If the point of an oath is to swear truth, what does it mean if the truth is stacked against you?

This is a question I found myself thinking about as I sat in the National Archives looking at cart after cartful of documents that the archivist told me probably did not exist. I had come to Washington, DC to follow up on a fragment of a story: A Lakota woman named Emma Vlandry’s prize possession, a sewing machine, had been dumped into a nearby river by “hostile Indians” in the wake of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Vlandry’s experience seemed to indicate historical evidence of lateral violence, a particularly demoralizing effect of divide-and-conquer techniques used by agents of white supremacy against indigenous people.

Vlandry’s sewing machine was just one item amid a vast number of individual objects that were ransacked and destroyed by angry Indian people when the US Army descended upon Lakota homelands in 1890. Initially, the archivists presented me with a single box of material. Thanks to fellow historian R. Eli Paul, I knew there had to be more, so I kept asking. Within a few days, the single box had multiplied to something like forty-five boxes, stuffed onto three wheeled carts. The containers were filled with handwritten claims numbered 1 through 726. Each claim consisted of several pages, folded carefully into thirds. I took a deep breath and began to unfurl them, nervous that the fragile paper might crack or that my hands would smudge the 125-year-old ink.

Every claim included the same standardized language, with blank spaces that could be filled in with the particulars. Here is one example:

Lame Dog VS. The United States.

Lame Dog, the above named claimant, being first duly sworn, deposes and says, that he has been a legal resident of the Sioux reservation for the 13 years last past, and that during his absence from his place of habitation in obedience to the order requiring all friendlies and others residing on the reservation to report at the Agency he sustained a loss of $68.00 by the total destruction or appropriation of the following described property, to-wit:

To One house . . . . . . . . . . . . $15.00

“ Two Bedsteads . . . . . . . . . .$10.00

“ Three Trunks . . . . . . . . . . . $13.00

“ Six Loads of wood . . . . . . . $10.00

“ one horse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20.00


Affiant further states, that at the time, of the loss, on or about the 31st day of December 1890 he was the lawful owner of the above described property and the same was in his peaceable possession at his place in White Clay district, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

And further affiant verily believes that said destruction or appropriation was done by a band of disaffected Ogalalla and Brule Indians and further that at no time during the late trouble among the Indians, has he been hostile, either by word or action, to the government of the United States. Affiant therefore prays that his claim be allowed.

Signed this 27th day of April 1891

Lame Dog his x mark, Ogalalla Indian

I found the lists of personal possessions almost as fascinating as the premise lurking behind the standardized wording of the deposition itself. Such details could be mind-numbing in their specificity. I imagined a huge pile—possibly the size of the archive itself—made up of all the objects listed in these claims: houses burned, horses stolen, lamps smashed, tools broken. The 726 claims were collected within the span of about a year under the oversight of special Indian agent James Cooper. I could feel the questions mounting as well: did Cooper work alone or did he have a team? How many of these testimonies given under oath involved a language interpreter?

Lame Dog’s answers to Cooper’s questions reveal that he had been employed as an army scout, and that during “the trouble,” he seemed to agree that his possessions were set on fire by “hostile Oglala and Brule Indians.” His claim, like all the others, includes the sworn statements of two witnesses, and a tally indicating the amount authorities agreed was reasonable compensation. In Lame Dog’s case, perhaps due to his service as a scout, all $68.00 were returned.

In the court of public opinion in 1890, those killed at Wounded Knee were themselves to blame for the chaos and violence. They had resisted orders to cease roaming about their homelands and come settle permanently near the reservation agencies. Remaining in the hinterland enabled them to violate another prohibition—that which forbade the practice of Indian religion. Many of those labeled “hostile” by the state were participants in the Ghost Dance, and their refusal to live on white terms was a source of deep anxiety for the US Army, who contrasted their actions to the seemingly more compliant “civilized” tribes in the Southeast. By December of 1890, it had come down to this: grown men in US Army uniforms hunting down women and children in the cold light of day. But just as “hostiles” had to be punished, Indians who obeyed orders had to be rewarded. And so the government scrambled to make concessions, lest someone start asking questions about genocide. Lakota cooperation with evacuation orders involved leaving what few possessions they held vulnerable to depredation. Out of fairness to those who had followed directions, Congress agreed to allocate $100,000 to compensate the “friendlies” for their losses.

For all of the things that could be said about these claims, one thing is clear: sworn testimony was critical to Cooper’s objective. The x-marks, interviews, and dollar amounts make claims to truth, opening the way for legal and financial restitution. A central problem of Cooper’s task was understanding which Indians could be trusted as friendlies and which ones were actually undercover hostiles seeking a fraudulent payout. Most of the claimants in Cooper’s investigation were granted considerably less than they sought compensation for. A handful received nothing. Deposition after deposition, Cooper and his team asked claimants to state their names, their losses, and who they believe to have caused the destruction. Most importantly, they were asked to state where they had been during “the trouble” at Wounded Knee. The answer to this last question held the key to determining whether or not the claimant could be trusted. If the claimant stated that they were at the agency—or with “the stampede” of Indian people who fled the agency in panic at the sound of cannon fire—they were verified as friendly. The vast majority met this criteria. Of the 726 claims, however, six were disqualified. In response to the question of “where were you during the trouble?” these Lakotas answered honestly or perhaps defiantly: “I was in the Badlands.”

Sitting in the archive next to the carts, I began to feel as though I were struggling for breath beneath the mass of information overflowing from the boxes. The pile of plundered objects kept growing to include wagons, clocks, plows, bolts of fabric, chairs, and stored food. I found Emma Vlandry’s claim, and thought again about the sense of sadness she felt upon returning home and finding her sewing machine dumped in the nearby river.1 It might seem odd that Ghost Dancers would target a sewing machine. But, after looking at list after list of the kinds of things that were destroyed, a pattern seemed to emerge. This activity echoes the kinds of actions taken by English Luddites or tool-breaking slaves in the Cotton Belt, as well as “looting” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other urban calamities. Such moments in American social life demonstrate that what might appear at face-value to be haphazard destruction is often, in reality, the visible and material evidence of profound social antagonisms.

There is much that is strange about the claims: The blank spaces left to fill with identifying information, the juxtaposition of handwriting with typeface text; the use of gender-specific pronouns to indicate property ownership and possession. Like the outer layer of a cast, the claims stiffened compound and pliable realities into rigid forms: that of discrete, settled, and property-owning individuals. Line by line, Cooper’s report rendered indigenous anger and frustration null and void, transforming complex entities and actions into legible, quantifiable data while hardening distrust and resentment among families and communities.

What truths do these claims contain? Somewhere inside the mountain of facts about the quotidian experience of regular people, the evidence of webs of relation, and traces of lives and traditions in flux, perhaps it is also possible to discern that swearing to tell the truth can also involve becoming tangled in a lattice of obfuscation and deceit.

  1. This story is recounted in Julian Rice, Deer Women and Elk Men: The Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria, 1st edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 19. I am grateful to Stella Iron Cloud, local historian and genealogist as well as descendent of Emma Vlandry, for sharing stories with me about her great grandmother, for showing me the place where her home once stood at Pine Ridge, and the river where the sewing machine was found.