Native Americans—The End of an Era
WHO has not watched a typical cowboys-and-Indians film? People the world over have heard of Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and the Lone Ranger and of the Indians Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph, as well as many others. But just how authentic have Hollywood’s renderings been? And how evenhanded have their portrayals of the Indians been?
The story of the conquest of the Native North Americans (Indians) by Europeans raises questions.a Have the history books dealt the Indians a fair hand? Are there any lessons to be learned about greed, oppression, racism, and atrocities? What is the true story of the so-called cowboys and Indians?
Custer’s Last Stand and the Massacre at Wounded Knee
In the year 1876, medicine man Sitting Bull of the Lakota (one of the three main divisions of the Sioux) was a leader at the famous battle of the Little Bighorn River, in Montana. With 650 soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel “Long Hair” Custer thought he could easily defeat 1,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. This was a gross miscalculation. He was facing probably the largest group of Native American warriors ever assembled—about 3,000.
Custer split his 7th Cavalry Regiment into three groups. Without waiting for support from the other two, his group attacked what he thought would be a vulnerable part of the Indian camp. Led by headmen Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull, the Indians wiped out Custer and his unit of some 225 soldiers. It was a temporary victory for the Indian nations but a bitter defeat for the U.S. Army. However, terrible revenge was only 14 years away.
Eventually, Sitting Bull surrendered, having been promised a pardon. Instead, he was confined for a time at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. In his later years, he appeared in public in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show. The once illustrious leader had become a mere shadow of the influential medicine man he used to be.
In 1890, Sitting Bull (Lakota name, Tatanka Iyotake) was shot to death by Indian police officers who had been sent to arrest him. His killers were Sioux “Metal Breasts” (police-badge holders), Lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Red Tomahawk.
In that same year, Indian resistance to the white man’s dominance was finally broken at the massacre of Wounded Knee Creek on the American Great Plains. There, about 320 fleeing Sioux men, women, and children were killed by federal troops and their Hotchkiss rapid-fire cannons. The soldiers boasted that this was their vengeance for the slaughter of their comrades, Custer and his men, on the ridges overlooking the Little Bighorn River. Thus ended over 200 years of sporadic wars and skirmishes between the invading American settlers and the besieged resident tribes.
But how did Native Americans get established in North America in the first place? What kind of life-style did they have before the white man first set foot in North America?b What led to their final defeat and subjection? And what is the present situation of the Indians in a country now dominated by the descendants of the early European immigrants? These and other questions will be discussed in the articles that follow.
a While the term “Native American” is now preferred by some, “Indian” is also still commonly used in many sources. We will be using these terms interchangeably. “Indian” is the misnomer given to the natives by Columbus, who thought that he had reached India when he landed in what is now known as the West Indies.
b In these articles we are dealing only with North American Indians. The Amerindians of Mexico, Central America, and South America—Aztecs, Maya, Incas, Olmec, and others—will be considered in future issues of this magazine.
[Picture on page 3]
Burying the dead at Wounded Knee
Montana Historical Society