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Tribal Historical Overview - Establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation - The Taking of the Black Hills

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

Reservation | Standing Rock | Little Bighorn | Black Hills

The Taking of the Black Hills

In the late summer of 1876, partly in retaliation for the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the United States government moved to annex the Black Hills from the Great Sioux Reservation. According to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, three-quarters of the adult Sioux males had to approve this change so the federal government had to send commissions to each agency to explain the proposal and obtain the necessary signatures. By this point the Lakota and Dakota people were not willing to negotiate for more loss of land. The process was regarded as a sham; there was no true negotiation, the treaty commission was powerless to change the document—they could only carry concerns to the U.S. Senate who had final approval. And the Indians knew, through past experience, the Senate often ignored all Indian concerns or wishes.

At Standing Rock the government commission obtained only forty-eight signatures of men agreeing to relinquish the Black Hills, and the commissioners fared no better at the agencies. Despite the fact that the 1868 Treaty was legally binding and the Sioux overwhelmingly refused to sign the new treaty, the U.S. Congress ratified the 1876 Act in February of 1877, taking the Black Hills from the Dakota and Lakota and extinguishing their hunting rights in the un-ceded territory. Upon hearing of the annexation of the Black Hills, Henry Whipple, the government appointed chairman of the commission that was unsuccessful in obtaining consent of the Sioux to relinquish these lands and rights, said, “I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath.” The commission’s report to Congress elaborates with this statement and underscores the commission’s lack of power in the process:

Our country must forever bear the disgrace and
suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our
children’s children will tell the sad story in
hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared
so to trample on justice and trifle with God.

(BIA, Annual Report, 1876)

Sioux Lands as defined in the act of February 28, 1877.
Sioux Lands, 1877. (Map by Cassie Theurer,
adapted from Lazurus, page x)

By 1877, the Indians at Standing Rock agency were left with no alternative but to try and accept conditions imposed on them by the government. Government control of the Sioux was harsh and unbending. Access to hunting grounds was firmly denied and with no horses or guns the people were forced to accept government food rations and clothing distributions. The government encouraged self-sufficiency by imposing farming on the Sioux, something that was culturally new to them and something they resisted. In addition, drought, grasshoppers, and alkaline soil made it almost impossible for the Indians at Standing Rock to become self-sufficient farmers. The lands authorized by the government were not suitable for farming, while much of the better land was preserved for a time when the reservation would be open to homesteaders. Still, by 1877 at Standing Rock, there was progress toward “civilization” as the government termed it: as buffalo skin tepees wore out, many Indians moved into log cabins. Two Bears and John Grass purchased mowing machines, and Catholic missionaries opened a school for boys and a school for girls. To government officials these outward trappings of American life made them confident the people of Standing Rock were abandoning their traditions.

Provisions for education were contained in treaties and agreements. Many of the Dakota and Lakota people at Standing Rock felt schooling would be beneficial for their children and for the tribe. Indian people understood they would be living in the presence of the white man’s culture and they felt it was important to have children learn English so the people could communicate on an equal basis with the white people. Indian people believed this education would provide their people with new skills and abilities, and did not suspect that education as envisioned by the federal government would seek to erase their Indian languages and traditional values. Government officials supported a system of off-reservation boarding schools for Indians in order to “educate them in the civilization of the white man.” Boarding schools were looked upon as the best way to educate Indian children because they removed the child from the family environment and permitted total immersion in the English language and Euro-American values. Once the Sioux were confined to the Great Sioux Reservation, boarding and day schools sprang up quickly at Standing Rock Agency. Off-reservation boarding schools also sprang up and many young people from Standing Rock were placed at Hampton Institute, a non-sectarian Christian boarding school in Virginia; others went to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a federal school that was the prototype for government-run Indian boarding schools.

All schools, whether local or distant, had the overriding goal of assimilation of Indians into the white man’s ways. Education and farming were keystones of federal policy to assimilate Indians. In the schools the young people learned English, as well as some skills in mathematics, reading, and writing; they spent a good deal of time learning vocational skills such as sewing, making butter, baking, managing a garden, homemaking for the girls and farming, animal husbandry, shoemaking, carpentry, and blacksmithing for the boys. All the schools imposed harsh military discipline on the children, forbade the use of Indian languages, and intentionally forbade any teaching of Native American culture or history. Since the federal government’s plan for Indians was to settle them on individual plots of land and make farmers of them, the education programs emphasized practical skills needed for this life.

Government officials felt rapid progress toward assimilation of Indians would occur with school systems in place. However, at Standing Rock Agency and elsewhere, the Indian people did not readily sacrifice the values, traditions, and language which defined them as a people and gave them strength. For a time after moving onto the reservation, the people continued their spiritual teachings and practices and they held social dances and give-aways. In 1880, the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock Agency combined to hold a sun dance and this caused great controversy. Government officials and some military personnel accused the agent of letting his charges sink into barbarism rather than keeping them on the path to civilization.

In 1883 the government issued a set of so-called Indian Offenses that strictly forbade all traditional ceremonies which aimed straight at the center of Dakota and Lakota spiritual life. All traditional lifeways and ceremonies were banned by law. These included give-aways, the sun dance, rites of purification, and social dancing, to name a few. (See Courts of Indian Offenses, Document 2)

Indians were confined to the reservation and needed to have written permission if they left the reservation on business. Parents who kept their children out of school were subject to arrest and to having food rations withheld. In Fort Yates the government-run trading post was divided by a five foot wall—one side for Indians, the other side for whites. Government interference in all facets of Indian life made the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock Agency virtual prisoners on their own land, subject to government policy that sought to crush their cultural ways and distinctiveness as a people. Some of the ceremonies continued infrequently and secretly, away from the eyes of the agent. But the stringent laws coupled with removal of children from families for education, and a host of other stresses such as poor health and disease caused a sadness to settle over the people.

Continue to the Breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation...