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Opinion
Tim Giago: December a hard time for Lakota people


The month of December means different things to many people. To those that have lost a loved one, the festive days of December can be a time of sorrow. To the Lakota, it is a month of sad memories.

My very best friend Ron Holt, Nez Perce, is suffering through the Christmas holidays because for the first time in more than 30 years, he will not have his lovely wife Muriel at his side to share the happiness. Muriel passed away in the early fall and her passing has left a terrible tear in Ron’s heart. He is struggling to recover and to move on with his life.

The month of December was a time of terror for the Lakota People in the year 1890. First of all, the great Lakota leader, Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was killed, assassinated some would say, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

At daybreak on December 15, 1890, 43 Indian police officers, led by Bull Head, surrounded the Sitting Bull’s cabin with the intention of placing him under arrest. When Sitting Bull emerged from his cabin he was surprised to see many Ghost Dancers watching and waiting. Catch The Bear attempted to stop the police from taking Sitting Bull. He fired a rifle shot that wounded Bull Head. In the same instant Red Tomahawk fired his rifle. The bullet struck Sitting Bull in the head killing him instantly. (The Genius of Sitting Bull by Emmett C. Murphy)

Many Lakota believe that it was the white man’s fear of the Ghost Dance that eventually led to the death of Sitting Bull. The Ghost Dance was a sacred dance that was brought to the Sioux by the Paiute Medicine Man Wovoka. The dancers believed that by participating in the dance they would become untouchable by enemy bullets and that all of buffalo and their ancestors would return to this earth and the land would become free of the white man.

Indian Agent James McLaughlin despised Sitting Bull because of the fame he enjoyed amongst his fellow Lakota. When the Ghost Dance began to sweep the reservation Sitting Bull did not condemn it, and although he never joined in the dance himself, he allowed it to take place on his land. This inaction by Sitting Bull allowed McLaughlin to find the perfect reason to arrest him for breaking the law. And so the death of Sitting Bull would lead to the tragedy of Wounded Knee.

A poem in the great historical book “Voices of Wounded Knee,” by William S. E. Coleman, goes:
Old Sitting Bull has gone away,
Beyond the world of care,
To join the Ghost Dance warriors,
In the Badlands over there.

Down on the Cheyenne River Agency Chief Sitanka (Big Foot) became aware of the fear sweeping through his land. With nearly 300 of his followers he embarked on a journey to the Pine Ridge Reservation where he and his people would seek refuge with the Lakota Chief Red Cloud.

In the meantime some of the local newspapers were enraged over what they considered to be the sensationalism style of reporting by some of the reporters stationed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Chadron (NE) Democrat accused two reporters, Will Cressey of the Omaha Bee, and William Fitch Kelley, of the Lincoln State Journal of generating heated excitement where there was none. “The Indian excitement is accounting for one thing at least; that of having produced a crop of fine, large sensational mongers and liars of the first water,” the Chadron Democrat reported.

Major General Nelson A. Miles believed that despite the transgressions of the press, the situation was stabilizing. Perhaps it was stabilizing amongst the Indians, but apparently not amongst the soldiers from Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s old outfit, the Seventh Cavalry. General Miles would later write, “The art of war among the white people is called strategy or tactics; when it is practiced by the Indians it is called treachery.”

Many Lakota believe that the spirit of Custer was present at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890. When the smoke cleared on that bitter cold morning nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children lay dead on the frozen ground.

Afterwards one battle hardened soldier said to the New York World, “There is the strongest kind of prejudice among the officer and men on the frontier stations against the Indians. Like General Sheridan, they believed ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ As compared with the white man, his life is worth almost nothing; and it is not regarded as a crime to shoot a poor red devil for a trifling offense.”

As we move into the joyful days of December, the memories of many Lakota will turn to the tragic events of December 1890. They will recall with sadness those horrible days that shaped and nearly destroyed a people.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
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Tim Giago: Native American Day in South Dakota (11/10)
Tim Giago: Ignorance and racism in mascots (11/3)
Tim Giago: On statistics and being independent (10/27)
Tim Giago: Another important election in November (10/21)
Tim Giago: No longer undecided about the election (10/20)
Tim Giago: Creating the Native American Party (10/13)
Tim Giago: Indian voters must remain independent (10/6)
Tim Giago: My advice to aspiring young writers (9/29)
Tim Giago: Market collapse affects Indian Country (9/22)
Tim Giago: Still undecided, despite all the hate mail (9/15)
Tim Giago: Independent police force at Pine Ridge (9/8)
Tim Giago: Charles Trimble always a hero to me (9/3)
Tim Giago: Moving from victimhood to victors (9/1)
Charles Trimble: On the last Indian war with Giago (9/1)
Tim Giago: Undecided as election approaches (8/25)
Tim Giago: School is still out on Indian gaming (8/18)
Tim Giago: Tom Daschle for Interior Secretary (8/11)
Tim Giago: Billy Mills, the pride of the Lakota Nation (8/4)
Tim Giago: Moving back to the land of the Lakota (7/28)
Tim Giago: Jobs and homes in Indian Country (7/21)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee from an FBI agent's view (7/14)
Tim Giago: Navajo Nation finally takes the plunge (6/23)
Tim Giago: Mt. Rushmore through Native eyes (6/9)
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Tim Giago: How Native people feel about mascots (4/28)
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Tim Giago: Bury My Hertz at Wounded Knee (3/31)
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Tim Giago: Paying tribute to Harold Iron Shield (2/27)
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Tim Giago: Claiming Indian status to get ahead (1/28)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee book a must read (1/21)
Tim Giago: Sen. Barack Obama and the 'R-Word' (1/14)
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