The Federal Government and the Lakota Sioux

1851   First Fort Laramie Treaty signed between Sioux and US government established land rights and attempted to create peace between white miners traveling to California for the Gold Rush and the Sioux people. The U.S. agreed the Sioux held sovereign rights to the Black Hills and the Sioux agreed to allow railroad and trail passage across these territories in exchange for annual federal payments of $50,000 for 50 years to the tribes.  Shortly after the treaty was signed, the U.S. government began erecting several fortified trading posts. Sioux LandsSioux land represented about 5% of the entire continental US - covering most of the present-day states of North and South Dakota, and parts of Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. 

1852 U.S. government violated the 1851 treaty. The U.S. Senate decreased the annual payment of $50,000 to the Sioux people from 50 years to 10 years.

Map of the Bozeman Trail 18621862  Gold found in Montana.  The US began building the Bozeman Trail through Sioux territory as well as army forts along the trail - both actions being in direct contravention of the 1851 Fort Laramie treaty.

1866 Sioux Indians attacked a supply train traveling on the Bozeman Trail on December 21st. Soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel William Fetterman retaliated but all 80 soldiers were killed by a small Sioux army led by Red Cloud. General Sherman's response on behalf of the U.S. Army was, "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children." The Indians called the Fetterman Massacre the Battle of 100-In-The-Hands. This map shows the trail, U.S. forts, and the site of the Fetterman Massacre.

1867 Congress passed a bill for an Indian peace commission to be lead by Lieutenant General William T. Sherman. Government negotiators were to offer $15,000 annual annuites for tribes of 5,000 or 6,000 people if they would remove themselves from the traditional Sioux homelands in the Great Plains - the Powder River Country. During negotiations between government officials and Oglala chief Red Cloud (pictured to the right), Photograph of Red CloudRed Cloud walked out of the meeting declaring: "The Great Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road, but the White Chief comes with soldiers to steal it before the Indian says yes or no!  I will talk with you no more!  I will go - now! - and I will fight you!  As long as I live I will fight you for the last hunting grounds of my people."

Thus began the Powder River War (Red Cloud's War) as the Lakotas and their Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho allies fought the U.S. Army at the various forts in Lakota territory. Those Sioux friendly to the U.S. government, however, signed a treaty giving Euro-Americans the right to use the Bozeman Trail in return for guns and ammuition. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Army began building more forts along the Trail.

At the Grand Council of 6,000 tribes at Bear Butte, the sacred mountain of the Cheyenne, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull, among other great leaders, pledged to end further encroachment of Sioux territory by the whites.

Map of Great Sioux Reservation under Fort Laramie Treaty of 18681868   Fort Laramie Treaty brought peace between the Sioux and the US government by guaranteeing that the Sioux had "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."  This treaty proved to be one of the most controversial in the history of US-Indian relations - it ended the war between the Sioux and the U.S. government, split the Oglala nation into those "friendlies" willing to work with the U.S. government and the "hostiles" with whom the U.S. banned trade, and set the legal stage for Sioux claims to the Black Hills that continue into the 21st Century.

1874  Gold discovered in the Black Hills and white miners began trespassing on Lakota hunting grounds in the Black Hills. An expedition began into the Black Hills led by George Armstrong Custer. In the photo below, Custer poses with his Indian scouts during the Black Hills expedition. The man pointing to the map was named "Bloody Knife," a member of the Cree tribe.

Photograph of Custer posing with his Indian Scouts during the Black Hills expedition in 1874

1875  Federal government tried to buy the Black Hills for $5 million.  The Sioux refused to meet with the government commission.

On December 3, 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs required that all Sioux people report to their agency by January 31, 1876 for a head count.

1876  On February 7, the War Department authorized General Sheridan to move into Indian lands and round up the "hostile Sioux" who had not reported to their agency. The first attack happened on March 17 - sooner than the Sioux were expecting - thus escalating hostilities that culminated in the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 17 - also known as Custer's Last Stand. The battle occurred after General Custer and the 7th Calvary attacked a Sioux camp.  Custer and all his men were killed in what was the largest defeat ever of a U.S. force by Native Americans. Afterwards, Congress voted funds for two new forts along the Yellowstone River, authorized 2,500 new recruits to be sent to Sioux country, and moved control over reservations from the Indian Bureau into the hands of the U.S. Army.

In August, Congress passed the Sioux Appropriation Bill stating that “hereafter there shall be no appropriation made for the subsistence” of the Sioux, unless they first relinquished their rights to the hunting grounds outside the reservation and ceded the Black Hills to the United States. Red Cloud's Oglala band signed, after which all of his followers were disarmed and dehorsed.

1877  Congressional Act of 1877 violated the Fort Laramie Treaty by requiring the Sioux to relinquish the Black Hills and 22.8 million acres of their surrounding territory.  In less than 20 years, the Sioux Nation shrunk from 134 million acres to less than 15 million.

1889  After the Sioux refused to sell 9 million additional acres of their reservation to the US government, Congress passed the Sioux Act. The Act redefined the requested 9 million acres as "surplus lands" open to white settlement under the Dawes Act and divided the Lakotas into five separate reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, and Upper and Lower Brule. The remaining land was given to the new states of North and South Dakota. Any Indians who refused to be confined to reservations were declared "hostile." The 9 million acres was then opened up for public purchase for white ranchers and homesteaders.

1890  The Battle at Wounded Knee occurred after U.S. Army was sent to Pine Ridge Reservation to quell Sioux participation in the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance originated with Wovoka of the Paiutes who reported that God told him in a dream that if Indians danced for five days, they could meet their departed ancestors.  After their reunion, the dead relatives would come back to life and help to save the Sioux from the evils of white domination.  To the Indians, the Ghost Dance offered hope and a chance for survival; to the U.S. Army, the dance symbolized resistance and the possibility of Indian rebellion.

WOunded Knee 1890 newspaper articleOn December 29, 1890, Sioux Chief Big Foot met four cavalry units which were under orders to capture him.  The Sioux raised a white flag to signal their promise not to fight.  They were taken to an army camp at Wounded Knee Creek where they were ordered to give up their weapons.  The medicine man, Yellow Bird, 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 were left dead; as many as 300 may have perished when the wounded died soon thereafter. The Seventh Calvary, Custer's avenged regiment, received 23 Congressional medals of honor for their involvement at Wounded Knee.

1896 On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Black Hills Forest Reserve. This land was protected against fires, wasteful lumbering practices, and timber fraud. In 1905, the Black Hills Forest Reserve was transferred to the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1907, it was renamed the Black Hills National Forest.

1910 The Sioux Reservation was further reduced with the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations losing more land to white homesteaders.

1918 The Lakota Sioux hired an attorney who sought the return of the Black Hills under the Treaty of 1868.  Thus began the longest lawsuit in American history.

1923  The Lakota Sioux filed suit with the US Court of Claims demanding compensation for the loss of the Black Hills.  It was not until 1942 that the Court finally dismissed the claim.

1946   The Sioux filed suit with the newly-created Indian Claims Commission In 1954, the Commission dismissed the case on the grounds that it had already been denied.

1956   Sioux  reinstated their claim to the Indian Claims Commission on the grounds that they had been represented by "inadequate counsel."

AIM activists at Pine Ridge Reservation in 19731973  The American Indian Movement (AIM) began the first organized extralegal battle for the Black Hills.  AIM occupied Wounded Knee Cemetery on Pine Ridge Reservation to alert the world about the vested economic  interest the U.S. government held in the Hills and the extent to which that interest governed U.S. governmental policy and federal court cases regarding their land. (For a detailed understanding of the upheaval at the Pine Ridge Reservation between 1973 and 1975, as well as the aftermath, click here.)

1974  The Indian Claims Commission decided that the US government had taken Sioux land in violation of the 5th Amendment because it had not paid just compensation, and subsequently awarded the Sioux $17.5 million (the estimated "value" of the land at the time it was misappropriated) plus 5% simple interest calculated annually since 1877 - for a total of $105 million.  The US government appealed and the Court of Claims reversed the decision on the grounds that the claim had already been litigated and decided in 1942.  However, it also found that "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."

1978   Congress passed an act enabling the Court of Claims to rehear the case.  Sioux argued that they should be compensated on new grounds - "dishonorable dealings." 

1979 The U.S. Court of Claims found that the 1877 Act that seized the Black Hills from the Sioux violated the 5th Amendment. The US had taken the Black Hills unconstitutionally and court reinstated the $17.5 million plus 5% interest for a total of $105 million.  The US government appealed.

1980   In the United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the US Supreme Court found that the Congressional Act of 1877 constituted "a taking of tribal property which had been set aside by the treaty of Fort Laramie for the Sioux's exclusive occupation."  The $105 million award was upheld.  The Sioux then turned down the money, claimed that "The Black Hills are not for sale."  Instead, they demanded that the US government return the Black Hills and pay the money as compensation for the billions of dollars in wealth that had been extracted and the damages down while whites illegally occupied the Hills.

Photograph of Yellow Thunder Camp in 1980AIM, under direction of Russell Means, occupied an 880 acre area in the Black Hills which became known as Yellow Thunder Camp.  The U.S. government sued AIM, claiming that they must leave federal property.  AIM counter-sued, arguing that U.S. Forest Service policies in the Black Hills violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and Lakota religious freedom under both the First Amendment and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA).

1983 The Black Hills Steering Committee was created and its members drafted a bill for Congress that asked for 7,300,000 acres of federal land in the Black Hills in South Dakota. The Committee promised to keep all federal employees working in the Black Hills.

1985  U.S. District Court Judge ruled in favor of AIM, arguing that the Lakota had every right to the Yellow Thunder Camp (shown at the right),  particularly because AIRFA recognized entire geographic areas as well as specific sites to be sacred areas.

1988  The Eighth Circuit Court reversed the U.S. District Court's decision.  AIM ended its occupation of Yellow Thunder Camp.

Photograph of Devil's Tower1995  Controversy erupted when the U.S. National Park Service asked climbers to consider not climbing Devil's Tower in the Black Hills during the month of June to honor the Lakota's spiritual traditions.  A local climbing company and several climbers sued the National Parks Service by arguing that the Park Service's actions violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. which prohibits the government from sponsoring, supporting, or becoming entangled in religious affairs.

A Wyoming judge decided that the Park's policy was an "endorsement" of one religion over another and delivered a court injunction on the Park's policy. The Park Service appealed.

1999   Upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeal determined that the Park's policy was not an endorsement, but rather was an "accommodation."  The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

2000 The U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiff's appeal of the 10th Circuit ruling, thus upholding the appellate court’s decision as final. Nonetheless, climbing was allowed to resume. However, National Park Policy requires that during June, rangers ask climbers to voluntarily refrain from climbing on the Tower and hikers to voluntarily refrain from scrambling within the inside of the Tower Trail Loop

2007 On December 19, a small group of activists calling itself the Lakotah Freedom Delegation announced that the Lakotah were withdrawing from all treaties previously signed with the United States and were planning to regain their sovereignty over thousands of acres of traditional territory in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana. According to the group, the withdrawal immediately and irrevocably ended all agreements between the Lakota Sioux Nation of Indians and the United States Government outlined in the 1851 and 1868 Treaties at Fort Laramie Wyoming. The group argued that their declaration of independence was not a secession from the United States, but rather a reassertion of sovereignty. Their leader is Russell Means, one of the prominent members of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960's and 1970's.

Property ownership in the five-state area of Lakota nation - parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana  - had been illegally homesteaded.  Lakota representatives announced that if the United States did not enter into immediate diplomatic negotiations, liens would be filed on real estate transactions in the five state region, clouding title over literally thousands of square miles of land and property. Poster to rescind medals given at wounded knee in 1890

2008 Indian activists ask that the 23 Medals of DIS Honor awarded in 1890 to the members of the 7th Calvary of the United States Army be rescinded for the murder of innocent women children and men at Wounded Knee.

2009 Internal conflicts about the Black Hills claim erupted among the Sioux. Some tribal members have hired a lawyer and have filed suit to receive the money rather than the land as compensation. This has caused a great deal of animosity among tribal members, some who feel that taking money for the Black Hills was the equivalent of giving up their identities as Indians.

Map of Sioux Nation 2012 The monetary compensation gained through the longest legal battle in U.S. history remained unclaimed; the settlement is now worth about $1 billion. The map to the left shows the orginal land promised by the 1868 treaty (gold), the land - including the Black Hills - illegally taken by the U.S. government in the 1877 (orange), and the Lakota reservations as they appeared after 100 years of court actions (brown).

Pine Ridge Reservation, home to many of the Lakota people, is one of the poorest communities in the United States.