Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 18 : Dance of the Ghosts | Summary



After the wars of 1876-77, the Sioux are confined to a 35,000-square mile "anvil-shaped block" of land in the Dakota Territory. Each division is assigned a plot of land, which white men continually try to take for themselves. The Sioux are unable to do anything about it—they don't have any weapons with which to fight back.

The Sioux's greatest living leader, Sitting Bull, is still hiding in Canada. This is a great irritation to government officials, who see Sitting Bull as "a dangerous symbol of subversion." In September 1877 the U.S. War Department and the Canadian government arrange a meeting between Sitting Bull and General Alfred Terry. Terry is supposed to offer Sitting Bull a full pardon and a place for his Hunkpapa Teton Sioux at Standing Rock on the Great Sioux Reservation. Sitting Bull isn't interested—he feels safe in Canada.

This feeling doesn't last long, however. Sitting Bull and his people are not indigenous peoples of Canada, which means the Canadian government won't provide them with food or shelter. They will provide protection for the Hunkpapas only as long as they "behave [them]selves." Canadian winters are harsh, and Sitting Bull's people never have enough food, blankets, or tepee covers. A few hungry Hunkpapas cross the border into the United States each season to settle on the Sioux reservation. Eventually, even Sitting Bull can't take it, and he and his 186 remaining followers return to the United States on July 19, 1881. Sitting Bull is immediately taken prisoner.

Sitting Bull is a celebrity at Fort Randall. Journalists visit, as do Sioux chiefs and subchiefs, who are concerned about the government's plot to take away 14,000 square miles of their territory. The Sioux are bullied and lied to, and the deal doesn't go through. A commission to investigate the shady methods of the government negotiators visits Standing Rock after Sitting Bull's release. Sitting Bull insults the investigators and then apologizes the next day after the other Hunkpapa leaders promise him these white men want to help. The commissioners aren't forgiving. Sitting Bull is publicly reprimanded and reminded that the government is providing for him and his people to "make [them] as white men."

Government officials worry Sitting Bull's influence on the other Hunkpapas will lead to an uprising. Standing Rock agency leader James McLaughlin does his best to "keep Sitting Bull in the background." It doesn't really work—people come from around the country to meet Sitting Bull. He is the guest of honor at the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1883, and in 1885 he spends the summer traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

After much cajoling and several lies, the government finally succeeds in freeing up some Sioux lands in 1888. The Great Sioux Reservation is carved into six distinct plots, which frees up nine million acres of land for white use. Sitting Bull is deliberately left out of these negotiations. He shows up at the tail end of the signing ceremony on Standing Rock. When a reporter asks how the Indians feel about giving up their lands, he snaps, "There are no Indians left but me!"

In October 1890 Sitting Bull is visited by a Minneconjou named Kicking Bear, who brings news about a new religion called the Ghost Dance. He and his brother, Short Bull, traveled far west "in search of the Messiah." Kicking Bear describes what he saw. Christ, looking very much like an Indian, appeared before the crowd of people and showed them how to do a dance. Christ promised if the Indians do the dance, the next spring will bring the disappearance of the white man. The grass will be fertile and new, and the buffalo and wild horses will roam again. Those who dance will be "taken up in the air and suspended there while a wave of new earth [is] passing." When they are set down, they will be with their ancestors on the "new earth, where only Indians would live." Sitting Bull doesn't think anyone's ancestors are going to come back from the dead by dancing, but his people are very taken with the idea, so he has Kicking Bear teach the Hunkpapas the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance spreads through Indian reservations all across America. By mid-November 1890 all other reservation activity—even school and trade—has stopped. Government agents are terrified, and demand protection from the "wild and crazy" dancers. A list of "fomenters of disturbances" is created. Sitting Bull's name is on the list, and it is immediately assumed he is to blame for the dancing. He is arrested on December 15, 1890, by Lieutenant Bull Head, an Indian police officer. Sitting Bull doesn't protest, but a crowd of Ghost Dancers stands in the way. Catch-the-Bear shoots at Bull Head, who tries to shoot back. His bullet hits Sitting Bull, who is simultaneously shot in the head by Red Tomahawk. Sitting Bull is dead.


Sitting Bull wasn't just the leader of the Hunkpapas or a great Sioux chief—he was also a "symbol of subversion" in the eyes of the U.S. government. His independence, magnetic personality, and unwillingness to cede to the white man's wishes made him a dangerous adversary. There was always the threat of another uprising as long as he remained free. Even for reservation Indians, knowing he was out there beyond the reach of the government was a source of hope. Sitting Bull knows this on some level, which is part of the reason he stays in Canada for so long. When he finally surrenders, it is not because he is tired of being on the run—it is because his people can no longer survive without assistance. Sitting Bull would rather die than let the white man win, but he would not sacrifice the lives of his tribe in the process. Dying in battle is one thing, but dying of starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements is different.

Returning to the United States is somewhat of a shock for Sitting Bull. Not only is he permanently living on a reservation for the first time, but he can see firsthand how the Sioux mentality has changed. Although they may not like being under the thumb of the U.S. government, they are no longer actively rebelling against it. Sitting Bull sees his old cohorts give in to the white man's requests for more and more land, and he hears their reprimands to him about how some of the white men are simply trying to help. He feels like he is the only Sioux leader who has not yet succumbed to the white man's way of doing things. This is why he tells the reporter there are no more Indians left but him—he really is the last of his kind.

Most of the chiefs understand that the white men who talk to them about peace cannot be trusted. Time and time again they've lied and deceived to get what they want. Yet most of the Indians Brown talks about in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee seem to hold on to the belief that one day the white man will tell the truth, and all their problems will be solved. This is not the case for Sitting Bull. He has never trusted the white man to do anything as promised. He witnessed countless fellow chiefs make formal agreements with the government for sacred lands only to have them taken away just a few years later. In 1877 the U.S. government promises Sitting Bull a pardon if he leaves Canada and brings the Hunkpapas back to the United States. When he finally does, he is arrested.

The only promise the United States seems able to keep is a vow to "make [the Indians] as white men." The 1883 meeting between the Sioux and the investigatory committee is the first time in the book where this goal has been explicitly stated by a white person, but it is implied throughout. The Indians are told over and over again to abandon their nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary one. They should stop hunting buffalo and turn to farming instead. They should be treated by white doctors using Western medicine, and their children should have "English" educations. This wasn't out of Christian goodwill or love for one's fellow man but rather the belief that the white way was the right way. The phrase "white supremacy" definitely has negative connotations, and for good reason, but it applies here. For most of history, white people of European origin or descent have operated under the assumption that they are better than those who aren't white. The collective mindset was white people are smarter and more capable than their darker-skinned counterparts. It's not true—it never was—but it fueled 19th-century white America's desire to make American Indians adopt white culture and lifestyles.

This is what makes the uproar about the Ghost Dance so situationally ironic. The Ghost Dance was a religious movement in which people hoped the Messiah would save His followers, and restore the earth to its full splendor. If this sounds familiar, it's because it mirrors Christianity's concept of the Second Coming of Christ. Wovoka, the founder of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement, was well acquainted with Christian beliefs and ideals, and he taught his followers to love one another and make peace with all men. He even made self-inflicted stigmata wounds on his hands and feet to mirror the crucifixion wounds of Christ. Wovoka was the "Messiah" Kicking Bear and Short Bull saw on their trip west. Without realizing it, the Indians were adopting the religious ideals of the white man, and because they were singing and dancing, the white man was terrified of it. No matter how much Indians acted like or thought like white people, they were never going to be accepted as being the same.

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