After Sitting Bull’s death and the troubles at Wounded Knee, Standing Rock Indians were dispirited and under strict government control. The people planted small gardens, raised some livestock, and began to settle on small plots of land, though large numbers of official allotments were not made until 1906. As always, farming was problematic on the Great Plains; Standing Rock farmers were challenged by drought, grasshoppers, and poor land. Indian children continued to attend on and off reservation boarding schools. Parents who objected to sending their children to boarding schools were dealt with harshly. Often food was withheld and fathers were jailed until they relented and put their children in school. Children sent to the on-reservation boarding schools were often kept from seeing their parents from September until spring and the children cried a lot for their families. Off-reservation boarding schools were even harsher—children often did not see their families for many years, discipline was strict, and many children at the schools died of homesickness or disease. Captain Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian School, the federal prototype for Indian schools, stated his philosophy of education:
“We accept the watch word. There is no good
Indian but a dead Indian. Let us by education and
patient effort kill the Indian and save the man.”
The hope and purpose of this education was to give the Indians skills to become self-sufficient farmers and live on their own allotment of land. When this goal was reached the government would then terminate the reservation system.
Allotment provisions affecting most tribal groups were contained in a federal law, the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. Special provision for the allotment of Dakota and Lakota lands was also contained in the Sioux Bill of 1889. It was the goal of the federal government to allot 160–320 acre farmsteads to each Indian family, then throw open the reservation to non-Indian settlement dissolving the Indian land base and ending the reservation system. Government officials placed much hope in the allotment of individual plots of land to Indian families. Allotment shaped the education policy and government policy for Indians. The government believed the surest way to bring about the assimilation of Indian people was to make them self-sufficient farmers, much like their non-Indian neighbors. Individual land ownership, an important provision of allotment, would also break up tribalism in which lands were used in common with no sense of ownership. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that Indian people would suddenly drop their values, teachings, language, and cultural practices if they could be moved onto individual plots of land, learned English, and dressed in the fashion of mainstream Americans. However, many Indian families continued to live in large kinship groups, speak the language, and keep alive many of the traditions even after they received their allotment. In fact, agent reports indicated that farming at Standing Rock was done cooperatively by kinship groups and they purchased and used farm equipment cooperatively. Later government policy sought to separate allotments of related families to enforce the concept of individuality among the Standing Rock people. The federal government saved the best, most productive lands for homesteading by non-Indians, and allotted poor, barren lands to the Indians. So, federal practice doomed its own policy.
In many ways, government policy which sought to blend Indians in with the general population only served to bind Indian people together. At Standing Rock, as on so many reservations, the people seemed to follow Sitting Bull’s advice—they chose to accept aspects of the white man’s world but they never gave up those essential values which defined them as Dakota and Lakota. To the Indian people, the reservation is homeland—a place guaranteed and set aside by treaty and agreement for their use and occupancy. Over the years there has been a real struggle to hold onto the land base as well as maintain the culture, lifeways, spiritual traditions, and language. So, even as non-Indians established homesteads and moved within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Reservation, outward changes came about in the lifestyle of the Dakota or Lakota people—now the people lived in log cabins, they wore “citizen’s dress,” and their children attended schools. But high value was still put on maintaining language and through language maintaining those unique qualities that identified the people as Dakota and Lakota—emphasis on generosity and sharing with others, a spiritual attachment to the land, emphasis on strength derived from extended family networks, an overall identity as a people with unique cultural traditions.
Still the federal government relentlessly enforced policies on the reservations aimed at assimilating the people into mainstream society and with the express goal of eventually ending the reservation system. Citizenship for Indians was a major long term goal of the Dawes Allotment Act. Twenty-five years after being assigned an allotment, those families showing “competence” in managing their own affairs were given clear title to the land and citizenship in the U.S. The Department of the Interior devised a “Ritual on Admission of Indians to Full American Citizenship” (See Document 4 & Document 5), in which Indians shot off a last arrow, denounced their Indian ways and pledged to “live the life of the white man” or “white woman.” For those Indian people not yet deemed competent to manage their own affairs, federal agents continued to rule with an iron fist. However, the people of Standing Rock, though under many cultural stresses, continued to organize along more traditional patterns—it was what they knew and for them it was the natural way to do things.