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Tribal Historical Overview - Establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation - The Battle of the Little Bighorn

Intro | Lakota Migration | Establishment of the Reservation |
Breakup of the Reservation |

Reservation | Standing Rock | Little Bighorn | Black Hills

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

The flood of miners into the Black Hills continued unabated, and the federal government did little to discourage these trespassers. The Sioux refused to negotiate another treaty, so rather then uphold the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty the government instituted a policy that declared the ceded lands off-limits and sought to force all Dakota and Lakota living in the un-ceded areas between the Black Hills and Bighorn Mountains within the confines of the Great Sioux Reservation. In December 1875, the government plan became official policy. The people living in winter camps in the un-ceded territory were ordered to report to their agencies by January 31, 1876, or they would be regarded as hostile and the army would drive them in. The winter of 1875–1876 was bitterly cold, however, and runners were sent to the winter camps in the un-ceded lands to inform the people of this new policy. The runner from Standing Rock left in December 1875 and he did not return to the agency until February 11, 1876. He reported that Sitting Bull’s people were near the mouth of the Powder River and had received him well, but they could not come in at that time. At the very time the government was trying to gather Indians onto the Great Sioux Reservation many Indians settled at the Standing Rock Agency, and were given permission by the agent to go into the Powder River country to hunt since there was a shortage of food supplies and rations on the reservation. Due to the cold weather, these people did not return by the January 31st deadline so they too were considered hostile even though they had permission to be off the reservation.

The cold weather prevented the army from embarking on the planned winter campaign to round up the so-called hostiles. However, when warmer weather came the military prepared to converge on the Dakota and Lakota in the un-ceded lands and force them onto the Great Sioux Reservation. In June 1876, the military campaign against the Sioux became intense. Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa, and Crazy Horse, an Oglala, were prominent leaders of the people living outside the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation and they asserted their legal right to be in the un-ceded territory. In June, as was tribal custom, the Dakota and Lakota people came together in a large group to hunt and to conduct a sun dance ceremony. During the sun dance, Sitting Bull told of a strong image he saw, of many soldiers falling into camp and he saw a big Indian victory. Within days after the sun dance, on June 17, 1876, General Crook attacked Sioux and Cheyenne camped along the Rosebud River. The soldiers were held at bay until they finally retreated. This, however, was not the event foretold by Sitting Bull. The Dakota and Lakota bands moved their camp along the banks of the Little Bighorn River, and on June 25, 1876, Custer and his troops stumbled on a large Indian encampment that included many women, children, and old people. Custer ordered an attack and within 45 minutes all men under his command were dead. Fearful of reprisals after the Battle of the Little Bighorn the Indian camp divided and fled in many directions.

Buffalo Robe, Fiske Collection
Buffalo Robe. Presented to President Theodore Roosevelt by John Grass,
a Sioux Chief. The painting represents Custer’s last fight.
(Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1952-0052)

“Custer’s Last Stand,” as the fight was popularly known, shocked and outraged Americans, and brought a flood of soldiers into Indian country.

During the summer and fall of 1876, many Indians filtered back to their various agencies while those who stayed in the un-ceded lands were relentlessly hunted down by the army. In a tense meeting with government officials in October 1876, Sitting Bull refused to surrender and stated that the Great Spirit had made him an Indian, but not an agency Indian. Rather than go to the reservation, he led his people northward into Canada in January 1877.

In the fall and winter of 1876 and 1877, all Indians returning to their agencies had to surrender their guns and horses to the Army. At Standing Rock, all Indians who lived some distance from the agency had to move closer to the administrative office so the agent and soldiers could watch them. The Sioux were now confined to their reservation and were regarded as prisoners of war. Firm control was exerted on all the inhabitants of the Great Sioux Reservation, including those people at Standing Rock Agency.

Continue to the Taking of the Black Hills...