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Across The Fence: Ms. Goodale and the Ghost Dance War – Part I


The year 1990 marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. That 100th anniversary heralded the first Big Foot Memorial Ride made by descendants of the people of the Sioux Nation who lived through, or died during, the notorious massacre on December 29, 1890.

In 1990, there were fourth- and fifth-generation descendants who wanted to make a ride in memory of Sioux Chief Unpan Gleska, (Spotted Elk, most commonly known by the whites as Big Foot) and the men, women and children who were slaughtered in his camp. It was Big Foot's band of Miniconjou Sioux that was surrounded and disarmed by U.S. troops on Wounded Knee Creek in southern South Dakota. These descendants began a tradition that has endured for nearly a quarter century and will likely continue for decades to come.

This past December 2014 was the 24th Big Foot Memorial Ride that started in Bullhead, S.D. – the burial site of Sitting Bull – and ended at the Wounded Knee mass-gravesite near Pine Ridge, S.D.. The ride covers somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 miles beginning on the anniversary of Sitting Bull's assassination, Dec. 15 in the year1890 and ending at Wounded Knee on the anniversary date of Dec. 29. This years ride was exceptionally brutal for both horses and riders as the South Dakota winter struck with ferocious winds, blinding blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, a winter not unlike 1890.

There are many written accounts of the massacre at Wounded Knee from multiple sources. Military records contain first hand reports of the event written by those in command; newspapers across the country carried headlining narratives and eyewitness accounts from both the Sioux and whites are abundant. Among these many accounts is the diary and later writings of a young idealistic and sympathetic teacher, Elaine Goodale.

Goodale was 22 years when she first arrived at the Sioux reservation in September of 1885. It was, she wrote, "a forlorn, straggling concentration camp in the middle of the vast empty spaces of Dakota Territory."

At that time Sitting Bull, one of the last great war leaders of the Sioux, was traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody in his famous Wild West Extravaganza. A few short years earlier the Sioux had conducted the last great buffalo hunt that defined the sudden end of their independence and former way of life. What remained were the remnants of a vanquished people where traditional buffalo hides were replaced by canvas, cotton cloth and threadbare blankets. Their life of confinement reduced them to dependence on the meager monthly rations of tainted beef and pork, raw flour and coffee, in quantities insufficient to satisfy their hunger.

Goodale visited all of the Sioux agencies in Dakota Territory as a representative of General Armstrong's experimental Indian school in Hampton, Virginia where she had served as a faculty member for the previous two years. Her visit among the Sioux convinced her that the most effective way to educate and assimilate the Indian was to provide schools within their own communities.

The then current method of educating and converting the "savage Indian" to the ways of the white man was to literally immerse them in white culture. This was accomplished by shipping the young boys and girls of the tribes to boarding schools in the east, like Hampton and Carlisle. The children were forbidden to speak their own language, forced to adhere to white custom and wear proper western attire. They had their long hair cut short and were indoctrinated in the Christian faith. The assumption, though false, was that this forced exposure to the white world would eventually result in them becoming white.

Goodale did not agree with this notion and one year later, in 1886, she returned to Dakota Territory and the Sioux reservations with a commission from the Office of Indian Affairs for the purpose of organizing a community school. She believed so strongly that if the Sioux, and other tribes, did not assimilate into white culture they would soon be annihilated.

In early 1889 before the Dakota Territory became a state, Congress passed the "Sioux bill" that authorized the purchase of millions of acres of Sioux lands for less than $1 per acre. This law passed with its required two-thirds majority despite opposition both in Washington and among the Sioux. The payment was to be made after white settlers had paid the required fees for homesteading. (This payment has never been made, the Sioux opposing the sale and rejecting the payments).

The late 1880s were also years of drought. The small fields of those Sioux who attempted to become farmers, dried up and crops failed.

It was alleged that the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations were receiving more supplies than the treaty allowed. Rations were cut by nearly three million pounds and an already starving people were now hungrier and more desperate than ever. "Old folks lost their hold on life," wrote Goodale, "and heart-broken mothers mourned the last of a series of dead babes."

In the summer of 1889, Goodale accompanied a group of Sioux families on an antelope hunt in the Nebraska sand hills. One of her diary entries from that trip reads: "July 23, 1889. So tired I fall asleep before supper. Later in the night a cry is raised: 'A traveler comes!' Chasing Crane, on his way home from Rosebud, is welcomed with supper and a smoke. He tells a strange story of the second appearing of Christ! God, he says, has appeared to the Crows! In the midst of a council He came from nowhere and announced Himself as the Savior who came upon earth once and was killed by white men. He had been grieved by the crying of parents for their dead children, and would let the sky down upon the earth and destroy the disobedient. He was beautiful to look upon, and bore paint as a sign of power. Men and women listen to this curious tale with apparent credence. A vapor bath [sweat] is arranged, and I fall asleep again to the monotonous rise and fall of the accompanying songs."

In the fall of 1889, Goodale returned to Washington where she met with President Harrison's newly appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, General Thomas J. Morgan.

General Morgan was a former educator and had plans to revamp the current ineffective school system on the reservations and Goodale would be an integral part of that restructuring. By April of the following year, 1890, she was back in the Dakotas, now U.S. states, and was named the first Supervisor of Education for the Sioux. Within the boundaries of those states were more than 60 Indian schools in need of a defined purpose and clear direction.

She wrote, "A gifted, lovable, self-reliant people stood at the crisis of their fate. The old way of life was hopelessly destroyed and the more far-seeing leaders ready and eager to advance into a new world. The hour had struck for a swift transition to another pattern of life altogether, before their self-respect had been undermined and their courage exhausted. Education was the master-key."

Despite Goodale's most sincere efforts at education, the hardships and unrest among the Sioux continued. The effects of drought and insufficient rations created a desperate people vulnerable to even the most remote possibilities of hope for the future. The "new religion" offered that hope.

In spring 1890, Red Cloud sent a delegation of five men over the Rocky Mountains and into the land of the Crow to learn more about this new "Messiah" for the Red Man. They returned with the same story that was told by Chasing Crane the summer before when he returned to the Rosebud Agency.

The legend of an Indian Messiah had been raised among various tribes from time to time ever since Christian missionaries had come to the plains. A combination of Christian beliefs and Indian culture culminated in the hopes placed in the new religion.

For The Sun-Telegraph

Elaine Goodale Eastman; circa 1890

This particular "craze," as it was called by newspaper reporters from the east, originated with a Paiute Indian in Nevada called Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson. Jack had long been known for his frequent "divine" fainting spells and religious delusions. But there was nothing in his teachings that advocated violence.

During the time of extreme hardship and oppression this new religion offered a tenuous thread of hope and everyone talked about its possibilities.

Most Sioux were nothing more than mildly curious and others somewhat apprehensive although there were some who embraced the idea of a miraculous intervention that would restore the land to the people and remove the curse of the white man. This was hope at a time when all else had failed and it seemed as if all things, the earth and sky and even the Great Mystery had turned against them.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact him via email at


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