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 the Iroquois.
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 trading posts.
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 quests.
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 coalition.
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 accepted.
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 year.
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 of Montana.
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 ground)
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 public.
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 storm.
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 the west.
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 soldier.
“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 frenzied ritual.
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