I sat alone in my study carefully sifting through an assortment of stone artifacts I have accumulated over decades of walking fields and inspecting crops. Each specimen holds within, a history of Native American which is bound by the walls of knapped flint and chert. Some of these pieces date back thousands of years representing prehistoric man and the evolvement into what we know as more modern tribes of Native American.
The fascination I have with these points, knives, and tools is incurable. I can sit for hours on end and wonder how these noble people endured and survived while holding in my hand what they left behind.
As I thought about the hundreds of tribes that occupied North America, I contemplated which ones stand out, at least in my mind, above the rest. I thought of the Choctaw and the Chickasaw. Of course, there is the Comanche and the Apache, too. The Cherokee, the Blackfoot, and Cree are a noble people indeed as well. I suppose it was all too fitting with the start of “Dances with Wolves” in my den, so I took this as an omen that the people we know as “Sioux” to be center stage this week.
The Sioux are a collective group of Native American people who inhabited North America for thousands of years. Ancestral Sioux most likely lived in the Central Mississippi Valley and then later in the upper Midwest and the Western Plains. The term Sioux is created from the French translation of the word “Nadouessioux.” For this discussion we will focus on what we know as the modern Sioux consisting of two divisions based on language dialect, The Dakota and Lakota.
Interestingly, in any of the dialects, Dakota and Lakota translate to mean “friend” or “ally.” The Dakota band inhabited the territories around the great lakes and present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. These people hunted woodland animals, gathered wild seeds and nuts, and fished. They would eventually cede much of their homeland through treaties to the United States government. Failure of The United States to make treaty payments on time led, in part, to the Dakota War of 1862.
The Lakota division inhabited areas further west that included parts of Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska. These “dwellers of the prairie” were known for their hunting and warrior culture. The buffalo was their substance for life and sustained them for centuries. The horse entered the life of the Lakota in the 1700s, and this enabled them to become the most powerful tribe on the plains. They are still recognized for their horsemanship and ability to ride and shoot bows and rifles without touching the animal under them with anything but their knees. A remarkable feat indeed!
Conflict with fur traders and white settlers looking for gold in the black hills sparked turmoil for both the Dakota and Lakota respectively. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was an agreement to set forth territorial claims between a number of tribes and the United States. Within this treaty, the U.S. acknowledged that all lands covered within this document, as Indian territory, and the government had no claim on it. The tribes guaranteed safe passage for settlers on the Oregon Trail in return for an annuity of fifty thousand dollars for fifty years.
This treaty was broken almost immediately by the Lakota and Cheyenne attacking the Crow over the next year. To make matters worse, white settlers forced their way on to tribal lands during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush to mine. The U.S. government did not enforce the treaty to keep settlers out of Indian territories. On top of this, the United States was repeatedly late paying the annuity owed. Add to the fact that the U.S. army did nothing to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of bison even to the verge of extinction. These mass killings of buffalo also incited war between the United States army until the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868.
The treaty of 1868 was a similar attempt to establish peace with native tribes with punishment for both natives and settlers who violated rules for territorial lands. Discrepancies in interpretation of the language of the treaty created animosities almost immediately, leading to conflict. The government broke the terms of the treaty following the Black Hills Gold Rush by allowing settlers onto tribal lands and the expedition into the territory by George Armstrong Custer in 1874 was the last straw and began the Great Sioux War of 1876.
It is quite evident that the invasion of settlers created war from around 1850-1890 for the Sioux Nation. Included in what is known as the Sioux Wars are the Dakota War of 1862, Red Cloud’s War, and the Black Hills War which includes the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The end to a way of life for the Dakota and Lakota people came at the Massacre at Wounded Knee and began a new era in history.
It is sad that a nation and a way of life changed forever because of greed for gold and land. To this day, this conflict between people is still not settled. A Supreme Court case, United States v. Sioux Nation, in which the court has ruled that tribal lands covered by the treaty of 1868 were indeed taken illegally by the U.S. government and the tribe is owed more than a billion dollars is still pending. I understand that the Sioux have refused the compensation just wanting instead, the return of their lands. This will be interesting!
The history of Native American and the Sioux begin with a pristine continent free of pollution, concrete, and litter. We do know, however, that conflict with other tribes and people has always been there. Is this just human nature? Are we humans created to have animosity towards our fellow man? Today, we see it and experience it in everyday life. Turmoil exists in the home, between families, in our work place, and yes, even in our churches. Why don’t we take a look back in history and learn from mistakes made in the past. I don’t see why this country can’t be as pristine and free as it was when it was created. I do think our lands were better taken care of by Native American than it is now. I sometimes wish we could start over knowing what we did wrong and move forward. The flint points in my collection stimulate me to think of what was and a Great Plains people that is no more. Maybe someday I will be able to talk to the people that inspired my writing. I can only imagine what the conversation would be like. Maybe you will as well. Until next time, enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.