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Important Events in Sioux History

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                   


Two events, important in the history of the Sioux tribe, happened in 1869 and 1870. One was the visit of a delegation of chiefs and headmen from several of the bands, under the leadership of the chief Red Cloud, to Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. They had thus an opportunity of relating all their grievances, and of receiving the Government's declarations of good intentions toward them. Red Cloud, after his return home, became an ardent and determined advocate of peace and loyalty. The other was the withdrawal of a portion of the Santee Sioux from their band, for the purpose of taking up farms under the Homestead Act, and becoming independent citizens. The story of this experiment, and the manner in which it was met by the United States Government, is best told in the words of Dr. Williamson, a missionary, who had lived thirty-five years among them, and who pleaded thus warmly for them in a letter addressed to the Department in the summer of 1870: "Several considerations have influenced the Dakotas in going to the Big Sioux River:

  • 1st. The soil and climate are more similar to that to which they have been accustomed in Minnesota, their former home, than is that of their reservation on the Missouri;
  • 2d. Feeling that they were men capable of sustaining themselves if a fair opportunity is afforded them; they felt that it was degrading to live as sinecures and pensioners dependent on Government for food and clothing;
  • 3d. And chiefly a desire to make homes for their families where they could be subjected to, and protected by, the laws of the United States, the same as all other men are. This they thought could not be the case on their reservation.

"These Sioux were parties to the treaties made in 1851, by which they and other bands ceded to the United States all the best settled parts of Minnesota west of the Mississippi for less than one-hundredth part of its present value, and much less than the lands were worth to them as hunting-grounds. And while as hunters they needed no protection of the law, they knew that as agriculturists they could not live without it; and they positively refused to sell their hunting-grounds till the Commissioner of the United States promised that they should be protected in their persons and property the same as white men. Government never accorded to them this protection, which, in the view of the Indians, was a very important consideration in selling the lands. This neglect on the part of the Government led to yearly complaints, and the massacres of 1862. These Sioux were most of them previous to the war living in comfortable homes, with well-cultivated farms and teams," and were receiving by annuity provisions, either in money or the equivalent, about $50 a head annually, from interest, on their money invested in the bonds of the Government. These Indians, in taking up their new homesteads, were required by the Department to renounce, on oath, all claims on the United States for annuities. Without doubt, citizenship of the United States, the protection of our laws, is worth a great sum; but is it wise or right in our Government to require these natives of the country to purchase, at a price of several thousands of dollars, that which is given without money or price to every immigrant from Asia, Europe, or Africa that asks for it?

"Besides their annuities, there is due them from the Government the proceeds of the sale of their old reservation on the Minnesota River, which is more than forty miles long and ten wide; which, after paying expenses of survey and sale, are, according to a law of the United States, to be expended in assisting them to make homes elsewhere; and as these lands were valued at $1.25 an acre and upward, and are rapidly selling, the portion which will be due each of the Indians cannot be less than $200 or $300 or $1000 for each family. The oath required of them is supposed to bar them from any claim to this also. Now, I cannot see how this decision of the Indian Department is consistent either with justice or good policy, and it is certainly inconsistent with both the spirit and letter of Articles six and ten of a treaty between the United States of America and different bands of Sioux Indians, concluded in 1868, and ratified and proclaimed February, 1869. What I ask for them is that our Government restore to them a part of what we took from them, and give them the same chance to live and thrive which we give to all the other inhabitants of our country, whether white or black. "That some aid is very necessary must be obvious to you, who know how difficult it is for even white men, trained to work, and with several hundred dollars in property, to open a new farm in this Western wilderness. Their number is probably greater than you are aware of. When I administered the Lord's Supper there on the first Sabbath of this month, there were present seventy-seven communicants of our church, besides quite a number of other persons. It is owing to the Santee Sioux-partly to those on the Big Sioux River, chiefly to those near Fort Wadsworth-that in the last five years not a single white inhabitant of Minnesota or Iowa has been murdered by the wild Indians, while many have been cut off in every frontier State and Territory south-west of the Missouri. So long as the Christian Sioux can he kept on the frontier, the white settlements are safe. In conclusion, I wish again to call your attention to the fact that these Indians on the Big Sioux purchase citizenship at a very great sum, and to entreat you to do all in your power to secure for them that protection of person or property for which they bargain, and without which nothing our Government can do will make them prosperous or happy."

No attention was paid to this appeal; and the next year the indefatigable missionary sent a still stronger one, setting forth that this colony now numbered fifty families; had been under the instruction of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions for many years; had a church of one hundred members; a native preacher, partly supported by them; had built log-cabins on their claims, and planted farms, "many of them digging up the ground with hoes and spades." Dr. Williamson reiterates the treaty provisions under which he claims that these Indians are entitled to aid. The sixth Article of the treaty of 1868 closes as follows: "Any Indian or Indians receiving a patent for land under the foregoing provisions, shall thereby and henceforth become and be a citizen of the United States, and be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of such citizenship, and shall at the same time retain all his rights and benefits accruing to Indians under this treaty."

This treaty goes on to provide most liberally for all Indians adopting the civilized mode of life. Article eighth specially provides for supplying them with seed and agricultural implements, and this is what they most of all need.

The encouragement held forth in this treaty was one great motive in leading these people to break tribal influences, so deleterious to improvement, and adopt our democratic civilization. Is it not base tyranny to disappoint them? They are the first Sioux, if not the first Indians in the United States to adopt the spirit and life of our American civilization. They have of their own accord done just what the Government has been for generations trying to get the- Indians to do. And now will the Government refuse this helping hand? To our shame, it has for two years refused. And why? Because the Indians said, "If we become civilized, it is necessary for us to break up tribal relations, and settle down like white men."

In 1873 the Government at last yielded to this request, and sent out oxen, wagons, ploughs, etc., enough to stock thirty farms. In 1874, Dr. Williamson, having been appointed a special agent for them, reports their progress: "They all live in log-houses and wear citizens' dress. One hundred and nineteen can read their own language fluently. They all go to church regularly. They have broken one hundred and seventy-seven acres of new prairie. Twenty new houses have been built. They have cut and hauled two hundred cords of wood, hauling some of it forty miles to market. They have done considerable freighting with their teams, going sometimes a hundred miles away. They have earned thirty-five hundred dollars, catching small furs. One Indian has the contract for carrying the mail through Flandreau, for which he receives one thousand dollars a year. It is but a few miles from Flandreau to the far-famed pipe-stone quarry, and these Indians make many little sums by selling pipes, rings, ink-glasses, etc., made of this beautiful red stone. They are anxious to be taught how to make baskets, mats, cloth; and the young men ask to be taught the blacksmith and carpenter trades."

This is a community that only five years before had pushed out into an unbroken wilderness without a dollar of money, without a plough, to open farms. "Without ploughs, they had to dig the sod with their hoes, and at the same time make their living by hunting. They suffered severe hardships, and a number of their best men perished in snow-storms. Believing they were carrying out the wishes of the Great Father, as expressed in the treaty of 1868, to which they were parties, they were disappointed when for three years no notice was taken of them." There is something pathetic in the gratitude they are said now to feel for the niggardly gift of a few oxen, wagons, and ploughs. They have apparently given over all hope of ever obtaining any of the money due them on account of their lands sold in Minnesota. No further allusion is made to it by Dr. Williamson.

From the Yankton Sioux this year comes a remarkable report: "We have no jail, no law except the treaty and the agent's word, yet we have no quarrels, no fighting, and, with one or two exceptions, not a single case of drunkenness during the year. This I consider remarkable, when we take into consideration the fact that the reservation is surrounded by ranches where liquors of all kinds can be obtained." Is there another village of two thousand inhabitants in the United States of which this can be said?

In this yea' a commission was sent to treat with some of the wilder bands of Sioux for the relinquishment of their right to hunt and roam over a large part of their unneeded territory in Kansas and Nebraska. Some of the chiefs consented. Red Cloud's band refused at first; "but on being told that the right would soon be taken from them," after a delay of two days they "agreed to accept," merely stipulating that their share of the twenty-five thousand dollars promised should be paid in horses and guns. They insisted, however, on this proviso: "That we do not surrender any right of occupation of the country situated in Nebraska north of the divide, which is south of and near to the Niobrara River and west of the one hundredth meridian."

It was a significant fact that, when these Sioux gave up this hunting privilege, "they requested that nearly all the $25,000 they received in compensation for this relinquishment should be expended in cows, horses, harness, and wagons," says the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1875.

There are still some thousand or more of hostile Sioux roaming about under the famous chief Sitting Bull-living by the chase when they can, and by depredations when they must; occasionally, also, appearing at agencies, and drawing rations among the other Indians unsuspected. The remainder of the bands are steadily working their way on toward civilization. The Santees are a Christian community; they have their industrial schools, Sabbath-schools, and night schools; they publish a monthly paper in the Dakota tongue, which prints twelve hundred copies. The Yankton have learned to weave, and have made cloth enough to give every Indian woman in the tribe one good dress. The Flandreau citizen Sioux have a Presbyterian church of one hundred and thirty-five members, and pay half the salary of the native preacher. On the occasion of an anniversary meeting of the Dakota missionaries there, these people raised one hundred dollars to pay for their entertainment. These three bands are far the most advanced, but all the others are making steady progress.

In 1876 the news from the Sioux on the agencies is that, owing to the failure of appropriations, the Indian Bureau had been unable to send the regular supplies, and the Indians, being in "almost a starving condition," had been induced, by the "apparent purpose of the Government to abandon them to starvation," to go north in large numbers, and join the hostile camps of Sitting Bull. This was in the spring; again in mid summer the same thing happened, and many of the Indians, growing still more anxious and suspicious, left their agencies to join in the war.

Congress would probably have paid little attention at this time to the reading of this extract from "Kent's Commentaries:" "Treaties of peace, when made by the competent power, are obligatory on the whole nation. If the treaty requires the payment of money to carry it into effect, and the money cannot be raised but by an act of the legislature, the treaty is morally obligatory upon the legislature to pass the law; and to repeal it would be a breach of the public faith."

A disturbed and unsettled condition of things prevailed at all the Sioux agencies, consequent on this state of things. Companies of troops were stationed at all of them to guard against outbreaks. Owing to lack of funds, the Yankton were obliged to give up their weaving and basket making. At the Standing Rock Agency, after the Indians had planted eight hundred and seventy-two dollars' worth of seeds of corn, potatoes, and other vegetables-the grasshoppers came and devoured them. "Many of these Indians, with their whole families, stood all day in their fields fighting these enemies, and in fighting several places succeeded so far as to save a considerable part of their crops." The Santees were made very anxious and unhappy by fresh rumors of their probable removal. Public sentiment at the East, knowing no difference between different tribes of Sioux, regarded it as maudlin sentimentalism to claim for the Santees any more rights than for the hostiles that had murdered General Custer. One of the agents in Dakota writes:

"The recent troubles in the Indian country, and the existing uncertainty as to the future intentions of the Government toward the Indians, occasion considerable uneasiness among them. Reports are circulated that no further assistance will be rendered by the Government, as the Great Council in Washington refuses to furnish money unless the Indians are turned over to the War Department. Every inducement is held out to encourage secession from the agencies, and strengthen the forces of the hostile camp. It is not surprising that, in view of the non-arrival of supplies, and the recent order of the War Department to arrest parties leaving and arriving, that people less credulous than Indians would feel undecided and uneasy. It must be remembered that the whole Sioux nation is related, and that there is hardly a man, woman, or child in the hostile camp who has not blood relations at one or the other of the agencies."

Contrast the condition into which all these friendly Indians are suddenly plunged now, with their condition only two years previous: martial law now in force on all their reservations; themselves in danger of starvation, and constantly exposed to the influence of emissaries from their friends and relations, urging them to join in fighting this treacherous government that had kept faith with nobody-neither with friend nor with foe; that made no discriminations in its warfare between friends and foes; burning villages occupied only by women and children; butchering bands of Indians living peacefully under protection of its flag, as at Sand Creek, in Colorado no wonder that one of the military commander's official reports says, "The hostile body was largely reinforced by accessions from the various agencies, where the malcontents were, doubtless, in many cases, driven to desperation by starvation and the heartless frauds perpetrated on them;" and that the Interior Department is obliged to confess that, "Such desertions were largely due to the uneasiness which the Indians had long felt on account of the infraction of treaty stipulations by the white invasion of the Black Hills, seriously aggravated at the most critical period by irregular and insufficient issues of rations, necessitated y inadequate and delayed appropriations."

It was at this time that Sitting Bull made his famous reply: "Tell them at Washington if they have one man who speaks the truth to send him to me, and I will listen to what he has to say."

The story of the military campaign against these hostile Sioux in 1876 and 1877 is to be read in the official records of the War Department, so far as statistics can tell it. Another history, which can never be read, is written in the hearts of widowed women in the Sioux nation and in the nation of the United States.

Before midsummer the Sioux war was over. The indomitable Sitting Bull had escaped to Canada that sanctuary of refuge for the Indian as well as for the slave. Here he was visited in the autumn by a commission from the United States, empowered by the President to invite him with his people to return, and be "assigned to agencies," and treated "in as friendly a spirit as other Indians had been who had surrendered." It was explained to him that every one of the Indians who had surrendered had "been treated in the same manner as those of your nation who, during all the past troubles, remained peaceably at their agencies." As a great part of those who had fled from these same agencies to join Sitting Bull had done so because they were starving, and the Government knew this (had printed the record of the fact in the reports of two of its Departments), this was certainly a strange phraseology of invitation for it to address to Sitting Bull. His replies and those of his chiefs were full of scathing sarcasm. Secure on British soil, they had for once safe freedom of speech as well as of action, and they gave the United States Commissioners very conclusive reasons why they chose to remain in Canada, where they could "trade with the traders and make a living," and where their women had "time to raise their children."

The commissioners returned from their bootless errand, and the Interior Department simply entered on its records the statement that "Sitting Bull and his adherents are no longer considered wards of the Government." It also enters on the same record the statement that "in the months of September and October, 1876, the various Sioux agencies were visited by a commission appointed under the Act of Congress, August 15th of that year, to negotiate with the Sioux for an agreement to surrender that portion of the Sioux Reservation which included the Black Hills, and certain hunting privileges outside that reserve, guaranteed by the treaty of 1868; to grant a right of way across their reserve; and to provide for the removal of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail bands to new agencies on the Missouri River. The commission were also authorized to take steps to gain the consent of the Sioux to their removal to the Indian Territory. The commission were successful in all the negotiations with which they were charged, and the Indians made every concession that was desired by the Government, although we were engaged at that very time in fighting their relatives and friends." The only comment needed on this last paragraph is to suggest that a proper list of errata for that page should contain: "For although ' read because!" "On behalf of the United States the agreement thus entered into provided for subsisting the Sioux on a stated ration until they should become self-supporting; for furnishing schools, and all necessary aid and instruction in agriculture and the mechanical arts, and for the allotment of lands in severalty."

In accordance with this act, a commission was sent to select a location on the Missouri River for the two new Sioux agencies (the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail).

"For the former the site chosen is the junction of Yellow Medicine and Missouri rivers, and at that point agency buildings have just been erected," says the Report of the Indian Bureau for 1877. "For the latter the old Ponca Reserve was decided on, where the agency buildings, storehouses, one hundred and fifty Indian houses, and five hundred acres of cultivated fields, left vacant by the Ponca, offer special advantages for present quarters."

The commissioner says: "The removal of fourteen thousand Sioux Indians at this season of the year, a distance of three hundred miles from their old agencies in Nebraska to their new quarters near the Missouri River, is not a pleasant matter to contemplate. Neither the present Secretary of the Interior nor the present Commissioner of Indian Affairs is responsible for the movement, but they have carried out the law faithfully though reluctantly. The removal is being made in accordance with the Act of August 15th, 1876. It is proper to say here that I cannot but look on the necessity thus imposed by law on the executive branch of the Government as an unfortunate one, and the consequences ought to be remedied as speedily as possible.

"Let us for a moment consider that the Spotted Tail Agency was in 1871 on the west bank of the Missouri River, where the whites became exceedingly troublesome, and the river afforded abundant facilities for the introduction of intoxicating liquors. In 1874 the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies were removed to what a subsequent survey proved to be the State of Nebraska the former agency one hundred and sixty-five miles from Cheyenne, and the latter one hundred and eight miles from Sidney, the nearest points on the Union Pacific Railroad. Here the usual ill-fortune attending the removal of these Indians was again exemplified in placing the agencies on absolutely barren land, where there was no possibility of cultivating the soil, no hope of their being enabled to become self-supporting, and where they have of necessity been kept in the hopeless condition of paupers."

In the hope of placing these Indians upon arable land, where they might become civilized and self-supporting, the determination was hastily taken to remove them back to the Missouri River. This step was taken without a proper examination of other points on their reservation, where it is stated that a sufficient quantity of excellent wheat lands can be found on either bank of the White River, and where there is also timber sufficient in quantity and quality for all practical purposes. The Indian chiefs, ill their interview with the President in September last, begged that they might not be sent to the Missouri River, as whiskey-drinking and other demoralization would be the consequence. This was the judgment of the best men of the tribe; but the necessity was one that the President could not control. The provisions and supplies for the ensuing winter had been placed, according to law, on the Missouri, and, owing to the lateness of the season, it was impossible to remove them to the old agencies. Accordingly, the necessities of the case compelled the removal of these Indians in the midst of the snows and storms of early winter, which have already set in."

If there were absolutely no other record written of the management of Indian affairs by the Interior Department than this one page of the history of these two bands of the Sioux tribe, this alone would be enough to show the urgent need of an entirely new system. So many and such hasty, ill-considered, uninformed, capricious, and cruet decisions of arbitrary power could hardly be found in a seven years' record of any known tyrant; and there is no tyrant whose throne would not have been rocked, if not upset, by the revolutions which would have followed on such oppressions.

There is a sequel to this story of the removal of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail bands a sequel not recorded in the official reports of the Department, but familiar to many men in the Western country. Accounts of it some humorous, some severe-were for some time floating about in Western newspapers.

The Red Cloud and Spotted Tail bands of Sioux consented to go to the old Ponca Reserve only after being told that all their supplies had been sent to a certain point on the Missouri River with a view to this move; and it being too late to take all this freight northward again, they would starve if they stayed where they were. Being assured that they would be allowed to go back in the spring, and having a written pledge from General Crook (in whose word they had implicit faith) that the Government would fulfill this promise, they at last very reluctantly consented to go to the Ponca Reserve for the winter. In the spring no orders came for the removal. March passed, April passed-no orders. The chiefs sent word to their friend, General Crook, who replied to them with messages sent by a swift runner, begging them not to break away, but to wait a little longer. Finally, in May, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs went himself to hold a council with them. When he rose to speak, the chief Spotted Tail sprung up, walked toward him, waving in his hand the paper containing the promise of the Government to return them to White Clay Creek, and exclaimed, "All the men who come from Washington are liars, and the bald-headed ones are the worst of all! I don't want to hear one word from you, you are a bald-headed old liar! You have but one thing to do here, and that is to give an order for us to return to White Clay Creek. Here are your written words; and if you don't give this order, and everything here is not on wheels inside of ten days, I'll order my young men to tear down and burn everything in this part of the country! I don't want to hear a anything more from you, and I've got nothing more to say to you:" and he turned his back on the commissioner and walked away. Such language as this would not have been borne from unarmed and helpless Indians; but when it came from a chief with four thousand armed warriors at his back, it was another affair altogether. The order was written. In less than ten days everything was "on wheels," and the whole body of these Sioux on the move to the country they had indicated; and the Secretary of the Interior says, naively, in his Report for 1868, "The Indians were found to be quite determined to move westward, and the promise of the Government in that respect was faithfully kept."

The reports from all the bands of Sioux for the past two years have been full of indications of their rapid and encouraging improvement. "The most decided advance in civilization has been made by the Ogallala and Brulé Sioux" says the Report of the Indian Bureau for 1879. "Their progress during the last year and a half has been simply marvelous."

And yet this one band of Oglala Sioux has been moved, since 1863, eight times. Is it not a wonder that they have any heart to work, any hope of anything in the future?

"It is no longer a question," says this same report, "whether Indians will work. They are steadily asking for opportunities to do so, and the Indians who today are willing and anxious to engage in civilized labor are largely in the majority; there is an almost universal call for lands in severalty; there is a growing desire to live in houses; the demand for agricultural implements and appliances, and for wagons and harness for farming and freighting purposes, is constantly increasing."

That all this should be true of these wild, warlike Sioux, after so many years of hardships and forced wanderings and removals, is incontrovertible proof that there is in them a native strength of character, power of endurance, and indomitable courage, which will make of them ultimately a noble and superior race of people, if civilization will only give them time to become civilized, and Christians will leave them time and peace to learn Christianity.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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