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The Sioux Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


The word Sioux is a contraction from the old French word "Nadouessioux," or "Enemies," the name given by the French traders to this most powerful and warlike of all the North-western tribes. They called themselves "Dakota," or "many in one," because so many bands under different names were joined together. At the time of Captain Carver's travels among the North American Indians there were twelve known bands of these "Nadouwessies." They entertained the captain most hospitably for seven months during the winter of 1766-'7; adopted him as one of their chiefs; and when the time came for him to depart, three hundred of them accompanied him for a distance on his journey, and took leave with expressions of friendship for him, and good-will toward the Great Father, the English king, of whom he had told them. The chiefs wished him to say to the king "bow much we desire that traders may be sent to abide among us with such things as we need, that the hearts of our young men, our wives, and children may be made glad. And may peace subsist between us so long as the sun, the moon, the earth, and the waters shall endure;" and "acquaint the Great King how much the Nadouwessies wish to be counted among his good children."

Nothing in all the history of the earliest intercourse between the friendly tribes of North American Indians and the Europeans coming among them is more pathetic than the accounts of their simple hospitality, their unstinted invitations, and their guileless expressions of desire for a greater knowledge of the white men's ways.

When that saintly old bigot, Father Hennepin, sailed up the Illinois River, in 1680, carrying his "portable chapel," chalice, and chasuble, and a few holy wafers "in a steel box, shut very close," going to teach the savages "the knowledge of the Captain of Heaven and Earth, and to use fire-arms, and several other things relating to their advantage," the Illinois were so terrified that, although they were several thousand strong, they took to flight "with horrid cries and howlings." On being reassured by signs and words of friendliness, they slowly returned-some, however, not until three or four days had passed. Then they listened to the good man's discourses with "great attention; afterward gave a great shout for joy," and "expressed a great gratitude;" and, the missionaries being footsore from long travel, the kindly creatures fell to rubbing their legs and feet "with oil of bears, and grease of wild oxen, which after much travel is an incomparable refreshment; and presented us some flesh to eat, putting the three first morsels into our mouths with great ceremonies."

It was a pity that Father Hennepin bad no more tangible benefit than the doctrine of the "efficacy of the Sacraments" to communicate to the hospitable Illinois in return for their healing ointments. Naturally they did not appreciate this, and he proceeded on his way disheartened by their "brutish stupidity," but consoling himself, however, with the thought of the infants he had baptized. Hearing of the death of one of them, he says he is "glad it had pleased God to take this little Christian out of the world," and he attributed his own "preservation amidst the greatest dangers" afterward to "the care he took for its baptism." Those dangers were, indeed, by no means inconsiderable, as he and his party were taken prisoners by a party of these Indians, called in the Father's quaint old book "Nadouwessians." He was forced to accompany them on their expeditions, and was in daily danger of being murdered by the more riotous and hostile members of the band. He found these savages on the whole "good-natured men, affable, civil, and obliging," and he was indebted for his life to the good will of one of the chiefs, who protected him again and again at no inconsiderable danger to himself. The only evidence of religion among the Nadouwessies which he mentions is that they never began to smoke without first holding the pipe up to the sun, saying, "Smoke, sun!" They also offered to the sun the best part of every beast they killed, carrying it afterward to the cabin of their chief; from which Father Hennepin concluded that they had "a religious veneration for the sun."

The diplomatic relations between the United States Government and the Sioux began in the year 1815. In that year and the year following we made sixteen "treaties" of peace and friendship with different tribes of Indians-treaties demanding no cessions of land beyond the original grants which had been made by these tribes to the English, French, or Spanish governments, but confirming those to the United States; promising "perpetual peace," and declaring that "every injury or act of hostility committed by one or other of the contracting parties shall be mutually forgiven and forgot." Three of these treaties were made with bands of the Sioux-one of them with "the Sioux of the Leaf, the Sioux of the Broad Leaf, and the Sioux who shoot in the Pine-tops."

In 1825 four more treaties were made with separate Sioux bands. By one of those treaties-that of Prairie du Chien-boundaries were defined between the Chippewa and the Sioux, and it was hoped that their incessant feuds might be brought to an end. This hostility had continued unabated from the time of the earliest travelers in the country, and the Sioux had been slowly but steadily driven south and west by the victorious Chippewa. A treaty could not avail very much toward keeping peace between such ancient enemies as these. Fighting went on as before; and white traders, being exposed to the attacks of all war parties, suffered almost more than the Indians themselves. The Government consoled itself for this spectacle of bloody war, which it was powerless to prevent, by the thought that the Indians would "probably fight on until some one or other of the tribes shall become too reduced and feeble to carry on the war, when it will be lost as a separate power" an equivocal bit of philosophizing which was unequivocally stated in these precise words in one of the annual reports of the War Department.

In the third Article of the next treaty, also at Prairie du Chien, in 1830, began the trouble, which has been from that day to this a source of never ending misunderstanding and of many fierce outbreaks on the part of the Sioux. Four of the bands by this article ceded and relinquished to the United States "forever" a certain tract of country between the Mississippi and the Des Moines River. In this, and in a still further cession, two other bands of Sioux, who were not fully represented at the council, must join; also, some four or five other tribes. Landed and "undivided" estate, owned in common by dozens of families, would be a very difficult thing to parcel out and transfer among white men to-day, with the best that fair intentions and legal skill combined could do; how much more so in those days of unsurveyed forests, unexplored rivers, owned and occupied in common by dozens of bands of wild and ignorant Indians, to be communicated with only by interpreters. Misconstructions and disputes about boundaries would have been inevitable, even if there had been all possible fair-mindedness and good will on both sides; but in this case there was only unfair mindedness on one side, and unwillingness on the other. All the early makers of treaties with the Indians congratulated themselves and the United States on the getting of acres of valuable land by the million for next to nothing, and, as years went on, openly lamented that "the Indians were beginning to find out what lands were worth;" while the Indians, anxious, alarmed, hostile at heart, seeing themselves harder and harder pressed on all sides, driven "to provide other sources for supplying their wants besides those of hunting, which must soon entirely fail them,"* yielded mile after mile with increasing sense of loss, which they were powerless to prevent, and of resentment which it would have been worse than impolitic for them to show.

The first annuities promised to the Sioux were promised by this treaty $3000 annually for ten years to the Yankton and Santee bands; to the other four, $2000. The Yankton and Santee bands were to pay out of their annuity $100 yearly to the Otoe, because part of some land which was reserved for the half-breeds of the tribe had originally belonged to the Otoe. "A blacksmith, at the expense of the United States; also, instruments for agricultural purposes; and iron and steel to the amount of $700 annually for ten years to some of the bands, and to the amount of $400 to the others; also, $3000 a year for educational purposes,' and $3000 in presents distributed at the time," were promised them.

It was soon after these treaties that the artist Catlin made his famous journeys among the North American Indians, and gave to the world an invaluable contribution to their history, perpetuating in his pictures the distinctive traits of their faces and their dress, and leaving on record many pages of unassailable testimony as to their characteristics in their native state. He spent several weeks among the Sioux, and says of them: "There is no tribe on the continent of finer looking men, and few tribes who are better and more comfortably clad and supplied with the necessaries of life. I have travelled several years already among these people, and I have not had my scalp taken, nor a blow struck me, nor had occasion to raise my hand against an Indian; nor has my property been stolen as yet to my knowledge to the value of a shilling, and that in a country where no man is punishable by law for the crime of stealing. That the Indians in their native state are drunken, is false, for they are the only temperance people, literally speaking, that ever I saw in my travels, or expect to see. If the civilized world are startled at this, it is the fact that they must battle with, not with me. These people manufacture no spirituous liquor themselves, and know nothing of it until it is brought into their country, and tendered to them by Christians.

"That these people are naked is equally untrue, and as easily disproved with the paintings I have made, and with their beautiful costumes which I shall bring home. I shall be able to establish the fact that many of these people dress not only with clothes comfortable for any latitude, but that they dress also with some considerable taste and elegance. Nor am I quite sure that they are entitled to the name of 'poor' who live in a country of boundless green fields, with good horses to ride; where they are all joint tenants of the soil together; where the Great Spirit has supplied them with an abundance of food to eat."

Catlin found six hundred families of the Sioux camped at one time around Fort Pierre, at the mouth of the Teton River, on the west bank of the Missouri. There were some twenty bands, each with their chief, over whom was one superior chief, called Ha-won-je-tah (the One Horn), whose portrait is one of the finest in Catlin's book. This chief took his name, "One Horn," from a little shell, which he wore always on his neck. This shell had descended to him from his father, and he said "he valued it more than anything which he possessed: affording a striking instance of the living affection which these people often cherish for the dead, inasmuch as he chose to carry this name through life in preference to many others and more honorable ones he had a right to have taken from different battles and exploits of his extraordinary life. "He was the fleetest man in the tribe; "could run down a buffalo, which he had often done on his own legs, and drive his arrow to the heart."

This chief came to his death, several years later, in a tragic way. He had been in some way the accidental cause of the death of his only son-a very fine youth-and so great was the anguish of his mind at times that he became insane. In one of these moods he mounted his favorite war-horse, with his bow and arrows in his hand, and dashed off at full speed upon the prairies, repeating the most solemn oath that he would slay the first living thing that fell in his way, be it man or beast, friend or foe. No one dared follow him, and after be bad been absent an hour or two his horse came back to the village with two arrows in its body covered with blood. Fears of the most serious kind were now entertained for the fate of the chief, and a party of warriors immediately mounted their horses and retraced the animal's tracks to the place of the tragedy, where they found the body of their chief horribly mangled and gored by a buffalo-bull, whose carcass was stretched by the side of him.

A close examination of the ground was then made by the Indians, who ascertained by the tracks that their unfortunate chief, under his unlucky resolve, had met a buffalo-bull in the season when they are very stubborn, and unwilling to run from any one, and had incensed the animal by shooting a number of arrows into him, which had brought him into furious combat. The chief had then dismounted and turned his horse loose, having given it a couple of arrows from his bow, which sent it home at full speed, and then had thrown away his bow and quiver, encountering the infuriated animal with his knife alone, and the desperate battle had resulted in the death of both.

Many of the bones of the chief were broken, and his huge antagonist lay dead by his side, weltering in blood from a hundred wounds made by the chief's long and two-edged knife.

Had the provisions of these first treaties been fairly and promptly carried out, there would have been living today among the citizens of Minnesota thousands of Sioux families, good and prosperous farmers and mechanics, whose civilization would have dated back to the treaty of Prairie du Chien.

In looking through the records of the expenditures of the Indian Bureau for the six years following this treaty, we find no mention of any specific provisions for the Sioux in the matter of education. The $3000 annually which the treaty promised should be spent "on account of the children of the said tribes and bands," is set down as expended on the "Choctaw Academy," which was in Kentucky. A very well endowed institution that must have been, if we may trust to the fiscal reports of the Indian Bureau. In the year 1836 there were set down as expended on this academy: On account of the Miami, $2000; the Pottawatomi, $5000; the Sacs, Foxe, and others, $3000; the Choctaws, $10,000; the Creek, east, $3000; the Cherokee, west, $2000; the Florida Indians, $1000; the Quapaw, $1000; the Chickasaw, $3000; the Creek, $1000: being a total of $31,000.

There were in this year one hundred and fifty-six pupils at the Choctaw Academy, sixteen of them being from the Sacs, Foxes, Sioux, and others represented in the Treaty of Prairie du Chien of 1830. For the education of these sixteen children, therefore, these tribes paid $3000 a year. The Miami paid more in proportion, having bait four youths at school, and $2000 a year charged to them. The Pottawatomi, on a treaty provision of $5000, educated twenty.

In 1836 Congress appropriated $2000 "for the purpose of extinguishing the Indian title between the State of Missouri and the Missouri River. The land owned here by the Indians was a long, narrow belt of country, separated from the rest of the Indian country by the Missouri River. The importance of it to the State of Missouri was evident-an "obvious convenience and necessity." The citizens of Missouri made representations to this effect; and though the President is said to have been "unwilling to assent, as it would be in disregard of the guarantee given to the Indians in the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, and might be considered by them as the first step in a series of efforts to obtain possession of their new country," he nevertheless consented that the question of such a cession should be submitted to them. Accordingly, negotiations were opened, and nearly all the Indians who had rights in these lands, "seeing that from their local position they could never be made available for Indian purposes," relinquished them.

In 1837 the Government invited deputations of chiefs from many of the principal tribes to come to Washington. It was "believed to be important to exhibit" to them "the strength of the nation they would have to contend with" if they ventured to attack our borders, "and at the same time to impress upon them the advantages which flow from civilization." Among these chiefs came thirty chiefs and headmen of the Sioux; and, being duly "impressed," as was most natural, concluded treaties by which they ceded to the United States "all their land east of the Mississippi River, and all their islands in the same." These chiefs all belonged to the Mdewakantonwan band, "community of the Mysterious Lakes."

The price of this cession was $300,000, to be invested for them, and the interest upon this sum, at five per cent., to be paid to them "annually forever;" $110,000 to be distributed among the persons of mixed blood in the tribe; $90,000 to be devoted to paying the just debts of the tribe; $8230 to be expended annually for twenty years in stock implements, on physicians, farmers, blacksmiths, etc.; $10,000 worth of tools, cattle, etc., to be given to them immediately, "to enable them to break up and improve their lands;" $5300 to be expended annually for twenty years in food for them, "to be delivered at the expense of the United States;" $6000 worth of goods to be given to them on their arrival at St. Louis.

In 1838 the Indian Bureau reports that all the stipulations of this treaty have been complied with, "except those which appropriate $8230 to be expended annually in the purchase of medicines, agricultural implements, and stock; and for the support of a physician, farmers, and blacksmiths," and "bind the United States to supply these Sioux as soon as practicable with agricultural implements, tools, cattle, and such other articles as may be useful to them, to an amount not exceeding $10,000, to enable them to break up and improve their lands." The fulfillment or non-fulfillment of these stipulations has been left to the discretion of the agent; and the agent writes that it "must be obvious to any one that a general personal intercourse" on his part "is impracticable," and that "his interviews with many of the tribes must result from casualty and accident." This was undoubtedly true; but it did not, hi all probability, occur to the Indians that it was a good and sufficient reason for their not receiving the $18,000 worth of goods premised.

Five thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine dollars were expended the next year under this provision of the treaty, and a few Indians, who "all labored with the hoe," raised their own crops without assistance. Six thousand bushels of corn in all were housed for the winter; but the experiment of turning hunters into farmers in one year was thought not to be, on the whole, an encouraging one. The "peculiar habits of indolence, and total disregard and want of knowledge of the value and uses of time and property," the agent says, "almost forbid hope." A more reasonable view of the situation would have seen in it very great hope. That out of five hundred warriors a few score should have been already found willing to work was most reassuring, and promised well for the future of the tribe.

For the next ten years affairs went on badly with the Sioux; they were continually attacked by the Chippewa, Ottawa, and others, and continually retaliated. The authorities took a sensible view of this state of things, as being the easiest way of securing the safety of the whites. "So long as they (the Indians) are at war with each other they will not feel a disposition to disturb the peace and safety of our exposed frontier settlements," wrote Governor Dodge, in 1840.

Whiskey traders flocked faster and faster into the neighborhood; fur traders, also, found it much more for their interest to trade with drunken Indians than with sober ones, and the Sioux grew rapidly demoralized. Their annuities were in arrears; yet this almost seemed less a misfortune than a blessing, since both money, goods, and provisions were so soon squandered for whiskey.

In 1842 several of the bands were reduced to a state of semi-starvation by the failure of corn crops, and also by the failure of the Senate to ratify a treaty they had mad ,with Governor Doty in 1841. Depending on the annuities promised in this treaty, they had neglected to make their usual provisions for the winter. Frosts, which came in June, and drought, which followed in July, combined to ruin their crops. For several years the water had been rapidly decreasing in all the lakes and streams north-west of Traverse de Sioux: the musk-rat ponds, from which the Indians used to derive considerable revenue, 110 dried up, and the musk-rats had gone, nobody knew where; the beaver, otter, and other furry creatures had been hunted down till they were hard to find; the buffalo had long since been driven to new fields, far distant. Many of the Indians were too poor to own horses on which to hunt. They were two hundred miles from the nearest place where corn could be obtained, even if they had money to pay for it. Except for some assistance from the Government, they would have died by hundreds in the winter of this year.

In 1849 the "needs" of the white settlers on the east side of the Mississippi made it imperative that the Sioux should be again removed from their lands. "The desirable portions of Minnesota east of the Mississippi were already so occupied by a white population as to seem to render it absolutely necessary to obtain without delay a cession from the Indians on the west side of the river, for the accommodation of our citizens emigrating to that quarter, a large portion of whom would probably be compelled to precipitate themselves on that side of the Mississippi."

Commissioners were accordingly sent to treat with the Indians owning these desired lands. In the instructions given to these commissioners there are some notable sentences: "Though the proposed purchase is estimated to contain some twenty millions of acres, and some of it no doubt of excellent quality," there are "sound reasons why it is comparatively valueless to the Indians, and a large price should not be paid for it." Alive to the apparent absurdity of the statement that lands which are "absolutely necessary" for white farmers are "comparatively valueless" to Indians whom the Government is theoretically making every effort to train into farmers, and who have for the last ten years made appreciable progress in that direction, the commissioner adds, "With respect to its being valuable to the United States, it is more so for the purpose of making room for our emigrating citizens than for any other; and only a small part of it is now actually necessary for that object. The extent of the proposed cession should be no criterion of the amount that should be paid for it. On a full consideration of the whole matter, it is the opinion of this office that from two to two and a half cents an acre would be an ample equivalent for it." Some discretion is left to the commissioners as to giving more than this if the Indians are "not satisfied;" but any such increase of price must be "based on such evidence and information as shall fully satisfy the President and Senate.

Reading farther on in these instructions, we come at last to the real secret of this apparent niggardliness on the part of the Government. It is not selfishness at all; it is the purest of philanthropy. The Government has all along been suffering in mind from two conflicting desires-" the desire to give these Indians an equivalent for their possessions," and, on the other hand, "the well-ascertained fact that no greater curse can be inflicted on a tribe so little civilized as the Sioux than to have large sums of money coming to them as annuities." On the whole, the commissioner says that we are called on, "as a matter of humanity and duty toward this helpless race, to make every exertion in our power not to place much money at their discretion." The Government is beginning very well in this direction, it must be admitted, when it proposes to pay for Mississippi Valley lands in Minnesota only two and a half cents per acre. "Humanity and duty" allied could hardly do more at one stroke than that.

We cannot ascribe to the same philanthropy, however, the withholding from 1837 to 1850 the $3000 a year which the treaty of 1837 provided should be expended "annually" as the President might direct, and which was not expended at all, because President after President directed that it should be applied to educational purposes; and there being no evident and easy way of expending it in that manner, it was allowed to accumulate, until in 1850 it amounted, according to the report of Governor Ramsey, of Minnesota, to $50,000. The governor also thinks better than the United States Government does of the country to he relinquished this year by the Sioux. He says that it will be "settled with great rapidity, possessing as it does from its situation considerable prospective commercial as well as agricultural advantages." It was evidently very cheap at two and a half cents an acre.

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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