Battle of Little Bighorn: 10 – The Black Hills and The Treaty of 1868

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

One of the oldest mountain ranges in the world is the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota. They rise up in the middle of the northern Great Plains with the highest point being Harney Peak, which stands slightly over 7,200 feet above sea level. The Hills, being some one hundred miles long from north to south, and about sixty miles wide, were not extensive enough to provide permanent homes for the Sioux. These were people of the Plains, in any case. The Black Hills served as a refuge and were used for occasional hunting and a source for gathering their lodge and travois poles.

Bear Butte

Bear Butte, just northeast of the Hills gives a wondrous view of the surrounding Plains. The river called the Belle Force runs along the northern base of this rise. The river and Bear Butte held a special place in Indian mythology. It is told that the great Cheyenne lawgiver, Sweet Medicine, received the Four Sacred Arrows and the laws of his tribe from spirits that lived in a cave on Bear Butte. And it is here, that the people of the Sioux nation gathered in summer to renew old friendships and to trade. It was here in the warm breezes of summer that, when the tribes gathered, that romances began. It was also here that the Indians held their sacred Sun Dances that had renewed the Peoples’ world since before time remembered.

To these people of the plains the Black Hills was the equivalent of the Mormons’ Temple or the Vatican of the Catholics, and much more than the revival tents of other religious denominations. To the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other natives of the plains the Black Hills was the center of their universe.

Miners For in the Black Hills

It was here, at a gathering in the fall of 1841, that a Brule woman who was the wife of an Oglala holy man gave birth to a son. This boy was like no other child of the Sioux. He possessed a lighter hue of skin and hair, hair that was strangely wavy. Because of his hair he was named Curly. Years later, after the boy performed a brave deed, his father, changing his own name, gave his long honored name to his son. From that time on this boy, who grew to be a quiet but strong leader of his people, this boy who was born beside the sacred Black Hills, was know as Crazy Horse.

In 1868, with the signing of a treaty, the Great Sioux Reservation was created. Within this reservation stood the Black Hills. This treaty stipulated that “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; [the reservation] or without the consent of the Indians first had and obtained, to pass through the same.” The treaty further declared “and the same is, set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named.”

In other words, within the bounds of the reservation and including the Black Hills, no whites could set up a homestead or even pass through the reservation lands without first getting permission from the resident Indians. The treaty did, however, manage to slip in that government employees could be on the reservation.