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October 1998
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Decline and Fall of the Sioux Nation

Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, James C. Olson, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, Bison Book printing, 1975, ISBN 0-8032-5817-8

The Lance and the Shield, The Life and Times of Sitting Bull, Robert M. Utley, Henry Holt and Company, 1993, ISBN 0-8050-1274-5


The story of Custer's last stand at the battle of the Little Big Horn has been told and retold in movies and books. There is even a book on management styles which contrasts the leadership styles of Sitting Bull and Custer with the appropriate little homilies being drawn. The story is romantic and dramatic. In a real sense, Custer's last stand was the last stand of the Sioux - a fruitless, last victory in a war to retain their lands and their traditional way of life.

Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were the two great Sioux leaders. Sitting Bull (and Crazy Horse) are the great, well known, romantic figures. Red Cloud is less well known.

The Sioux were not originally natives of the plains; they came from the East and migrated West. According to Black Hills, White Justice the Sioux reached the Black Hills in 1776 - two nations, one red, one white, with a common birthday. The plains Sioux did not come to the serious attention of the US government until after the civil war. The Sioux weren't a major concern; the tribes of the Southern plains were because they interfered with the intercontinental railroads. The Sioux were interfering with the Bozeman trail and the forts that the government built along them.

US policy towards the Indians was (and has always been) an incredibly muddled mixture, torn between the demands of land hungry settlers, church groups, the BIA, and the military. The end result has always been the same, the differences merely being when and how long it took.

"They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it."

In the immediate post civil war period the Sioux were in a strong strategic position. Those who favored a conciliatory policy toward the Indians were in favor; the Sioux occupied lands that the US did not have an immediate interest in taking; the Sioux were fierce and able warriors; and the US did not want to invest large amounts of money and manpower in Indian wars.

Red Cloud was the great Sioux leader of the 1860's. Under his leadership the Sioux skirmished with the US for several years in the central plains, Wyoming, and Montana. The US sued for peace and the treaty of 1868 was signed. Red Cloud won his war. By the treaty the Sioux territory was established as what is now the Dakotas West of the Missouri river. In addition territory in Eastern Montana and Wyoming was "unceded territory" which meant that the Indian tribes could live there by the chase as they always had. The US abandoned several forts which were burned down and the Bozeman trail. The tribes led by Red Cloud agreed to make peace and to live at agencies set up by the US; in return the US agreed to supply them with food and money.

Peace had been made - sort of. In following this tangled story it is important to realize that the Sioux were comprised of many tribes and that at no time did the chiefs and war leaders have full binding authority. Treaties were negotiated through interpreters; it is doubtful that there was ever a common understanding between parties as to what treaties signified.

Sitting Bull did not sign the treaty; none of the Northern tribes signed the treaty. Red Cloud made peace with the White Man and paid the price; Sitting Bull waged war against the White Man and paid the price. The price was the same in either case; the lands of the Sioux and their way of life.

In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills officially one of general exploration but in reality to check out rumors that they were rich in gold. During 1874-1875 the government tried to keep prospectors out of the Black Hills (sometimes they didn't try very hard.) The US wanted to buy the Black Hills - they sent out a commission to negotiate for its sale. It failed. In late 1875 they decided on a policy of all out war on the Northern tribes. In March of 1876 the tribes learned that they were at war when the US raided a village on the Powder river. In the war of 1876 Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse won the battles and Custer discovered the hard way that he was not the great Indian fighter that his press clippings claimed. In the winter of 76-77 they lost the war. The US decided that attacking winter camps with cannon was a more effective (and much safer) way to wage war. It wasn't nice but it was effective. The Northern tribes were broken; Crazy Horse surrendered (and was killed); Sitting Bull went into exile into Canada for a while and then returned to the US to surrender.

Red Cloud and the Southern tribes who were living peacefully on the reservation lost too. After Custer's last stand the Army took over control of Sioux affairs. In surprise raids the Army disarmed and dismounted the Southern tribes and herded them to different agencies, an action that the broke the back of Sioux way of life.

The US took the Black Hills in the first land grab. Under the treaty of 1868 the US could not take any lands unless 3/4 of the tribal members agreed to the sale. The US didn't have the signatures but said they did and took the land. In exchange it promised compensation - most of the promises were not kept. Many decades later lawyers for the Sioux won a land mark law suit in settlement of Sioux claims. The legal maneuvers spanned more than half a century; by the time the suit was won the American Indian Movement was very active and the Sioux voted not to accept the award. The US government holds the award money in trust - with interest it has grown to several hundred million dollars.

The 1880's were a dreary chapter in a dismal tale. Sitting Bull surrendered to the US in 1881 and discovered the delights of living on a reservation on the government dole. The Sioux leadership was reduced to squabbling with the Indian Agents. They half heartedly tried to acquire the White Man's ways and become "civilized".

The 1880's ended with the second land grab, the ghost dancers, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The Sioux reservation still consisted of most of Western Dakota, sans the Black Hills. The land hungry settlers wanted most of it. The government was determined to take it. In 1889 the Sioux, faced with more demands from the US, well aware that the government had not, did not, and would not keep its promises, desperate and hungry, embraced the ghost dance religion. There was a real danger that they would go on the war path again; the military took action; and the massacre at Wounded Knee was the result. In the course of events Sitting Bull was killed; Red Cloud was not. The Sioux were persuaded to give up most of the reservation land.

"To themselves," as Capt. Charles G Penney, who took charge of Pine Ridge early in 1891, put it, "they seem to be fenced in with no future and nothing to do but draw and eat their rations and then die." (RCATSP - p336)

Red Cloud lived on for almost nineteen dreary years after Wounded Knee. He said to the anthropologist, Warren Moorehead:

"You see this barren waste ... Think of it! I, who used to own rich soil in a well-watered country so extensive that I could not ride through it in a week on my fastest pony, am put down here! Why, I have to go five miles for wood for my fire. Washington took our lands and promised to feed and support us. Now I, who used to control 5000 warriors, must tell Washington when I am hungry. I must beg for that which I own. If I beg hard, they put me in the guard-house. We have trouble. Our girls are getting bad. Coughing sickness every winter carries away our best people. My hear is heavy, I am old, I cannot do much more...

Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were great men, intelligent, eloquent, and capable but they could do no more than preside, each in their own way, over the long erosion of a way of life that was doomed.


This page was last updated October 26, 1998.
It was moved February 5, 2010

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