The boom in population and growth of Dakota Territory, particularly the area of what became South Dakota, still had one big deterrent to growth: the separation of the eastern and western sections of the state by large reservations. White settlers pushing ever westward along the Missouri River wanted to press farther into Sioux territory.
Three attempts were made to renegotiate the treaties. The first two attempts to negotiate, one in 1882 and another in 1883, clearly ignored the three-fourths signature requirements of the 1878 treaty and were rejected by the U.S. Senate. It wasn’t until the Crook Commission of 1889, led by General George Crook, who was trusted by the tribes, that more lands were opened to white settlement.
The Sioux agreed to move onto reservation lands that included specific boundaries. To obtain this agreement, Crook promised the tribes many things, including reparations for the horses that had been confiscated from the tribes in earlier years.
The tribes were never paid for the horses and, at the same time that the new treaty went into effect, rations were cut. This contributed to the general unrest on the reservations, particularly among the Sioux tribes at the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne Reservations, who were among the last to be forced unto reservations.
At the same time, word was reaching the tribes of a new native religion arising in Nevada, a religion punctuated by the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that was supposed to bring back the buffalo and return the plains to the native people. A band of Cheyenne headed to Nevada to meet with Wovoka, the new messiah of the religion, and upon their return introduced the dance to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Ghost Dance frightened local settlers and the Indian Agent in charge at Pine Ridge, who called for military assistance. In 1890, the cavalry, remnants of the Seventh Cavalry that was defeated at Custer’s Last Stand, entered reservation land to stop the dance. Their first act was the attempted arrest of Sitting Bull, who resisted and was killed. Word of Sitting Bull’s death spread quickly and Chief Big Foot and his band fled south to the Badlands fearing attack.
When the cavalry caught up with them, they had already flown the white flag and the cavalry escorted the band to the small village of Wounded Knee. That night, Hotchkiss guns (an early form of machine gun) were set up on the ridge overlooking the valley. In the morning, the cavalry entered the camp with the intent of disarming the band. A shot was fired and though no one was injured, and most of the native people had already surrendered their weapons, the cavalry attacked, killing at least 200 people, many of whom were women and children.
The Wounded Knee Massacre created much public outcry and a review was made of many of the policies in place regarding hiring of Agency personnel, distribution of rations, and other issues. Assimilation of the native people into white culture remained the predominant policy approach. The Dawes Act of 1887 was designed to introduce the concept of private property to the tribe. It was also a way for the government to seize more native lands. Dawes believed that private property, a concept alien to native culture, would serve to civilize the native tribes.
The act gave the government the power to survey the land and then to allot it to tribal members, essentially eliminating tribal lands and creating private property within the reservation boundaries. The underbelly of the new act is that once the allotments are doled out, the remainder of the reservation land was considered to be surplus land and was available for sale. The end result of the Dawes Act was dramatic. The amount of land held by native people on reservation lands nationwide decreased from 138 million acres in 1887, when it was enacted, to just 48 million acres by the time it was repealed in 1934.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition