Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa, returned to the United States from Canada in 1881. He was held as a prisoner at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory, by the army until he was returned to Standing Rock Agency in June 1883. The Indian Agent at Standing Rock, Major James McLaughlin, disliked Sitting Bull because Sitting Bull openly spoke against government intrusion in Indian life. Sitting Bull never signed a treaty and he always urged his people to maintain their identity as Indian; he advised the Standing Rock people to be open but cautious in their dealings with white people.
“If you see anything good in the white man’s road,
pick it up and keep it, but if you find something that
is not good, or turns out bad, leave it alone....”
(Vestal, New Sources, p. 273)
McLaughlin and other government officials viewed that as tantamount to the complete rejection of “civilization;” there was no room for compromise in government policy. When Sitting Bull first returned to Standing Rock, McLaughlin insisted he live near the agency offices but in time Sitting Bull moved further south and lived along the Grand River in a spot between the present-day communities of Rock Creek (Bullhead) and Little Eagle, in present-day South Dakota. McLaughlin viewed Sitting Bull as a threat to his authority as agency agent.
As it became evident that North Dakota and South Dakota would be admitted to the Union, Dakotans insisted on a reduction of the Great Sioux Reservation. These Indian lands blocked more than 43,000 square miles to settlement and economic development, but any attempts to reduce the Sioux land base had been unsuccessful to this point. In 1888 and 1889, federal commissions were sent once more to various Sioux agencies in attempts to get Indian approval of the Sioux Bill which called for the break-up of the Great Sioux Reservation into a smaller reservation, forfeiture of nine million acres of land, allotment of lands to individual families, and opening of non-allotted land to homesteading. The 1888 commission began its work at Standing Rock and then sought signatures of three-quarters of the adult Sioux males, as required by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. There was organized opposition to the Sioux Bill at Standing Rock, and it became evident to the government-appointed commissioners that even if other agencies were more receptive, the commission would still lack the necessary signatures for passage. The government retreated and planned new strategy.
In 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota were holding statehood conventions and constituents of the soon-to-be states again demanded reduction of the Great Sioux Reservation. So, government commissioners were once again on the Great Sioux Reservation seeking the break-up of this land base.
The Dakota and Lakota at Standing Rock overwhelmingly opposed the reduction of their reservation. Appointed spokesmen, John Grass, Gall, and Mad Bear spoke eloquently in opposition to the Sioux Bill. However, the commissioners, aided by Agent McLaughlin, applied unrelenting pressure to the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock to get their assent to the break-up of the Great Sioux Reservation. Sitting Bull, though not an appointed spokesman, openly opposed the land cession and urged the people not to be intimidated and not to sign away the land.
There was a great deal of Indian opposition to the Sioux Bill and the government officials repeatedly warned the people of Standing Rock that the government would seize the land if the Indians did not sign it away. Great pressure was exerted on the people and after much resistance approximately half of the Standing Rock Sioux males, eighteen years and older, signed assent to the Sioux Bill. Standing Rock was the last agency visited and when these signatures were combined with those at the other agencies, it was enough to cause the break-up of the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller land areas and resulted in the loss of nine million acres of land. The Sioux Act also set in motion allotment and opening of the reservation to non-Indians. With passage of the Sioux Bill in the United States Congress, Standing Rock Reservation came into being in 1890.