In his statement, [Tribal] Chairman Frazier cites the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty that says “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; or without the consent of the Indians first had and obtained, to pass through the same.” Native News On-Line.net. May 11, 2020
I’m not sure how many white folks, even those close to the South Dakota reservations, have ever heard of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Whatever the number, it’s probably not as high as that of tribal members on those reservations.
At the time, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 may have seemed gracious in the grand stretch of land given to the tribes–nearly all of west river South Dakota. In addition, they were guaranteed access to traditional hunting grounds west into frontier territories. Even today, not many non-Natives know much about the region because there’s no reason to go there, as there are reasons, for instance, to head out to Nevada’s wide desert landscapes. The Great Sioux Reservation was a vast open space that is still virtually uninhabited when compared to demographic geography in the adjacent rural Midwest.
The terms for the 1868 Treaty were quite simple: the government would restrict access to that immense land reserve if the tribes would end “depredations,” attacks on individuals and groups, on railroad construction and wagon trains. President Grant’s Peace Commission, made up of specifically chosen religious white men, wanted to maintain human dignity throughout relations with First Nations, and thus promised the tribes the freedom and the space to maintain a traditional life.
Sort of. They wanted an end to what they perceived as “hostilities,” blood-letting between Indians and white, and between Indian and Indian. The government also wanted to end “the Indian problem” by requiring Native people 1) to draw their nomadic life to a close; 2) to take up the plow; and 3) to begin compulsory education that would train Native children for that new way of life.
What Native people today know is that it wasn’t their warriors who broke the Ft. Laramie Treaty. General George Custer took precious metals experts with him on a foray into the Black Hills, an area of the country that had been specifically drawn up to be within the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation. “Gold Fever” was its own kind of pandemic. Soon thousands of white men hungry for gold found their way into reservation land, confident that spectacular wealth was in reach. So much for 1868.
More factors were at work here, but it’s not difficult for Native people to look at the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as the beginning of the end for so very much of what they once had. And they’re not wrong. “The fact that the Fort Laramie treaty awarded the Lakotas a massive homeland and made provisions for them to continue their hunts,” says Harvey Markowitz in Converting the Rosebud: Catholic Mission and the Lakotas, 1886-1916, “was little more than a smokescreen cloaking the government’s assimilationist intentions.”
So when the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868 gets mentioned in what, last week, looked like a stand-off between South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River tribes, the Chairman’s mention hauls 200 years of injustice into the discussion and troubles negotiations. What’s at stake here is not just a crew of men in yellow work shirts blocking highways in and out of the reservations, but a long and bloody history of broken treaties Native people believe to be the cause of problems all of us associate with reservation life today.
Not again, they say. You’re not going to push us around as you have for so long in the past. It is not going to happen.
And many will side with them. After all, one of the most beleaguered places on the map today is the northwest corner of New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation, where Covid-19 has seemingly found a wretched playground. Who can blame the tribal councils at Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge from wanting to do everything in their power to keep the enemy at bay? All they want to do is keep their people safe, and they feel entirely free to make their own rules on land given to them by 1868 to do just that.
I’m sure the problems will eventually work out, but the Governor may have to learn that getting along with her Native citizens requires acceptance of and respect for a history many white folks don’t know and therefore believe totally irrelevant.
For the last few years I’ve been helping a 100-year-old World War II vet from the Army’s nursing corps piece together the history of her family and her life story. She’s Lakota, a member of the Cheyenne River Tribe, a resident of her people’s reservation, the one being protected. For me, it’s been a wonderful experience.
But I’ve heard it several times: when she begins to tell her story, she starts in 1868, when her grandfather Four Bear thumbed his print to the Ft. Laramie Treaty and was told that he now owned the land he’d always lived on. She shakes her head, always, at that absurdity.
By the way, did I mention she’s a hero?