Battle of Little Bighorn: 30 – The Black Hills: To Sell, or Not to Sell

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

The pressure being put on the Sioux to sell the Black Hills was causing a political split among them. This split narrowed down to three major fractions.

The largest of the three was the Indians that had given up their wild ways, for the most part, and moved onto the reservations. They believed that the Hills were lost to them anyway and that they should get the best price they could and be done with it. The leaders of this fraction were Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. One main reason for their decision was simply that they, as agency Indians, had already given up nearly everything they had to give. What more could the whites do to them now that the buffalo were nearly gone from the Dakotas. They no longer hunted, or at best, did very little hunting. Most of what subsistence, such as it was, they received, was given to them by the white government. And as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail reasoned, if the whites wanted the Black Hills badly enough, and obviously they did, they would get the Hills one way or another.

Young Man Afraid of His Horses

Then there was a fraction of the agency Indians who were against selling the Black Hills. This group was led by Young Man Afraid who had given up the warpath and followed his father, Old Man Afraid, to Red Cloud Agency. There, Young Man Afraid tried to protect their helpless ones and to preserve the Sioux nation from being totally destroyed. Young Man Afraid wanted to do what could be done to accommodate the whites, yet allow the Sioux to live in peace and also live in the old ways. He thought selling the Black Hills would be a disaster for the Sioux way of life.

Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull headed the third fraction who were also unwilling to sell the Black Hills. They, unlike Young Man Afraid, were ready to fight to keep the Hills. This group was the Sioux the whites termed as ‘hostiles.’ And just as there were some Sioux of the ‘hostiles’ on the Powder River who agreed with Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, there were also some of the younger agency Sioux who felt as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull did.

Sitting Bull

Part of the reason some of the younger Sioux warriors on the reservations tended to lend their support to Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was because they simply wanted the chance to win war honors — just as their fathers and grandfathers, and the men of the Sioux nation had always done.

This situation was an advantage for Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. From these hot-blooded young warriors, who were in close association with the whites, they could easily obtain firearms. Because of this, the hostiles were better armed than they had ever been before. With at least one out of every four of the hostile warriors in possession of a gun, they were ready for war, if and when it should come.