The Great Sioux War
On-going Indian raids and battles on the northern plain region of the United States, which lasted from 1850-90, are collectively known as the Sioux Wars. These generally refer to the Dakota War of 1862, Red Cloud’s War (1866), the Black Hill’s War (1876), and the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890).
President Ulysses S. Grant’s Indian policy, although well-intentioned, was an epic disaster for almost everyone. In 1875, Grant began exploring other options in dealing with the Indians. In November, Grant summoned Major General Philip Sheridan (Commander of the Department of Missouri) and Brigadier General George Crook (Commander of the Department of the Platte) to confer on the Black Hills problem. At its conclusion, Grant decided to stop evicting white trespassers from the Sioux territory because the Indian problem would go away when whites far outnumbered the Sioux. There was also a discussion about a military campaign against the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, who had so-far refused to meet with US negotiators. Erwin Watkins, an Indian agent, advised Grant to “ … move against them in the winter; the sooner the better, and whip them into subjugation.”
Grant was concerned about launching a war against the Lakota without due provocation, so the government sent a message to the Indian agents instructing them to order all Lakota Sioux to return to their reservation no later than 31 January 1876 or face potential military action. Not everyone believed this was a wise move since frigid winter conditions was a “war stopper.” Washington denied a request for an extension of the 31 January by-date. In any case, General Sheridan believed that the directive was a waste of time. “It [the order] will in all probability be regarded as a good joke by the Indians.”
The Great Sioux Wars of 1876, also known as the Black Hill’s War, was a series of battles involving the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and the United States. The conflict evolved around the US government’s intention to seize the Black Hills of the Dakotas where gold had been discovered, and the Sioux and Cheyenne’s refusal to cede the Black Hills to the United States. The conflict began with the Battle of Powder River and ended with the Battle of Wolf Mountain.
The Battle of Powder River occurred on 17 March 1876 in Montana Territory. It was a US Army assault on a Northern Cheyenne encampment led by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds. Six companies of Cavalry located and assaulted a village of around 70 lodges. Overall, the operation was poorly executed and did little more than solidify the resolve of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne to resist the U. S. Army. Reynold’s men burned the encampment and stampeded the herd but withdrew under Indian fire. Reynolds, having left several wounded soldiers on the battlefield, was later court-martialed. At the time, Reynolds believed that he’d sortied against Crazy Horse, but Old Bear, Two Moons, and White Bull were Cheyenne the leaders.
The Battle of Rosebud Creek was fought on 17 June 1876. The United States Army and its allies, the Crow and Shoshone Indians, assaulted a force of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. The battle was fought to a standstill as the US Army commander General George R. Crook decided to forego the battle and await replacements.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn unfolded when Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, Commanding Officer of the US 7th Cavalry, was ordered out of the main Dakota column to scout the Rosebud and Big Horn River valleys. On 25 June 1876, Custer discovered a large village on the west bank of the Little Bighorn. Having split his forces just before engaging the Sioux, the 7th Regiment lost 270 men (five cavalry companies), including Custer.
The Battle of Slim Buttes was another lackluster operation by General Crook. Reinforced by the 5th US Cavalry, Crook sought Indian villages but came up empty-handed. Running short on supplies, he turned his column southward toward the mining camps to find food. Crook’s foray was called the Horsemeat March because his mounted troops ended up giving their mounts over for food. On 9 September, an advance company en route to Deadwood for supplies stumbled across a small village near Slim Buttes, which the soldiers attacked and looted. When Crazy Horse learned of this assault, he launched a counterattack, which the soldiers easily repulsed.
The Dull Knife Fight evolved following Custer’s annihilation when Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, commanding the US 4th Cavalry, was transferred to the Department of the Platte. Initially stationed at Camp Robinson, Mackenzie formed the core of the Powder River Expedition to locate northern villages. On 25 November, Mackenzie discovered and defeated Dull Knife. These Cheyenne, with their lodges and supplies destroyed, with their horses confiscated, soon surrendered. They requested to remain with their Sioux brothers at a reservation in the North but were taken instead to Oklahoma, which was a difficult transition for the Indians. A year later, Little Wolf and Dull Knife led their braves back to the northern territories and divided themselves into two bands. Dull Knife was again captured and imprisoned at Camp Robinson. Without warmth, food, or water, the Cheyenne again bolted. Many of these people died “while attempting to escape” at the so-called Fort Robinson Massacre. In time, the government granted a northern reservation to the Cheyenne.
The Battle of Wolf Mountain unfolded after Colonel Nelson A. Miles, Commanding the 5th US Infantry, established a cantonment along the Tongue River from which he sent out forays against hostile Indians. He fought Crazy Horse at the Battle of Wolf Mountain, with additional engagements at Clear Creek, Spring Creek, and Ash Creek. The effect of Colonel Miles’ aggressiveness was that it either pushed the Sioux into surrendering, or it prompted them to withdraw into Canada. Miles later commanded the US Army during the Spanish-American War.
The Battle of Wounded Knee (termed a massacre by General Nelson A. Miles) occurred on 29 December 1890. Continuing hostilities led the US Congress to revoke all treaties with the Sioux Nation, including those that protected reservation lands. The US Army then embarked upon a nearly exclusive scorched earth strategy — an intentional destruction of the Indian’s main source of food, the American Bison. The northern plains Indians would either submit to US authority, or they would be exterminated — the choice of which was left up to the Indians themselves. It was a time when Indian society was under a great deal of stress — which led many Indians to forsake all foreign religious influences and return to their native beliefs.
A Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion, believed that a Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to earth in the form of a Native American. Wovoka assured everyone that the white invaders would disappear from Native lands, their ancestors would lead them to good hunting grounds, buffalo herds and other game animals would return in abundance, and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth to live in peace. But in order to achieve this miraculous event, the Indians would have to regularly perform the Ghost Dance while wearing protective shirts that would protect them from bullets.
Local whites became alarmed by the sight of so many Great Basin and Plains Indian tribes performing this Ghost Dance. They worried, with some justification, that it might be a harbinger of renewed Indian uprisings. The Indian agent at the Standing Rock Reservation, where Chief Sitting Bull lived, shared this concern. In time, US officials thought it would be a good idea to arrest the chiefs who urged the ghost dance and put an end to the so-called “Messiah Craze.”
At first, military officials suggested seeking the assistance of Buffalo Bill Cody (a friend of Sitting Bull) to aid their plan for arresting Sioux chiefs, thus reducing the likelihood of violence. Indian Agent James McLaughlin overruled the military plan, however. He instead sent Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull may have formed a friendship with Cody, but he was no friend of James McLaughlin. McLaughlin claimed, “Sitting Bull is a polygamist, libertine, habitual liar, active obstructionist, and a great obstacle in the civilization of those people, and he is so devoid of any of the nobler traits of character, and so wedded to the old Indian ways and superstitions that it is very doubtful if any change for the better will ever come over him.” In McLaughlin’s mind, it was necessary to act against Sitting Bull with haste; word had come to him that Sitting Bull and his band had readied their horses to leave the agency and join with other ghost dancers in the Badlands.
McLaughlin’s decision to employ Indian police was an example of progressive policy at the time, that is to say, that the use of Indian police would demonstrate to every observer that the traditional roll of tribal chiefs was at an end. But McLaughlin was not so foolish to rely on Indian police alone; he stationed a contingent of 100 US soldiers on a hill within a mile of Sitting Bull’s camp. There, the soldiers set up Gatling and Hotchkiss guns and trained them on Sitting Bull’s encampment.
Forty-three Indians police officers arrived at Sitting Bull’s house to arrest him on 15 December 1890. McLaughlin’s plan was to quickly take Sitting Bull into custody and make a rapid withdrawal from the encampment; nearby soldiers would prevent any tribal members from pursuing his police. That isn’t how things turned out, though.
Although the facts of what transpired on 15 December 1890 were never established, what we think happened is that Indian police lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Shave Head broke into Sitting Bull’s house and shot him, along with his deaf son, Crow Foot. McLaughlin denied this version of the story. In his version, Sitting Bull was ordered to dress quickly and accompany the police. Sitting Bull dressed slowly, intentionally stalling so that his supporters could be mobilized. As he was being helped into the transport wagon, Sitting Bull called for help. A supporter named Catch the Bear shot Bull Head, who in turn shot Sitting Bull. At the same instant, Shave Head was shot by Strike the Kettle, and Shave Head then shot the medicine man. (This story, or one like it, could never be told in China, India, or Afghanistan).
Forty-one remaining Indian police officers were no match for 150-200 Sioux tribesmen, but as the tribal men withdrew to a nearby wood, the US soldiers opened fire on the encampment, mostly hitting the Indian Police. The military made no distinction between the police or suspects.
With Chief Sitting Bull lying dead and fearful of reprisals, the Hunkpapa band fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk (also known later as Big Foot) and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. A few days later, Spotted Elk and his band journeyed to the Pine Ridge reservation to seek shelter with Red Cloud.
On 28 December 1890, while en route to the agency, Spotted Elk and 350 of his followers (including around 120 women and children) met a detachment of the US 7th Cavalry under Major Samuel M. Whiteside. The Indian scout and interpreter (a half-breed) by the name of John Shangreaux, advised Whiteside not to disarm the Indians immediately, as doing so would lead to violence. Accordingly, the troopers escorted the Indians about five miles west to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians were told to make camp. Later that night, Colonel James W. Forsyth arrived with the rest of the 7th Cavalry. The number of soldiers under Forsyth was around 500 men. The soldiers quietly surrounded the Indian camp and set up their rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns.
At daybreak on 29 December, Colonel Forsythe ordered Spotted Elk to surrender all weapons; he then segregated all Lakota Sioux to await the arrival of trains, presumably to take the Lakota to a detention facility. Soldiers then searched the encampment and confiscated an additional 38 rifles; more weapons were discovered on their persons and confiscated. None of the elders were armed. While the search was underway, an Indian named Yellow Bird began haranguing the young soldiers conducting the search.
But … what triggered the massacre?
The evidence isn’t clear. Some say that Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance, telling the young warriors that their shirts were bulletproof. Tensions among the Indians mounted. Black Coyote, who spoke no English, refused to hand over his rifle. One Lakota later testified that Black Coyote was deaf.
Whether true, when Black Coyote decided to retain his weapon, two soldiers grabbed him from behind and a struggle ensued. The rifle discharged. At that moment, Yellow Bird threw dust into the air and five young Lakota men with concealed weapons threw aside their blankets and fired their weapons at the troops. After this opening salvo, the firing from both sides became indiscriminate. In the end, Spotted Elk’s band killed 25 soldiers and wounded 39 more. Of the 350 Lakota, only 51 survived.
As of 2010, the population of the Sioux nation was 112,176. Not every tribe has done well over the years, however. The largest grouping in 2010 was the Oglala Sioux with nearly 25,000 persons remaining. The least populated group is the Wahpekute; in 2019, only one person remained alive. Nevertheless, when compared with other tribes (Comanche, 12,284, Apache, 63,193; Kiowa, 9,437; Cheyenne, 11,375), the Sioux seem to have survived better than most. Have the Indians assimilated into mainstream American society? Some have, most have not — and as some would argue, with good reason.
As Shawn Regan wrote in a Forbes Opinion a few years ago: “Imagine if the government were responsible for looking after your best interests. All your assets must be managed by bureaucrats on your behalf. A special bureau is even set up to oversee your affairs. Every important decision you make requires approval, and every approval comes with a mountain of regulation. How would this work? Just ask any Native American.”
Presently, all Indian lands are owned and managed by the federal government; nearly every aspect of economic development is controlled by federal agencies; reservations have a complex legal framework that hinders economic growth; energy regulations make it difficult for tribes to develop their own resources, and of course, the federal government has consistently mismanaged Indian assets.
Serious problems continue to plague Indian society. Between 36-44% of native American children fail to complete secondary education. Native American unemployment ranges from 37-63%, depending on where they live. In matters of crime, 124/100,000 of native Americans experience violent crimes: murder, rape, assault — double that found in mainstream US society. Statistically, no one is more victimized by male society than Indian women. Abusive behavior is learned in the home. Abusive fathers produce young men who grow up to become parents. Parents that do not value education produce children who do not value education. Fathers who beat their wives produce children who are abusive toward their spouses and children. It is a vicious — and never-ending cycle.
Life has not improved for most American Indians because their tribal governments and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs are satisfied with these status quo. A rational person might conclude that government continues to victimize Native Americans, and Native Americans now willingly accept “progressive” mediocrity as part of their new social norm.
- Chaky, D. Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868. University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
- Gibbon, G. E. The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
- Harring, N. Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Hassrick, R. B. The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society. University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
- Hyde, G. E. A Sioux Chronicle. University of Oklahoma Press, 1993
 The Lakota chief Short Bull recounted the Indian’s reaction. Since winter was a time for shooting teepees, the Indians would go to council in the spring. “Shooting teepees” meant hunting for buffalo, whose skins were used to insulate Sioux lodges.
 Such is the proposition of J. W. Vaughn in The Reynolds Campaign on Powder River, but I can find no corroboration that Reynolds was court-martialed.
 Wovoka’s prophesy and remedy was similar to that of Isatai’i of the Southern Comanche in 1874. Isatai’i convinced the Comanche that they would be invulnerable to the white man’s bullets if they but took up the tomahawk against the whites in seeking revenge and the extermination of all whites. As allies of the Comanche, both Kiowa and Cheyenne found Isatai’i’s message appealing — more so than the Comanche, whose motivation for bloodshed at Adobe Walls was far more practical than revenge. The Comanche wanted to kill the white buffalo hunters, whose efforts caused widespread starvation among the Comanche bands. Word of Isatai’i’s sun dance may have reached Wovoka through the southern Cheyenne.
 Initially, two of the Sioux tribes more powerful war chiefs, Spotted Tail (Rosebud) and Red Cloud (Pine Ridge) favored the idea of Indian police, but only so long as the police answered directly to them, which would be consistent with Sioux customs.
 The US Army eventually awarded twenty medals of honor to soldiers who participated in the Battle of Wounded Knee. Contemporary Lakota activists have urged the Army to rescind these awards, arguing that the soldiers behaved dishonorably. This argument may be rational considering Forsythe’s intent to employ automatic weapons against a group of people that included 120 women and children.