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Tribal Historical Overview - Breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation - The Ghost Dance

Intro | Lakota Migration | Establishment of the Reservation |
Breakup of the Reservation |

Breakup of the Reservation | Ghost Dance | Allotment |
Sioux Claim | Citizenship | Indian Reorganization

The Ghost Dance

In 1889 the Lakota and Dakota at Standing Rock, and on all the newly defined Sioux reservations, were in poor health, starving, and were witnessing relentless assaults on their tribal way of life. The signing of the Sioux Bill of 1889 accentuated the grievances of the Sioux people and caused sharp division between signers and non-signers. Sitting Bull openly spoke against those who signed the Sioux Bill, and he predicted the government would not honor its promises and those Indians who signed would live to regret giving in. Sitting Bull continued to be the leading opponent of the government’s civilizing policies. Against this backdrop, word of the Ghost Dance was spreading among the Sioux the summer and fall of 1889. The Ghost Dance was a pan-tribal religious movement originating from the vision of a Paiute man in Nevada named Wovoka. The Ghost Dance was basically Christian in its tenets but Indian in ceremonial trappings. The Ghost Dance was not part of spiritual traditions of the Lakota or Dakota, but it had appeal to some Lakota and Dakota people because it promised a return to older traditions and values. Indian people were in terrible straits by 1889 and to some, the Ghost Dance promised many good things. Some Sioux, primarily on the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Reservations became interested in the Ghost Dance.

Sitting Bull, SHSND 5356
Sitting Bull. (State Historical Society
of North Dakota, 5356)

Wild and unfounded rumors of the Ghost Dance and an impending Sioux outbreak spread to non-Indian communities throughout the Dakotas in the spring of 1890. Fear of the Ghost Dance apparently played into Agent McLaughlin’s hands. Some people in Sitting Bull’s camp participated in the Ghost Dance although Sitting Bull did not take part in it. McLaughlin considered Sitting Bull a malcontent who refused to accept government policy and clung “tenaciously to the old Indian way...slow to accept the better order of things...” So McLaughlin seized on local fear of the Ghost Dance to order the arrest and removal of Sitting Bull from Standing Rock.

The real issue of importance at Standing Rock in the fall of 1890 was not the Ghost Dance but the survey of lands for allotments. Sitting Bull and his followers let it be known they would not take allotments when the time came; they stated they had not signed the Sioux Bill and would therefore “continue to enjoy their old Indian ways.”

In late fall McLaughlin devised a plan to arrest Sitting Bull and by December he was able to implement it. In the pre-dawn hours of December 15, 1890, Indian police from Standing Rock were sent to arrest Sitting Bull and take him to Fort Yates. By daybreak Sitting Bull, eight of his people, and six Indian police lay scattered about Sitting Bull’s camp, dead or dying. Many of those involved in this melee were related, a fact McLaughlin was aware of and commented on.

Sitting Bull’s death caused his people to scatter, and many headed south to relatives on the Cheyenne River Reservation and joined with Hump’s or Spotted Elk’s bands. Some joined relatives living with Big Foot, whose band was attacked on the morning of December 29, 1890, along the Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Sitting Bull’s death, followed soon by the deaths of almost 300 men, women, and children in the barren gullies and draws of Wounded Knee, was a profound sign that indeed, a new way of life was upon the people.

By 1890 federal policy sought to erase all traces of Indian lifeways. A report from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs clearly sets forth this policy:

The Indians must conform to the “white man’s
ways” peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must.
They must adjust themselves to their environment,
and conform their mode of living substantially to
our civilization. This civilization may not be the
best possible but it is the best the Indians can
(BIA Report, 1889)

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