This Month in Lakota History - July

13 Jul 2020

In July, Congress passed a major Act and a United States president visited an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. Quick quiz: Can you name the president, the reservation, and the year? The answers are below.

By an Act of Congress on July 22, 1867, the Indian Peace Commission was approved. The legislation was entitled, “An Act to establish Peace with certain Hostile Indian Tribes.”  The Act authorized the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, to appoint a commission to meet with representatives of tribes “waging war against the United States” for two purposes: “to ascertain the alleged reasons for their acts of hostility,” and to make treaties “as may remove all just causes of complaint on their part.” 

The commission was to consist of three military men “not below the rank of brigadier general,” plus the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the Chairman of the Committee of Indian Affairs of the Senate, and two other men. If the seven commissioners failed in securing peace with the tribes, then the Act enabled the federal government to accept the services of up to four thousand mounted volunteers “from the Governors of the several States and Territories” to suppress the Indian hostilities. The volunteers would  “be placed on the same footing, in respect to pay, clothing, subsistence, and equipment, as the troops of the regular army.” 

Of the four treaties the commission negotiated in 1867 and 1868, it is the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy that is most important in Lakota history. It was signed first by Sicangu representatives on April 29, 1868. The last signatories included Oglala chief Red Cloud, who touched the pen to the treaty on November 6, 1868. Article 16 of the treaty stipulated that the United States would abandon the three military posts that were located in the “unceded Indian territory” and close the road leading to them within ninety days.  

On July 29, 1868, U.S. troops abandoned Fort C.F. Smith, the northernmost of the posts. Two days later, on July 31, U.S. troops officially abandoned Fort Phil Kearny, although they did not depart until August 11. The third post, Fort Reno, was abandoned on August 18, 1868.

On July 7, 1999, President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was the second president, after Calvin Coolidge in 1927, to meet with citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in their reservation. President Clinton was in the reservation’s capital city to promote his “New Markets Initiative,” an economic development strategy that included government and corporate investments. 

Oglala Sioux Tribe President Harold Salway welcomed President Clinton to Pine Ridge. Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, said a prayer before the president’s speech in front of the Pine Ridge High School. Signifying the government to government relationship between the U.S. and each federally recognized tribe, representatives from around 100 other tribes were in the audience to listen to the president.

The devastating economic and social circumstances that the New Markets Initiative was intended to mitigate still describe the reservation and its residents today. There have been and continue to be some improvements over these 21 years, but the disparity between life conditions in reservations compared to elsewhere is still striking. 

For instance, in 2010 the median household income for residents of Pine Ridge Reservation was $27,065, compared to $47,807 for South Dakotans not living in reservations. The per capita income difference was even more drastic: $9,728 versus $25,053. In 2010, there was one house for sale for every 1,712 reservation residents, compared to one house for sale for every 207 South Dakotans not living in reservations. 

These three data points from the U.S. Census illustrate the disheartening disparities in income and housing between Pine Ridge Reservation residents and other South Dakotans. One wonders how different things would be if the Fort Laramie Treaty had not been violated, and if American Indians in South Dakota were not systematically discriminated against since then.  


(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)

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