Big Foot and Wounded Knee

   Chief Big Foot, also known as Spotted Elk, was head of the Minniconjou Lakota on the Cheyenne River reservation.  He was born in 1820 and died December 29, 1890, when shot during the disarming of Sioux at Wounded Knee.  His image is best remembered as being frozen in a gruesome posture the day the 7th cavalry shot about 300 men, women and children.

    Big Foot was ill with pneumonia when his band arrived at Wounded Knee and used this chief's blanket for warmth.  In the massacre, bullets and shrapnel from four Hotchkiss rapid-fire cannons aimed at the Miniconjou camp riddled his tent and this chief's blanket.  One wife and child survived using this large blanket against bitter cold and a snowstorm following the Wounded Knee Massacre.  The blanket has numerous holes stitched using black thread and yellow yarn.  Also gathered from the battlefield were items lost by the 7th cavalry.  These artifacts came from Lino Spotted Elk.  He is the great, great grandson of Big Foot.

Big Foot's chief blanket with repaired holes from bullets and shrapnel

   From the daughter of Godfrey Horn Chip is a talisman necklace made by Woptuha, also called Old Horn Chips.  It was crafted during the Ghost Dance era when the Lakota believed their dancing would bring about a great flood to wash away white people and restore the old days.  This craze was banned by the reservation agent and Sitting Bull was killed during an arrest.  Chief Big Foot then left the Cheyenne reservation with his band, headed toward Pine Ridge to meet with Red Cloud regarding the Ghost Dance.  Near Wounded Knee, his band was stopped and the following day during disarming, Black Coyote, a deaf-mute son of Big Foot, fought to have his recently-bought gun taken.  His gun fired and there ensued a massacre.

Soldiers of Battery E First Artillery with Hotchkiss guns after the battle

Soldiers of Battery E First Artillery with Hotchkiss guns after the battle

Front of Big Foot's Ghost Dance medallion and quilled pouch

Front of Big Foot's Ghost Dance medallion and quilled pouch

    Shown to the right is Big Foot's sun dollar iron pyrite crystal with gold lines radiating from its center. These rare, round crystals are found in gullies near coal seams in western North Dakota.  Pyrite crystals are believed by some to have special powers.

   The pouch for housing the sun dollar medallion is unusual in that the entire surface is covered with sew-down porcupine quillwork in two-quill technique.  It appears various people took turns quilling different lanes for the chief.  The pouch's interior is lined with silk cloth, allowing the medicine piece to easily slide in or out without damaging its fragile surface. 

   About a decade ago, Big Foot's tiyospaye (clan) contacted me to attend a Ghost-Keeping ceremony.  The government had returned the hair of Chief Big Foot, taken before his burial at Wounded Knee.  As an adopted member of this clan through Flossie Bear Robe, I was asked to attend.  The evening ceremony consisted of having the clan form a circle and, as his hair was shown, each person spoke about the life of Big Foot.  After the dedication the hair was burned, since no one was willing to comply with Ghost-Keeping requirements.


Larry Belitz, Plains Indian Material Culture Expert/Consultant