In 1979, the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Indians – known collectively as the Sioux, was awarded a cash award by the United States Court of Claims the amount of more $100 million as compensation for their losses resulting from broken treaties during the middle of the nineteenth century. These treaties include the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868 (Viegas 4). The First Treaty of Fort Laramie was entered into by the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations with the United States in September 17, 1851 (Fort Laramie (1851)).
The affair was well attended, “ about twenty-five thousand of the Indians are now there, and though their condition is that of exposure and destitution, the Chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arrapahoes exhibit their tradionary independence and insist that their buffalo herding grounds must be conceded to them, or they will not stipulate for peace” (Later from Fort Laramie, 1851). The US promised control of their land comprising the territory of the Great Sioux Nation (Olson-Raymer 2) in exchange for safe passage for settlers in the Oregon Trail and annuity of fifty thousand dollars for 50 years.
While the treaty brought a brief period of peace, not all tribes were able to receive the promised payments. From 1866 to 1868, a conflict called Red Cloud’s War (or The Bozeman War, because it occurred along the Bozeman Trail), arose from the dispute on the control of the Powder River Country along Bozeman Trail, the main access point to the Montana gold fields (Black Hills War). In 1864, John M. Bozeman succeeded in bringing freight train through a feasible route across virgin Indian country north of the Oregon trail to the Montana gold fields (Haper Simms 109).
While this became a favorite route for accessing the Montana gold fields, the Sioux Indians were hostile to the white men and wanted to keep them out of the their territory. This led to official protection from the US government, and a treaty for safe passage along the Bozeman Trail was negotiated with the Sioux. However, this did not materialize and one of the Sioux Chiefs, Red Cloud continued the hostilities (Red Cloud’s War). This treaty at Fort Laramie was only forged when the Federal soldiers abandoned military posts along the Powder River Country.
The signatories to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 included the Lakota Nation, the Yanktonai Sioux, Santee Sioux, and Arapaho. The provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 provided for the rights of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho to the Black Hills, a mountain range extending in South Dakota to Wyoming. It also guaranteed that the federal government will abandon Bozeman Trail and closure of land and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to all whites and this subsequently became known as the Great Sioux Reservation (Olson-Raymer 3).
This also included civilization of the Indians by way of an elementary English education. This required the Indians to compel their children from six to sixteen years old to attend the school (Fort Laramie Treaty 1868). An important issue for the native Americans was the preservation of the sacred grounds. Four thousand archaeological sites in the Black Hills, spanning 12,000 years attest to a long relationship with American Indians (Corbin). The Lakota considered the Black Hills as a sacred mountain and believed that the Black Hills were set aside for the birds and the animals, and not for people.
Six years after the second Treaty of Fort Laramie, the federal government sent General Armstrong Custer to explore the Hills to find a place to build a fort. He brought with him, however, geologists and miners who discovered gold in the area. This was a violation of the treaty and brought an onslaught of miners and settlers. The government tried to force the Lakota into selling their remaining 20 million acres but this didn’t work. In 1877, Congress enacted a new treaty which resulted to war and the eventual defeat of the Lakota.
The encroachment of settlers and miners on the Black Hills lead to a struggle between the American Indians for their sacred mountain. The Black Hills War (or the Great Sioux War or the Little Big Horn War) is a series of battles for the control of the gold-rich Black Hills mountain (Black Hills War). In one of the major battles, General Custer’s 7th Cavalry led the attack on the Lakota and their Cheyenne allies along the Little Big Horn River. The 7th Cavalry was heavily defeated in one of the worst defeat of the Army during the Indian Wars.
The Black Hills War brought more federal army troops to the area and succeeding battles were able to subdue the American Indians and led to their further disenfranchisement. The war ended with yet another treaty, forcing the Lakota to cede a 50-mile strip on the western border of their reservation as well as some additional lands. They also ceded to the federal government the legal title to the Black Hills which legalized previously-illegal gold hunters and camp followers in boom towns in the Black Hills (Black Hills War).
Through these series of treaties and wars, the underlying feature is the quest for the American Indians in preserving their way of life by respecting their sacred grounds, their environment and their sovereignty. Repeated warfare, however, has reduced the native Americans to limited reservation areas, far from the land they had inhabited for thousands of years. While belatedly suing the federal government for treaty violations, the decision of the United States Court of Claims to award monetary compensation is a recognition of the Sioux nation’s quest for justice.
Though the government has already awarded the money, it cannot bring back the Black Hills as it once was.