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.

For more information feel free to watch this informative video: