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The “Indian problem”

By May 15, 2020 16 Comments
Ft. Laramie Treaty

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 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. 

It isn’t.

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?


James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Please keep telling us these First Nation stories. I’m so grateful you tell them.

  • I am in awe of your knowledge of history. As the Great Grandson of a Cherokee woman I am most grateful for this story.

    Thank you. God bless you. Stay well.

  • stan seagren says:

    Thanks so much for making us aware of this important part of our history.
    I hate to nitpick but much as I admire Grant it could not have been “President Grant’s Peace Commission” which negotiated.
    Grant became president in 1869.
    Thank you again.
    Grace and peace

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks, Stan. Sometimes the storyteller in me leaves the historian behind. Grant created his “Peace Policy” a year or so later, replacing corrupt Indian agents with missionaries and other, well, morally superior individuals. President Grant wasn’t at the helm when “The Peace Commission,” who created the Ft. Laramie Treaty, did their work. Forgive me.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    thanks for this. Do you know when “First Nation” persons became “citizens” of the US?
    I’m curious, because eventually, the Israelis will have to allow Arab Palestinian persons to become “citizens” (full) of the state of Israel.
    Thanks for sharing your life experience Jim.

    • James Schaap says:

      As my neighbors in Nebraska are more and more thankful to know and explain, at least one of first Native people to press for actual citizenship status (there are others, like the Santees of Flandrea, SD) was the Ponca headman Standing Bear. His story too is terrific. Responses like yours prompt me to think about retelling here sometime, another story we all should know better.

    • Sterling West says:

      Native people were not “granted” citizenship across the board until passage of PL 68–175 the “Indian Citizenship Act” of 1924.

  • Norm Steen says:

    Thanks so much for this report and your steady concern for native Americans.

  • Ron says:

    This is information that is not included in American history classes in most public schools. Thank you for filling the gaps, for giving us a more accurate picture of our national character.

    • James Schaap says:

      There are a hundred ways of accounting for why we don’t tell the stories of Manifest Destiny, our own American story; but one of them, surely, is that it’s not at all fun. A Navajo who is now retired, I imagine, told me that when he went to Calvin he took an interim course in Native American history taught by a prof from some western university. What he learned in that short course came as a total surprise, and the fact that he’d never known any of it before was so devastating that he quit school altogether.

  • Jim Payton says:

    A few years back, my wife and I were in Sedona, Arizona, on vacation. A fellow came to speak about his people — he was of Indigenous and Italian heritage, but he identified with his indigenous background. Reviewing the history of how white people and indigenous ones had interacted in the USA, he said that white men had made 397 treaties with indigenous people … and that white folks broke 397 of them. — I was stunned, “gob-smacked,” when I heard that … I’d been to good schools in the USA but had never heard about more than a couple of broken treaties. — Thank you for writing about these stories … they need to be told, heard, and assimilated.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    We Americans are great at pointing fingers at others – accusing them of “revisionist history” and indeed many are guilty; but we never seem to notice the blackness of our own history particularly as it pertains to our treatment of native peoples.
    I love the story of the veteran you are assisting. What wonderful and terrible stories she must be able to tell.

  • Thanks for this great story! What I am looking for is a historical account of those white people who tried to defend Native Americans from the depredations against them in the 19th century. I know that white people went to jail just for speaking out in defense of the Cherokee. But there must have been more (of course a minority) who also tried to defend Native Americans from the great injustices done against them? Their voices should be heard.

    • James Schaap says:

      The story of Gen. Crook, the preeminent “Indian fighter” in the West, and Standing Bear, the Ponca headman, is amazing. People might well have considered him the least likely friend of the Indian, but he was quite firmly on Standing Bear’s side of the table, even though he’s the one who engineered the suit to get him there. It’s a great story. Also, a man named Silas Soule, at Sand Creek. There are some, but you have to hunt to find them. Missionaries get a terrible press in the last couple of decades, often with good reason; but Father DeSmet, among others, did amazing things.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Thanks Jim for trying to straighten the crooked history of our dealings with Native Americans. Our “taking care” and “providing” for a people who lived in and inhabited this nation before our “acquiring” it. I thought of that when I saw on the news Kristi Noem trying to “placate” the original inhabitants of our nation.

  • Jill Fenske says:

    When my son was in elementary school he had a States project. The state he choose was Utah. Through a colleague in NJ , where we live, we were able to meet, and my son to interview, a woman who was a member of an RCA congregation whose father was the superintendent of one of the Native Schools in Utah. It was an amazing morning of reflection on both memories and what she now understood those experiences to reflect.
    My son, now in his 30’s, still has clear memories of our conversation. Stories that need to be told and retold.

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