Richardson (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, 2007, etc.) argues that the Wounded Knee massacre was a direct result of Gilded Age political expediency.
The author examines partisan wrangling in the decades after the Civil War that observers of the current scene will find all too familiar. Looking to expand their power, President Benjamin Harrison and a Republican-controlled Congress admitted South Dakota to the Union in 1889. Few in Washington cared that much of the state’s land was the Sioux reservation. The plans of railroad and mining companies, reliable supporters of the Republicans, trumped the welfare of the indigenous peoples. Enlightened whites of the day saw the “civilization” of the Sioux—by which they meant turning them into ersatz whites—as the highest goal for the natives. Others, remembering Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, would have been just as happy to see them exterminated. Indian agents, who were usually unqualified if not outright corrupt, doled out rations stingily. So when in 1890 Sioux (and other tribes) responded to the threats to their way of life by adopting the Ghost Dance religion, which promised the disappearance of whites and the return of buffalo and open land, the whites perceived it as a rebellion. The U.S. Army was called in to stabilize the situation. The stakes were raised by an unresolved election that could determine control of the Senate and a power struggle between the Army and the Department of the Interior, which oversaw Indian affairs. The atrocity, during which soldiers mowed down some 300 Sioux men, women and children, was probably preventable, but few of those who participated seemed to know how to stop it—or made any great effort to do so. Richardson brings the actors, both Sioux and white, into clear perspective, and paints the broader context with a deft hand.
Sober but stinging account of one of the saddest chapters in American history.