Battle of Little Bighorn: 13 – Grant and Sheridan Instigate Sioux War

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

General Phil Sheridan

In the spring of 1874 General Sheridan, with full military and political backing, decided to “send a column of troops into the Black Hills in order to establish a fort there, and, although this reason was unacknowledged, to find gold. This was a direct, open, unilateral violation of the treaty of 1868.”

The above quote is taken from Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. While this source is certainly one of the most outstanding works on the subject of the Plains Indians and other related subjects, the above quote serves to illustrate the difficulty, then as now, in ascertaining the true and actual meaning of the Treaty of 1868 and other treaties made between the United States Government and any group of Native Americans.

Under Article 2 of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, concerning the reservation area, it is specified that this land which includes the Black Hills: “is, set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named.” In accordance with this quote, the United States Government did not have the right to enter the Black Hills nor to establish a fort there. Then [the following brackets are mine] just a few lines later, also under Article 2 it contradicts itself by stating that:

“United Sates now solemnly agrees that no persons except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except [here’s the contradiction] such officers, agents, and employees of the government as may be authorized [authorized by whom, the Indians that own the land or the government?] to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory. . . .” [This does, however, exclude non-government white settlement and miners —unless, of course, the government says they are government employees, but that’s another issue.]

But right or wrong, no matter the actual meaning of the treaty, Sheridan said that a fort must be established in or near the Black Hills because the Sioux were not living up to their agreements in the treaty. He particularly charged that the hostiles were still killing settlers in Nebraska and disrupting the railroads even though the Indian agents were unanimous in agreeing that the tribes were behaving well. In fact, Sheridan himself, in 1873, had reported officially that “The condition of Indian affairs in the Department of the Dakota has been remarkably quiet . . .”

Before leaving this controversial subject it must be remembered that certain ‘hostile’ chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in particular, did not sign the treaty in question. These Indians, therefore, in spite of what they may have or have not done, were not breaking the treaty. They couldn’t break a treaty they had not signed. Of course, the whites did not see it this way, or choose not to understand that an Indian leader of one band could not sign a treaty for another band they did not belong to or lead.