Published on December 19, 2012 by Amy
The Great Sioux Reservation was the original area encompassing what are today the various Indian reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.
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The reservation was established in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and includes all of modern western South Dakota (commonly known as “West River” South Dakota) and modern Boyd County, Nebraska. This area was established by the United States as a reservation for the Teton Sioux, also known as the Lakota: the seven western bands of the “Seven Council Fires” (the Great Sioux Nation).
In addition to the reservation dedicated to the Lakota, the Sioux reserved the right to hunt and travel in “unceded” territory in much of Wyoming and in the Sandhills and Panhandle of modern Nebraska. Because each band had its territory, the US established a series of agencies through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to regulate the Lakota in this vast area.
The United States used the Missouri River to form the eastern boundary of the Reservation, but some of the land within this area had already assigned to other tribes, such as the Ponca. The Lakota Nation considered West River central to their territory, as it had been since their discovery of the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) in 1765, and their domination of the area after they conquered and pushed out the Cheyenne in 1776.
Custer’s 1874 Black Hills Expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln (near Bismarck, Dakota Territory) to the Black Hills or Paha Sapa discovered gold. The public announcement brought miners and open conflict with the Lakota. The US Army defeated the Lakota in the Black Hills War. By a new treaty of 1877, the US took a strip of land along the western border of Dakota Territory 50 miles (80 km) wide, plus all land west of the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche Rivers, including all of the Black Hills in modern South Dakota. However, the bulk of the Great Sioux Reservation remained intact for another 13 years.
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also called the Dawes Act to break up communal Indian lands into individual family holdings. On 2 March 1889, Congress passed another act (just months before North Dakota and South Dakota were admitted to the Union on 2 November 1889), which partitioned the Great Sioux Reservation, creating five smaller reservations:
Settlement was encouraged by the railroads, and the US government issued publications of scientific instruction (since found to be incorrect) on how to farm the land. New European immigrants came to the area. The Lakota tribes received $1.25 per acre, usually used to offset agency expenses in meeting federal treaty obligations to the tribes.
By the Dawes Allotment Act, a listing of tribal members was made prior to allocation of land to individual households. (The Dawes Rolls became the basis of some tribe’s qualifications for membership.) The government allocated 320 acre (1.3 km²) parcels to heads of families, and declared any remaining land as “surplus”. The allotment of individual parcels and other measures reduced the total land in Indian ownership, while the government tried to force the people to convert to the lifestyles of farmers and craftsmen. The allocations were not based on accurate knowledge of whether the arid lands were sustainable for the family farms which the government envisioned, and experience has shown that to be an unsuccessful experiment for the Lakota and most homesteaders alike. Self-styled experts recommended regular tilling of the soil to attract moisture from the sky.
It turned out that the Plains were settled during a wetter than normal period. Combined with inappropriate farming techniques and more normal droughts, farmers created the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s and many had to abandon their land. The government sold land it declared “surplus” to non-Natives for homesteading. Some individual Lakota owners sold their allocations of land as well.
By the 1960s, the territories of the five reservations were melting away, both through sales under the allocation process and through the US seizure of land for water-control projects, such as construction of Lake Oahe and other mainstem reservoirs on the Missouri River as part of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. The Rosebud Reservation, which once included all of four counties and part of another, had been reduced to a single county: Todd County in south-central South Dakota, although much Indian-owned land remained in the other counties. Similar reductions occurred in the other reservations.
Although many non-Native homesteads were abandoned during the Dust Bowl-era of the 1930s, rather than reassigning the land to the Sioux, the federal government transferred much of the abandoned land to federal agencies, for instance, the National Park Service took over part of the modern National Grasslands and the Bureau of Land Management was assigned other land for management. In some cases, the US appropriated more land from the reduced reservations, as in the case of the WW2-era Badlands Bombing Range, taken from the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge. Although the range was declared surplus to USAF needs in the 1960s, it was transferred to the National Park Service rather than returned to the tribe’s communal ownership.
Considering the Black Hills sacred and illegally taken, the Lakota pursued a claim against the US government for the return of the land. In the 1980 United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians the United States Supreme Court the upheld their position in that the land had been taken illegally, and the US government offered financial compensation. The Oglala Lakota are persisting in their demand to have the land returned to their nation; the account with their compensation is earning interest.
Both inside and outside the reservation boundaries in West River, the Lakota are an integral part of the region and its history: many towns have Lakota names, such as Owanka, Wasta, and Oacoma. Towns such as Hot Springs, Timber Lake, and Spearfish are named in English after the original Lakota names. Some rivers and mountains retain Lakota names. The traditional Lakota game of buffalo and antelope graze together with cattle and sheep, and bison ranching is increasing on the Great Plains. Numerous monuments honor Lakota and European-American heroes and events.