The nation spread across millions of acres of land in western South Dakota, and included hunting grounds in surrounding states. But a highly contested 1889 Congressional act split up the once vast area into six separate reservations, one of which was the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The name “Sioux” dates back to the 17th century when the people were living in the Great Lakes area and the Ojibwa referred to the Lakota and Dakota as the “Nadouwesou.” French traders shortened the word to the last syllable, spelling it “Sioux.”
The bands of the Sioux tribe were allied in the “Seven Council Fires,” which they called the “Oceti Sakowin.” As the Obijwa and Cree pushed the Sioux westward in the 17th century, the bands spread out across the plains, through what is now North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.
As they moved west, the bands became more distinct and formed the “Great Dakota Nation.” The western division of the Sioux people was the Teton, speakers of the Lakota dialect; the middle division was the Yankton and Yanktonai, speakers of Nakota dialect; and the eastern division was the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton and Sisseton, speakers of Dakota dialect.
As they moved into the plains, the Sioux became totally reliant on a buffalo hunting economy. Buffalo provided food, housing, clothing and materials.
The U.S. government considered the west a “permanent Indian frontier.” But when gold was found in California in 1849, travelers en route to gold fields began crossing through Lakota territory, where intertribal raids were frequent. Tribes didn’t raid one another to take land or kill but to acquire horses and materials and gain honors. Still, frightened travelers asked the U.S. government for protection.
The U.S. government and tribal appointees agreed to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, intended to establish Sioux land boundaries and end intertribal raids. But many Lakota and Dakota never knew of the treaty and continued intertribal raiding, and white travelers continued passing through marked Indian territories.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe maintains a buffalo herd, which it uses to provide buffalo as food for tribal members and as part of ceremonies. The buffalo were a staple for the Sioux, who suffered enduring economic and cultural setbacks from the near extinction of the buffalo in the 1880s. Patrick Springer / The Forum
The 1860s were tumultuous for those who would later settle at Standing Rock.
The eastern Dakota, located on an ever-shrinking homeland in Minnesota, were dissatisfied with federal Indian policies and staged an uprising, killing hundreds of white settlers in the area in 1862.
Afterward, U.S. Generals Henry Sibley and Alfred Sully were ordered to “round up hostiles in the Dakotas.” In December 1862, Sibley prosecuted and hung 38 of the Dakota men accused of carrying out the attack on white settlers. Then in September 1863, Sully discovered a large hunting camp of Yanktonai at Whitestone Hill. He and 650 of his troops attacked and killed at least 300, including many women and children, even though the band was not part of the 1862 uprising.
A young interpreter said Sully bragged of wiping out all the hostile Indians from Dakota, but said “if he had killed men instead of women and children it would have been a success.” The attack, he added, was “much worse than what the Indians did in 1862.”
In 1864, Sully attacked another Sioux hunting camp in western North Dakota, killing 100 of them and forcing them to abandon their food and goods in what became known as the Battle of the Killdeer Mountains.
Once gold was discovered in Montana, the U.S. government, desperate to fund the Civil War, did little to hold back fortune seekers traveling through Sioux land. The Sioux demanded recognition of the 1851 treaty, but the government ignored their protests. So the Lakota instead denied immigrant travel, and Army supply trains had to fight their way through. The Lakota victories caused the U.S. government to look at forming another treaty.
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty officially established the Great Sioux Reservation, a 25-million acre tract of land encompassing all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and hunting grounds in Nebraska, Wyoming Montana and North Dakota, “until all of the buffalo were gone.” In return for being confined to the smaller land area, the federal government would prevent non-Indian settlements on their lands and remove military forts near the Bozeman Trail leading to Montana. The treaty also provided for a government agency, schools and rations of food, clothing and blankets. But rations were often late, so tribes continued hunting in unceded territory.
The Sioux Teton bands of Hunkpapa and Sihasapa living north of the Bozeman trail didn’t sign the treaty. And Sitting Bull, who was Hunkpapa, “soon became a recognized leader of the Sioux, who refused to give in to government entreaties to change their lifestyle and live in a confined area.”
Sitting Bull as photographed by David F. Barry, circa 1885. Library of Congress photo.
Six years later, geologists conducted the Black Hills expedition to survey for gold deposits. The geological reports came to public light, and miners poured into the area. By the spring of 1875, the Black Hills were overrun by prospectors, despite protests from the Dakota and Lakota. The Black Hills, referred to as “the heart of everything that is” were known to the Sioux people as a sacred area.
The government proposed to purchase the Black Hills, but the Sioux said: “It is no use making treaties when the Great Father (president) will either let white men break them or not have the power to prevent them from doing so.”
Because the Sioux wouldn’t negotiate the Black Hills, the U.S. government declared unceded lands off-limits for the Dakota and Lakota and said they should report to their agencies by Jan. 31, 1876, or be considered hostile. The cold winter prevented many Sioux people from returning by the deadline, and it prevented the U.S. Army from rounding up the so-called hostiles
On June 17, 1876, Gen. George Crook attacked Sioux and Cheyenne camped along the Rosebud River. But the American Indians held them off. On June 25, 1876, Gen. George Custer and his troops stumbled upon a Lakota and Dakota encampment along the Little Big Horn River. Custer ordered an attack, and within 45 minutes, all the soldiers under his command were dead.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe celebrates the victory in what they call the “Battle of Greasy Grass,” to this day.
After that, Sioux people fearing repercussions, filtered back to the reservation, or were hunted down by the U.S. Army.
In February 1877, Congress ratified a new treaty, taking the Black Hills, despite the Sioux overwhelmingly refusing to sign the new agreement. Almost a century later, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded $102 million to the tribe for the Black Hills, but the Sioux refused the payment in order to maintain their rights to the land. The money, which sits in a trust fund, has now topped $1 billion, according to Native Sun News Today.
In the late 1880s as North and South Dakota looked to join the union, federal commissioners traveled again to the Sioux agencies in an attempt to get approval for the “Sioux Bill,” which called for the breakup of the Great Sioux Nation into six smaller reservations, the forfeiture of 9 million acres of land, allotment of lands to individual families and opening of non-allotted lands to homesteading.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe closed its offices Tuesday, June 25, to hold horse races and a powwow in celebration of the victory at the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. Natasha Rausch / The Forum
“There was a great deal of Indian opposition the the Sioux Bill and the government officials repeatedly warned the people of Standing Rock that the government would seize the land if the Indians did not sign it away,” according to text from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. About half of the adult Standing Rock Sioux males signed the bill, giving enough signatures for approval.
With the passage of the bill, in 1889, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, as it’s known today, came into being.
Sitting Bull, who led a band of Sioux people and long opposed treaties with the U.S. government, was considered a “malcontent.” He and his followers let it be known they would not take allotments when the time came and would “continue to enjoy their old Indian ways.”
On Dec. 15, 1890, Indian police, acting on government orders, killed Sitting Bull, along with some of his family and followers. Just two weeks later, the U.S. Army killed hundreds of Sioux men, women and children in the Wounded Knee Massacre of Dec. 29, 1890.
According to the department, Sitting Bull’s death along with the massacre, “was a profound sign that indeed, a new way of life was upon the people.”
U.S. soldiers pose with Hotchkiss Guns used against the Lakota at Wounded Knee. This photo, taken by John C. H. Grabill on Dec. 31, 1890, is available from the U.S. Library of Congress.