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Extinction loomed in his life from the day he was born. It waited over the horizon like the thunderclouds rolling across the Plains. He feared those storms and the gods perched in their black folds. His second cousin Tasunke Witko, whom whites called Crazy Horse, advised him to submit to Their will. He’d been given a gift, a Great Vision to save his people. If he acted on it, all would be well.
He was not alone in such fear. His people, the Oglala Lakota—called the Sioux by their enemies—felt the apocalypse first and foremost with the disappearance of the buffalo. The vast herds remembered fondly by grandparents were doomed by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1842, the annual kill of Pte by civilian hunters exceeded 2.5 million; between 1850 and 1885, the railroads transported more than 75 million hides to eastern factories, where they were turned into gun belts and upholstery for high-end furniture. “Kill every buffalo you can,” Colonel Richard Irving Dodge told an English sportsman. “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
Perhaps, like a river, Pte had drained underground. The Lakota believed that the bison came from the womb of the earth, and in evil times returned. Wind Cave in the Black Hills was that route to the underworld; at least, so said the medicine men, and Black Elk did not question them. His was a family of medicine men, stretching back for generations. Before he was Black Elk, still known by the childhood name Kahnigapi, or “Chosen,” he knew that only the foolish discounted the warnings of seers and holy men. They spoke of a new people who could not be stopped, no matter how many were killed. “They will be a powerful people, strong, tough,” the holy men admonished. “They are coming closer all the time.”
The most famous prophecy was that of Sweet Medicine, the powerful seer of their friends the Shahila, or Cheyenne. He warned of a “good-looking people, with light hair and white skin” who would come from the east in search of a “certain stone.” At first there would be just a few, but more would come, killing off the animals of the earth with an instrument that “makes a noise, and sends a little round stone to kill.” They’d replace the old four-leggeds with a new one with white horns and a long tail. They’d bring a drink that drove men crazy, and take the tribe’s children to teach them their ways. But these children would learn nothing. They would be shadows, lost between worlds.
Neither resistance nor reason could stop them, Sweet Medicine warned. “What they are going to do they will do.” Instead, the People would change: “In the end of your life in those days you will not get up early in the morning; you will never know when day comes; you will lie in bed; you will have disease, and will die suddenly; you will all die off.”
The Lakota prophet was no more comforting. Drinks Water—sometimes called Wooden Cup—died about twenty years before Black Elk was born. Black Elk’s father told him of the vision, as had his father before him. And he, the grandfather, had been told by Tries to Be Chief, the old bachelor who served as Drinks Water’s helper. Thus, the story had to be true. In this vision, a strange race would weave a spider’s web all around the Sioux. In some versions, the web was made of iron. As Black Elk grew older, he recognized this as a variation of the Iktomi, or spider, story, and Drinks Water’s dream seems the first reference comparing whites to the Iktomi. At some subconscious level, the image was chilling. Myths are strange and powerful narratives with the ability to “shape and direct [life], for good or ill,” wrote Richard Slotkin in an early version of his cultural history Regeneration Through Violence. “They are made of words, concepts, images, and they can kill,” and Drinks Water’s words would be fatal in every way. When the new people finished their web, he said, Oglalas’ lives would forever change. They would no longer live in their tipis: a tipi was warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and could be disassembled and moved in a pony drag to follow the herds. If the Grandfathers had meant for man to stay in one place, they would have made the earth stand still. But in the dominion of the Iktomi, the People would live in square gray houses rooted to the earth in a barren land. “When this happens,” said Drinks Water, “alongside of those gray houses you shall starve.”
The old man lay down after finishing his account and refused to rise. He would die soon, he told his family, and he wished to be cremated so thoroughly that nothing remained. His clan built his bonfire on the prairie west of Paha Sapa, and it burned four days. Its light could be seen from every direction, a grim beacon for a New World his people hoped they would never find.
* * *
The child who would become Black Elk was born on a riverbank in the Powder River Country, a fertile rectangle loosely defined as the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. Nestled between the Bighorn Mountains to the west and the Black Hills to the east, it stretches approximately 120 miles east to west and 200 miles north to south; several rivers flow through it to join the Yellowstone, including the Powder, Tongue, Little Bighorn, Little Missouri, Belle Fourche, and Cheyenne. Since the Powder is the longest, it gives the region its name.
Water means life in the West, and the Powder River Country was a game preserve. Migrating herds of buffalo, elk, and antelope passed through. Flocks of waterfowl darkened the sky. Bear, deer, and rabbits lived in the breaks, while trout filled the streams. The valleys were thick with aspen, cottonwood, and willow; the meadows, bursting with cherries, wild strawberries, and plums. The land rose west from the Black Hills in broken steppes, buttoned with strange stone formations like the Missouri Buttes and Devils Tower. Indian trails followed a course northwest from the North Platte River to the Bighorn and Yellowstone Country, where the great herds wintered.
People had lived there thousands of years: each new group called it their own, usually at the expense of the ones already there. In the 1700s, the Powder River Country belonged to the Crow, who soon became the Sioux’s favorite enemy. For the next century, bands of Oglala and Brulé spread west, followed quickly by their kinsmen—the Minneconjou, Sans Arc, and Hunkpapa. By the early 1800s, the Crow and Lakota skirmished over hunting rights, and every spring and summer renewed the seasonal cycle of raids and revenge. While the Lakota were excellent horsemen, the Crow were brilliant horse thieves. By the 1850s, a rough balance had been reached: the Crow lived in the mountains; the Lakota, on the Plains.
Most sources place the year of Black Elk’s birth as 1863. When Black Elk told Neihardt that he was born when “Four Crows Were Killed on the Tongue,” this was the name given to the year in his band’s “winter count,” the tribal calendar painted on a spiraling pictograph made of hide. Each year was designated by its most significant event, and though winter counts sometimes recorded events of known historical importance, like a comet or battle, more often they reflected the unique experiences of each family band. Thus, to American Horse, 1863 was the year when “Crows Scalped an Oglala Boy Alive.” The Minneconjous called it the year when “Eight [Crows] Were Killed”; the Hunkpapa, the “Year of the [Whooping] Cough”; the Yanktonai, the year of “Plenty of Buffalo,” an increasing rarity.
The month and day of Black Elk’s birth are less certain. This was not unusual: Indians measured time in moons and seasons, and many could make only a rough guess of their age. His mother did say, however, that she gave birth in the month when “the chokecherries were ripe”—late June or July—and one would think that she, if anyone, would remember. Yet Black Elk also told Neihardt he was born on December 6, thus contradicting his mother, and most commentators have accepted that date. He failed to explain that this was the day of his Catholic baptism, when he took the new name Nicholas William Black Elk. At the time, Native American converts literally took the day of their baptism as the day they were “reborn.”
Black Elk was apparently the seventh of nine children: five sisters, one older half brother, and two younger brothers are mentioned in the interviews. His half brother, Runs in the Center, or Wicegna Inyanka, was named for his actions in battle. Only two sisters are recorded—Jenny Shot Close and Grace Pretty Bird—and both remained close to Black Elk throughout their lives.
He was heir to a family of medicine men, the fourth Black Elk, though the name did not pass to him until sometime after the onset of his visions. His father was the third Black Elk, a medicine man and warrior hailing from a line of healers. They belonged to the kinship band of Big Road, a Decider, or wise and respected chief, who would be involved in almost every major Oglala decision regarding war and peace in the 1860s and ’70s. Black Elk’s father shared a grandfather with the father of Crazy Horse, making them first cousins. Finally, the boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather were also Black Elks. His grandfather was killed by Pawnees when he was still an infant; of his great-grandfather, no tales remain.
Thus, while stability and a sense of identity reigned in Black Elk’s family, so did certain expectations. A medicine man’s life was not his own. One was always “on call”: to perform tasks demanded by the spirits; to guide young men through their vision quests, interpret dreams, heal wounds and sickness, or provide advice for the tribe. “Specialties” varied, based upon powers granted in a vision or dream.
Black Elk came from a family of bear healers, among the most powerful, and theatrical, of Lakota medicine men. The bear appears in almost every tribal culture as a conduit for medical cures. It came to one in a dream, imparting cures and herbal secrets, passing on its strength to braves headed for war. During rituals, the dreamer was possessed by the spirit of the bear: red clay blew from his mouth with each breath; canines protruded from his lips; he chased people like an angry bear. In the hands of an artist, the performance could be both comic and frightening. Helpers would fill the dreamer’s pipe to soothe him, a kindness they hoped the bear spirit would repay in times of war; tribesmen could also purchase cures and protective wotawe. He served as a battlefield medic, making him especially important for a martial people like the Sioux: he’d clean out a wound with a sharpened bear claw, apply medicine, and dress the wound. He would stay with his patient through death or recovery.
Generally, medicine men were divided into two classes: the Zuya-Wakan, or war prophets, and the Wapiya (or Wapiyapi), healers of the body and mind. The healers were further subdivided: the wicasa wakan, as Black Elk would be called—a holy man whose powers derived from mystical experience; and the pejuta wicasa, who healed with plants and other curatives—a term eventually used for white doctors. For all, the goal was similar: interpreting and putting to use that which was wakan—that which was supernatural, holy, or beyond comprehension. The medicine man served his Lakota kinsmen like Moses did the Israelites: in direct contact with God, he introduced new rites and declared old ones outdated. He guided them down a perilous path in which the Great Mystery made dangerous and inexplicable demands.
Officially, one could not choose to be a medicine man. One was chosen, providing insight into Black Elk’s childhood name. One was predestined for the role. Sudden voices or a visit by a spirit tended to reveal the rough outline of one’s future. The gods worked through the medicine man, making him their tool.
Unofficially, however, one could start down the medicine path at an early age, often at a parent’s urging. Francis La Flesche, an Omaha who would be the first Native American ethnologist, wrote in 1905 that the medicine track “often passed down through the family.” Even women could receive the call, though rarely. Catherine Wabose, an Ojibwa who converted to Christianity in the 1840s, described a kind of parental preconditioning: “When I was a girl of about twelve or thirteen years of age, my mother told me to look out for something that would happen to me.”
No matter the path, the chosen was trained in the rites, ceremonies, and history of the tribe. In an oral culture, this meant long sessions of repetition and memorization at the feet of respected medicine men. Such professors looked for qualities found more in the scholar than the soldier—an attraction to abstraction and attention to detail; an introversion that transforms into the life of the mind. Where the warrior was tasked with a tribe’s day-to-day survival, the tribe’s future existence depended upon the accurate performance of those rites and ceremonies necessary for continued favor in the eyes of God.
Thus, tribal elders would be looking, at an early age, for the odd child. The child who heard voices, who saw things at the edge of vision that others could not see. And who was better placed to see this than the mother, especially in a long-standing family of medicine men?
Little is known about Black Elk’s mother other than what appears in Neihardt’s notes and through family tradition. Her childhood name was White Cow Sees; her adult name, Leggings Down (and after Catholic conversion, Mary Leggings Down). Holy Rosary Mission archives listed her birth as 1844, which made her nineteen when Black Elk was born. Her mother was Plenty Eagle Feathers; her father, Keeps His Tipi, also translated as Refuse to Go. She’d been married earlier to the deceased brother of Black Elk’s father; in Sioux society, men were obliged upon a brother’s death to support and even marry their former sister-in-law. Thus, Black Elk’s older half brother, Runs in the Center, was also his first cousin. Leggings Down was apparently the elder Black Elk’s first and only wife; he passed the family name and hereditary calling down to his first natural son. Black Elk records no filial jealousy: it was simply the way things were done.
If Black Elk’s father was the mediator between God and the tribe, Black Elk’s mother was the mediator between her husband and individual Oglalas. Her marriage to the elder Black Elk made her his assistant: in addition to running a nomadic household, she became chief nurse, office manager, and social secretary. She was tasked with finding many of the secret ingredients used in her husband’s cures. The stability of both the business and the household sat squarely on her shoulders: she seems to have handled the responsibility well.
Black Elk’s life of ritual began with his mother’s labor pains. His father left the lodge to a team of kinswomen, one or several of whom served as midwives. A stake festooned with eagle-down feathers was pounded into the earth; a clean deerskin was spread beside it for Leggings Down to kneel upon. She pressed her hands and knees against the stake. The midwife called for water, grease, and swabs of sweetgrass as the contractions increased in force and duration.
No birth is easy, but no complications were recorded, and so the fourth Black Elk was born. He was washed by an old woman, after which a respected male relative entered the tipi and breathed into his mouth, an act believed to form his character. He would not be named for eight days, and only then given his childhood name, Kahnigapi, or “Chosen.”
* * *
Memory is history, but whose memory prevails? We have a tendency to look around at the world as it was when we were children and assume this is the way it has always been. In all the other Sioux autobiographies of the early twentieth century—whether written in collaboration with a white, or by a white-educated Indian—childhood was a happy idyll in an unspoiled but vanished Eden. Charles Alexander Eastman, a Santee Sioux who studied medicine at Boston University and tended casualties at Wounded Knee, called his people “the children of the forest” in his 1902 Indian Boyhood. Joseph White Bull, described as “the man who killed Custer,” remembered a childhood of buffalo hunts and free-spirited training for war. Luther Standing Bear, one of the first Lakota to act in Hollywood Westerns, remembered his Plains as “a beautiful country” covered with “velvety green grass,” where buffalo roamed at will. “Life was full of happiness and contentment for my people,” he wrote in his 1931 My Indian Boyhood.
Only the Great Plains of Black Elk are governed by fear. His life story begins with the death of his grandfather, the second Black Elk, at the hands of a Pawnee. Then the grandmother dies. Black Elk Speaks begins with war and the rumor of war: it was a vague period he remembered “as a man might remember some bad dream,” a time of his childhood “when everything seemed troubled and afraid.”
More than anything else, he feared the white nation to the east, the one foretold by Sweet Medicine and Drinks Water. His people called them wasichus, and since he had never laid eyes on one, he imagined them as bogeymen. Grown-ups called them merciless—an unstoppable force that would “take our country and rub us all out and we should all have to die fighting,” he said. In the year of Black Elk’s birth, the wasichus fought among themselves in a great war to the east: many hoped they would rub one another out and thus spare the Lakota. But that happy chance had not occurred and now they came closer. His mother and others like her wielded this bogeyman like a stick on a disobedient child. “If you are not good, the wasichus will get you,” they warned.
Only later did he realize that the year of his birth was the cusp when everything changed. In 1862, whites discovered in Montana the yellow metal mázaska zi that drove them mad. In June 1863, the failed Colorado gold miner John M. Bozeman probed north through the Powder River Country to blaze a wagon road to reach that gold. The road would not take much space, the miners promised: the width between two wagon wheels and nothing more. But the Lakota had heard similar promises in the Southern and Central Plains. The road itself might not be wide, but the wasichus who used it would come in multitudes.
Geographically, the Bozeman Trail was a spur of the better-known Oregon Trail, veering off northwest in Wyoming to the gold in Bannack, Montana. It was an old, well-watered buffalo trail used by Indians to pass north and south since prehistory. Though solitary whites had sometimes traveled its length, the Lakota and Cheyenne believed them harmless wanderers and gave them food. The trail’s first recorded mention came in 1804, with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. On the return trip, Sacagawea guided Clark and a small band over “an old buffalow road” to what is called the Bozeman Pass today.
Until 1863, the old life of following the herds and raiding rival tribes had passed unabated, like the seasons. In Siouan eyes, this was the good life, and they saw no reason to change. The Powder River Country provided everything the tribe could want. Why should they ever leave?
Yet, like the wasichu, they were relative newcomers, fellow invaders who’d migrated west in search of a better life, pushing weaker groups aside. The Lakota pushed aside the Mandan and Arikara at the Missouri River, the Cheyenne in the plains to the west, the Kiowa in the Black Hills, the Crow on the Powder River. By the year of Black Elk’s birth, their conquered lands stretched from the Missouri River of Dakota to the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, from the North Platte River in Nebraska to the Cannonball River of North Dakota. The territory surpassed in square miles that of Pennsylvania and New York combined. Now history seemed ready to repeat itself as the wasichu threatened to push them aside.
The Sioux first appeared in records in the 1600s, encountered by French explorers and missionaries in the western Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River. The Ottawa called them the “Nátawèsiwok,” which the French turned into “Nadouessioux” and shortened to “Sioux.” The tribe preferred “Dakota,” or “many in one.” Some sources called them the “Seven Council Fires”: the westernmost of these were the Teton, or “Dwellers on the Plains,” also called “Lakota” for their dialect. In time, they divided into seven tribes, or ospaye: the Oglala, Brulé, Minneconjou, Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, Blackfoot, and Two Kettles. Their friendship was called ólakotá; all others were tóka, or “enemies.”
The Oglala were the westernmost of the seven, and by the 1850s they’d separated into smaller family bands. These tiyospaye averaged about ten to twenty families of fifty to one hundred people each. These split into the Southern Oglala, who ranged as far south as the Republican River, and the Northern Oglala, who made the Black Hills, Powder River Country, and Northern Plains their home. By 1863, the latter numbered about three hundred lodges: their strongest band was the “Bad Faces,” that of Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Big Road, and Black Elk.
To the Lakota, their true origin lay with the Sacred Pipe, the foundation of all society. During a great famine, a beautiful young woman wearing white doeskin appeared to two hunters. When one made a sexual advance, a poisonous cloud reduced him to bones. This was no ordinary woman, the survivor realized, and the woman said, “I am a spirit come to help your people,” as if reading his mind. The next morning, White Buffalo Calf Woman arrived at his camp with a bundle containing the first Sacred Pipe, sent by the Grandfathers as a means of prayer and a sign of kinship between Sioux and buffalo. When the People smoked the pipe, the Grandfathers sent bison to them. In their eyes, the Buffalo Calf Pipe signified their covenant with God. Before its bestowal, it was said, the tribe “ran around the prairies like so many wild animals.” Afterward, they were God’s Chosen People and all others were “common men.”
A second gift brought power. In the first half of the 1700s, the Lakota were still a nomadic Stone Age tribe. They traveled on foot in search of buffalo, transporting possessions by small travois hitched to dogs. That changed between 1750 and 1820, when they discovered the horse and transformed into equestrians par excellence with lightning speed.
The mount ridden by the Sioux was nothing like its ancestor Eohippus, a three-toed, dog-sized creature that roamed North America from Florida to Canada fifty million years ago. It died out, but not before migrating to central Asia, where evolution and selective breeding turned it into the horse we know today. In 1493, it reappeared in the land of its origin when Columbus brought a herd of twenty-five now very different horses on his second voyage to the New World. As the Spanish spread through the Americas, so did their steeds. The 1598 expedition of Don Juan de Oñate to New Mexico introduced the first substantial herd to North America, and by the 1600s their descendants numbered in the thousands. The Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 released nearly 1,500 of these mustangs into the wild and into the hands of the southwestern tribes.
It is not known when the Lakota became a horse nation. In 1630, no tribes anywhere were mounted; by 1750, most Plains tribes were. Yet evidence suggests the Lakota were among the last to ride. A 1798–1902 winter count by the Hunkpapa historian Long Soldier named 1801 as the first year the People bought or stole a horse. They did not catch one until 1809.
Whatever the truth, the horse revolutionized Sioux life. All of a sudden, they could keep up with buffalo herds. A well-mounted hunter could ride faster than a bull charging at full tilt, and kill four or five bison in a single charge. Within a generation, the horse created for the Sioux a surplus economy: they acquired large stores of food, piles of buffalo hides, and other valuable goods for transport and trade. A swift pony became the object of adoration. At early 1800s trading posts, one could trade a fine racing horse for ten guns; for one fine hunting horse, several pack animals. A horse conferred status and respect: for the first time, class divisions appeared, based upon the number of horses owned. A name that included “horse”—Crazy Horse, American Horse, Man Afraid of His Horses—signified strength of character. The horse symbolized a fundamental spiritual force that these former foot soldiers found hypnotic: charging horses sounded like thunder, and many Lakota visions included the experience of riding with supernatural warriors in the clouds.
Along the way, hunting skills turned into military prowess, and tribes that dominated the horse dominated unmounted tribes. The Sioux transformed into dazzling cavalrymen. Lakota winter counts from 1810 to 1830 depict battles with the Arikara, Mandan, Pawnee, Crow, Shoshone, and Gros Ventre, as well as occasional sorties with their allies the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Powerful Oglala war chiefs such as Bull Bear drove the Crow from the Black Hills, where they had lived for a century. By 1839, the Oglala and Brulé had pushed south from the Black Hills into the Platte River Valley, driving the Skiri Pawnee from the rolling buffalo lands.
And there these Southern Oglala encountered wasichu pilgrims on the Overland Trail. They watched with increasing resentment as the Union Pacific Railroad frightened away the buffalo. In 1849–50, cholera struck the Trail, dealing the Lakota a lethal blow. In 1851, the Americans tried to limit the Sioux to land north of the Platte, but their spokesman Black Hawk protested. The Sioux had the same right to this land as that taken by the United States from Mexico, he said. They owned it by right of conquest. The Americans backed off, at least temporarily, a move that confirmed to the Sioux their right to the land.
Meanwhile, the Northern Oglala spread west, and from 1855 to 1860 pushed the Crow from the Powder River Country and past the Bighorn River. By the time of Black Elk’s birth, the Lakota nation numbered eleven thousand people and controlled an area encompassing the present-day states of North and South Dakota west of the Missouri, a good chunk of western Nebraska, northeastern Wyoming, and a large segment of southeastern Montana.
Of all the Sioux, the Oglala were the richest. They lived the farthest west, out on Plains still rumbling with buffalo herds. They were the farthest-removed from white pressure, closest to the horse supplies traveling north along ancient Indian trading routes, closest to wild horse herds still running across the Plains. Their location allowed them to respond quickly to calls by fur companies for buffalo hides. Like another culture that had considered themselves God’s Chosen People, they’d reached their Promised Land.
* * *
But great wealth can turn one’s head.
By 1863, the Oglala had a reputation for flaunting their power and pride. Their eastern cousins considered them dandies, and their elaborate bead- and quill-work was some of the most sought-after by High Plains traders. The Oglala scorned their poorer cousins, showing contempt by bestowing gifts they knew could never be reciprocated. In battle, they had tremendous esprit de corps. Anything worth doing was done in grand style.
Yet prosperity did not bring peace to the Teton Sioux. There had always been tribal warfare, but by 1832, Prince Alexander Philipp Maximillian of Wied noted during his travels that capturing a horse was more important than conquering the enemy. Wealth was not equally distributed: where some Teton “frequently possess from thirty to forty horses and then are reckoned to be rich,” others might not have any. Such disparity brought violence and social disruption.
Winter counts and the journals of visitors such as George Catlin and Francis Parkman, Jr., paint a society in which violence among peers was common. The Oglala winter counts of Ben Kindle, American Horse, and Cloud Shield were especially lurid, recording violence that easily hails from modern newspapers. This included the murder of an unfaithful woman, a killing in a family quarrel, three different deaths by sorcery, the murder of a son-in-law, the dual murder of a husband and wife, a drunken brawl with several killings, and several unspecified killings, woundings, and incidents of the destruction of horses.
By 1850, however, it had become apparent that the fat days of abundance might soon end. Before this date, few wasichus coveted their country—it was part of what the whites called the Great American Desert, a land believed so desolate that, according to popular wisdom, even “a buzzard couldn’t cross it alive unless he carried provisions.” But now the wasichu had turned their faces to the west: they, too, believed they were Chosen and had been granted a Promised Land. In 1846, Oregon became part of the United States; the next year, Mormons traveled west to Utah; in 1848, gold was discovered in California. In the summer of 1850, one out of every four hundred Americans—fifty-five thousand people—joined the westbound wagons as they cut a two-thousand-mile set of wheel ruts called the Overland Trail. Sixty-five thousand cattle accompanied them, eating their way through the Platte Valley and creating a “great dusty ditch” that in places was fifty miles wide.
On August 31, 1851, a council held at Horse Creek near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, officially acknowledged the fact that pressure had built to the point where war between the Sioux and wasichu seemed inevitable. But the White Father in Washington wanted peace. The Teton Sioux, Assiniboine, Arikara, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, Crow, and Arapaho granted the government the right to build roads and military posts through their country in return for fifty thousand dollars in trade goods annually for the next ten years. Soldiers would protect Indians from whites, and whites from Indians. War among ancient enemies must stop; attacks on whites must stop; disputes over grasslands, woodlands, or buffalo would be settled in court. The White Father wanted the tribes to stay within certain boundaries called “reservations,” but neither could whites enter without permission. Above all else, Indians must promise not to attack migrants on the Overland Trail.
On September 17, 1851, the first Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. It would set the mold for all future treaties, though not always as intended. Whites remembered the parts they held important and forgot the rest, as did Indians. The most ridiculous demand to the Lakota was the end of all fighting among tribes. War was the heart of their culture. It was how an older man gained honor and riches; how a younger man earned a name and the attentions of women. This was an impossible thing to ask. As the whites rushed through their lands, the tribes fought as always. Nothing really changed.
* * *
Nevertheless, the decade following the Fort Laramie Treaty would be better for the Northern Lakota than they would ever know again. In general, the wasichu did not seriously invade the Powder River Country or the land around the Black Hills. Instead, they passed south, hewing to the Oregon Trail. At the new “Agencies,” tribes collected their promised goods. The buffalo still rolled across the hills like a brown, shaggy sea. The Sioux had the things they loved, plus the trade goods given by the White Father. It was the best of two worlds.
But there were portents of trouble. In August 1854, a Mormon migrant allowed an ox to stray into a Sioux camp near Fort Laramie, where it was shot by a brave. When the owner complained at the fort, the commanding officer dispatched Second Lieutenant John L. Grattan, a newcomer who’d boasted he could “whip the combined force of all the Indians on the prairie” with just a few trained men. He rode with twenty-nine soldiers to the Indian camp, ten miles away. By the end of the night, Grattan, his men, and Chief Conquering Bear, who’d tried to keep the peace, lay dead. The next day, the Indians attacked Fort Laramie but were driven away.
The “Grattan Massacre” would be avenged. In late summer of 1855, Agency messengers came to the Sioux camps: all “friendly” Indians must move south of the Platte and report to Fort Laramie. Any band found north of the river would be deemed “hostile.” That August, Brigadier General William S. Harney led 600 troops from the fort in search of hostiles. On September 2, 1855, he found them—a band of about 250 Brulés under Chief Little Thunder, camped on the Platte in present-day Garden County, Nebraska. The soldiers killed 86 men, women, and children, and took 70 prisoners. Twenty-seven soldiers died.
Never before in their memory had so many Sioux died in a single fight; never before had an entire camp been destroyed by soldiers. The massacre seemed harsh, but the Sioux understood revenge. It had motivated countless raids on the Crow and Pawnee. The next few years were quiet, and despite an occasional skirmish, the Sioux and wasichu left each other alone.
Yet what was called the Battle of Blue Water Creek served as a wake-up call. Before Harney’s attack, the Sioux scorned suggestions of organizing against the wasichu. War was an individual game of daring and bravery, not a science of tactics and strategy. The Great Sioux Nation feared by the whites was largely a fiction. The Sioux were a collection of interrelated bands that came and went as they pleased; there were no chains of command, no generals. No single chief could order another to fight; a chief could barely order his own men into battle. One led by example, and the best one could hope for was to invite or persuade others to join. The only way the Sioux might mount a large force was if a threat touched everyone, not just the unfortunate Brulé.
Yet after Harney’s attack, the Lakota began to change. During the 1850s and ’60s, observers noticed a new social structure taking shape among the Lakota. The intergroup violence so prevalent in the winter counts began to disappear. No single instance of such violence was recorded from 1855 to 1877, the very years the U.S. government considered the Sioux the greatest threat in the American West. Instead, tribes began to work together in ways contrary to their immediate gain.
The Indian Agents noticed first. In 1862, an agent at Fort Laramie mentioned in his annual report that the “Sioux of the Dakota” had for the first time turned a solid face against the Treaty of 1851. With the exception of a headman named Bear’s Rib, chiefs and their bands “actually refused to receive” annual gifts from the agent. And Bear’s Rib was worried: by accepting annuities, he told the agent, he put himself and his kinsmen in danger. He was right: days later, a party of Sioux swept from the prairie and slew Bear’s Rib and several of his people.
In 1866, a long report submitted by four agents noted a worrisome trend. Though some jealousy still remained among the bands, “they neither fight or quarrel in their families and or villages,” they said. “We never see a quarrel or blow among the children or adults.”
As the Teton finally recognized the menace massing against them, cooperative values began to replace more contentious ones. Old competitive rituals such as the anointment of a “favorite child” were muted; where revenge killings had been common, now councils of chiefs instituted property settlements between the family of an offender and that of his victim. Before 1850, confederation among bands was little more than a name. Now, it received serious attention. In 1854, an agent observed that chiefs actually commanded little power: “Head chiefs are generally opposed to the young men going to war, but cannot control soldiers,” he wrote. “They will put a chief’s life in danger if he interpose against their will and design.” But starting in the 1860s, leaders such as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull learned to marshal thousands of troops against the U.S. Army—and win.
During this period, the Teton elevated bravery and generosity as their society’s two most-vaunted values. On the former rested their best hope of survival against endless waves of wasichus; on the latter, the glue that held the People together. During fat times, a warrior’s main goal in life seemed a frontier version of conspicuous consumption. Now a man gained more honor by giving than by getting. A chief must be willing to give away everything he owned. Long sermons given at adoption ceremonies and inductions into men’s societies emphasized duty to the poor, the weak, and the lame.
Hard times were coming. The Sioux could no longer exist happily as individual atoms blown across the Plains. The famous Sioux Nation must act like a nation if it hoped to survive.
Copyright © 2016 by Joe Jackson