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The Sioux Native American Series - History

BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)

[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]

Medicine Wheel Garden at the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

Native Americans have lived on the continent of North America for about 15,000 years, crossing over the Bering Strait between current-day Russia and Alaska. After that, they spread across all of North America, developing different cultures, traditions, and rituals throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Originally, the Sioux lived as Woodland Indians near Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. As the French started to inhabit that region, they were driven westward in the 1800s, resulting in a split into three different groups: Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota, which all mean “allies” or “confederates.” They were the largest Native American nation in the present-day United States.

When the Native Americans traded with French fur traders beginning in the 1700s, they discovered many new items. They would typically trade buffalo robes, pelts, hides, and horses for items like guns, ammunition, iron kettles, knives, needles, sugar, coffee, metal arrow points, glass beads, and cloth. Some of these devices weren’t used for the original purpose. Scythes were turned into hide scrapers, and nails were turned into awls.

Fortunately for the fur traders, Native Americans had already established trading routes with other tribes. The Lakota obtained pipestone from Minnesota, lead from Illinois, cowrie shells from the Northwest, and corn from the Eastern Dakota. Once fur traders made contact with the Native Americans, they used these pre-established routes to trade with many tribes using canoes to travel up and down rivers.

After the introduction to Europeans, Native Americans became acquainted with the horse. For the Sioux, this allowed them to travel greater distances, have better mobility for warriors and hunters, and relieve the work that women had when moving camp. Eventually, the horse became used in trade, where they were scarce and could be traded in exchange for buffalo robes or other commodities.

The Lakota met Lewis and Clark in 1804, and from that point on, their contact with Europeans grew exponentially. This eventually resulted in new contact with settlers, explorers, missionaries, the U.S. Army, Indian agents, and miners. At the beginning of the 1800s, many Native Americans died due to a smallpox outbreak as a result, and they would continue dying of smallpox, measles, and cholera.

Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota

Railroads started emerging across the United States in an effort to fulfill Manifest Destiny during the mid-1800s. By the 1860s, they ran through Lakota territory, bringing miners, settlers, and the U.S. Army. That began the struggle between the Lakota and U.S. government. After the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, many people started moving westward for free land, creating a need to construct the first transcontinental railroad. It only took three years for legislation to allow settlers to inhabit Native American lands. In 1867, this led to Red Cloud declaring war on the U.S. government after they started to build forts in their territory. They were successful at that time.

Starting in the 1870s, buffalo hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo that had provided sustenance for the Sioux people. They were turned into coats, glue, and fertilizer. Many Americans also believed that by extinguishing the buffalo, they would gain greater control over the Plains Indians. In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills during the Custer expedition, which was the most sacred place to the Sioux people. Because of that, there was a gold rush and many settlers moved to the hills, destroying hunting territory. The next year, the United States attempted to buy the Black Hills, but the Sioux people refused.

The government then created the Great Sioux Reservation, and after unsuccessfully buying the Black Hills, they decided to take them by force. In 1876, the United States declared war on the Great Sioux Nation. General Custer’s troops were wiped out at the Battle of Little Big Horn, so the government declared that the Lakota must “surrender the Black Hills or starve.” In 1877, the Teton Lakota surrendered to the government, and the Black Hills were seized from them. The government took away all their rights outside of the reservation, and they lost 45 million acres of territory.

Artistic Representation of the Battle of Little Big Horn

At that point, Sitting Bull and his followers left for Canada, and Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Robinson. He was later killed while being arrested by reservation police. Four years later, Sitting Bull returned, but the following year, the government banned Lakota traditions, like feasts, dances, giveaway ceremonies, practices of medicine men, and the Sun Dance. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans were “alien and dependent,” stripping them of any rights they may have. At this point, Native Americans across the country were being forced into reservations.

On the reservations, Christian missionaries attempted to convert Native American children. They were forced to follow American values and attend boarding school. Upon arrival at boarding school, their hair was cut, they received European clothing, and they were no longer allowed to speak their native language. The missionaries attempted to teach the children vocational skills, but many rejected the teachings and returned as strangers to their tribe when they became adults.

Adults living on reservations were forced to give up their tipis and traditional clothing to work as farmers. Instead of governing themselves, they were governed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. They were also stripped of freedom of religion, land ownership, native languages, voting, and the right to travel. Special passports and permission from government agents were required for the Sioux to leave their reservations.

In 1887, the Dawes Act broke reservations into 160-acre allotments, and any surplus land was to be sold to white settlers. This resulted in the Great Sioux Reservation being divided into six smaller reservations. In retaliation, the Ghost Dance was formed, which was a new religion that acted more as a resistance movement than a true religion. Followers performed a circle dance that was meant to reunite the living with the dead, bring spirits to fight on their behalf, end American expansion, and bring peace to the native peoples. This dance frightened government officials, so they sent more troops to the area. Sitting Bull was killed for not stopping his people from completing the dance.

Because of this, the Massacre at Wounded Knee occurred, where over 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered by Army troops. After that, the government didn’t receive any more conflict from the Sioux people.

Since then, the government has passed legislation to gradually give the Native Americans their rights back. In 1913, Sitting Bull’s followers were given their own reservation. In 1920, a court of claims was devised to file the tribes’ claims against the U.S. In 1924, Native Americans were granted full citizenship, and in 1934, the Dawes Act was repealed. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must compensate tribes for taking their land. In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed to extend rights to Native Americans living on reservations.

There have been attempts to return the Black Hills to the Sioux people, along with awarding them over $160 million, but these have been turned down. It is now illegal to misrepresent Native American art, and all artifacts have been returned to the tribes. Schools are now required to teach about Native American cultures in the United States. Several other acts were passed, but now Native Americans have full rights to practice their cultural traditions and religions while also being a part of the greater American culture and society if they choose to. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the United States against native tribes.


Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)

Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)

Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)

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