The Lasting Legacy of Sioux Chief Spotted Tail

Those involved in the clash between American and Native American would come to achieve historical immortality in the years following the Sioux War. One of the most famous faces from this time period is a Sioux chief who was called Spotted Tail, a name granted after he was gifted with a racoon. Born around 1823, he grew up in what is today South Dakota. We don’t know where exactly, but we do know that later in life he played a major role in relations between the U.S. and Native Americans while living in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

Spotted Tail was well known for his unflappable sense of duty and honor to his people, and even the U.S. government occupying the Black Hills region at Fort Laramie would come to respect the man. When he and two other members of his tribe were accused of murder, they surrendered themselves to the authorities at Fort Laramie. It was during this time that Spotted Tail became literate in English. He was released from custody around the same time that the previous Sioux chief passed away, and he was promptly chosen as successor.

He was one of those present during the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which granted the Sioux Nation permanent lands in the form of a reservation in the Black Hills region.

Spotted Tail was a major factor in how this treaty was written, because it replaced what would have been an entirely different treaty three years prior. Spotted Tail and other chiefs were proficient in the art of negotiation, and they knew they could do better than what the 1865 treaty would have provided. As a result, the reservation granted from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave them land that included almost all of South Dakota–more than enough to fulfill their needs as a tribe and allow them to continue their way of life for an indefinite period of time.

Spotted Tail remained an active force for his people in the years to come. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills region, and Spotted Tail quickly acted to appraise the value of the mine in question before running to Washington in order to sell the right to mine to Black Hills settlers. This negotiating tactic failed, and his offer of sale was denied by the U.S. government. Settlers continued to flood the region and tensions skyrocketed.

The terms of the treaty they had worked tirelessly toward would eventually be discarded because of that same greed. Conflict between the Sioux Nation and the U.S. military was inevitable.

“This war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land from us without price.”

Those words were spoken by Spotted Tail after the Great Sioux War broke out in 1876. Even so, the man still believed that peace was in the best interest of his people–and he worked to that end. He traveled along the Black Hills in order to spur the remaining Sioux back to reservation territory in a bid to end the hostilities once and for all, and found some success in his endeavor. Even though skirmishes continued for years, the war ended only a year after it began.
Spotted Tail was assassinated by a rival sub-chief in 1881, and in a decision somewhat unusual for the U.S. court system at the time, his murderer was released. The court ruled that it had no authority over the reservation, and therefore could not try a crime committed there.