To learn more about the Native American Ghost Dance movement and the conflagration at Wounded Knee in 1890, over the weekend I read Rex Alan Smith’s Moon of the Popping Trees: The Tragedy at Wounded Knee and the End of the Indian Wars. Smith has constructed a crisp narrative that will hold your attention.
For those unfamiliar Lakota history from 1850-1890 and the larger Ghost Dance movement that began in 1879, this is a nice introduction. At a mere 200 pages, Moon of the Popping Trees qualifies as a summer read, suitable for the beach. Its most outstanding feature is Smith’s effort to tell the story from two perspectives — that of the government, army, and settlers on the one side and of the splintered Lakota on the other. Smith largely succeeds in this until the final chapters, when it comes to the events of Wounded Knee.
Non-polarized assessments are not very popular these days, and Smith’s contentions are sure to offend all sides. No one comes out looking particularly good, and each side has its share of good and bad. Smith’s determination to tell a balanced story is both a strength and a weakness. One gets the sense that for each event, there are two perspectives (true) and each perspective was simultaneously reasonable and unreasonable (not so true). There comes a point when balance for balance’s sake ends up distorting actual history.
While I recommend this book, there is a problem: Smith is neither an historian nor an academic. Under different circumstances, I would say this is a plus — scholarly writing can be dessicated, narrow, and digressive. In this case however, Smith is covering disputed ground and without citations (there are no footnotes or endnotes, though there is a sparse bibliography that would not be acceptable to a graduate school committee or peer review panel) one cannot verify Smith’s assertions or arguments.
Finally, I find it hard to accept his conclusion that Wounded Knee was a “battle” rather than a “massacre.” Even if one was not aware of the many different accounts of this event (which I am), you could use Smith’s information to come to a completely different conclusion.
Smith notes that Chief Big Foot’s abject band of 300 was comprised mostly of women and children, that the adult men among them were few and not well armed, and that all of them were starving and suffering from prolonged exposure to cold. Before embarking on their trek which tragically ended at Wounded Knee, they had spent more than a decade on the reservation, being systematically beaten down and broken apart.
Contrast this to the 500 well-fed, equipped, and armed soldiers sent to prevent Chief Big Foot’s band from reaching Pine Ridge. This army unit infamously included the reconstituted 7th Cavalry, which had been humiliated at the Custer battle in 1876 and was itching for retribution. Smith provides us with the chilling orders issued to the army, but says nothing more about the implications:
Disarm the Indians. Take every precaution to prevent their escape. If they choose to fight, destroy them.
Short, concise, and clear. The results were deadly, and it was not a battle. One can come to this conclusion only by relying primarily or exclusively on government and army sources, which apparently is what Smith did.
In the end, 200 Lakota lay dead and 25 soldiers were killed. Beginning with the famous photo of Chief Big Foot (who was suffering from pneumonia and coughing blood when the shooting started), here is the gruesome aftermath:
It is hard to look at these photos and not be reminded of events in Europe fifty years later.
While Smith claims that most of the soldiers were killed by a few warriors defending the women, children, and elderly being slaughtered by 500 troopers using rifles and 4 Hotchkiss cannons with exploding shells (with a firing rate of 1 shell per second), this strains credulity. Unwisely, the army commander had formed his troops in a circle around the Lakota, so when the firing began the troopers were shooting not only at the unprotected Lakota, but also at their fellows — killing each other with “friendly” fire. This resulted in a court martial for the commander.
These defects aside, Moon of the Popping Trees offers considerable insight into the dysfunctional social and economic conditions that often lead to millenarian, apocalyptic, and eschatological religious movements.