Where Our Hearts Are Still Buried

Review of Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre, by Heather Cox Richardson (New York: Basic Books, 2010)

In the fall of 1890, administration of the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of six Sioux Reservations in South Dakota, fell to Republican agent Daniel Royer. Fearful that the new Ghost Dance Religion—a gospel preached by the Northern Paiute mystic Wovoka of an imminent millennium that would deliver Native Americans from the sufferings imposed by the whites— that was spreading with fervor among the Sioux bands would incite an uprising, Royer called for military assistance.

Cover of Wounded Knee Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox Richardson
Cover of Wounded Knee Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox Richardson.

As winter approached troops flooded across the Dakotas and on December 15 Sitting Bull, the famed leader of the Battle of Little Bighorn, was killed when agency police attempted his arrest. Sioux bands feared that the whites were planning additional arrests. Reservation leaders asked Big Foot, leader of the Minneconjou Teton Sioux, to come to Pine Ridge Reservation with his followers in hopes that together they could restore the peace. Intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry commanded by Colonel James W. Forysth on December 28, Big Foot's band made camp for the night about five miles east of Wounded Knee Creek.

On the following morning the soldiers attempted to disarm the Indian camp. A shot rang out as one man refused to give up his gun and the edgy soldiers opened fire. At least 150 Sioux men, women, and children were killed in the ensuing massacre. Babies were shot while still in their cradleboards. The army's Hotchkiss canons tore through wagons filled with fleeing human cargo of women and children, their bodies torn apart by the cannon's volleys. The Wounded Knee Massacre has since lived on as an enduring symbol for all the deprivations that American civilization has enacted on the native peoples of the Americas.

In this evocative study, Heather Cox Richardson, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, places partisan politics of the Benjamin Harrison administration at the heart of "the road to an American massacre." Richardson traces the origins of the massacre to Republican Party machinations—a political machine that served the big business interests that supported them and led by man who believed that God had given him the presidency. "The Harrison administration," Richardson explains, "has wrongly been buried in obscurity, for its effects were far-reaching. Its aggressive use of rhetoric, disseminated by its own media, had frightening repercussions" (308). Their partisan magazine, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, served as the mouthpiece of the party, disseminating only the party line to its readers. By the 1880s "it seemed that nothing now stood in the way of the triumph of the Republican economic system" that embraced the new industrial economy (77).

The administration needed western voters to retain its hegemony, and Republicans hoped that supporting statehood for the western Territories would create voter loyalty there. Republicans envisioned a West that embraced the new economic order. Harrison opened the Dakota reservations for white settlements in early 1890 and settlers and railwaymen flooded in. The Sioux were to Harrison "obstacles to be brushed out of the path of economic growth" (116). As Democrats and Republicans argued over their visions of the West, and with major Democratic wins in the midterm elections of 1890, Republicans needed to prove their control of the Territories. Thus Republican yes-man Royer's cry for military assistance against the rising Ghost Dance movement set in motion the immediate events that would lead to the deaths at Wounded Knee. In the aftermath the massacre, Republican politicians attempted to clean up their mess. Through portraying the massacre as a "battle," exonerating Colonel Forsyth from wrongdoing, and awarding twenty of the soldiers with the Medal of Honor, the events at Wound Knee were covered with a heavy coat of whitewash.

Wounded Knee covers a lot of ground. From an opening primer on antebellum America from the Missouri Compromise to the Civil War, through its narrative on western developments such as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and an extended account of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and to party politics over issues as the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, Wounded Knee is as an excellent account of late nineteenth century America. As much as Richardson covers, she might have spent more time discussing the reservation boarding schools, which after the 1870s became the defining experience for generations of American Indians, and the bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Affairs.  These would have nicely augmented Richardson's exploration of party politics and Indian relations.

Books, documentaries, and even an HBO movie have dramatized the Wounded Knee Massacre and Richardson dispels the need for some to find a romantic story amidst the story of Sioux resistance. White reformer Elaine Goodale and Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa) were drawn together by the events on the Pine Ridge Reservation, leading Eastman to propose marriage days prior to the massacre. Richardson is skeptical of the romance, however, believing Goodale to be motivated be a larger commitment to the welfare of Goodale's "adopted people." The troubled marriage and separation that followed reminds us that there is no romance to find in the events surrounding Wounded Knee.

The reader must fight the feeling of déjà vu as she reaches the end of Wounded Knee because Richardson relates the events of the massacre, first presented in the introduction, for a second time. The author seems caught by her organization. Using the massacre as the opening vignette, Richardson grabbed the reader's attention quickly to show the end result of Republican partisanship over western development but after having built her narrative of the events leading to the massacre it became necessary to relate the course of the massacre again. The effect is anticlimactic as we read again of Good Thunder beginning the Ghost Dance as the soldiers search for weapons, the deaf Black Coyote refusing to part with his Winchester, and the initial volley of bullets tearing through young children playing leap-frog. A more effective method may be to change perspectives: perhaps telling the Wounded Knee Massacre through whites' eyes in the introduction and then through Indian eyes for the second telling.

After finishing the book I found myself shelving it with my books on late-nineteenth century politics and not in my separate Native American history section, for it is in the political realm that the strength of the book lies. The few criticisms presented here, however, do not outweigh the book's many achievements. Heather Cox Richardson provides an excellent examination of the disastrous consequences of a political party working to serve its own interests above all else. Wounded Knee deserves a wide readership as it brings the Harrison administration into the light from its obscurity and I look forward to assigning it in my next course. I hope my students' eyes are opened to the larger implications it raises.