Government policy by the mid 1860s was to confine all Indians to defined land areas called reservations. The United States government proposed what became known as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty to deal with the Sioux issue. This treaty proposed to:
In return, if the Sioux agreed to be confined to this smaller land area, the federal government would remove all military forts in the Powder River area and prevent non-Indian settlement in their lands. The treaty guaranteed that any changes to this document must be approved by three-quarters of all adult Sioux males. Red Cloud seemed to have won his point since the forts along the Bozeman Trail were abandoned so, in good faith, he signed the treaty. Those Lakota and Dakota who lived south or east along the rivers also signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty because they were already living within or near the bounds of the newly established Great Sioux Reservation. However, three-quarters of the Sioux males did not sign this treaty. Most of the Lakota living north of Bozeman Trail including the Hunkpapa and Sihasapa bands, did not sign. In particular, Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa, rejected all overtures to sign this treaty. Sitting Bull soon became a recognized leader of the Sioux who refused to give in to government entreaties to change their lifestyle and live in a confined area.
After the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty was negotiated some Hunkpapa, Sihasapa, and Yanktonai moved onto the northern part of the Great Sioux Reservation, the area designated for their bands. Yanktonai, under Two Bears, who lived and farmed on the east side of the Missouri River, refused to move across the river onto the new reservation because they had good land for farming. However, they maintained a friendly relationship with the agent. Many Lakota, among them many Hunkpapa, refused to recognize the 1868 Treaty saying it provided little to the people and pointed out non-Indians continued to use their land, and the government did not honor treaty provisions which promised rations, clothing, and schools. These people continued to live in their traditional areas in the un-ceded lands, followed the buffalo, and maintained their traditional lifeways.
As a way to monitor the Dakota and Lakota who lived on the vast Sioux Reservation, the federal government established agencies. In 1868 the Grand River Agency was established on the west bank of the Missouri River above the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers to handle matters on the northern part of the Great Sioux Reservation. As protection to the Indian agent and support staff, army forts were built near the agencies. In 1870 a fort was built near the Grand River Agency. Bands served by the Grand River Agency were primarily Yanktonai, Hunkpapa, and Sihasapa.
U.S. federal Indian policy in the 1870s sought to enforce the reservation system and to confine Indians to certain areas apart from settlers; federal policy also encouraged Indians to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in favor of farming. By confining Indians within designated reservation areas, the federal government relentlessly pursued a policy described as “Christianizing and civilizing the savages.” The goal of this policy was to “make Indians fit to live in the presence of the [white man’s] civilization.” This would be accomplished by replacing Indian spiritual tradition, cultural values, and lifeways with those of mainstream American society. In fact, as a way to encourage Christianization of the Indians, the federal government assigned various religious denominations to administer the reservations beginning in 1869. By 1870 Standing Rock was run by Catholics. The various denominations established schools and generally carried out the “civilizing” policies of the federal government.
Those Lakota living off the reservation in the un-ceded territory complained bitterly when the federal government permitted the Northern Pacific Railroad survey crews into this area in direct violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Sitting Bull opposed this incursion into Lakota lands and interference in Lakota life, and asserted his people’s rights to defend their homelands.
The U.S. government’s response to these complaints of treaty violations was to build more forts to protect settlers and railroad crews. Forts dotted the Missouri River near Indian settlements and treaty lands. Near the Grand River Agency, Forts McKeen and Abraham Lincoln joined Fort Rice along the Missouri River. The federal government continued to openly violate the 1868 Treaty throughout designated Sioux territory.
The most famous and well-documented violation of Sioux rights was the 1874 Black Hills expedition of geologists and soldiers under George Custer, who were sent in by the federal government to explore the Black Hills and report on the extent of gold deposits. The Dakota and Lakota angrily protested the direct violation of the 1868 Treaty. Although the government admitted this expedition was illegal, it justified the survey stating it was only to gain information about mineral wealth in the Black Hills.
Almost at once geological reports of gold in the Black Hills leaked to the general public and a stampede of miners poured into the area. By law these goldseekers were trespassing in area defined as Sioux country in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Half-hearted attempts by the military to keep miners out of the area were unsuccessful, and by the spring of 1875 the Black Hills were overrun by prospectors. Rather than enforce the 1868 Treaty and remove intruders from the Black Hills as the Dakota and Lakota vehemently demanded, the federal government’s response was to call together a council to again change the terms of the treaty. This time the government proposed to purchase the Black Hills.
The Grand River Agency representatives to this council were highly irritated at the invasion of the Black Hills and initially refused to attend the council meeting. They made their case by saying, “It is no use making treaties when the Great Father [President] will either let white men break them or not have the power to prevent them from doing so.” (John Burke, to E.P. Smith, September 1, 1875, BIA) The Lakota and Dakota bands from all agencies overwhelmingly rejected any proposal to sell or negotiate away their rights to the Black Hills. Tension between the Indians and government officials were high, but past experience taught the tribes the government would not accept their decision not to negotiate away anymore rights or territories.