THE TETON SIOUX (LAKOTA)


Map Source - BIA, Department of Interior

The Teton Sioux, or Titenai ("Plains Dwellers"), or Lakota ("Strong Friend," or "Ally"), are the stereotypical "Indian," the tipi dwelling warriors on horse back, the buffalo robed hunters, the pillagers and burners of white settlements, the holders of arcane supersticions. Surely the Lakota were (are) some of this, but the stereotype is shallow and demeaning, and in no way characterizes these complex and sophisticated people. Truly the Lakota wear many faces. They were, and are, a warrior people (See the Legend of the White Horse.), though the war they fight now is not on horse back or with bows and arrows. They are the People of great war chiefs, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, of "Little Big Horn." But they are the People of Black Elk and Sitting Bull. They seem a male-dominated people (Women walk a step behind their men.); yet the bringer of their most sacred object, the "Buffalo Pipe," was White Buffalo Calf Woman. They are a deeply spiritual people, a people of sacred ceremonies and ghosts. They believe in living in harmony with nature. They are dogged and determined; yet open to change, exemplified by a well thought out and designed "Morning Star's Home Page." They are the people of Russel Meand and Leonard Peltier (AIM), of Billy Mills ("The Running Brave," first American ever to win an Olynpic Gold Medal in the 10K), and of "Res basketball." No! the stereotype doesn't fit.

The Lakota are divided into seven major bands, "Oceti Sakowin," the "Seven Council Fires." Historians say they migrated from the Woodlands of Minnesota to the Great Plains where they took advantage of Spanish horses to become "lords of the plains." The Lakota say that long ago the Creator placed them in the Black Hills, the "Paha Sapa" (Sacred Hills), "Wahmunka Oganunka Inchante" (the Heart of Everything That Is." They have paid a dear price for their battle to have their stolen Paha Sapa returned to them. Theirs is the dominant branch of the Great Sioux Nation, whose territory once encompassed about a fourth of the Louisiana Purchase. **There is a significant defference between "white" and "native" interpretation regarding the size of the territirial claim.**

The Teton who met Lewis and Clark dominated trade along the upper Missouri and the Great Planes. They were warriors. They did not like the message of enforced peace (assuming they understood it) proferred by Lewis and Clark. The two groups parted on hostile terms. But the Teton were politically astute. They signed a
treaty of peace (1815) and a treaty facilitating trade (1825.) Then came the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), where for the first time they agreed to reside within a defined territory. The Treaty recognized Lakota territory as consisting of most of the present-day states of North and South Dakota, and parts of Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming, still a huge tract of land of more than 60 million acres. The U S agreed to keep settlers out of the territory and the Sioux agreed to live in peace. Each party agreed to make restitution for damages done by members of one group to persons of te other. Three years later that portion of the treaty would serve as a harbinger of horrors to come.

A brave belonging to the band of Lakota lead by Chief Conquering Bear killed a calf belonging to a Mormon settler. Troops from Fort Laramie stormed the camp to arrest the brave. Chief Conquering Bear, who had signed the treaty offered to make restitution, but troops fired and killed him. The Sioux warriors counter attacked, killing most of the troops. Then came the inevitable; a large contingent of calvery burned the camp to the ground, killing 86 Sioux and carrying away another 70 women and children. This was not the first battle/massacre to occur. It certainly would not be the last.

The Treaty was not honored. The westward migration' fueled by the discovery of gold and the thirst for new land meant that Indian territory would be violated. In 1865 the U S attempted to open up "The Bozeman Trail" a route to gold mines in Montana passing through the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. Chief Red Cloud and his Oglala fought the U S Army to a stand-still. They won a great victory over Lt. Colonial Williem Fetterman in December of 1866. The Army sued for peace. The result was the famous, or infamous,
Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

The second Fort Laramie is ambiguous and subject to differing interpretations. Both sides agreed to peace. The U S abandoned its forts along the Bozeman Trail. South Dakota, west of the Missouri River was determined to be "The Great Sioux Reservation." Lands east of the Bighorn Mountains and north of the North Platte (Nebraska) were confirmed as unceded Sioux hunting grounds. There were many "grey areas" in the treaty, however, prompting military historian John Gray to describe the treaty as an instrument of chicanery, a way for the Army to win by deception what it had not won by war. He said:

Here is a solemn treaty that cedes territory admittedly unceded; that confines the Indian to a reservation while allowing him to roam elsewhere; and that guarantees against trespass, unless a trespasser appears! The Indian was given to understand that he retained his full right to live in the old way in a vast unceded territory without trespass or molestation from whites. The treaty does indeed say precisely this. The fact that it also denies it, was no fault of the Indian. It was the Commission that wrote in the contradictions. There can be only one explanation-they designed one set of provisions to beguile and another to enforce.

Red Cloud refused to sign the treaty until the forts were abandoned. Finally satisfied, he "toughed the pen" in November 1868. He then retired to what is now the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation. He never again warred with the U S. He kept his word. The U S did not.

Two years before the treaty General Phil Sheridon vowed to put an end to Sioux resistance by destroying the buffalo, the "everything" to the Lakota. By 1890 the tens of buffalo roaming the plains would be reduced to a mere thousand. Then, in 1873, a Jesuit priest reported the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. The Lakota refused to sell their Paha Sapa, and the Army moved in. General Custer led an expedition into Sioux lands in 1874. Prospectors and their followers came in droves, and the Army did nothing to stop them, in clear violation of the treaty. Finally, in May of 1876, Chief Crazy Horse issued an ultimatum, "any White Man enteringSioux land without permission would die." Once again, the Army underestimated the Sioux. In June of 1876 General George Crook suffered a humiliating defeat at The Battle of the Rosebud. Eight days later, General Custer would not be so lucky.

But the Whites were too many and their weapons too powerful. Within six years the warring bands were destroyed, one by one. The remaining people were fenced into six reservations, scattered and segregated so as to faciliate military control. When Sitting Bull surrendered to authorities in 1883, the so called "indian Wars," but not the killing, were over.

Sometime in 1889 the Sioux learned of, and adopted The Ghost Dance as their own. To this day, Sioux intent regarding the dance is a matter of fierce debate. The Dance envisioned the rebirth of the Buffalo, who would come out of the ground. The old ways would be restored and the White Man would be banished from the land. In reality the Dance offered no real military threat to Whites, but the Army moved to suppress the movement. The Ghost Dance was forbidden to any Sioux. The proclamation was violently enforced. In the winter oflate December of 1890, the Seventh Calvery intercepted a group of Sioux lead by Chief Big Foot, a patron of the old ways, and force marched them to Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The poor and mostly weaponless band was seeking the protection of Red Cloud at Pine Ridge. On the morning of December 29, two weeks after the murder of Sitting Bull, soldiers forced the band from their tents and began to search for weapons. A young warrior fired an old rifle into the air. No one was hit. Perhaps seeking revenge for Little Bighorn, soldiers opened fire. When the carnage ended some two- hundred and fifty men, women, and children (no one can say for sure how many), including Chief Big Foot, died there. Big Foot was among the first to be shot. He lay in the frozen snow until he either bled or froze to death. On the first of January, 1891, settlers returned to the scene of the massacre. The frozen bodies were uncerimoniously dumped into a common grave. For a time the horror was called "The Battle of Wounded Knee," but it was no battle. Today Wounded Knee is known for the massacre it truly was.


Big Foot, found frozen where he had been wounded an Wounded Knee

(Photo from the Smithsonian Indtitute)









Two weeks prior to Wounded Knee forty trhee tribal police were sent to Standing Rock to arrest Sitting Bull, on the trumped up charge that he had instigated the Ghost Dance and was inciting the Sioux to return to the war path. The police mistreated him to the point where he finally refused to move. One policeman, one of his own people, shot him in the chest; another shot him in the back of the head. The days of the Lakota as "lords of the plains" were over. A new era would begin.

Today, Lakota land, once in excess of 60 million acrea, now contains less than 5 million. All of the signs of social dissentegration, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and the like are all there. The "warrior" tribe never took well to farming. The task was demeaning and the land not particularly suitable. Efforts made to farm were often foiled by the government. The Cheyenne River Tribe lost good Missouri bottom and bench land, land perfect for raising livestock, to the Oahe Dam. (The Government also claimed that 140,000 aditional acres had been "removed" from the reservation when the dam was built, but the Tribe has resisted and won in court. Even today the Sioux are trying to resist the transfer of another 200, 000 acres of their land. And as if the Creator were punishing the Sioux for their loss of the Black Hills, in May of 1999 a severe tornado tore a path through the Pine Ridge Reservation, killing six and leaving hundreds homeless. There was no FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) on the scene to provide federal relief. No "dister area" which would foster state and federal relief has been declared. Once again, the Sioux must care for their own.

But according to Morning Star, great grand daughter of Red Cloud; "The very things that oppress us only make us strong." Out of the humiliation of the "boarding school era" arose Luther Standing Bear, an elequent spokesman and tireless advocate on behalf of the Sioux, and all Indians for that matter. In 1923 the Sioux brought suit in Federal Court demending the return of the Black Hills, or at least adequate compensation for the thievery. Ultimately the U S Supreme Court would award the Sioux $106 million in compensation and issue a scathing indictment of government policy toward the Sioux. The Tribe has refused to settle, demanding instead return of the Paha Sapa. Since the decision in 1980 the settlement fund has increased to nearly $400 million, but still the Sioux refuse to compromise their principles. Despite promises of a better life elsewhere, most Sioux refuse to leave "The Res," knowing full well that eaxh departure leaves an opening for White incursion.

Resistance also occurs by other means. Sioux representatives were a major force behind the American Indian Movement (AIM). Through AIM they were a catalyst for the Indian Rights struggles of the 1950's and 1970's, culminating in the Siege of Wounded Knee in 1973. Though AIM has weakened other organizations have risen to take its place. As a mark of protest, and a means to call attention to injustices, the Lakota, joined by their Dakota and Nakota brothers and sisters, formed The United Sioux Nation in 1991. The Nation formally declared its independence from the United States and has taken its cause to the United Nations.

In 1990 the State of South Dakota and the Sioux declared the year as "one of reconciliation." Today the state is in the process of constructing a memorial those who were murdered at Wounded Knee. In May of 1998 President Clinton issued an executive order declaring that Indians will be consulted when Indian Policy is made. They will be treated "with dignity and respect." The Sioux have heard this before. Essentially the same was said at Fort Laramie in 1868.

Can the Lakota overcome the numerous obstacles before them? Can they obtain the dignity and respect. How much longer can they refuse to take the ever growing pot of settlement money amidst the poverty and destitution of their people? Will they finally be forced to sell their Paha Sapa? But the Sioux are strong; and to the Fettermans, Crooks and Custers of today they would give this message:
NEVER NEVER underestimate the Sioux.

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