As interpreter Philip Wells listened carefully, the Sioux medicine man’s incantations took on a darker tone. It had looked as if Big Foot’s Minneconjous would go peaceably into the Pine Ridge Agency this surprisingly mild morning of December 29, 1890. Colonel James W. Forsyth’s 7th Cavalry troopers had surrounded the band of 350 souls the night before. A white cloth fluttered in front of the tent of Big Foot, who was suffering from pneumonia. All that remained was to confiscate their weapons and start the 18-mile march from Wounded Knee Creek.
The army that staffed the forts near the Sioux reservations (the Great Sioux Reservation had recently been carved up into six smaller reservations to open up land for settlers) had been on Big Foot’s heels for a month, determined to bring his Ghost Dancers under closer supervision. Whites in the towns and ranches on the reservations’ borders, panicky Indian agents and excited reporters who called themselves war correspondents were all demanding that something be done. If these dangerous malcontented Sioux were not corralled and controlled, the scaremongers raved, everyone in the vicinity would be scalped in their beds! Big Foot’s band included some of the most fervent, most obsessive dancers; it was essential they be disarmed.
Yet getting warriors to surrender their guns was a touchy business. Guns were pivotal to the life they’d always known; a man without a gun was hardly a man. And, as Forsyth and an ailing Big Foot parleyed in the center of the camp on Wounded Knee Creek, using the 40-year-old Wells as their go-between, a medicine man (still often referred to as Yellow Bird, but more probably Stosa Yanka, or Sits Up Straight) whirled and dipped, threw handfuls of dust into the air and urged the Minneconjous to believe what the Ghost Dance taught.
‘Do not fear, he told his comrades, assuring them that the soldiers’ bullets could not penetrate them. The painted dancer’s eagle-bone whistle piped shrilly as he moved around the 40-foot council area in front of Big Foot’s tent. The prairie is large, and their bullets will fly over the prairies and will not come toward us, he promised. If they do come toward us, they will float away like dust in the air. He threw another handful of dust toward the soldiers’ line, and the dust swirled harmlessly away. As troopers moved through the camp, emptying tepees and wagons, scattering belongings on the ground, Wells could see the younger braves catching the painted dancer’s frenzy. Hau! Hau! they cried, in support of the medicine man’s words. Urging them on, the Ghost Dancer exclaimed, I have lived long enough!
Wells turned to Major Samuel Whitside, experienced in dealing with the Indians where Forsyth was not. Nodding toward the frenetic dancer, he said, That man is making mischief. Urged to repeat his message to Forsyth, Wells outlined the imminent danger. Frustrated with the Minneconjous’ resistance and convinced they were still hiding weapons, Forsyth ordered that each man and woman be searched. Wells passed on the order to Big Foot’s people.
At this news, the 100-plus warriors in the council area stirred uneasily. Defying orders to desist, the medicine man continued to gyrate. The young braves began to back away from the search lines. In the space of a breath, the atmosphere surged with tension. The 7th Cavalry troopers, most of them young and unseasoned, clenched their jaws and clutched their Springfields. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s fatal drive to the Little Bighorn was only 14 years in their regiment’s past.
The Indians were only too aware which cavalry they faced. Their triumph on the Greasy Grass (their name for the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory) had never really been avenged, and vengeance was an issue they understood to their bones. This could be a trap, younger men murmured. Why were four big guns — the ones that shot twice, exploding in bits when the balls landed — lined up on the ridge above them? Why did you point guns right at people you were not going to shoot? Once the white man had their guns, they’d be as helpless as a rabbit on a spit.
Older, wiser heads, bowed by the futility of resistance, stood and opened their robes. Five or six elders were submitting to the search when Wells heard a shout — Look out! Look out! — on his left. Men leaped to their feet. Younger warriors were throwing off their blankets, bringing their rifles to their shoulders. One brandished his rifle in the air, vowing to keep his gun forever. Another fired into the soldiers. Officers screamed at their men to return fire. The camp exploded in a tumult of gunfire and smoke. Wells whirled left, trying to keep the Ghost Dancer in sight. One of the crowd around the medicine man knocked Wells to the ground. As they struggled, a long, sharp knife was thrust at the interpreter’s face. Suddenly, his nose hung by only a strip of skin. Streaming blood, he swung his gun, struck his muscular attacker and finally managed to drive him back. Gaining room to maneuver, Wells raised his rifle and fired it into the man’s body. The warrior, in Ghost Shirt garb, fell dead.
Captain George Wallace, running for his Troop K, took a bullet in the forehead. The soft-spoken Southerner, one of the few survivors of Custer’s debacle who nevertheless was sympathetic to the Sioux’s situation, had been joking with the Minneconjous moments before. Now his blood soaked the earth.
Father Francis Kraft, a Catholic missionary, was knifed in the back as he moved among his charges. He sagged and stumbled, but managed to keep moving. Wells grabbed at his swinging nose, intent on pulling it all the way off, but an officer shouted: My God, man! Don’t do that! That can be saved! Woozy from blood loss, Wells let himself be led away for a cotton compress as the battle raged around him.
The first time Sioux warriors had left Philip Wells bleeding had been more than 25 years earlier, on August 17, 1864, when he was 13. Although renegade bands of Sioux had continued to roam after the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, Philip’s bear of a father, nicknamed Bully by white settlers and the Fox by the Santee Sioux, had little fear. It was said he never met his match in muscle or daring. Leaving his half-blood wife and their home in Fairbault, Minn., James Wells took his three sons — Aaron, 11, Wallace, 17, and Philip — and a Santee ward named George and his wife to explore a possible move to the Black Hills. Minnesota was too crowded.
West of Spirit Lake, Iowa, the group separated to hunt. Philip and George’s wife were alone in camp on the Floyd River when they were attacked by a Sioux war party. George’s wife screamed and fell, severely wounded. Philip, shot in the left arm and leg, ran from the camp and threw himself down in some tall grass. He watched an Indian coming straight toward him and debated. Should he beg for his life? Or stand up and offer to die like a man, perhaps winning the brave’s admiration? Before he could decide, the brave turned away.
Not daring to move, he lay hidden through the night. About dawn he heard little brother Aaron’s voice calling and crying. Fearing the Indians held Aaron and were making him call, Philip did not dare answer. Sometime later he saw movement in the trees. It was Wallace and George, knowing nothing of what had happened, finally returning to camp. About the same time, Aaron stumbled in with a bitter story. Their seemingly invincible father was dead. Taken captive, Aaron had been helped to escape by a sympathetic Indian. Since then he’d been running for his life. After finding and burying their father’s body, the shattered group started home.
For five days, afraid to light a fire, they existed on raw game. Traveling by night and hiding by day, pushing and pulling a teamless wagon, they reached Spirit Lake in about 10 days. There they found their first bit of luck: Their ox team had made its way to the settlement, and two of their mules had been found in the woods nearby. They moved on north into Minnesota, where George’s wife died. The boys grieved for her, whom they had loved as a member of the family. Still 75 miles from home, with Philip’s wounds starting to throb, Wallace and George took the mules and the woman’s body and drove for Fairbault to get help. Philip and Aaron followed with the oxen, Philip’s head swimming with fever, his swollen leg shooting pain with every jolt. By the time Wallace reappeared, the delirious boy was in serious shape. Their appearance in town, skeletal and scarcely recognizable, became a local legend. Townsfolk had known Bully Wells trained his boys to be tough, but the month-long trek still inspired awe.
By now the heavy gunfire on Wounded Knee Creek was dwindling away. His face and heavy mustache still dripping blood, Wells pulled impatiently away from the surgeon and went to help where he could. Then he hurried to the piles of wounded and dead in the council area. Big Foot was sprawled beside the wounded Joseph Horned Cloud. Big Foot’s daughter, shot in the back, had fallen across her father. Tents still blazed, and the acrid smell of gun smoke hung in the air. Moving among the pile of some 30 motionless bodies, Wells called out, White people are merciful to save the wounded enemy when he is harmless; so, if some of you are alive, raise your heads; I am a man of your own blood who is talking to you.
It was true. His mother had been half Santee, and had never spoken English. His uncle was a half blood, also married to a Santee. Philip had virtually no formal schooling, but possessed an ear for languages. As a child he interpreted German and French for his white neighbors and Ojibway and Winnebago among their Indian friends. He left home at 15 to roam the West and was soon fluent in the Sioux dialects. Although he was only one-quarter Sioux, that part of his heritage dominated his life. He had lived among the Sioux since 1875, serving on the reservations as a hay contractor, interpreter, farmer and assistant clerk. In 1876 he enlisted as an Army scout and interpreter. He had interpreted for and counseled the Sioux on some of their darkest days — when Crazy Horse had been killed at Fort Robinson that year, when a despondent Sitting Bull had submitted to reservation life in 1881, when they had ridden down the last buffalo herd in 1883. He looked more white than Indian, with his dark, drooping mustache, but his heart was Sioux, and they knew him as a brother.
At his words, a dozen heads raised from the pile of dead and wounded. One man lifted himself on his elbow and asked, Are you the man they call ‘the Fox?’ Wells, who had inherited the name from his father, assured him he was. Asked to come closer, Wells suspected a trick and kept his rifle ready. But the man said, Who is that man lying there half burnt? motioning to a smoldering corpse of a Sioux man the Army had burned out of a tent after he had used its cover to kill several soldiers. Wells said he was a medicine man. Raising his closed fist at the body, the Indian shot out his fingers and cursed the corpse. I am sorry I cannot do more to you, he hissed at the Ghost Dancer. If I could be taken to you, I would stab you! Turning back to Wells, he said: He is our murderer! Only for him inciting our other young men we would have been alive and happy!
The troopers were filling wagons with wounded. Wells moved up the ravine, following the people who had fled, only to be blasted by the exploding shells of Hotchkiss guns. Again he called for them to come out. As he helped an old wounded woman, she told him: The treacherous ones are of Big Foot’s band. The medicine men tried constantly to incite the others….Some of us meant peace when we raised the white flag, but trouble came anyhow.
Wells had watched with sad eyes as the Ghost Dance fever sparked, burned and blazed from west to east and finally from south to north across the Sioux lands (see Ghost Dancers’ Last Stand in the June 1993 Wild West). Increasingly upset by their shrinking reservations, the Sioux realized in 1888 that their sacred Black Hills were gone. Then the government took 11 million acres of the Great Sioux Reservation in 1889, manipulating signature requirements and promising that ration levels would be maintained. Soon after, rations were reduced by half a million pounds. Attempts to farm arid, unsuitable land brought pitiful returns. The few crops that got started burned up in the fields when June turned into July and August and the Dakota sun became a searing ball of fire. With game nearly nonexistent, the people faced starvation.
Into this sea of hunger and anger had come the news of a new religion. A Paiute shaman named Wovoka had had a vision in Nevada during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, and his words were almost too wonderful to be believed. The Sioux sent emissaries, including Kicking Bear of the Minneconjous, to learn from this new holy man. What they learned was wondrous indeed. The messiah had returned to earth for the benefit of Indians. Soon all white men would disappear from the land, the buffalo would come back, and they’d be reunited with their lost loved ones in a new happy world. They had only to devote themselves to a complicated, ritualistic dance to find their way to the new world. After purifying fasting and sweat baths, the people — both men and women — painted their faces, twined eagle feathers in their hair and donned muslin shirts and dresses painted with eagle feathers, crows and other meaningful symbols. This holy shirt would deflect the soldiers’ bullets, the emissaries told them. It wouldrender them invincible. If only they believed.
Many of them embraced this last, best hope. Others saw not hope but disaster, as this desperate reach for their vanished free life divided brothers, families and bands. Philip Wells, then head farmer of the Medicine Root District on the Pine Ridge Reservation, worked tirelessly to keep his charges away from the insidious dancing. They had grown to trust him, had seen him fight for changes in reservation life. Under Wells’ guidance, ration day at Pine Ridge had changed. When he first came, it was an inhuman free-for-all where he saw hundreds of women crowding into the issue house like sardines packed in a can, trampling over one another, with women fainting and policemen beating them over their heads with clubs like so many cattle in a beef pen and blood streaming from the blows. With permission, he combined his knowledge of Indian character with tact and persuasion to establish an orderly system within two weeks. When he counseled against the Ghost Dance, his farmers listened.
Others admitted under his questioning that they did not expect help from the Paiute messiah, but hoped that the disturbances would alert sympathetic white friends in the East to their plight. Where else could they look for help, when the government’s ears were always stopped up?
Big Foot’s Minneconjous, who camped to the north on the Cheyenne River close to the Cheyenne River Reservation, held farming and white men’s counsel in equal contempt. As autumn months chilled to winter, they danced with passionate intensity until their legs would no longer hold them, then rested until they could dance again. Colder days had also brought cooling relations with their Indian agents, as white men’s election spoils replaced experienced agents with men who had not the least knowledge of the Indian culture. Defiant dancers sought visions whenever and wherever they wished, and 1,200 Sioux established the Stronghold in the Badlands to dance the Paiute messiah’s promise of Indian utopia into being.
The headlines some Indians had wished for began to stamp front pages in Omaha, Chicago and New York City, but they said such things as Redskins Bloody Work, In a State of Terror and Getting Ready to Fight. Certainly Kicking Bear and the other warriors at the Stronghold were ready to fight after the famous Sioux leader Sitting Bull, whose connection with the Ghost Dance was tenuous, was killed by Indian police on December 15, 1890, at his cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation. The resulting uproar did not immediately lead to more bloodshed, however. In fact, by late December most of the Sioux began to leave the Stronghold to return to their reservation homes. The Ghost Dance troubles seemed almost over when Big Foot and his group, which included followers of the recently slain Sitting Bull, were intercepted by Colonel Forsyth’s 7th Cavalry on the 28th. But the next day brought the fatal encounter at Wounded Knee, an encounter that neither side had wanted.
When the last gun was silenced on December 29, a hastily set up field hospital doled out initial treatment to 37 wounded soldiers, Father Kraft, Philip Wells and 51 Indians who were too maimed to escape the battlefield. Army freight wagons, padded with a layer of grain sacks covered with straw, slowly filled with moaning Army wounded. Another wagon carried 25 Army dead. But the wagons carrying the Indian wounded on bare boards were strangely silent. It was about 3:30 p.m. when Wells joined the column’s slow, sad march to cover the 18 miles to the Pine Ridge Agency. Behind them on the creek and in the canyon, by Army count, the torn and bloody bodies of 84 Indian men, 44 women and 18 children were beginning to freeze. More would be found in coming days.
In Pine Ridge, cheerful Christmas parties had turned into fear and panic as the news trickled in during the day. In late afternoon, warriors rained shots down on outlying buildings. Long before December darkness enveloped the town, agency Indians, missionaries and teachers had crowded into the mission house and church for what safety they could offer. It was 9:30 p.m. before the 7th’s wagons creaked into town. With military dispatch, the Army wounded and, when empty beds remained, 13 of the Indian men were carried into the Army’s hospital tents. Horses were unhitched and led off to be tended. Then military efficiency broke down.
The Reverend Thomas Cook, rector of the Holy Cross Episcopal Mission and himself half Sioux, came on the rest of the shivering but silent huddled Indian wounded much later that evening. Too stunned and fearful to utter a sound, they had been left lying in a horseless wagon — forgotten as more urgent matters took precedence. The horrified pastor took things into his own hands. He moved the civilians from the church to a nearby log house. Then he went to work with the help of teachers Elaine Goodale and Thisba Morgan, writer Susette La Flesche Tibbles, two missionaries and agency Indians to yank the pews from the church and remove the altar and organ. In a chapel still fragrant with evergreen garlands for the canceled party, they spread the floor with hay. They snatched quilts and blankets from their own beds and layered them over the hay, ready for the 38 victims to be carried in and laid in rows. They were mostly women with babies, young girls and toddlers, along with six men. All were torn and bloody, wrapped in rags and voiceless with fear.
Cook recruited Dr. Charles Eastman, a full-blood Sioux who was the new agency physician. Eastman worked through the night tending their wounds as the women nursed and fed the piteous victims. In the early morning hours, when an Army surgeon was freed to lend a hand, his uniform so terrified the wounded that he could accomplish little. Despite their efforts, many of the injured were too badly hurt to recover and died in the next several days.
Philip Wells was still waiting for attention at the hospital the next morning when bugles broke the morning quiet. The Holy Rosary (Drexel) Mission, four miles out of Pine Ridge, was under attack, and the 7th was ordered out. He ran out of the building, grabbed the first pony he came across and galloped after his unit. He spent the day helping the regiment fight Sioux attackers who this time had the white man under their guns and could fight in their own free-wheeling style. Under Forsyth’s inept leadership, the 7th was soon surrounded, and it took reinforcements from the 9th Cavalry to repel the attack. But, with the reservation aswarm with troopers, the Indians’ chance of meaningful resistance was gone. There was nothing left but to mourn their dead. On January 3, 1891, the grotesquely frozen bodies of the Wounded Knee dead were thrown into a trench dug into the hilltop that had supported the Hotchkiss guns.
Sometime in the next few days, Wells and the Rev. Cook went to the hospital and took statements from the wounded Indians, among them Big Foot’s brother, Frog; a visiting Oglala named Help Them; and a Ghost Dancer named Hehakawanyakapi. They said they were coming in voluntarily to the Pine Ridge Agency, that the troopers had treated them well, that they had no thought of fighting. But the medicine men had agitated the younger braves who still had rifles, and the first shot had come from their group. Then shots thundered in from all sides.
After a few minor skirmishes, the leaders of the revolt surrendered to Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles on January 15, 1891. Colonel Forsyth, subject to two courts of inquiry for his deployment of troops and the deaths of noncombatants, was cleared of deliberate misdeeds and restored to his command. The Indian testimony gathered by Wells and Cook was a factor in Forsyth’s acquittal. On March 5, 1891, the colonel wrote to the War Department on behalf of Philip Wells, describing his conduct as remarkably fine and gallant. He said Wells could have rendered no better service if he had not received the wound. In later years, Charles William Taylor, who commanded Indian Scout Troop A, of which Wells was chief scout and interpreter, also commended his faithful, fearless and intelligent service in 1890 despite his severe wound. Wells’ nose was successfully stitched back in place, but for the rest of his days, his face bore the scar from that traumatic day at Wounded Knee.
Among the Indians
A scar deeper than the one on his face led Philip Wells to resign from the Indian Service in 1894. Thoroughly disillusioned with what he saw happening on Pine Ridge as political appointees gained power, he declared that he had spent a lifetime to fit himself to serve his people, who needed his help. I always loved to work among the Indians, he said, and at a time I had beautiful dreams of what I could do. However, he found his knowledge and experience were a detriment to employment rather than an advantage. He bought a ranch on the reservation near the White River and spent the rest of his life among his people.
He had refused interviewers several times because he discovered their purpose was a sensational one. In 1906 he gave Nebraska researcher Eli Ricker a 10-day interview for a book that was never published. In 1938, living in the Hot Springs State Soldiers Home, he gave the manuscript that became Ninety-six Years Among the Indians to South Dakota researcher Thomas E. Odell, who helped him ready it for publication. Wells’ story is dedicated to my white father, who taught me courage and self-reliance, to my Indian mother, who inspired in me a love for the history of her race, and to my loving wife, who was my comforter and companion during many of my trials and struggles on the Dakota frontier. The manuscript was published in North Dakota History in 1948, a year after Wells’ death at age 96.
This article was written by Nancy M. Peterson and originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!