Immediately following the death of Sitting Bull, the Sioux people were tempted to rise up and attack the U.S. troops who’d been sent to arrest him. However, the Ghost Dance religion taught peace and mercy, and so the Sioux allowed the troops to leave unharmed.
The Ghost Dance movement’s followers were remarkably peaceful and tolerant, which is why they allowed Sitting Bull’s killers to leave in peace.
A Sioux leader named Big Foot began to lead Sitting Bull’s remaining followers. The government issued a warrant for Big Foot’s arrest. However, Big Foot contracted pneumonia, and came close to dying. He surrendered to U.S. soldiers, who took Big Foot and his men to Wounded Knee Creek.
The Sioux tribe was utterly beaten: even Sitting Bull’s successor died before he could organize his people. The tribe was helpless and at the mercy of the U.S.
At Wounded Knee, Big Foot’s men were carefully counted and guarded. Late at night, reinforcements arrived to transport Big Foot’s band to a military prison in Omaha. The next morning, the troops examined the Native Americans for any concealed weapons. Then, they noticed a man named Black Coyote, who was deaf, waving a rifle. Black Coyote, according to eyewitnesses, was waving the rifle to complain about paying too much money for it. However, the troops interpreted his behavior as an act of aggression. They grabbed the rifle from him, and it went off. This triggered the other U.S. troops to fire their weapons, murdering hundreds of defenseless Native American men, women, and children.
Black Coyote’s rifle waving supposedly set off the killing of hundreds of children. But this seems almost impossible—did the troops really panic and “accidentally” kill every last Native American at Wounded Knee Creek? It seems more likely that the U.S. troops, filled with hatred for Native Americans after years of fighting them and reading biased newspaper stories about them, were eager for a chance to spill Native American blood. The massacre is a microcosm for the history of Native American-U.S. relations in the 19th century: the military interpreted a vaguely “violent” act as an act of aggression against the U.S., and used the act as an excuse to brutalize the Native American population.
Days later, soldiers dragged away the bodies of the three hundred murdered Native Americans of Wounded Knee. The soldiers threw the bodies in open wagons and carted them across the state into a church. By the time they arrived, it was four days after Christmas, in the year 1890. On the pulpit of the church was written a message: “PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.”
Brown brings his book to a scathing, bitter ending. The bleakly ironic contrast between the pile of massacred bodies and the blandly optimistic message on the church pulpit perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of the era. At the time, the United States was under the spell of the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny—the belief that “true Americans” (i.e., whites) had a near-religious duty to colonize the wilderness. But this idealism was just a smokescreen for the horrific truth: the colonization of the west in the 19th was nothing short of genocide.