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Ballad to a Massacre: Private Prather’s Portrait of Wounded Knee

In 1888 Plains Indians enacted a religious ritual seeking delivery from white domination, which took the form of a five-night dance (dubbed the “Ghost Dance” by whites). Two years later, the U.S. Army extinguished this vision of hope and defiance at the battle at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. W. H. Prather, an African-American private in the Ninth Cavalry and the regimental poet, wrote “The Indian Ghost Dance and War,” which recounted in ballad form the military’s perspective on the massacre at Wounded Knee. Prather’s song, which became a favorite among the troops, celebrated an event that American Indians would long view as a great tragedy and injustice.

The Red Skins left their Agency, the Soldiers left their Post,

All on the strength of an Indian tale about Messiah’s ghost

Got up by savage chieftains to lead their tribes astray;

But Uncle Sam wouldn’t have it so, for he ain’t built that way.

They swore that this Messiah came to them in visions sleep,

And promised to restore their game and Buffalos a heap,

So they must start a big ghost dance, then all would join their band,

And may be so we lead the way into the great Bad Land.


They claimed the shirt Messiah gave, no bullet could go through,

But when the Soldiers fired at them they saw this was not true.

The Medicine man supplied them with their great Messiah’s grace,

And he, too, pulled his freight and swore the 7th hard to face.

About their tents the Soldiers stood, awaiting one and all,

That they might hear the trumpet clear when sounding General call

Or Boots and Saddles in a rush, that each and every man

Might mount in haste, ride soon and fast to stop this devilish band

But Generals great like Miles and Brooke don’t do things up that way,

For they know an Indian like a book, and let him have his sway

Until they think him far enough and then to John they’ll say,

“You had better stop your fooling or we’ll bring our guns to play.”

Chorus—They claimed the shirt, etc.

The 9th marched out with splendid cheer the Bad Lands to explo’e-

With Col. Henry at their head they never fear the foe;

So on they rode from Xmas eve 'till dawn of Xmas day;

The Red Skins heard the 9th was near and fled in great dismay,

The 7th is of courage bold both officers and men,

But bad luck seems to follow them and twice has took them in;

They came in contact with Big Foot’s warriors in their fierce might

This chief made sure he had a chance of vantage in the fight.

Chorus—They claimed the shirt, etc.

A fight took place, 'twas hand to hand, unwarned by trumpet call, While the Sioux were dropping man by man—the 7th killed them all,

And to that regiment be said "Ye noble braves, well done,

Although you lost some gallant men a glorious fight you’ve won."

The 8th was there, the sixth rode miles to swell that great command

And waited orders night and day to round up Short Bull’s band.

The Infantry marched up in mass the Cavalry’s support,

And while the latter rounded up, the former held the fort.

Chorus—They claimed the shirt, etc.

E battery of the 1st stood by and did their duty well,

For every time the Hotchkiss barked they say a hostile fell.

Some Indian soldiers chipped in too and helped to quell the fray,

And now the campaign’s ended and the soldiers marched away.

So all have done their share, you see, whether it was thick or thin,

And all helped break the ghost dance up and drive the hostiles in.

The settlers in that region now can breathe with better grace;

They only ask and pray to God to make John hold his base.

Chorus—They claimed the shirt, etc.


W.H. Prather, “The Indian Ghost Dance and War,” The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896).