BIG FOOT

(JOHN R. CASH) (1972)

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In the morning the soldiers began to take all the guns away from the Big Foots, who were camped in the flat below the little hill where the monument and burying ground are now. The people had stacked most of their guns, and even their knives, by the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. Soldiers were on the little hill and all around, and there were soldiers across the dry gulch to the south and over east along Wounded Knee Creek too. The people were nearly surrounded, and the wagon-guns [Hotchkiss machine guns] were pointing at them.

Some had not yet given up their guns, and so the soldiers were searching all the tepees.... There was a man called Yellow Bird, and he and another man were standing in front of the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick.... An officer came to search them. He took the other man's gun, and then started to take Yellow Bird's. But Yellow Bird would not let go. He wrestled with the officer, and while they were wrestling, the gun went off and killed the officer. Wasichus [white men] and some others have said he meant to do this, but Dog Chief was standing right there, and he told me it was not so. As soon as the gun went off, Dog Chief told me, an officer shot and killed Big Foot who was lying sick inside the tepee.

Then suddenly nobody knew what was happening, except that the soldiers were all shooting and the wagon-guns began going off right in among the people.

Many were shot down right there. The women and children ran into the gulch and up west, dropping all the time, for the soldiers shot them as they ran. There were only about a hundred warriors and there were nearly five hundred soldiers. The warriors rushed to where they had piled their guns and knives. They fought soldiers with only their hands until they got their guns.

Dog Chief saw Yellow Bird run into a tepee with his gun, and from there he killed soldiers until the tepee caught fire. Then he died full of bullets.

It was a good winter day when all this happened. The sun was shining. But after the soldiers marched away from their dirty work, a heavy snow began to fall. The wind came up in the night. There was a big blizzard, and it grew very cold. The snow drifted deep in the crooked gulch, and it was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away....

When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, Richmond Hill, Ontario, 1972, pp. 221-223/230 (originally published in 1932)

Among the last, haggard bands to return from the Badlands was that of Big Foot.... He tried to find safety at the town of Pine Ridge, but the soldiers found him first. Dying of pneumonia, Big Foot surrendered peacefully. He had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Seventh Cavalry. Officers and men were revengeful and trigger-happy. They brought the Indians to a campsite near Wounded Knee, already well within the borders of the reservation.

Big Foot's group was surrounded by three thousand men. Guns were trained on them. Then their wagons and blankets were searched for weapons. A medicine man named Yellow Bird made the soldiers nervous by throwing dust at them and uttering war cries. A deaf-mute boy [probably Black Fox] dropped and accidentally discharged an old rifle. This was the signal for a general massacre. The Indians had been disarmed. They did not even have a half dozen weapons left. Chief Big Foot was shot down in the soldiers' tent where he had been under medical care. The Hotchkiss guns were pouring shells into groups of mothers and children. Out of 250 Indians, 200 were killed, 62 of them mothers and children.

The soldiers had about sixty men killed and wounded, most of them by their own bullets. As the soldiers fired into the camp from opposite sides, they naturally hit many of their own comrades. The bodies of the Indians, frozen stiff into grotesque postures, were stacked up like corded wood and buried together in a ditch. A photographer took pictures. The soldiers would have souvenirs to send back to their families.

Richard Erdoes, The Sun Dance People: The Plains Indians, Their Past and Present, New York, NY, 1972, pp. 184-186

Lyrics as performed by Johnny Cash on "America -- A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song", 1972.
© House of Cash, Inc.

SPOKEN INTRO:
But the land was already claimed by a people when the cowboy came and when the soldiers came.
The story of the American Indian is in a lot of ways a story of tragedy,
like that day at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Big Foot was an Indian chief
Of the Minneconjou band,
A band of Minneconjou Sioux
From South Dakota land.

Big Foot said to Custer,
"Stay away from Crazy Horse."
But Custer crossed into Sioux land,
And he never came back across.

Then Big Foot led his people
To a place called Wounded Knee,
And they found themselves surrounded
By the 7th Cavalry.

Big chief Big Foot,
Rise up from your bed,
Minneconjou babies cry
For their mothers lying dead.

Big Foot was down with a fever
When he reached Wounded Knee;
And his people all were prisoners
Of the 7th Cavalry.

Two hundred women and children
And another hundred men
Raised up a white flag of peace,
But peace did not begin.

An accidental gunshot
And Big Foot was first to die;
And over the noise of the rifles
You could hear the babies cry.

Big chief Big Foot,
It's good that you can't see
Revenge is being wrought
By Custer's 7th Cavalry.

Then smoke hung over the canyon
On that cold December day.
All was death and dying
Around where Big Foot lay.

Farther on up the canyon
Some had tried to run and hide;
But death showed no favorites,
Women, men, and children died.

One side called it a "massacre,"
The other a "victory,"
But the white flag is still waving
Today at Wounded Knee.

Big chief Big Foot,
Your Minneconjou band
Is more than remembered here
In South Dakota land.

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