North Dakota Government site North Dakota Tourism site

Establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation

Establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation

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:

  • Set aside a 25 million acre tract of land for the Lakota and Dakota encompassing all the land in South Dakota west of the Missouri River, to be known as the Great Sioux Reservation;
  • Permit the Dakota and Lakota to hunt in areas of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota until the buffalo were gone;
  • Provide for an agency, grist mill, and schools to be located on the Great Sioux Reservation;
  • Provide for land allotments to be made to individual Indians; and provide clothing, blankets, and rations of food to be distributed to all Dakotas and Lakotas living within the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation.
Great Sioux Reservation
Great Sioux Reservation. (Map by Cassie Theurer, adapted from Lazarus, page ix)

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.

Sioux Camp
Sioux Camp. (Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, A0085)

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.

Establishment of Standing Rock Agency

At the time gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the United States government was beginning in earnest to implement its policy to confine all western Indians on reservations. The government wanted all Lakota and Dakota within the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation and out of the un-ceded territories. In order to make the Grand River Agency more functional, the Indian agency and its army support moved 55 miles up the Missouri River to a high tableland at a point where the river was narrow and deep. This new site had a river landing accessible to steamboats, an abundance of cottonwood timber, and good farming land. This area was outside the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation but an Executive Order signed March 16, 1875, extended the reservation’s northern boundary to the Cannonball River. Fort Yates became the military support for the agency and late in 1874 the agency officially became known as Standing Rock Agency.

Standing Rock Council
Standing Rock Council. Meeting at the newly established Standing Rock Agency, Fort Yates. (Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, C0242)

Since the Standing Rock Agency’s new location at Fort Yates was to be a permanent location, the Yanktonai, under Two Bears, living and farming on the eastern side of the Missouri River were forced to move across the river. The federal agent at Standing Rock implemented government policies aimed at “civilizing” the Indians; these included encouraging Indians to construct log homes and take up farming. The federal government also distributed rations of food to all Indians living within the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation. These rations consisted of flour, lard, bacon, sugar, coffee, and beef. Rations were used as a way to keep people on the reservation and discourage the people from pursuing a traditional lifestyle of hunting; only those Indians living on the reservation were eligible for rations. In time, when Indians changed to a farming economy the government planned to end the rationing system. As another way to encourage adaptation of the “white man’s civilization,” as it was referred to in government documents, the federal government distributed clothing, blankets, and cloth to the Indians on an annual basis. This, too, was done to discourage pursuit of the old lifestyle with cloth replacing leather for clothing. But more importantly to the government, the clothes made the Indians look more like their counterparts in the majority society and less like Indians. Nonetheless, winters were harsh and rations were often late so Indians continued to leave the reservation to hunt in the un-ceded territory as provided in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

The flood of miners into the Black Hills continued unabated, and the federal government did little to discourage these trespassers. The Sioux refused to negotiate another treaty, so rather then uphold the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty the government instituted a policy that declared the ceded lands off-limits and sought to force all Dakota and Lakota living in the un-ceded areas between the Black Hills and Bighorn Mountains within the confines of the Great Sioux Reservation. In December 1875, the government plan became official policy. The people living in winter camps in the un-ceded territory were ordered to report to their agencies by January 31, 1876, or they would be regarded as hostile and the army would drive them in. The winter of 1875–1876 was bitterly cold, however, and runners were sent to the winter camps in the un-ceded lands to inform the people of this new policy. The runner from Standing Rock left in December 1875 and he did not return to the agency until February 11, 1876. He reported that Sitting Bull’s people were near the mouth of the Powder River and had received him well, but they could not come in at that time. At the very time the government was trying to gather Indians onto the Great Sioux Reservation many Indians settled at the Standing Rock Agency, and were given permission by the agent to go into the Powder River country to hunt since there was a shortage of food supplies and rations on the reservation. Due to the cold weather, these people did not return by the January 31st deadline so they too were considered hostile even though they had permission to be off the reservation.

The cold weather prevented the army from embarking on the planned winter campaign to round up the so-called hostiles. However, when warmer weather came the military prepared to converge on the Dakota and Lakota in the un-ceded lands and force them onto the Great Sioux Reservation. In June 1876, the military campaign against the Sioux became intense. Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa, and Crazy Horse, an Oglala, were prominent leaders of the people living outside the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation and they asserted their legal right to be in the un-ceded territory. In June, as was tribal custom, the Dakota and Lakota people came together in a large group to hunt and to conduct a sun dance ceremony. During the sun dance, Sitting Bull told of a strong image he saw, of many soldiers falling into camp and he saw a big Indian victory. Within days after the sun dance, on June 17, 1876, General Crook attacked Sioux and Cheyenne camped along the Rosebud River. The soldiers were held at bay until they finally retreated. This, however, was not the event foretold by Sitting Bull. The Dakota and Lakota bands moved their camp along the banks of the Little Bighorn River, and on June 25, 1876, Custer and his troops stumbled on a large Indian encampment that included many women, children, and old people. Custer ordered an attack and within 45 minutes all men under his command were dead. Fearful of reprisals after the Battle of the Little Bighorn the Indian camp divided and fled in many directions.

Buffalo Robe
Buffalo Robe. Presented to President Theodore Roosevelt by John Grass, a Sioux Chief. The painting represents Custer’s last fight. (Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1952-0052)

“Custer’s Last Stand,” as the fight was popularly known, shocked and outraged Americans, and brought a flood of soldiers into Indian country.

During the summer and fall of 1876, many Indians filtered back to their various agencies while those who stayed in the un-ceded lands were relentlessly hunted down by the army. In a tense meeting with government officials in October 1876, Sitting Bull refused to surrender and stated that the Great Spirit had made him an Indian, but not an agency Indian. Rather than go to the reservation, he led his people northward into Canada in January 1877.

In the fall and winter of 1876 and 1877, all Indians returning to their agencies had to surrender their guns and horses to the Army. At Standing Rock, all Indians who lived some distance from the agency had to move closer to the administrative office so the agent and soldiers could watch them. The Sioux were now confined to their reservation and were regarded as prisoners of war. Firm control was exerted on all the inhabitants of the Great Sioux Reservation, including those people at Standing Rock Agency.

The Taking of the Black Hills

In the late summer of 1876, partly in retaliation for the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the United States government moved to annex the Black Hills from the Great Sioux Reservation. According to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, three-quarters of the adult Sioux males had to approve this change so the federal government had to send commissions to each agency to explain the proposal and obtain the necessary signatures. By this point the Lakota and Dakota people were not willing to negotiate for more loss of land. The process was regarded as a sham; there was no true negotiation, the treaty commission was powerless to change the document—they could only carry concerns to the U.S. Senate who had final approval. And the Indians knew, through past experience, the Senate often ignored all Indian concerns or wishes.

At Standing Rock the government commission obtained only forty-eight signatures of men agreeing to relinquish the Black Hills, and the commissioners fared no better at the agencies. Despite the fact that the 1868 Treaty was legally binding and the Sioux overwhelmingly refused to sign the new treaty, the U.S. Congress ratified the 1876 Act in February of 1877, taking the Black Hills from the Dakota and Lakota and extinguishing their hunting rights in the un-ceded territory. Upon hearing of the annexation of the Black Hills, Henry Whipple, the government appointed chairman of the commission that was unsuccessful in obtaining consent of the Sioux to relinquish these lands and rights, said, “I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath.” The commission’s report to Congress elaborates with this statement and underscores the commission’s lack of power in the process:

Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God. (BIA, Annual Report, 1876)

Sioux Lands, 1877
Sioux Lands, 1877. (Map by Cassie Theurer, adapted from Lazurus, page x)

By 1877, the Indians at Standing Rock agency were left with no alternative but to try and accept conditions imposed on them by the government. Government control of the Sioux was harsh and unbending. Access to hunting grounds was firmly denied and with no horses or guns the people were forced to accept government food rations and clothing distributions. The government encouraged self-sufficiency by imposing farming on the Sioux, something that was culturally new to them and something they resisted. In addition, drought, grasshoppers, and alkaline soil made it almost impossible for the Indians at Standing Rock to become self-sufficient farmers. The lands authorized by the government were not suitable for farming, while much of the better land was preserved for a time when the reservation would be open to homesteaders. Still, by 1877 at Standing Rock, there was progress toward “civilization” as the government termed it: as buffalo skin tepees wore out, many Indians moved into log cabins. Two Bears and John Grass purchased mowing machines, and Catholic missionaries opened a school for boys and a school for girls. To government officials these outward trappings of American life made them confident the people of Standing Rock were abandoning their traditions.

Provisions for education were contained in treaties and agreements. Many of the Dakota and Lakota people at Standing Rock felt schooling would be beneficial for their children and for the tribe. Indian people understood they would be living in the presence of the white man’s culture and they felt it was important to have children learn English so the people could communicate on an equal basis with the white people. Indian people believed this education would provide their people with new skills and abilities, and did not suspect that education as envisioned by the federal government would seek to erase their Indian languages and traditional values. Government officials supported a system of off-reservation boarding schools for Indians in order to “educate them in the civilization of the white man.” Boarding schools were looked upon as the best way to educate Indian children because they removed the child from the family environment and permitted total immersion in the English language and Euro-American values. Once the Sioux were confined to the Great Sioux Reservation, boarding and day schools sprang up quickly at Standing Rock Agency. Off-reservation boarding schools also sprang up and many young people from Standing Rock were placed at Hampton Institute, a non-sectarian Christian boarding school in Virginia; others went to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a federal school that was the prototype for government-run Indian boarding schools.

All schools, whether local or distant, had the overriding goal of assimilation of Indians into the white man’s ways. Education and farming were keystones of federal policy to assimilate Indians. In the schools the young people learned English, as well as some skills in mathematics, reading, and writing; they spent a good deal of time learning vocational skills such as sewing, making butter, baking, managing a garden, homemaking for the girls and farming, animal husbandry, shoemaking, carpentry, and blacksmithing for the boys. All the schools imposed harsh military discipline on the children, forbade the use of Indian languages, and intentionally forbade any teaching of Native American culture or history. Since the federal government’s plan for Indians was to settle them on individual plots of land and make farmers of them, the education programs emphasized practical skills needed for this life.

Government officials felt rapid progress toward assimilation of Indians would occur with school systems in place. However, at Standing Rock Agency and elsewhere, the Indian people did not readily sacrifice the values, traditions, and language which defined them as a people and gave them strength. For a time after moving onto the reservation, the people continued their spiritual teachings and practices and they held social dances and give-aways. In 1880, the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock Agency combined to hold a sun dance and this caused great controversy. Government officials and some military personnel accused the agent of letting his charges sink into barbarism rather than keeping them on the path to civilization.

In 1883 the government issued a set of so-called Indian Offenses that strictly forbade all traditional ceremonies which aimed straight at the center of Dakota and Lakota spiritual life. All traditional lifeways and ceremonies were banned by law. These included give-aways, the sun dance, rites of purification, and social dancing, to name a few. (See Courts of Indian Offenses, Document 2)

Indians were confined to the reservation and needed to have written permission if they left the reservation on business. Parents who kept their children out of school were subject to arrest and to having food rations withheld. In Fort Yates the government-run trading post was divided by a five foot wall—one side for Indians, the other side for whites. Government interference in all facets of Indian life made the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock Agency virtual prisoners on their own land, subject to government policy that sought to crush their cultural ways and distinctiveness as a people. Some of the ceremonies continued infrequently and secretly, away from the eyes of the agent. But the stringent laws coupled with removal of children from families for education, and a host of other stresses such as poor health and disease caused a sadness to settle over the people.