Native Americans had gone through a complete makeover by the time Eugene Standing Bear was born in 1906.
In the old days, skirmishes were common across the Great Plains as one clan stole from another, launched surprise attacks, pushed the other off its land, and settled in. Then the victors themselves were eventually ousted by the next migrating clan.
The raids and land grabs had probably happened on a small scale for thousands of years among the more nomadic tribes in the course of migration, but they certainly came to a head in the late 1700s and early 1800s as the new Americans from Europe, the white men, made their presence known.
- First there were the little horses that Spanish explorers started bringing over on ships in the 1500s. By 1750, many of the Plains tribes had adopted these “Indian ponies” into their culture… maybe the biggest innovation since the bow and arrow. Buffalo hunts grew to legendary proportions. Capturing horses from other clans or from the wild became a major coup, and counting coup was a mark of honor among young men.
- Then there was the “manifest destiny” of the white man to spread westward, starting with a trickle of explorers and pioneers then growing quickly into a flood of miners and settlers across the plains, decimating buffalo herds, digging up gold and silver, cutting down forests, staking claim, planting roots, and introducing deadly menaces (especially European diseases and alcohol), to which the Native Americans had never had the opportunity to develop a resistance.
As the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains began to shrink, the contention for horses and game and campsites and wintering grounds intensified from 1750 through the early 1800s. Here are some important dates that shaped the fate of Eugene and his Lakota people. The activity centered around the Black Hills, a teardrop-shaped forest rising from the dry plains like a massive, mineral-rich island oasis. It was a popular wintering ground for northern buffalo herds.
1730. The Cheyenne tribe introduced Lakota clans to horses around this time. The Cheyenne lived mostly in what’s now Colorado, Wyoming, and southern Montana, the Lakota lived mostly in Minnesota and the Dakotas east of the Missouri River, and horses made it easier and more exciting to follow the buffalo migrations. Small groups of Lakota crossed the Missouri westward to explore and sometimes to raid other clans.
1765. The first “Lakota Chief Standing Bear” on record discovered the Black Hills while leading a raiding party. (Here’s a nice summary that a schoolkid wrote from more detailed sources like this... It’s highly unlikely that the “Standing Bear” referenced here is part of Eugene’s family tree, since his grandfather Spotted Horse would earn the name Standing Bear years later in battle against the Pawnee.)
The Cheyenne were occupying the Black Hills at the time, but it was at the eastern fringe of their large domain, not easily protected.
1776. The Lakota defeated the Cheyenne clans living around the Black Hills, pushed them out to Powder River country, and claimed the Black Hills as their own. The area would remain sacred to both tribes, as well as to the Arikara, Crow, Kiowa, and Pawnee.
This was also the year the United States became a nation and soon went about adopting a constitution.
Then would come forced relocations (“trails of tears”) and a series of frustrating treaties between the US government (a.k.a. Uncle Sam) and various tribes. Why frustrating? Mainly because their concepts of governing and negotiating were so different.
- Representative vs consensus. When councils were held to negotiate treaties, Uncle Sam sent representatives who carried the weight of their government. Native tribes didn’t have representative government, so the chiefs who attended the councils were simply men of honor among their people, and any agreement they made with Uncle Sam might or might not be acceptable to the folks back home, where important decisions for the tribe were usually made by consensus in tribal councils in which anyone could express an opinion. (More along the lines of Japanese-style management, suggesting to me that the Japanese and Native Americans might share some common, “prehistoric” lineage?)
- Capitalist vs sharing. Uncle Sam has always encouraged free enterprise among his people, everyone keeping whatever wealth they can obtain… preferably but not absolutely within the strictures of the evolving laws. Plains Indian tribes encouraged sharing of wealth brought into the tribe—sharing through such means as giveaway ceremonies, in which families gave part of their wealth to the tribe whenever a family member was honored. The greater the honor, the greater the sacrifice. So any agreement Uncle Sam made with the Native Americans might or might not be acceptable to the American public, to whom the promise of great riches often outweighed the rule of law. In effect, when Uncle Sam made treaties he would agree to set aside land for the native tribes, but if the land was later deemed valuable, all bets were off.
Because of these differences, even with the noblest of intentions on both sides, treaties generally failed.
Treaties, like human relationships, fail when we humans give in to our savage motivations and neglect our noble side. To me it’s clear that in terms of basic economics operating within their respective societies, the Native American tribes with their sharing principles were by far the nobler, and Uncle Sam with his nearly unbridled craving for riches was the more savage. Early tribes living in the rugged American ecosystem probably couldn’t have held together if members were allowed (or worse: encouraged) to horde and steal from each other under a free enterprise, “buyer beware” system of economics. They had to learn to share and to be concerned with each other’s well-being as a cohesive way of life… in my opinion, based on my research.
Inter-tribal dealings were another matter. There was contention between the Crow and the Lakota, for example. There were raids and battles among distrustful clans and tribes. Even then, “touching the enemy” was among the most respected act of battle… getting close enough to an armed adversary just to touch him, maybe with the tip of a lance, followed by a hasty retreat.
1830. The Indian Removal Act marked the beginning of one “trail of tears” after another, starting in the Deep South, as entire Native American tribes were forced off their homelands and onto reservations in order to make room for the rapid spread of white culture.
1851. The western US still had a lot of wide open space. Under the first Fort Laramie Treaty, Uncle Sam ceded a vast territory (parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska) to the contentious tribes inhabiting the region (Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan) with the understanding that the tribes would settle their differences and allow peaceful travel through the region by non-Indians. In return they’d get financial and military support from Uncle Sam. A noble plan!
But peace was not to be, as the map below illustrates.
- Intertribal skirmishes would resume as various clans (especially the powerful Lakota) pushed other tribes off of their allotted lands.
- Gold would later be discovered in the Black Hills, and America’s burgeoning railroad network would bring a flood of miners and settlers into the region.
- Skirmishes would then escalate to include all of these diverse groups, and things would fly quickly out of control.
When the Plains Indian clans launched raids, it was considered a major battle if 50 warriors were involved and two of them died… and there were many such skirmishes going on at the time. The notable exception was the Cheyenne tribe, who had developed a larger-scale form of centralized, tribal-level warfare in the early 1800s, but that’s a little beyond the scope of this article.
Meanwhile, a much bigger battle was brewing back east.
1863. When the Civil War broke out on the East Coast, and Lakota chiefs like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, American Horse, White Bull, and George Standing Bear (Eugene’s grandfather) heard stories of 50,000 white soldiers dying in the Battle at Gettysburg, a foreboding descended over the Plains Indians. This was a whole new level of savagery, and it became clear that life as they knew it was coming to an end. Most of the chiefs agreed that fighting Uncle Sam would be eventual suicide for their people. Appeasement was the best course. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were among the exceptions.
1868. Once the Civil War ended, a weary Uncle Sam tossed out the old, broken Fort Laramie treaty, and ceded a smaller region to Native American tribes, especially the Lakota, under a second Treaty of Fort Laramie. The new Indian territory comprised the western half of South Dakota and included the Black Hills. To help keep things peaceful, it was strictly off-limits to non-Indians.
Unfortunately there had been rumors of gold deposits in the Black Hills as early as the 1830s, so keeping the peace would be an impossible task for Uncle Sam.
1874. Inspired by the rumors of gold, General George Custer, against the terms of the treaty, entered the Black Hills with 1,000 men (sanctioned by mercenary government officials) and found traces of gold in the central Black Hills. The next year an absolute bonanza was found at the north end, and the town of Deadwood was established, where “every shovelful yielded a fortune in gold.” Almost overnight thousands of miners swarmed into the Black Hills.
1875. The Lakota people were outraged by this locust plague of white men descending on their sacred Black Hills. Various tribal leaders living peacefully on the Lakota (Sioux) reservation, including Spotted Tail, Red Cloud, and Lone Horn, rushed to Washington to try to salvage the treaty and stop the flow of miners… but to no avail.
1876. So, exactly a century after the Lakota had taken the Black Hills from the Cheyenne, Uncle Sam was now taking it from the Lakota… but not without a fight. More militant Lakota leaders, especially Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, submitted to the intense bitterness among angry, off-reservation Lakota clans, along with Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, to launch the Great Sioux War.
The most famous battle in the war happened along the Little Bighorn River at the south end of the Crow Reservation of southern Montana. That battle became famous mostly because it’s one of the few battles that the government lost. Nearly 300 of General George Custer’s 700 soldiers were killed, including Custer himself and several of his close family members. For the Plains warriors it was like winning the Battle of Waterloo.
For Uncle Sam, after the catastrophic losses during the Civil War, this new loss was small potatoes, despite the attention it would get in the coming decades by historians, writers, and filmmakers.
By then (still 1876) it had become clear to most of the Native American chiefs that there was no stopping Uncle Sam. Their own skirmishes and raiding parties that had been so effective against each other weren’t effective at all against the flow of white settlers. It was like stepping on a few ants of a mighty colony, or worse yet, like kicking a hornets’ nest… raising the ire of the blue-uniformed cavalry and resulting in massacre.
1879–. The Great Sioux War, including Custer’s last stand, was, in fact, the Native Americans’ last stand as traditionally free communities. Uncle Sam’s aim now was to get all the Indians onto reservations and galvanize them with a protective layer of white culture against the rigors of this strange, new world.
The next article in this series will pick up with Eugene’s story: growing up on the rez, attending Indian schools, and weathering the storm between tradition and progress.
(Meanwhile, for a rich, meaty look at more recent life on the Pine Ridge reservation, here’s a great article from Atlantic Monthly written back in 1999.)
More to come….