The Federal Government's War Against the Sioux

The war waged against the Sioux provides a tragic example of a military encounter. In the late eighteenth century, white men first appeared in Sioux territory - in the area known as the Black Hills, an isolated ridge, roughly 40 by 120 miles, of pine-dark peaks that rise from the dry plains at the border areas of present-day Wyoming and South Dakota.In 1851, the federal government and the Sioux entered into a treaty whereby the US promised not to trespass on Sioux territory and, in return, the Sioux promised to provide all pioneers with safe passage through their land. Shortly thereafter, the government built several fortified trading posts in Sioux territory. After two years of war between the Sioux and the U.S. government, a US peace commission met with the Sioux to negotiate a treaty. On Nov. 6, 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed guaranteeing the Sioux,

"... absolute and undisturbed use of the Great Sioux Reservation...No persons...shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in territory described in this article, or without consent of the Indians...No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein described...shall be of any validity or force...unless executed and signed by at least three-fourth of all adult male Indians, occupying or interested in the same."

Within a few years, thousands of miners began to pass through the Black Hills without the Indians' consent. The new settlers, as well as many other Americans, demanded that the Black Hills be bought from the Indians, with or without their consent. The Sioux, however, refused any attempts to purchase their land. Thus, in direct contravention of the Fort Laramie Treaty, in June 1876, President Grant sent troops into the Great Sioux Reservation in which over 20,000 men, women, and children lived. In the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Seventh Cavalry led by General George Armstrong Custer, attacked a Sioux camp on the Little Bighorn River. Subsequently, Custer and all of his men were killed

Two weeks later, the US government declared that, due to the Indians' warlike behavior, the Fort Laramie Treaty was invalid and the Sioux were expected to give up all claim to the Black Hills. They were then rounded up and confined to army forts where their ponies and rifles were confiscated. In September, the Sioux were presented with a document giving the US all of the Black Hills and 22.8 million acres of surrounding territory, granting rights-of-way across what was left of the Great Sioux Reservation, and ending all hunting rights outside the reservation. If the documents were not signed immediately, federal officers told Red Cloud and the other Sioux chiefs, food and other essential supplies would be delayed indefinitely. Perceiving they had no other choice, they signed.

In 1889, the Sioux people were again approached by the US government with a proposal to turn over 9 million acres of their remaining land. They refused. President Benjamin Harrison then passed an act dismantling the Great Sioux Reservation and creating the seven reservations that exist today. The Oglala received the dry rolling hill country which is now known as Pine Ridge Reservation consisting of approximately 2,722,000 acres. The remainder of Sioux land was turned over to the newly created states of North and South Dakota.Photo of Ghost Dance

In November 1890, a large contingent of infantry and cavalry arrived at and occupied the Pine Ridge Reservation with orders to quell the "hostile," traditional Sioux who increasingly were involved in the Ghost Dance, a spiritual ritual that gave the Indians hope that their traditional culture and lifestyles could survive. To the US Army, however, the dance symbolized resistance and the possibility of an Indian rebellion. Then, on December 29, 1890, Chief Big Foot met four cavalry units under orders to capture him. After the Sioux raised a white flag to signal their promise not to fight, they were taken to an army camp at Wounded Knee Creek and ordered to give up their weapons. A medicine man started the Ghost Dance, urging his tribesmen to join him by chanting in Sioux, "The bullets will not go toward you." When one young Indian refused to give up his rifle, confusion ensued during which several braves pulled rifles from their blankets, and the soldiers opened fire. At least 150 Indian men, women, and children died; as many as 300 may have perished after the wounded died. The Battle at Wounded Knee was one of the concluding events that marked over 100 years of American Indian policy.