An Introduction to Lakota Culture
The Lakota inhabited a large portion of the northern Great Plains.
The Crow were directly to the west, Mandan and Hidatsa to the north,
and Ponca, Omaha, and Pawnee to the south.
Across more than 750,000 square miles, the heartland of the continent
was a vast sea of grass, interrupted here and there by mountainous
terrain and winding, forested river bottoms. The land continuously
transformed itself as it extended south from Alberta, Canada, to the
Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, of western Texas and New Mexico.
From the region’s eastern boundary along the Mississippi River,
a rider on horseback might travel for weeks before running up against
the western wall of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains. "Sioux"
is short for the Anishinabe term “nadouessioux,” meaning
"snake"; the oldest primary designations are Lakota and
Dakota, variant words for "allies."
The Lakota would travel to the Arkansas' hot springs to gather
together with other tribes to hunt, tirade, and take the healing
waters. Even when their peoples were at war, individuals of opposing
tribes could come together here in safety and peace. The creative
energies of nature are clearly at work here. As rain falls on the
mountains and side down into the warm rock, minerals dissolve while
the underground heat sterilizes and filters out impurities in the
liquid. The water seeps slowly through the porous sandstone on the
lower west side of Hot Springs Mountain until it flows out through
cracks in the rock at a rate of about 850,000 gallons a day, the
end of an eventful 4,000 year journey through the mountain.
The Lakota were ancient enemies of the Fox and the Anishinabe.
Seasonal warfare was constant in the area west of the Great Lakes.
While the Huron were being driven from their homes during the Beaver
Wars, they drifted first into Lakota country on the northern Mississippi.
The Lakota drove them from there and they settled in separate groups
into Wisconsin and north. The Lakota again drove them further to
the north shores of the Straits of Mackinac. During this time, the
Fox, deeply concerned that European rifles were being traded to
their archenemy, the Lakota, joined forces with the Iroquois in
order to disrupt that deadly flow of merchandise.
As the bloodshed abated in the Upper Country, the governors of
New France took advantage of the lull to consolidate their position.
Ambassadors went out from Montreal, inviting all the tribes to gather
for a mass celebration of friendship and peace.... Finally the day
arrived. In midsummer of 1701 the canoes started landing on the
beach at Montreal-Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Miami, Huron,
Anishinabe, Kickapoo and Lakota in their eagle feathers and buffalo
robes. In addition to these French allied tribes came their former
enemies, the Five Nations of the Iroquois League-Seneca, Cayuga,
Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk
Close to 1,300 people attended, representing 39 separate tribes,
and together they feasted and parleyed and smoked the calumet (sacred
pipe). The delegates worked out some last-minute details. The Iroquois
received the right to hunt in Ontario country, and western Indians
wee given free access to trade in New York. But important issues
remained unresolved. Far more difficult was the matter of the Fox.
All through the peace negotiations the Fox protested bitterly that
French traders were still supplying their Lakota enemies with guns.
Already the arms deals had driven them into a secret alliance with
Forced to play both sides in the high-stakes game of woodland power
politics, the Fox did not take kindly to insult or neglect. French
arms continued flowing to both the Lakota and the Anishinabe. And
no matter how loudly the Fox objected, the French refused to listen.
Afterwards, the Fox war parties staged lightning raids on key French
outposts, crippling trade in the Upper Country. Nothing was safe.
Isolated villages, canoe portage routes ... Fox raiders hit them
all. The French tried to crush them repeatedly, but the Fox always
seemed to slip away....adroit Fox diplomacy enhanced their battlefield
prowess. They made peace with the Anishinabe in 1724 and allied
themselves in 1727 with their former enemies the Lakota. The Lakota
assisted Tecumseh (Shawnee) and joined sides with the British in
the War of 1812, the new conflict between the US and Britain. Multitribal
towns sprang up along the Illinois River in support of the war effort.
By the fall of 1812, virtually the entire Great Lakes region. had
been brought under Indian control. The initial triumph did not last.
Unfortunately for the Indians, the British appointed a new general,
Henry Procter, to command their western front. Indecisive and overly
cautious, he frittered away the early British advantage. When an
American naval victory on Lake Eric severed his supply routes in
September 1813, Procter decided to retreat to Canada. In the spring
of 193 1, the famed Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, walked some
visitors to a hill he called Remembrance Butte on his personal allotment
of land in the northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation
in South Dakota. Now an old man of 78 winters, Black Elk wanted
to pray where he could see the traditional lands of the Lakota.
Some 20 miles to the south loomed the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills,
sacred heart of the Great Plains, with the pointed crest of Harney
Peak barely visible. The peak, he had been told by a spirit guide
long ago, was the very center of the world. It was there many lifetimes
earlier, it seemed to Black Elk that he had experienced a life-changing
vision at the age of nine. In it he met the great powers of the
world and received special abilities from them. But he could also
see four generations into the future, and what he saw included adversities
awaiting his people that he would have no power to change.
Black Elk gestured toward the grassless, broken up landscape immediately
surrounding his visitors. They knew this dry and craggy place as
the Badlands, but his name for it was mako sika, "strange lands
of the world." Then the old man swept his arm in the direction
of what the Lakota called awanka toyala, "greenness of the
world," the graceful rolling breadth of the shortgrass prairie.
He remembered the shallow, wooded ravines in that expanse of places
where his people had gathered currants, plums, buffalo berries,
coral berries, and the much sought after chokecherries that were
collected by the hidefull in late summer. In the springtime he had
accompanied his family to look for the violet colored blossoms on
the exposed green roots that showed where sweet prairie turnips,
called tinpsila, were ready to be uprooted with digging sticks.
Eaten raw like carrots, they also were boiled to thicken buffalo
stew and could feed a family through the winter if properly dried.
Finally, Black Elk looked to the east, to the flat, undulating
tall grass prairie known to his people as oblayela, "wideness
of the world." The old holy man had been born at a time when
his people felt themselves to be custodians of this entire domain.
Yet within the brief span of his own lifetime, everything had changed.
Black Elk had witnessed the bitter end of the Lakota’s terrible
war with US troops and had seen his people reduced to impoverished
isolation on four small reservations, a meager fraction of all that
had once been theirs. As a descendant of renowned Lakota healers
and medicine men, however, Black Elk still clung to a vision of
his people’s greatness, refusing to let it die.
Now with his visitors, looking over a landscape he know like the
back of his wrinkled hand, Black Elk prayed that his People might
survive and might yet reclaim their ancient connections to this
wide world with its many different spirits. When Black Elk was born
in 1863, his people were among some 30 distinctive Native American
nations known collectively as Plains Indians who called some portion
of the open grasslands their home. For all the peoples of the Plains,
the landscape itself had tales to tell.
According to tradition, an oval valley that rings the Black Hills
came into being as a great racetrack, dug into the earth when all
the world’s creatures: two-legged, four-legged and winged,
ran in a race that established their various destinies, including
the two-legged’s right to hunt buffalo.
Plains hunters, traveling on foot and armed with stone-tipped spears,
could kill their swifter, stronger prey only with ingenuity and
coordinated effort. They used two basic techniques. One method was
to frighten animals out of the brush and ravines into wide channels
created between two makeshift fences. Corralling the terrified prey
into a circular enclosure at the end of this chute, they could then
kill the animals at close range.
The other method was the "buffalo jump. " At the start
hunt leaders would position women and children behind piles of stones
arranged in a V-shaped that narrowed to a point at the edge of a
sheer cliff. The buffalo were enticed to enter the wedge by a slow-hobbling
man disguised in a fur robe. Other people brought up the rear, yelling
and flapping robes and waving the scented smoke of burning cedar
in the air. This gave the impression of a terrifying forest fire,
causing the great beasts to stampede over the edge of the cliff.
Down below, a makeshift enclosure prevented wounded animals from
escaping, while arrows and spears mined down from all sides until
the lifeless carcasses could be approached by butchering parties.
Along the borderlands of the western Great Lakes, the Dakota-the
easternmost tribe of the “Sioux,” and the Ojibwa, largest
of the Great Lakes woodland tribal groups, found themselves in bloody
competition over the same inventory of natural resources. Both peoples
harvested wild rice in the fall, hunted in the winter, made maple
sugar in the spring, and farmed in midsummer. Their neighbors include
Lakota tribes, branches of the great Siouan-spealdng brotherhood,
who preferred a buffalo-hunting way of life.
By the 1770's the Santee Sioux of central Minnesota had become
an equestrian people. Horses were stolen and traded from tribe to
tribe by way of routes cast and west of the Rockies. Before long
there were herds of run-away horses, and eager tribesmen snagged
their own wild mounts.
In the summer, young Lakota horse catchers ventured into the Platte
and Arkansas country, pursuing the herds in relays, riding one wild
horse until it gave out, then hopping onto another, relentlessly
driving the animals until they were utterly exhausted and easily
lassoed. A second method took advantage of box canyons: relays of
riders herded horses into narrow canyon passageways and then, tossing
a loop attached to a stick, noosed them and tied them down.
By the early 1700's, a common currency had entered the Plains in
the form of the horse. Aspiring leaders won followers and status
as their personal stables multiplied. Inevitably, as horses became
the new index of wealth and warriors sought them by any possible
means, the frequency of intertribal raids skyrocketed. Young men
clamored to go out on these expeditions, often disobeying older
chiefs to do so.
Stealing horses was even more exciting than capturing them wild.
No seizure of enemy horses conferred honor comparable to that of
killing an enemy. It offered the raiders a triumphant return to
camp, past admiring women, galloping in with a string of snorting
and whinnying trophies behind them.
Horses transformed Plains Indian life by eliminating the uncertainties
of food supply almost overnight. If buffalo could not be found nearby,
hunters simply rode to wherever they were. Shooting at a thundering
herd of buffalo from horseback was not only far less risky than
running after them on foot and driving them off a cliff but also
took less time and required fewer participants. Small bands or even
individuals could locate a small herd and within a few hours slaughter
enough to feed their people for months. It was then that true nomadism,
a rarity in North America, began to flourish and tribal bands could
come and go with few restraints.
While the horse enabled men to hunt independently, the women, whose
role in forming the buffalo surrounds had previously been essential
to the hunt, were now able to devote their time to processing the
hides. After every successful hunt there was now an excess of tanned
buffalo skins, which translated into tradable goods and greater
prosperity. Warriors on horseback wielded small shields painted
with powerful symbols such as medicine bears and birds to protect
them from enemy fire. Bows were shortened and laminated for greater
power, and clubs and short lances were crafted for close combat.
The use of firearms in warfare was not adopted throughout the Plains
Indian world as readily as that of horses. Before the arrival of
repeating rifles, warriors had to rely on smooth bore muzzle loaders,
which were not very accurate and could not be found as rapidly as
arrows in the heat of battle. And to renew his gunpowder, lead shot,
and spare parts, an Indian needed steady access to the white man’s
Highest honors were accorded the daring warrior who risked all
to "count coup." A French word meaning "strike,"
coup could signify any sort of damage or humiliation inflicted upon
an enemy in war. Coups were the means by which a warrior gained
status in his tribe, and they were scrupulously ranked. Striking
an enemy with a gun bow, or riding quirt, for instance, might be
considered a higher achievement than actually killing him. Other
honors were granted for stealiing horses, riding down an enemy,
recovering his weapon, or scalping him.
Warriors proudly recollected their notable coups on formal occasions
and rewarded them with appropriate insignia, such as specially trimmed
feathers, marks on their horses' flanks, beaded or quillwork strips
on the war shirts, or pictographs painted on buffalo robes and tipi
covers. Maintaining peace on an intertribal basis, however, called
for more formalized rituals that centered on the use of tobacco.
Adopted by all Plains tribes, ceremonial smoking established neutral
ground among horseback tribes that found themselves in ever closer
and more contentious proximity to one another. Animal-shaped or
flat-disc pipe bowls carved from soapstone were originally used
for the purpose. Later, when the westward-migrating Lakota took
control of western Minnesota's quarries of brick-red pipestone,
distinctive T-shaped stone pipe bowls gained acceptance as a badge
of chiefly office throughout the Plains. Beaded pipe bags became
an essential feature of male regalia, and the time-consuming etiquette
that evolved around the ceremonial sharing of the pipe would often
exasperate visiting white traders and diplomats.
As men became increasingly preoccupied with horse raiding and coup
counting, the women of some Plains tribes were compelled to find
new ways to assert their roles. Especially among the tribes that
had formerly worked the land, the new nomadic lifestyle of increased
warfare and year round hunting eroded the women's traditional power
base. As planters and harvesters of the village gardens in earlier
times, they had enjoyed a relatively high position as providers
and as guardians of domestic space.
Now a woman’s worth to her family and community increasingly
came to rest upon her ability to manufacture and decorate a wide
number of items not only for family use but also for trade. Throughout
the Plains, women based their reputations upon the artistry they
brought to the making of pots, baskets, cradleboards, robes, moccasins,
and beadwork. The burgeoning fur trade provided a ready market for
the hides and pelts that women processed for export. Woman’s
products were also coveted items on the intertribal trading network:
18th century Europeans witnessed the Crow and Lakota trading decorated
shirts, leggings, and animal-skin robes with the Mandan-Hidatsa
for squash, corn, beans, tobacco, and guns.
Among the Plains tribes, artisan "guilds" controlled the
production of quillwork and beadwork. Members controlled the highly
specialized knowledge needed for certain techniques, and instruction
required payment. Those women who were fortunate enough to possess
such knowledge were well paid for their creations. A quilled robe
made by a member of a quilling society, for example, could easily
be traded for a pony from the Arapaho or the Mandan-Hidatsa.
The quilling societies of the Sioux were organized by women who
had dreamed of Double Woman, a supernatural figure who, according
to legend, had first taught Lakota women how to dye quills and perform
intricate quillwork. Double Women possessed two contrasting natures:
one industrious and virtuous, the other idle and lascivious. She
offered the dreamer a choice between the productive practice of
special slues in craftwork and the ability to wreak havoc by stealing
other women's men.
Throughout the Plains, men and women alike sought spiritual power
through dreams, Visions, sacred objects, and songs that could impart
special luck or the ability to alter events in their furure. The
Oglala Lakota called this power wakan. A Lakota shaman named Sword
described it this way: "Every object in the world has a spirit,
and that spirit is wakan. Thus the spirit of the tree or things
of that kind are also wakan. Wakan comes from the wakan beings.
These wakan beings are greater than mankind in the same way that
mankind is greater than animals. They can do many things that mankind
cannot do. Mankind can pray to the wakan beings for help.”
To this end, at the time of puberty almost every Plains Indian
boy set out on vision quests, periodic wilderness retreats in which
the initiate hoped to receive guidance from the spirit world. Only
with the aid of special power beings, such as the spirits of eagles,
hawks, or bears, it was believed, could a person gain that extra
jolt of supernatural assistance needed to succeed in war, curing,
love, or tribal leadership.
After a purifying "sweat" in a bowl-shaped sweat bath
framed with willows, shrouded with buffalo hides, and steam-heated
with hot rocks splashed with water, the young quester shouldered
his sleeping hide and trekked to a sacred butte. At the summit he
fasted for four days, wept and prayed naked before the elements,
and sometimes went so far as to cut off a finger to entice a spirit
to grace him with an empowering vision.
After the quester returned to camp and again entered a purifying
sweat bath, elders helped him assemble objects that his spirit guide
had instructed him to collect. Wrapped in a skin, these items were
known as a medicine bundle and were a warrior's dearest possessions.
They might be unwrapped prior to any perilous enterprise when a
man needed the sacred protection that had been granted him during
his original vision.
Most Plains tribes, in addition, had sacred objects that were unique
to their history and as essential to their collective identity as
their language. The Lakota had a White Buffalo Calf Pipe. As proliferation
of horses allowed closer contact among various plains tribes, many
of them came to observe the same rival, one of profound importance.
It was the Sun Dance: a four-day religious festival in which singers,
drummers, dancers, and spectators gathered to seek continually the
sort of power that they sought as individuals in their private vision
Some historians suggest that the Sun Dance appeared around 1700,
possibly originating with the Cheyenne. To the Plains Indians, however,
the ceremony was ageless, a divine gift from the supernatural world.
In any case, by 1750 virtually every Plains tribe practiced some
variation of the Sun Dance. To the Lakota it was known as the Dance
Gazing into the Sun, wiwiyang wacipi.. Regardless of the name, all
the tribes erected a central Sun Dance Medicine Lodge, which served
as the sacred ceremonial space. Within a circular framework of poles
constructed around a central sacred cottonwood tree, which was loosely
walled with leafy boughs, young painted "pledgers" fasted
and danced continuously.
Attended by medicine people, the youths prayed to their creator
as the wind tossed flags hanging from the rafters of the lodge and
.rawhide effigies dangling from the center pole. Then the pledgers'
skin was pierced with skewers, which were attached by rawhide thongs
to the center pole. As the young men danced, they tore their flesh
as a sacrificial expression of the sincerity of their prayers for
a powerful vision-not only for their personal well-being but for
the happiness and prosperity of their people as well.
As horse-rich tribes staked out their favored roaming and hunting
territories in the Plains, they forged military Alliances based
sometimes on shared cultural traditions and sometimes purely on
the existance of common enemies. One early partnership arose between
the Siouan-speaking Assinibione people and the Algonquian-speaking
Plains Cree. Opposing them was the mighty Blackfeet Alliance, whose
constituent tribers-Piegan, Blood and Northern Blackfeet (also called
Siksika)-had long standing bonds of language and custom. A third
alliance, that of the earth-lodge communities along the middle Missouri
River, was less a military than a self-proctective and cultural
But there was a fourth great alliance that threatened all the others
with aggressive militarism and overwhelming numbers: the "seven
council fires" of the Lakota. Altogether they amounted to some
25,000 loosely affiliated tribesmen in the 1790's. The four eastern
groups were known collectively as the Dakota, or Santee. In the
middle were the Yankton and Yanktonai (Nakota), keepers of the sacred
pipestone quarry. A full 40% of the alliance belonged to the Teton,
or western division, Lakota.
For good reason, then, the earth-lodge tribes whose horses, dried
squash, and corn the Lakota coveted, together with the Lakota's
traditional enemy, the Crow, were constantly vigilant about survival.
Once the Lakota bolstered their numbers with Cheyenne and Arapaho
allies, they became the most formidable fighting force on the northern
Plains. Just after the turn of the 19th century, a major outbreak
of small pox and cholera struck nearly exterminating the Omaha,
Ponca, Oto, and Iowa peoples. The vicious diseases spread north
and south, heading up the Missouri River to decimate the Arikara,
Gros Ventre, Mandan, Crow, and Lakota, and down the Mississippi
to wreak havoc among the Kiowa, Pawnee, Wichita, and Caddo ....
All across the northern and southern Plains, the bodes piled up
too quickly to be given decent burial. They were heaped in mass
graves or thrown into the river.
There were other disturbing signs that the glory days of Plains
Indian horsemen were on the wane. The 1804-06 expidition of Lewis
and Clark to survey and document the landscapes, plants, animals,
and Indian tribes of the West constituted a sort of scientific forerunner
for the territorial takeover by the US government that was soon
to follow, The next government probe into the Plains Indian world
came in 1825. That year Brig. Gen. Henry Atkinson and Indian agent
Benjamin O'Fallon sought out chiefs for negotiating treaties concerning
trade and friendship. Some 15 Cheyenne individuals put their thumbprints
to a document acknowledging US political and commercial authority
over their region. As would happen time and again in Indian-white
frontier diplomacy, what US officials considered a legally binding
agreement, the great majority of Indians neither understood nor
In the north, traffic on what whites called the Oregon Trail was
producing no fringe benefits for the native populations. By 1843
the road shoulders on both sides of the North Platte and Sweetwater
sections of the Oregon Trail were virtually devoid of grass, and
wagon traffic west had only just begun .... The buffalo were scared
off, the meager stands of river-bottom timber were depleted, and
streambeds were made muddy from cattle tracks.
Many tribesmen also noticed disturbing changes in the populations
and habits of the animals they depeded on. Traders paid some Indians
in liquor to hunt wholesale, a gruesome practice described in one
case by George Catlin. Native hunters, Catlin reported in 1832,
were wiping out a herd of 1,500 buffalo near Ft Pierre. Only the
tongues were saved for transport to St Louis; the meat and raw hides
were left to the wolves. But with the demise of the beaver trade
due to overtrapping in the 1830's, a new market for buffalo robes
filled the vacuum in the late 1840's. An Indian agent foresaw that
the buffalo would soon be hunted to extermination and that, in his
words, "the Indians will have great difficulty in procuring
sufficient for their own clothing and food."
The times were changing, and many Plains Indians read the signs
with foreboding. The Cheyenne war leader named Yellow Wolf observed
that buffalo were harder to find and confided a deeper fear that
unless his people adopted the white man's ways and found some alternative
to their hunting way of life, they would disappear forever.
In fact, another 40 years of Indian rebellion still lay ahead,
years of whole tribes removed and resettled, of pitched battle and
pitiless massacres and violent deaths of many good-hearted Indians
like Yellow Wolf, who fell at the age of 85. On all horizons of
those Great Plains, the same vistas a somber Black Elk would point
out to his visitors newly a century later, there loomed the gathering
storm clouds of violent and irreversible change.
There may never have been a single day when the might and majesty
of Plains Indian culture was more brilliantly displayed than on
Monday, September 8, 1851. The sunrise that morning illiumintated
the greatest assemblage of Plains Indians ever seen in one place:
the Great Indian Treaty Council, convened at Ft Laramie in Wyoming
Territory along the banks of the North Platte River.
Indian famishes had been streaming in for weeks, their numbers
reached an estimated 10,000, with tipi poles and hide bundles strapped
to travois pulled behind their horses. Contributing to the general
noise and commotion were hundreds of dogs, some of which would serve
as prized delicacies in the feasting ahead...,First to arrive were
the proud Cheyenne and Arapaho and large bands of Oglala and Brule
Lakota, who pitched their tipis along the Platte's northern bank.
By the sea a tipis that stretched west to the horison, these conferees
represented nine different Plains Indian nations. A contingent of
some 270 white soldiers watched in awe from the wooden walls of
Ft Laramie, a 17 year old heading center, as the assembled chiefs
sat down to smoke the pipe of peace together and partake of nearly
$100,000 worth of presents from the US government.
This unique convocation was the brain-child of Thomas Broken Hand
Fitzpatrick, a long time mountain man and fur trapper who had guided
the explorer John C Fremont to California in the 1840's. Soon after
that Fitzpatrick had been named Indian Agent for the newly created
Upper Platte and Arkansas Agency, and he was now dealing on behalf
of the US government in treaty negotiations with the Plains Indians.
Finally the long round of feasts, pageantry, and speeches about
peace, along with the tougher talk of setting territorial boundaries
for each tribe, drew to a close on September 17. Old enemies stood
together in line to inscribe their marks on a document stating that
they pledged to respect one another's boundaries, refrain from harassing
settlers on the Oregon Trail, and allow new roads and military posts
to be built on their lands. In return for this, the US government
would permit them to hunt and fish at will within their own territories.
The tribes would also share a total of $50,000 worth of blankets,
kettles, tobacco, and other goods disbursed by the government each
In 1853 Fitzpatrick arranged a similar gathering with southern
Plains tribes at Ft Atkinson, on the Arkansas River near present
day Dodge City, KS. He met there with Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains
Apache representatives, who had been leery of attending the Ft Laramie
session because, as one delegate put it, “We have too many
horses and mules to risk among such notorious horse thieves as the
Lakota and Crow.” The agreement they reached called for the
tribes to give up buffalo hunting and take up ranching and farming
on lands that government would rent for them in the Leased District,
an unsettled portion of Choctaw lands in Oklahoma that the tribe
leased back to the government for the relocation of other Indians.
Some representatives, including the Lakota, were especially disgruntled
at the notion of limiting their territories. "You have split
my land and I don’t like it. These lands once belonged to
the Kiowa and the Crow, but we whipped these nations out of them
and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands
of the Indians. "-Oglala Lakota delegate.
Not surprisingly, the paperwork from Ft Laramie and Ft Atkinson
had hardly made it back to Washington before the agreements began
to unravel. From their domains in western Minnesota and the Dakotas,
war-painted Lakota were pouring into Kansas territory to strike
at their old enemies, the Pawnee. Before long, the Crow of south-central
Montana were vehemently protesting Lakota aggression and finally,
in 1868, were given protection by US troops on their own reservation.
In 1864 the Arikara in North Dakota had likewise demanded federal
protection from Lakota attacks, bitterly pointing out that their
chiefs who had taken part in the Ft Laramie accords were all dead
now-cut down by Lakota arrows. The Hidatsa were even more virulent
in their denunciations of the Lakota: "They will not keep the
peace until they are severely punished. Either keep them a year
without gifts or provisions, or cut off some camp, killing all,
and the rest will then listen.”-Hidatsa leader.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, funding for Fizpatrick’s
promised annual rations to the tribes had been cut back substantially.
At the same time, the government was building a network of forts
on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, as well as along southern routes
from Kansas and Missouri to the Rio Grande. Everywhere the number
of whites seemed to be multiplying; and wherever they appeared,
trouble seemed to follow.
In August 1862, four hungry young Santee Dakota men, hunters returning
from another unsuccessful outing, stole some eggs from the homestead
of a white farmer near the small community of Acton in the Minnesota
River valley. For years, supplies pledged to the tribe by treaty
in exchange for prime hunting lands had been systematically diverted
then sold to their rightful recipients by local merchants at exorbitant
prices. The training and equipment that would make them self-sufficient
farmers never materialized. Complaints of illegal liquor sales and
outrages against Indian women by whites were ignored by authorities.
The fall harvest of 1861 had been blighted by an infestation of
cutworms, and the bitterly cold winter that followed left the Santee
impovrished half starved and desperate.
Their 52-year-old chief, Little Crow, tried without success to
get provisions from the local Indian agent of credit from local
traders. "If they are hungry" said one storekeeper, "let
them eat grass." The egg-stealing incident rapidly boiled up
into a confrontation that left the farmer and four family members
dead, grass stuffed in their mouths. With no more premeditation
than a summer storm, the Lakota Uprising of 1862 had begun.
Tribal leaders hurridly met with Little Crow, who agreed to lead
them but harbored no illusions whatever about their chances. In
the next four weeks the Lakota lashed out against settlers in surprise
skirmishes and large scale battles up and down the Minnesota Valley.
Hundreds of whites were killed and an estimated 30,000 others frantically
sought refuge at Ft Ridgley. Little Crow, wounded in an attack on
the fort, turned over his command to Chief Mankato. But then in
the fierce battle of Wood Lake in late September, Mankato was killed
by a cannonball, some said he refused to dodge it, and his warriors
were routed by federal troops.
Some 1,700 captured Dakota were marched to Ft Snelling, where they
were enclosed in a wooden stockade with scant food and little shelter
against the approaching winter cold. Trials were held and more than
300 of the men were condemned to death. Back in Washington, President
Lincon was besieged by demands from his own millitary advisers,
as well as an aroused national press, for quick executions. One
lone voice of dissent was that of Henry Whipple, an Episcopal bishop
and longtime advocate of the Lakota, who appealed to the president
for clemency. Lincoln considered his plea and commuted the sentences
of all but 39 of the prisoners, who were promptly separated ftom
the rest to await their fate in Mankato, Minnesota.
As the sun rose on December 26, 1862, the prisoners began chanting
their death songs, which they continued to sing as the scaffold
was nailed together and white cowls were rolled down over their
faces. When the trapdoor dropped beneath their feet, it was the
largest mass execution ever to take place in American history. Little
Crow was not among the victims, but six months later, while picking
beans on a farm, he was shot to death by the owner. The state of
Minnesota rewarded his killer with $500.
After the tragic events of 1862, many Lakota decided they had seen
enough bloodshed and worked to establish peaceable communities among
their white neighbors. One group took refuge in Canada and sought
help from the British, their former allies. Reluctantly, the Hudson's
Bay Company provided land near Manitoba's Ft Garry for the impoverished
exiles. Some Canadians feared a repeat of the violence in Minnesota,
but the Lakota proved content to trap, hunt, and lead quiet lives
as farmers and ranchers. They even remained neutral dining the Metis
Rebellion of 1869, an outburst with origins a century old.
Enraged at the Sand Creek slaughter of the peaceful encampment
of Cheyenne and Arapaho (there by order of the post commander at
Ft Lyon) in 1864, war chief of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota
had in the meantime held a council near the Republican River. Even
as the government was conducting its research into the Sand Creek
massacre, their warriors descended on stagecoaches and ranches,
tore down telegraph lines, and raided with impunity from Colorado
into the Dakotas.
Yet the war parties could not stem the tide of freight caravans,
stagecoaches, miners, and military reinforcements that was steadily
filling up their countryside after the end of the Civil War. One
especially keen observer was Red Cloud, a 44-year-old Oglala Lakota
who had earned his chieftaincy on the strength of numerous honors
won in battle. Red Cloud bitterly opposed the Bozeman Trail, which
cut through the heart of the Sioux’s Powder River hunting
grounds and across treaty-protected lands, enabling miners to take
a shortcut from the North Platte River in Wyoming to the goldfields
In response to Indian attacks against travelers using the Bozeman
trail, protective millitary posts were built along the trail. But
Red Cloud, thanks largely to his military strategist Crazy Horse,
consistently outmaneuvered the cavalry. Their greatest victory came
on December 21, 1866, against Gen. William J Fetterman (who had
once boasted that "with 80 men I could ride through the Sioux
Nation”). Staging a sham hit-and-run attack on Ft Kearny in
Wyoming Territory, they lured Fetterman and his troops out of the
safety of the fort and into a perfectly set ambush that left Fetterman
and all 80 of his cavalrymen dead. In the face of this unexpectedly
fierce resistance-and because a new railroad to the south would
soon make the trail obsolete-the government reversed its position
and offered to meet with Red Cloud to discuss a withdrawal from
the "bloody Bozeman. "
The last major round of peace treaties between the US government
and the Plains Indians were held a year after Fetterman’s
debacle. The first meeting took place in the valley of Medicine
Lodge creek in Kansas where Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho and
Kiowa-Apache delegations convened once again with white peace commisioners
on the full moon of October 1867.
The second round of peace treaty negotiations with northern tribes
took place at the following spring of 1868, once again at Ft Laramie.
With the immediate aim of ending Red Clouds hostilities the government
agreed to abandon its military garrisons along the Bozeman Trail-
effectivly shutting the route down to white traffic. (As humiliated
officers and their men filed out of Ft Phil Keanery, a triumphant
Red Cloud rode through its gates and proceeded to burn it to the
The new Ft Laramie treaty also designated the Powder River country
of Montana and Wyoming, plus all of today's South Dakota west of
the Missouri, as the Great Sioux Reservation. Within these lands
lay the Black Hills, held sacred by many tribes, including the Lakota,
Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Crow.
But no treaty could assuage the deep, abiding hatred of white men
that the Sand Creek Massacre had planted in the heads of Cheyenne
warriors like Medicine Water and Dull Knife, and Northern Arapaho
fighters like Powder Face. Soon their tribesmen would join forces
with the Lakota to outdo even the triumpth over Fetterman and inflict
the most stunning defeat on a white foe in all the years of the
Indian wars in the West.
When Ulysses S Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, his new "peace
policy" towards Indians sought to revise military and civilian
roles on reservations. Military Indian agents, who had been notoriously
prone to corruption, were to be replaced by emissaries from the
Quaker Society of Friends and other religious organizations. Soldiers
would be used only to pressure Indians onto reservations and keep
them there, while it would be the civilians’ job to coax them
into the "arts of civilization." In 1870 Congress reflected
the seriousness of Grant's policy by allocating $100,000 for the
education of Indian youth and related purposes.
Yet a wide chasm separated the reformist attitudes in the East
from the mind-set of most Westerners on the subject of Indian rights.
The Lakota in Particular were learning that the Ft Laramie accord
Red Cloud had signed in 1868 meant little to miners and settlers
clamoring for access to their sacred Black Hills.
Although the land was protected by treaty, in July 1874, William
Tecumseh Sherman dispatched Custer to lead a survey expedition into
these Lakota domains. A pack train accompanied by 1,200 troopers
wound its way through this game-stocked preserve-complete with guides,
a photographer, a wagon master, a howitzer and three gattling guns,
110 wagons, 1,000 horses, and 300 cattle for meals along the way.
Once word leaded out that Custer's illegal 1,205-mile survey of
the Black Hills had verified rumors of "gold from the grassroots
down," mining in the area increased noticeably the following
summer. In 1876, two years after the expedition, 6,000 newcomers
had taken up residence in Custer City, SD, and gold strikes in Deadwood
Gulch predictably lured thousands more. Streams were clogged by
sluice boxes, and timbering operations were already moving into
the virgin forests of the Black Hills.
Not surprisingly, the Lakota were incensed that their sanctuary
had been invaded in so flagrant a violation of the 1868 treaty.
Calls for resistance and revenge filled the air. When Senate negotiators
came to Lakota territory in September 1875 to try to work out a
lease agreement to the Black Hills, a warrior clad in battle attire
led a chant: "Black Hills is my land and I love it-And whoever
interferes will hear this gun." -Little Big Man, Oglala Lakota
When President Grant was told of the Indians' intransigence, he
let it be known that from then on, government troops would not stop
miners from invading the Black Hills. Moreover, the off- reservation
Lakota who were roaming the Yellowstone and Powder River valleys
in Montana would henceforth be considered threats to the general
In March 1876, Gen George Crook marshaled his troops for a campaign
against the last remaining Plains Indian rebels. That month some
troops struck a Cheyenne village, erroneously thinking it was Crazy
Horse's camp. They came away with 600 Indian ponies, only to lose
them to Cheyenne the same day. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne and Lakota
were slipping away from their reservation, where food supplies had
grown more and more scarce, to join renegade bands along Rosebud
Creek, practically under the government's nose. Thousands made camp
on the Rosebud's banks in what proved to be the calm before the
On a ranch near the Northern Cheyenne town of Lame Deer in southern
Montana stands a sandstone outcrop covered with incised designs.
Across From the rocks on the other side of Rosebud Creek tradition
has it, the Lakota staged their annual Sun Dance. Seated near the
rocks in June 1876, the great Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting
Bull, then 42, sacrificed 100 pieces of skin, 50 front each arm,
to bolster his prayers for a victory over the encroaching whites
and their blue- coated soldiers. It was then that Sitting Bull fell
into a trance and envisioned "dead soldiers without ears falling
upside down into camp." They had no ears because the white
man did not listen to what had been told him.
For his part Gen. Philip Sheridan, who headed military operations
that summer, proposed to confront the Indian hostiles, composed
of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, from three directions. His three
army colums, amounting to about 2,500 men, would include Gen. Alfred
Terry and Col. George A Custer coming in from the east Gen. George
Crook entering from the south and Gen John Gibbon striking from
Coming upon the Indian camp at Rosebud Creek on June 17, Crook
abruptly discovered that their numbers had been disastrously underestimated.
For six hours his troops faced waves of attacks by well-armed warriors
before he ordered a retreat. Meanwhile, other tribal groups were
filtering into the area they knew as the Greasy Grass (and whites
called the Little Bighorn River). More than 7,000 people in all
camped in six great tipi circles, including 1,800 warriors hungry
for more of the success they had tasted at Rosebud Creek.
Out of touch with Crook, Custer led a detachment of the 7th Calvary
toward the Little Bighorn. Unaware that he was approaching the largest
fighting force ever assembled on the Plains, Custer made an impulsive
and fatal decision. Dividing his troops, about 210 men, into three
attacking groups, he positioned them on a ridge above the camp.
A warrior named Wooden Leg remembered being awakened by the crack
of gunfire. Stripping for the fight and leaping onto his favorite
war pony, he and his friend Little Bird took off after a fleeing
"We were lashing him with our pony whips. It seemed not brave
to shoot him. He pointed back his revolver, though, and sent a bullet
into Little Bird’s thigh. As I was getting possession of his
weapon, he fell to the ground. I do not know what became of him."
-Wooden Leg, Cheyenne
in the course of an hour, Custer and every one of his men perished;
only a Crow scout named Curly was left alive. The victors promptly
withdrew, most heading up the Little Bighorn Valley, where they
held a great celebration below the Mouth of Lodge Grass Creek.
It was a moment worth savoring. Not since the infamous defeat known
to angry whites as St Clair's Shame, inflicted by the Shawnee 85
years earlier in Ohio, had the US Army suffered so costly a humiliation
at native hands.
It did not take the army long to respond. In September 1876 a camp
of Lakota trailing back to their reservations was attacked by troops
at Slim Buttes in Dakota Territory and lost their leader, American
Horse, in a hail of gunfire. At the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River
Sioux reservations, veterans of the Little Bighorn and other hostiles
were imprisoned. Witnessing his people's disinigration, Sitting
Bull (who had not taken part in the battle) and a small group of
followers fled to Canada in 1877. Many appeals for aid to the Canadian
government met with no success, and his people had trouble obtaining
even minimal supplies. Faced with the prospect of starving in a
foreign country, Sitting Bull and 187 others finally surrendered
in May 1881 at Ft Buford in North Dakota.
For bringing his demoralized band of exiles back from Canada in
July 1881, Sitting Bull had been promised a pardon for his role
in the Battle of Little Bighorn five years earlier. Instead he was
summarily arrested and locked up at Ft Randall on the Missouri River
in South Dakota. From there the Hunkpapa Lakota warrior could only
watch as his tribe's lands were nibbled away by the US government.
The next year, in exchange for 25,000 cows and 1,000 bulls, other
Lakota chiefs were asked to sign a paper they could not read it
surrendered 14,000 more miles, about half the reservation lands
guaranteed in the 1868 Ft Laramie Treaty. Suspecting the worst,
a chief named Yellow Hair scooped up a handful of dirt and thrust
it at the federal agent. "We have given up nearly all of our
land," he said, "you had better take the balance now."
In August 1883 a commision led by Senator Henry L Dawes of Massachusetts
came to Hunkpapa Lakota Agency at Standing Rock to investigate charges
of an illegal land seizure. Sitting Bull, only recently released
from captivity, attended the conference but was at first ignored
by the commisioners. When they finally asked for his opinion, he
accused them of acting like "men who have been drinking whiskey"
and led the chiefs in a walkout. Although Professing loyalty to
Sifting Bull, the other leaders were worried and persueded him to
apologise the next day. "The Great Father told me not to step
aside from the white man’s path, and I told him I would not,
and I am doing my best travel in that path," he told the conunissionars.
They were not mollified. "The government foods and clothes
and educates your children now," one of them said, "and
desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and
make you as white men."
The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin,
tried working with other Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Lakota chiefs. But
Sitting Bull remained their favored leader, and ironically, became
a celebrity in the white world. At the driving of the last spike
to link the Northern Pacific Railroads transcontinental track in
the summer of 1883, Sitting Bull was asked to deliver a speech drafted
for him by a bilingual army officer. Ignoring the text, the renowned
chief rose to announce in Lakota that he hated all white people.
"You are thieves and liars," he told his uncomprehending
audience. "You have taken away our lands and made us outcasts."
The embarrassed officer read a few platitudinous sentences from
the prepared speech in English and the listeners sprang to their
feet with applause for Sitting Bull.
The next year he made a government-sponsored tour of 15 cities
and was so enthusiastically received that Buffalo Bill Cody asked
him to join his Wild West Show in 1885. Sitting Bull agreed, but
he declined Cody's subsequent offer of a trip to Europe: "I
am needed here. There is more talk of taking our lands."
Indeed, the government tried in 1888 to carve up the Great Sioux
Reservation (then comprising about half the present state of South
Dakota, plus parts of Wyoming and Nebraska) into six smaller Indian
reserves and purchase the remaining 9 million acres for 50 cents
an acre. The Indians balked. A year later Gen. George Crook was
sent to Lakota country with an offer of $1.50 per acre and the implied
threat that the land would be seized if the Indians did not agree
to sell. Crook, dealing with the tribal leaders one by one, got
nearly all to sign-with the notable exception of Sitting Bull. Asked
how the Indians felt about surrendering so much land Sitting Bull
replied abruptly, "Indians! There are no Indians left but me!"
Having heard of the Paiute prophet Wovoka, several northern Plains
tribes sent a delegation to Nevada late in 1889 to learn more about
his prediction of a new age without white men. The emissaries returned
the following spring to introduce the Ghost Dance religion to the
Lakota and other tribes; by autumn of 1890 virtually all activities-trading,
schooling, farming-came to a sandstill as the people took up the
Understandably perhaps, the whites grew alarmed; predictably, Sitting
Bull was blamed for the unrest. "He is the chief mischief maker,"
James McLaughlin wrote from Standing Rock, "and if he were
not here this craze so