By Rita Shelley
This blog began with my discovery that Carl Smith, a 19th century Nebraska journalist, had been dispatched to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to cover events that have since become known as the December 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. I once again was captivated by my calling to research and report on local history that I wasn’t taught in school. That I began this discovery upon the very site from which Fort Omaha soldiers were mustered for battle made this story all the more compelling. It would be my privilege to tell it.
Ignoring the limitations that a blog is neither a book nor a movie script, I nevertheless enmired myself in background research. I emerged with confidence that Carl Smith’s work was important both as a primary source and as an example of journalism of its time. I could cover its content and significance in a blog-length post.
By chance, I also came across two more Wounded Knee eyewitnesses with ties to Omaha, Susette (Bright Eyes) La Flesche Tibbles (daughter of Iron Eye, the last traditional chief of the Omaha Tribe) and her husband, Thomas Henry Tibbles. Less well known to Nebraskans than her sister Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, Susette was active worldwide as an author, lecturer, and advocate of indigenous rights through the last third of the 19th century until her death in 1905. Thomas Tibbles survived the skirmishes of Bloody Kansas and was both a newspaper correspondent and combatant in the Civil War. In 1870s Omaha, he led a Presbyterian congregation while reporting for and editing the Omaha Bee and later the Omaha World-Herald. He and Bright Eyes had taken up the cause of Chief Standing Bear during whose Fort Omaha trial Bright Eyes served as interpreter. Following the trial, Tibbles, Chief Standing Bear, and Bright Eyes embarked upon a lecture tour of the east coast and Britain. Bright Eyes and Thomas Tibbles were married in 1882 at the Omaha Reservation’s Presbyterian Mission. Visiting home during a break in traveling, Bright Eyes helped her family with farm work. In December 1890, Bright Eyes and Thomas were dispatched by the Omaha World-Herald to Pine Ridge. “They will visit the Sioux. No other newspaper correspondents have done or could do this,” the editor explained.
Portrait of Bright Eyes (Susette La Flesche Tibbles), c. 1900. Image source.
Portrait of Thomas H. Tibbles, c. 1910. Image source.
Telling only Carl Smith’s story would be to bury the lede. All three reported from the unique point of view of empathy with the Sioux people as fellow citizens of the Great Plains. Their concurrent reportage is all the more relevant to current times for all three reporters’ refusal to sensationalize rumors of impending trouble. The fact that Pine Ridge was crawling with a Wounded Knee press corps was also good for taverns, hotels, restaurants, and courier services was not lost on Smith. Tibbles also wrote that the railroad towns near the reservation, after years of economic hardship, were temporarily profitable selling supplies and services for the Army and its followers.
Summarizing the prequel to the conflict that emerged between the Lakota of Pine Ridge and the U.S. Army during the spring and summer of 1890 would be to synthesize centuries of western colonization. In particular, the last decade of the 19th century brought conflict attributed to White’s fear of Native American Ghost Dancing. The Ghost Dance movement had first taken hold among western tribes in the 1870s, when a Northern Paiute prophet, Wodziwob, and a Paiute medicine man named Tavibo preached that Ghost Dancing would restore their former ways of life. The belief that Ghost Dancing “would bring back dead Indians, return plentiful buffalo herds, and induce a natural disaster that would sweep away whites” then took hold among Lakota Sioux in the 1880s. Lakotas added to the rituals they had adopted, wearing “ghost shirts” that they believed would protect them from danger, including enemy fire. To native tribes across the West, ghost dancing would bring the Messiah and return their old ways of life.
Native Americans performing ritual Ghost Dance. One standing woman is wearing a white dress, a special costume for the ritual dance, 1890. Photo by James Mooney, an ethnologist with US Dept. of Interior. Image source: PBS
To Whites, ghost dancing was a declaration of war, especially when orders to stop these rituals were being ignored. On December 28, Ghost Dancers surrendered at Wounded Knee Creek. Then, on December 29, a Lakota man accidently discharged his rifle during a scuffle with a soldier. In a matter of minutes, the battle both started and ended. Soldiers were armed with four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns that lobbed exploding shells every second. The Lakota were armed with “a few guns, some knives, rocks, and their bare hands.” The dead were found as far as two miles away to where they had run for cover.
In an April 1892 report to an association of military surgeons, Captain Charles Ewing, assistant surgeon of the Department of the Platte, reported from his vantage point of having provided medical assistance to wounded soldiers. Thirty men were killed and thirty more were wounded by friendly fire. Estimates of the number of Lakota killed range from 250 to 300.
Captain Ewing also described the horrific injuries that both soldiers and Lakota incurred:
The apertures of exit were frequently much larger than those of entrance. Fragments of clothing, splinters and pieces of lead were at times left in the wounds by the bullets, which, when permitted to remain… often rendering secondary operations necessary. These bullets… easily lose their regular form and “mushroom,” [burst into] fragments upon contact. These wounds are further complicated by the splintering and not infrequently the complete shattering of bones.
But Carl Smith couldn’t have foreseen this grisly outcome when he joined Fort Omaha troops in November 1890 on the trek to South Dakota, first by train to Rushville in northwest Nebraska, followed by a 25-mile march to Pine Ridge. There had been a celebration at Fort Omaha. The bugle sounded, there were three cheers, and the band played “Annie Laurie.” Smith wrote:
By tonight 800 men from the department of the Platte, in addition to those from the department of Dakota, will have reached the heart of Indian country, and the settlers have been reassured and the government put in a position to tell the Indians to return to their reservation or fight. If engagement takes place, five to six thousand troops will be rapidly put in the field.
The men had hurried up; now they waited. Smith occupied himself by reporting on what he heard and saw, concluding that “The utmost watchfulness is being exercised by the authorities and any outbreak of excitement on the part of the Indians will be promptly suppressed.” Limitations of technology aggravated him. The telegraph line between Pine Ridge and Rushville was down, so he had to send his dispatches via couriers who charged double their pre-war price.
Meanwhile, Smith interviewed V.T. McGillicuddy, the Pine Ridge agent who preceded the current agent Daniel F. Royer, the alleged source of the call to arms. “The trouble is the unavoidable culmination of laxity of discipline, scant rations, and above all a criminally asinine Indian department and policy,” McGillicuddy said. Smith’s summation was that “The situation is just this, the troops are here, having marched up the hill like the army of the king of France, and now it seems that there is nothing to do but march down again.
A month later the World Herald’s front-page headline required six column inches of hand-set lead type:
ALL MURDERED IN A MASS
Big Foot and His Followers Shot Down Without Re-
gard to Sex,
An effort to Disarm the Hostiles
Brings on a Battle With Over-
Men, Women and Children Said to Have
Been Shot Down by the Troops
Wounded Indian Mothers and
Babes Lying on Beds of
Horrible Agonies Endured by
the Injured, Who Bear Their
Thomas Tibbles had also witnessed the growing tension, in addition to defending himself and Bright Eyes against the nagging of their Omaha editors: “We absolutely refused to manufacture tales about a “war” which simply did not exist.” Even more than a century removed, contemporary readers of Tibbles’ autobiography can hear and see what he heard and saw on the battlefield:
Suddenly I heard a single shot from the direction of the troops – then three or four—and immediately a volley. At once came a general rattle of rifle firing. Then the Hotchkiss guns. I saw curtains of smoke rise up through the still air. I could see Indians moving on the hills between me and the camp. What did it all mean?
He also provided an account of the medical surgeon’s dismay. “Major Hartsuff,” battle hardened by his service to maimed Civil War soldiers, grew pale at the sight of Lakota casualties, women and children. “I can’t stand it,” Tibbles quoted Hartsuff.
In possibly one of the most important missives of her career, Bright Eyes also described details of casualties of both Indians and Whites, in hopes that there would be no more suffering. Excerpted here:
HORRORS OF WAR
Wounded Indian Mothers and
Babes Lying on Beds of
Horrible Agonies Endured by
the Injured, Who Bear Their
Bright Eyes Tells of the Terrible
Havoc Wrought by the Shot
of the Soldiers
What the Maimed and Helpless Women
and Children Say of Their
Scenes in the Hospital—An Appeal to the
White Man’s Government
The next morning after the wounded had been brought in by the Seventh cavalry, my companion [Tibbles] and I went to see some of the wounded Indian women and children, most of whom had been carried into the Episcopal church.
When we went into the church the Christmas decorations were still there, but the seats had been torn up. Hay thrown on the floor for mattresses and the wounded lying in the hay.
I have been thus particular in giving horrible details in the hope of rousing such an indication that another such causeless war shall never again be allowed by the people of the United States.
Soldiers and Indians have lost their lives through the fault of somebody who goes scot free from all the consequences or blame. The conviction is slowly forming itself into my mind that this has been deliberately brought about because their land was wanted. If the white people want their land and must have it, they can go about getting it in some other way than by forcing it from them by starving them or provoking them to war and sacrificing the lives of innocent women and children, and through the sufferings of the wives and children of officers and soldiers.
They are a notoriously generous people and I think in some cases would give land if they felt sure the white people were just to them and were their friends. No one ever seems to have thought of this way of getting their lands. They are only human beings after all and one of their weaknesses is that when their generosity is appealed to they are inclined to be generous in excess. When you see the hardships the soldiers are going through, standing guard through wind and storm day and night, and look around our dead and wounded, and think that all … was brought about through the hopes of money and land gained from the Indians, that verse of scripture involuntarily comes into one’s mind: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”
Two weeks after the battle, soldiers were lauded for their bravery and given medals in recognition of their service. Two years later, a monument to the soldiers killed at Wounded Knee was installed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Smith continued his journalism career, pausing in 1895 to read his prose and poetry at a benefit for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Susette Tibbles continued to write, publish, and lecture.
Thomas Tibbles pronounced that “Buckskins and blankets were done.”
In 1975, the 85th anniversary of Wounded Knee, South Dakota Senator James Abourezk introduced a bill to pay $3,000 for each Lakota killed or wounded in the massacre, with payments to be divided among heirs. According to the New York Times, the Department of the Army said describing Wounded Knee as a massacre was a misrepresentation. Rather, the Times quoted the Army’s statement: “it was a ‘spontaneous and heated battle’ in which both sides got ‘carried away.’” Further, the Army reported that Lakota shared responsibility for the violence, “so ‘an award to the survivors or heirs of these individuals would be inappropriate.’”