Category Archives: Treaties

Indian Appropriation Of 1876

To say that the U.S. government and the various Indian tribes on the continent have had a contentious relationship might be one of the great understatements of American history.

That’s akin to saying the American Civil War was a “skirmish.”

As the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” was taking hold on the country, expansion plans to the west were already taking place. In the wake of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the California Gold Rush, the fledgling United States was growing as a rapid pace. Settlers were packing up their safe, city lives in the United States and moving west to grab more land for their families and to be the first pioneers in the new frontier.

We Were Here First

American Indians populated much of the western frontier, and there were conflicts over land and resources as white settlers moved into the areas. Indian warriors often defended their lands by attacking white settlements. After forced “removals” of Indians under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, even more bad blood ensured, making the pioneer spirit in the West an even more dangerous and risky proposition than dreamed of before.

It came to a head with the passage of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, which was the first official act that established Indian reservations in the United States, with the first one to be located in Oklahoma. During this entire time until this Act, the federal government had entered treaties with the various Indian tribes, respecting each as their own sovereign nation with self-determination. But establishing reservations and relocating tribes was the first time that the previously recognized sovereignty was being compromised, though at first the Indians were not forced to the reservations but were encouraged or asked to relocate.

So Much for Sovereignty

The reservation system that was established was causing more problems than they were meant to solve, as the goal was to “save” the tribes from having to assimilate or surrender to white settlement. For various reasons, tensions continued to flare, and finally in 1871 a new Indian Appropriations Act was passed that officially eliminated tribal sovereignty and essentially put all tribes under the auspices of government agencies. Reservations were now considered lands of the federal government which were “allotted” to the Native Americans – often, land that the settlers were not using because it was considered uninhabitable.

An Update to 1871

As Indian sovereignty was taken away and reservation borders were being drawn, a gold rush happened in the Dakota Territory, which impacted the sacred lands of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the area. The settlers’ stress on the land and mining of natural resources led to the start of the Great Sioux War when the federal government tried to forcibly restrain the Sioux and Cheyenne to the Black Hills area of the Dakota Territory to work out a sale of the Black Hills themselves so gold mining can resume.

In 1876, just after General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn – the Indians’ greatest triumph of the Sioux War, though it lasted about 18 months longer – the federal government extended its authority powers over the tribes by re-drawing the lines for the Sioux and Cheyenne people, taking the Black Hills away from their designated lands and leaving them open for settlement and mining without negotiation with the tribes. The sacred mountains of the Great Plains Indians were ripped away without any compensation.

Needless to say, that further engendered animus from the Indians toward the federal government, and conflicts continued in various forms until the 1890s. Two more Indiana Appropriations Acts were passed, in 1885 and 1889, to finally put at least a legislative end on the conflicts and to bring the tribes to heel while America kept adding states.

In the end, a 1990 Supreme Court decision established that the Black Hills did rightfully belong to the Sioux and Cheyenne people, but three generations of culture were compromised in the meantime and has not been fully repaired.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and its Legacy

When we study the Native American tribes we must acknowledge that their customs and traditions, lands, etc.–their very way of life–had persisted for millennia before settlers ever sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the continent. Most Native Americans viewed the land as a source of abundance for all to share, and few of them understood the concept of ownership until Europeans taught them. Those settlers, purposeful or not, infringed on everything the Native American tribes knew and respected. As you can see here, it was for this reason they sought to preserve what little they had left centuries later, when Americans began a mad push for expansion in the late 1800s.

That purpose was really all they fought for, and it was to be a fight in vain.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, sometimes also called the Sioux Treaty, was drafted between the Sioux Nation and the United States government. The treaty set aside lands for the Sioux–called reservations–in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The treaty was abundantly clear in its promise to the Sioux Nation: the lands were theirs, and would be used by and for no one else.

The treaty was conceived after a period of study conducted by a congressional committee in 1865. This “Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes” was made available in 1867, and made recommendations on how the United States might avoid future conflicts with the Native Americans after nearly a decade of violent skirmishes. What it really did was suggest that the U.S. government offer a rather sharp compromise: in return for giving up the vast majority of their sacred lands, the Sioux and other Native American tribes could at least hold on to a small portion of what was already under their control.

In order to maintain their way of life and try to avoid further conflict, many of the tribes acquiesced. So, too, was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 forged under the same promise.

Although these treaties paved the way for the expansion that made the United States the massive economic and military behemoth it remains today, the treaties and preceding violence are still acknowledged as some of the most shameful acts committed by the still young, nearly century old country. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.

Not even a decade later, the Black Hills Expedition effectively nullified the treaty in 1874. It sought to find new avenues to and from the region, implant a firm military stronghold, and mine for gold if there was any to be had. When Americans got word of the expedition, they surged into the area in droves in order to strike it rich on their own. This was illegal under the Fort Laramie Treaty, but the U.S. government quickly halted its initial policy of evicting civilians who ventured there for fortune.

The Sioux Nation recognized that the treaty was no longer upheld by the U.S. government and, when the U.S. military began to protect civilians coming into the Black Hills region, all hell broke loose. Skirmishes between both sides lasted for years to come. Most notable of all was the moment when Custer–the leader of the Black Hills Expedition–and hundreds of his men were slaughtered at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Sadly, ownership of the region is under legal dispute between the remaining Sioux and the U.S. government.

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