and the dehumanization of those not part of the chosen collective.
The goodness of America, on Croffut’s reading, is ratified by the retreat of the Indian savages. Speaking through Matt Bardoul, one of his fictional heroes, Louis L’Amour gave voice to a less self-congratulatory view, concluding that the Indians withdrew in the face of “what some might consider a superior barbarism.”
In 1874, two years after Gale unveiled his propaganda portrait, George Armstrong Custer, an agent of American “progress,” led an invasion force into the Black Hills of South Dakota, a territory considered sacred to the Sioux and solemnly promised to them in perpetuity by treaty less than a decade earlier.
Like everyone of consequence in the employ of the American Leviathan, Custer looked upon treaties much the same way Lenin later would – as pie crusts, made to be broken as circumstances required. The Black Hills, Custer announced, were full of gold “from the grass roots down.” This turned a trickle of illegal immigration into the Black Hills into a deluge, and Washington – true to form – decided the time had come to re-write its treaty with the Sioux.
In September 1875, Washington convened a conference with Sioux representatives in the hope that the Indians would (in Dee Brown’s phrase) “sell their land in order to save the United States Government the embarrassment of having to break a treaty to get it.”
The attitude of most Sioux was captured in a defiant gesture by Sitting Bull. Informed of Washington’s desire to purchase the Black Hills, Sitting Bull replied by picking up a pinch of soil and releasing it to the wind. “I want you to go and tell the Great Father that I do not want to sell any land to the government – not even as much as this.”
Faced with an owner not interested in selling land, the government did what it always does: It prepared to steal the land and murder those determined to defend it. Preparations began to “whip the Indians into subjection,” as Indian Bureau Inspector E.T. Watkins put it.
Of course, it didn’t turn out quite that way when federal forces collided with a huge coalition of Plains Indians the following June at what the Sioux called the Battle of Greasy Grass – or what the losers in that engagement called the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
After the Seventh Cavalry was routed and its vain and bloody-handed commander was sent to hell, the Leviathan embarked on a course of collective punishment. Not able to track down Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse, and other Indian commanders who had beaten their Army and defied the “Star of empire,” Washington authorized the impenitent war criminal Gen. William T. Sherman – the General Westerman of the Union’s war against the South – to treat all Sioux on the reservation as prisoners of war. This meant that those who had not fought would be punished as retaliation for the Indians’ victory.
Although they were not definitively beaten on the battlefield, the Sioux were eventually broken through terror, political pressure, and the relentless logic of demographics. The Americans were too numerous to repel, their government too powerful to resist, their rulers entirely without pity or scruple.
Crazy Horse was determined to withstand the federal Army, but eventually be he made the bitter choice to bring his people onto the reservation in order to avoid starvation. When he learned that the same government that had stolen his lands and killed his people was enlisting Sioux to kill Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce – a northwestern tribe experiencing the same treatment at the hands of the empire – Crazy Horse threatened to rebel and leave the reservation.
After an informant learned of Crazy Horse’s plans, the chief was “arrested” by Indian Agency police – whose number included several Sioux Quislings, including Little Big Man -- and then assassinated by a US Army Private at Ft. Robinson.
After the death of Crazy Horse in the fall of 1877, his parents – part of a Sioux band hoping to withdraw to Canada and find sanctuary there with the exiled Sitting Bull – buried their son’s body near a creek called Wounded Knee, on a parcel of land that would soon become the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Sitting Bull fled to Canada after the battle of Greasy Grass in the hope that his people would be protected as subjects of the British Crown. However, Washington’s intervention prevented the Great Chief and his followers from obtaining a parcel of suitable land. In July 1881, Sitting Bull joined Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Red Dog, Spotted Tail and other Sioux chiefs in choosing surrender over starvation.
Imprisoned at Ft. Randall in violation of promises of decent treatment, Sitting Bull’s resilient dignity proved to be an obstacle to federal Indian commissioners, who wanted to make sure that the resistance of the Sioux had been permanently broken. In his first meeting with the commissioners, Sitting Bull treated the bureaucrats with regal contempt, taunting them for “acting like men who have been drinking whiskey” in demanding that the Sioux formally turn over the coveted Black Hills.
Apparently, concern for the fate of his long-suffering band of followers caused Sitting Bull to temper his tongue in a follow-up meeting. Predictably, the Indian Commissioners weren’t inclined to reciprocate; instead, they seized an opportunity to upbraid Sitting Bull for his defiance and harangue him about the manifold glories of the Imperial State.
“You are not a great chief of this country,” lectured Republican Senator John Logan of Illinois. “You have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all that you have and are today is because of the government…. The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.”
Logan unbosomed himself of this totalitarian homily decades before Mussolini encapsulated the same worldview in his fascist credo: “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”
Eventually, through the application of its favorite tactic – negotiation through extortion, in the form of threatening to starve the Indians if they didn’t surrender their lands – Washington was able to secure ownership of the Black Hills. By an 1889 act of Congress, the pitiful remainder of the original 1868 treaty land was divided into six small reservations in South Dakota. The Sioux themselves were disarmed, deprived of their horses, and confined to reservation plots.
Prior to the 1889 treaty, the Sioux had been promised that the subsistence rations promised in the 1868 pact would continue. But once the Black Hills had been signed away, Washington saw no need to fulfill its end of the agreement it had wrung from the Sioux, and Congress promptly cut the rations by half. By 1890, the promised rations were being withheld outright. Several years of poor harvests left the Euro-American residents of South Dakota struggling; the captive Sioux were starving.
Master of the Ghost Dance Wovoka (seated on the right).
Confronting utter annihilation, the Sioux suddenly experienced a religious revival. A Paiute holy man named Wovoka was preaching an eschatological doctrine that combined mysticism with elements of the New Testament.
By 1891, he prophesied, the buffalo would return, dead warriors by the thousands would arise from their graves, and a great wind would sweep the White Man’s government from the land.
Until then, Wovoka taught, the Sioux was to keep the peace.
“When your friends die, you must not cry,” he insisted. “You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in this life. Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth.”
Rather than resisting the Whites by force of arms, Wovoka explained, the Indians were to clothe themselves in a special “medicine garment” that would protect them from bullets, and perform a “ghost dance” in order to worship the messiah and express the hope that his kingdom would soon prevail.
This new religion – a kind of Indian Sufism, without the militancy that informs the original Muslim version – gave the desperate, starving Sioux a sense of hope and the beginnings of a new shared identity. So of course, it had to be suppressed with alacrity and severity.
In October 1890, Daniel F. Royer, a disgraced pharmacist and former M.D. (his license had been revoked in California owing to a drug addiction) was appointed Indian Agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He had no experience in Indian affairs; his appointment was done for purely political reasons. About two weeks later, Royer dispatched a panicky telegraph to Washington demanding military intervention and the arrest of the Sioux leaders.
Sensationalistic accounts of purported Indian plots clotted the air and darkened the pages of newspapers across the country. Royer and other Indian Agents issued arrest warrants for Indian “troublemakers” on any available pretext. In early December, the South Dakota Home Guard, a militia which had been created by Governor Arthur C. Mellete less than a month earlier, ambushed and massacred and scalped 75 Sioux Ghost Dancers.
Early on December 15, an aged Sitting Bull was surrounded by a task force of 43 police under the command of Lt. Bull Head, an Indian Quisling. The Great Chief was prepared to surrender peacefully, but after a large group of Ghost Dancers materialized to protest the unprovoked arrest he had second thoughts. After one of the Ghost Dancers produced a rifle, one of the policemen drew a gun and shot Sitting Bull in the head at point-blank range.
The murder of Sitting Bull prompted his half-brother, Bigfoot, to flee with his people to the reservation at Pine Ridge in search of sanctuary.
Bigfoot suffered from such severe pneumonia that he was coughing up blood; his weary, emaciated followers – roughly 120 men and about twice that number of women and children – weren’t in much better shape. Yet Major Samuel Whitside, who intercepted Big Foot’s band on December 28, insisted on treating them as a captured military force. Under the guns of the Seventh Cavalry – which retained the bitter institutional memory of its defeat at Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn – the band was taken to a camp on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians were to be disarmed.
Bigfoot and his followers were ringed with two troops of Cavalry; four wagon-borne Hotchkiss rotating rifles, which were able to hurl explosive charges up to two miles, were carefully positioned on a rise outside the camp.
Shortly after dawn on December 29, the Army began to collect rifles from Big Foot’s followers. With weary resignation, the Indians surrendered the only independent means of obtaining food, leaving themselves entirely at the mercy of a capricious enemy that had frequently used starvation as a weapon.
Impatient with the pace of the gun turn-in, several contingents of soldiers fanned out through the camp, going from tent to tent to confiscate any hidden firearms. This prompted an understandable outcry from the women whose dwellings were violated.
One young man, a deaf-mute named Black Coyote, balked when his turn came to hand over his rifle. Holding his Winchester above his head, this young man – who had committed no crime and threatened nobody – somehow conveyed to several onlookers the sentiment that he had paid good money for his rifle and didn’t intended to give it up. He was swarmed by several soldiers.*
Shortly thereafter, a shot pierced the pregnant silence, inducing delivery of the massacre that became inevitable when the disarmed Sioux fell into the hands of a vengeful Seventh Cavalry.
“We tried to run,” testified survivor Louise Weasel Bear, “but they shot us like we were buffalo.” The ailing and helpless Bigfoot was gunned down, his disease-racked body left grotesquely twisted in the snow. He was joined by as many as 300 of his followers.
“Dead and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along … where they had been trying to run away,” recalled Ogalala medicine man Black Elk, who arrived shortly after the slaughter. “The soldiers had followed along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there. Sometimes they were in heaps because they had huddled together, and some were scattered all along. Sometimes bunches of them had been killed and torn to pieces where the [Hotchkiss] wagon guns hit them.”
Those who resisted survived. Black Elk recounted how two small boys had taken up sniping positions and killed as many soldiers as they could: “These were very brave little boys.” Other Sioux had “fought soldiers with only their hands until they got their guns.” An Army Captain named Wallace was surrounded by a scrum of Sioux mothers and beaten to death with clubs.
But this was not a “battle,” as it was referred to for a century after the event. It was a massacre of helpless, innocent people by Leviathan’s killing apparatus. When Black Elk arrived on the scene, what he saw was not a battlefield, but rather “one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away.”
When survivors sought medical help, they discovered that the first priority was to tend to the wounds of the handful of Army personnel who had been injured in the course of carrying out the slaughter. Many of them perished from exposure and untended wounds. For several days the ground at Wounded Knee was littered with the bodies of the dead. On January 3, 1891, the mortal remains of the victims were gathered and interred in a mass grave.
The military expedition that carried out the massacre cost an estimated $2 million in 1890 dollars. This did provide a welcome “economic stimulus package” for local communities. But it’s worth remembering that it would have cost just a fraction of that amount to provide the starving Sioux with the rations they had been promised under the original 1868 treaty.
But Washington apparently believed the additional expense was worthwhile in order to extract the last full measure of submission from the once-fearsome Sioux. Providing the Seventh Cavalry with an opportunity to avenge its defeat, and thereby vindicate the power of the “Star of empire,” was a lagniappe.
To this day, the U.S. Army proudly displays the “battle streamer” of what is called the Wounded Knee “campaign.” Dozens of participants in that atrocity – which can properly be called America’s Babi Yar – were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The monument to the “heroes of Wounded Knee Creek” still exists at Ft. Riley, Kansas.
Although it closed the curtain on America’s Frontier Era, Wounded Knee was merely the overture to Leviathan’s career in imperial butchery. The outward course of the “Star of empire” has been marked with atrocities displaying a family resemblance to that massacre and the tactics that led to it.
Just a few years later, the Empire mounted a counter-insurgency campaign that would lead to the imprisonment, torture, and slaughter of tens of thousands of “liberated” Fillipinos. At the close of WWI, Washington and its allies used the same tactic that had been so successful against the Sioux – deploying the weapon of starvation to secure submission to a treaty – against defeated imperial Germany.
The draconian “peace” that prevailed following the American-enforced starvation blockade thrust to power a totalitarian movement headed by a perverted little Austrian who thought that Washington’s treatment of the Indians was a suitable model for dealing with “inferior” races in Europe.
A century after Wounded Knee, the same American Leviathan that had starved the Sioux into submission imposed a murderous embargo of Iraq that would last for more than a decade and kill hundreds of thousands of children. After using starvation and the denial of medical necessities to soften up the Iraqis, the Empire – already bogged down in Afghanistan -- launched an invasion Iraq.
And as Scott Horton of AntiWarRadio points out, wherever the Empire deploys its legions abroad, the territory not under imperial control is referred to as “Indian country.” With entirely unwarranted optimism, most Americans assume that this only applies abroad. But every once in a while – as at Ruby Ridge or Waco – the Empire offers a bloody reminder that Wounded Knee remains the official template for dealing with any resistance, foreign or domestic.
In a fascinating interview with Scott Horton, Indian activist Russell Means describes how the American Indian Reservation System has been the incubator for totalitarian social engineering programs both here and abroad. The subjugation of the American Indian, he warns, provided the model for the ongoing dispossession of the American middle class.
As the financial system implodes, inhabitants of our de-industrialized country are having what remains of our wealth confiscated in order to serve the interests of the most corrupt elements of the ruling elite. The sky is thick with portents of impending military rule in order to suppress any organized resistance to this unprecedented plunder.
We will know that the Wounded Knee option is on the table when our rulers demand of us what they required of the conquered Sioux: The surrender of our personal firearms.
It is a glorious fact that America's private gun owners possess more firearms than the combined armies and police forces of the entire world. It is that fact, and perhaps it alone, that explains why the Regime hasn't succeeded -- yet -- in transforming our country into one giant Rez. We should never assume that this cannot change, in a hurry.
*In the original version of this essay, I wrote that Black Coyote, reportedly a deaf-mute, "exclaimed" that he resented turning in his rifle, which he could not literally do if he, in fact, suffered such disabilities. My thanks to commenter "Mike" for catching this inadvertent contradiction.
As is usually the case, the incomparable Maxwell Smart blunders into the truth (watch to the end of this episode).
Dum spiro, pugno!
Dum spiro, pugno!