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History of the Ownership of the Black Hills

Who was the last tribe to get the Black Hills? A few years ago, I was contacted by a friend in South Dakota who asked me to research the history of the Black Hills and the claim by the Lakota Sioux that the area is their ancestral homeland. My friend sent me all sorts of information that I read and found interesting. After looking into this, this is what I've found. So, if this sounds like a report to my friend in South Dakota, that's why.

The Black Hills are a small isolated mountain range that rises up from the Great Plains in western South Dakota and extends into Wyoming. Harney Peak, which rises to 7,244-foot elevation, is the range's highest summit. Today, the Black Hills actually encompass the Black Hills National Forest. The name "Black Hills" is a translation of the Lakota Sioux Indian tribe who called them "e Sápa." And while that's true, it should be noted that the Cheyenne Indians called them "Mohta-vohonáaeva" for a hundred years or more before the Lakota Sioux ever arrived there.

The hills were so-called "Black Hills" because of their dark appearance from a distance because the hills were covered in trees. Although some tribes say they occupied that area in the year 1500 to 1530 AD, we do know that the Arikara Indian nation arrived there around 1100 AD. To my knowledge, they were the first to occupy the Black Hills. In fact, after reading about the Arikara, it is pretty much a given that they had the Black Hills first -- and the longest. Yes, long before everyone else. If there are people who want to give the Black Hills "back to the Indians" as the saying goes, then it should be to the right tribe. Yes, the right tribe.

The Arikara in the Black Hills was followed by the Crow, Pawnee, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and then to the United States. The Lakota Sioux arrived in the region after getting kicked out of Minnesota in the late 1770s by other tribes. The Sioux took over the region after they drove out the Cheyenne Indian nation. The Sioux forced the Cheyenne to move West.

The Lakota Sioux people, and Teton Sioux, are part of a confederation of seven related Sioux tribes, the "Ohéthi akówi" or "Seven Council Fires." Siouan language speakers may have originated in the lower Mississippi River region and then migrated to the Ohio Valley. They were all farmers and may have been part of the Mound Builder civilization that took place from the 9th to 12th centuries.

The tribes belonging to the Siouan linguistic family are the Lakota, Assiniboin, Omaha, Ponka, Kansa, Osage, Kwapa, Iowa, Oto, Missouri, Winnebago, Mandan, Hidatsa, Crow, or Absaroka, tribes whose territories sat in the region now known as Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. The Biloxi, who were formerly near Mobile Bay, the Catawba, of South Carolina, the Tutelo, Sapona, Occanechi, of North Carolina, and Virginia were also part of the Siouan language-speaking nation. The Dakota-Lakota-Nakota speakers lived in the upper Mississippi Region in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and later in the Dakotas.

Among tribes, the wars were more brutal than most realize. Warfare among the Native American Indian nations was brutal and not unlike savage warfare anywhere else in the world. Waging war did not always turn out well for the Lakota. Their wars with Anishnaabe and Cree nations pushed the Lakota Sioux west and into the Great Plains in the mid to late-1600s.

Historically the Anishinaabe peoples maintained close alliances with Cree nations, including the Atikamekw, Montagnais, Moose Cree, Swampy Cree, and Plains Cree. Other allies included the Noos (Abenaki), Miijimaag, Nii'inaa-naadawe (Wendat), Omanoominiig, Wiinibiigoog, and Zhaawanoog. Other closely related Algonquin groups such as the Zhiishiigwan and Amikwaa were incorporated into the Anishinaabe family of nations through alliances. Due to competing interests for land and resources, from time to time, the Anishinaabeg had strained relations with the various Iroquois nations, Sauk, Fox, and Dakota peoples.

From the east in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Anishinaabe, who the Lakota Sioux called the "Chippewa" (Ojibwe), fought with the use of muskets supplied to them by the French and the British. That superior European war-fighting technology, European tools for waging war on other tribes, enabled the Anishinaabe to push the Lakota Sioux further into Minnesota and then West and Southwest.

No, this is not the only example of European war-fighting technology being given to one native nation to conquer another. We should remember that even in Hawaii, King Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha The Great, could not have united the Hawaiian islands without the use of European war-fighting technology such as the musket, swords, and even a small cannon given to him by the British. The use of superior European technology, and the support of the British, enabled the ruler of one island to conquer the other islands. Islands that were said to be as different as Germany is from France when it came to language, customs, traditions, and spiritual beliefs.

Americans gave the name "Dakota Territory" to the U.S. northern expansion West of the Mississippi River and up to its headwaters. Around 1730, the Cheyenne nation introduced the Lakota Sioux to horses. Yes, the Cheyenne are said to have been the tribe that introduced horses to the Sioux and taught them to ride. The Cheyenne called horses "ukawaka" which means "dog of power, mystery, wonder." After their adoption of horses, like the Cheyenne, the Lakota Sioux became a horse culture. The Sioux then became a society centered on the buffalo hunt on horseback instead of farming.

The total population of the Sioux, which included the Lakota, Santee, Yankton, and Yanktonai, was estimated at 28,000 by French explorers in 1660. The Lakota Sioux population was first estimated at 8,500 in 1805. It grew and reached 16,110 in 1881. The Lakota Sioux were one of the few Native American tribes to increase in population in the 19th century.

After 1720, the Lakota Sioux branch of the Seven Council Fires split into two major sects, the "Saone," who moved to the Lake Traverse area on the South Dakota/North Dakota/Minnesota border, and the "Oglála-Siháu," who occupied the James River valley. But by about 1750, the Saone had moved to the East bank of the Missouri River. They were followed 10 years later by the Oglála and Brulé (Siháu) Indians.

The large and powerful Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages had prevented the Lakota Sioux from crossing the Missouri River for a long time. Though that was the case for years, with the arrival of Europeans came the great smallpox epidemic of 1772 to 1780. The epidemic destroyed three-quarters of those tribes.

Make no mistake about it, because those tribes did not have built-up immunities to diseases such as measles, the epidemics killed thousands of Native Americans. In reality, more Native Americans died from diseases inadvertently introduced through trade with Europeans. In fact, thousands more died from diseases than bullets and swords in the wars with the French, the British, the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans combined.

With less resistance from other tribes, the Lakota Sioux crossed the river into the dry short-grass prairies of the High Plains. These newcomers were the "Saone" who were said to have been mounted horsemen. With the use of horses that many tribes did not have, they increased their dominance quickly. They did this through lightning attacks to decimate other tribes.

In 1765, a Saone raiding party led by Chief Standing Bear discovered the Black Hills, which was then the territory belonging to the Cheyenne. The Lakota Sioux only found the Black Hills in 1765. Ten years later, the Oglála and Brulé also crossed the river.

In 1776, the same year that Americans went to war with the British to claim America as our own nation, in bloody warfare, the Lakota defeated the Cheyenne who had earlier taken the Black Hills from the Kiowa after a lengthy war.

Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote: "Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of “total war” for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Both sides directed their actions not solely against warrior-combatants but against the people as a whole. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. ... It is within this context that the military service of the Pawnee Scouts must be viewed."

After being pushed out, the Cheyenne then moved west to the Powder River country. That's when the Lakota Sioux made the Black Hills their home. It was their home until they were forced out by war with the United States.

As for Americans, initial contact with the Lakota Sioux during the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 was considered a standoff. During that time, Lakota Sioux bands refused to allow American explorers to continue upstream. The Lewis and Clark expedition reportedly prepared for battle, but that never happened.

Nearly 50 years later, after the U.S. Army had built Fort Laramie on what was considered Sioux land, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was negotiated to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail. The Northern Cheyenne, who had aligned with the Sioux, had previously attacked emigrant parties.

Though tribes were in competition with each other over resources, becoming allies against a common enemy became paramount when they saw the American settlers as encroaching on lands that were still in dispute between the tribes. Because of this, a number of tribes who were traditional enemies aligned to attack American settlers and emigrant trains.

The Grattan Massacre, also known to some as the Grattan Fight, was the opening engagement of what would be known as the First Sioux War. It actually took place on August 19th, 1854, east of Fort Laramie in what was at the time the Nebraska Territory. Today that area is part of Goshen County, Wyoming.

A small detachment of American soldiers entered a large Lakota village to arrest the man accused of taking a cow that was stolen from a Mormon immigrant. Imagine that, a cow. And though it's said such matters were supposed to be handled by the Federal government's Indian Agent according to the treaty, the Army decided to go in to take care of the situation.

The situation that would have normally been handled fairly easily and calmly is said to have quickly got out of hand. It's said one of the soldiers shot Chief Conquering Bear and killed him on the spot. The Brule Lakota there numbers about 1,400. They killed all of the soldiers and their civilian interpreter. The American dead was 28 soldiers, including Lieutenant John Grattan and the civilian interpreter.

The Grattan Massacre is considered significant in the Plains Indian Wars because it's considered what started the American Indian Wars. Less than a month later, on September 3rd, 1855, a unit of about 700 soldiers under the command of General William S. Harney was dispatched by the President to avenge the Grattan Massacre. Harney did so by attacking a Lakota village in Nebraska. He had his men kill about 100 warriors, old men, women, and even children. Yes, women and children as well. It became known as the Harney Massacre.

These events caused the American public to pressure Washington D.C. to take military action. Americans wanted the U.S. Army to "punish the hostiles." As a result, thousands of U.S. troops were poured into the area.

After that, a series of battles and skirmishes took place between 1862 and 1864. One result was that the refugees from the "Dakota War of 1862" in Minnesota fled west to align with their allies in Montana and the Dakota Territory. This, of course, increased the number of American settlers moving West after the Civil War. The consequence of that is that it caused war once again between the U.S. and the Lakota.

In 1868, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This exempted the Black Hills from all American settlement. While the treaty was supposed to keep Americans out of the Black Hills, four years later, gold was discovered there, and American prospectors descended on the area in droves.

The Fort Laramie Treaty acknowledged Lakota Sioux sovereignty over the Great Plains in exchange for free passage on the Oregon Trail for "as long as the river flows and the eagle flies." Well, so much for that.

It is interesting that during the Black Hills War in 1876, the Arikara Indians served as scouts for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the Little Bighorn Campaign. There was no love between the Arikara and the Sioux.

The Black Hills was seen as worth keeping, especially after the discovery of gold there. By the time the word got out that gold was discovered there, the United States government simply could not enforce the treaty restrictions against unauthorized settlement as a flood of the gold seekers poured into that area.

Of course, the Black Hills were considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux, and they objected to what they rightfully saw as an invasion. Soon the Sioux attacked the influx of American settlers. Those attacks on settlers and miners were met by military force conducted by Army commanders such as Colonel George Armstrong Custer. This was when General Philip Sheridan encouraged American troops to hunt and kill the buffalo as a means of "destroying the Indians' commissary." Imagine how cruel you have to be to want to kill off a group's food supply?

The allied Lakota Sioux and Arapaho, along with the unified "Northern Cheyenne," were involved in much of the warfare after 1860. It should be noted that the Lakota Sioux nation was still fighting other tribes while fighting the Americans. For example, the battle of Massacre Canyon on August 5th, 1873, was the last major battle between the Pawnee and the Sioux tribes. That was when the Sioux attempted to exterminate the Pawnee Indians once and for all. Yes, men, women, and children while on a buffalo hunt for food.

As for cruelty, please don't write to tell me that Native American nations were peaceful. Cruelty was common at the time. Yes, to the point of being genocidal. Genocide is defined as "the intentional action to destroy a people." That's what Indian nations did to each other long before Europeans arrived on the North American continent. If you've heard me say that before, there is a reason that I repeat it so often -- re-writing history to sanitize the actions of warring nations doesn't change what took place. And for some reason, there is an effort today to rewrite history to disregard the cruelty that Indians set upon each other.

General George Crook's Army fought the Sioux at the Battle of the Rosebud. That battle occurred June 17th, 1876, in the Montana Territory between the Army along with its Crow and Shoshoni allies against a force consisting mostly of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. Yes, Americans had allies among the tribes. Not all Indian tribes saw the Americans as their enemy.

The battle is known to have prevented General Crook from locating and attacking their camp. It also prevented General Crook from playing a role in the Battle of Little Bighorn eight days later. Crook's Crow and Shoshoni allies left the Army for their homes shortly after the battle. The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne returned to the battlefield after Crook's departure and piled up rocks at the location of key events in the battle. Some of the rock piles they built are said to still be there.

Eight days after the Battle of the Rosebud, the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho combined their forces to wipe out Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Known to the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, also commonly referred to as Custer's Last Stand, started on June 25th and finished on the 26th of June in 1876. It was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall. Some say it was a fight that was inspired by a vision that Chief Sitting Bull had experienced.

Led by Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry was a force of 700 men. Five of the 7th Cavalry's twelve companies were annihilated. The total U.S. casualty count at the Little Big Horn, including scouts, was 268 dead and 55 wounded. George Custer himself, his two brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law, were killed.

Some say Col. George Custer was a fool on a number of points, including refusing to accept the information brought back to him by his own scouts, his wanting to move faster, so he left his Gatling guns behind as he saw them slowing him down. It's also said that he moved his troops at a pace that wore out their horses. This meant their mounts were spent when they arrived at the Little Bighorn River there in the eastern Montana Territory. His horses were in no shape to retreat when he attacked a camp of several tribes that was much larger than he realized.

His scouts told him about the size of the village before he charged headlong into a hornet's nest. The combined allied tribes are said to have numbered over 5,000.

After the battle, the tribes struck camp and left. They actually scattered. After the Little Big Horn, it's said the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne feasted and celebrated during all of that July because they saw no threat from American soldiers. After their celebrations, many of the Indians slipped back to the reservation, perhaps sensing that the summer of 1876 would be their last victory.

In response to the Little Big Horn, the public wanted vengeance, and the United States Congress authorized funds to expand the Army by 2,500 men. The funds were meant to specifically reinforce the Army in Montana. Once reinforcements were at hand by mid-August, General Crook and General Terry were able to take the fight to those seen as responsible for the Little Big Horn Massacre. General Nelson A. Miles took command of the effort to pursue and engage with the Indians in October 1876.

Following the defeat of the Lakota Sioux and their Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in 1876, the United States took complete control of the region. But that's not to say that skirmishes didn't continue for years in the Black Hills.

In May of 1877, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada. Within days, Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson. The Great Sioux War of 1876 ended on May 7th of that next year, 1877, when General Miles defeated the remaining Miniconjou Sioux. And as for the Lakota, they were eventually confined to reservations and prevented from hunting buffalo. They had to accept government food distributions or starve.

Later in 1877, some of the Lakota bands signed a treaty that ceded the Black Hills to the United States. Years later, Sitting Bull was killed at the Standing Rock reservation on December 15th, 1890. Right after that, the US Army attacked Spotted Elk, also known as "Bigfoot," and his Mnicoujou band of Lakota at Wounded Knee. That massacre took place on December 29th, 1890, at Pine Ridge.

The Lakota Sioux, just as the Arikara, the Crow, Kiowa, Pawnee, and the Cheyenne did before them, made the Black Hills central to their culture. Of course, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had previously confirmed the Lakota's ownership of the Teton Sioux mountain range -- but that treaty was rendered null and void when it was scrapped because of the war.

It should be noted that both the Sioux and the Cheyenne claimed rights to the Black Hills land. Both tribes said that in their nation's cultures, the Black Hills are considered the "axis Mundi" or their "sacred center of the world." Of course, it is a fact that the Cheyenne had it before the Sioux.

Though the Lakota ceded the Black Hills to the United States, some say that those who did that on behalf of the Lakota didn't have the authority to do it. They have never accepted the legitimacy of the transaction. Those are the Lakota who have lobbied Congress to create a forum to decide their claim.

On July 23rd, 1980, in the United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Black Hills were stolen and remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest was to be paid. That came out to nearly $106 million in 1980.

The 1980 decision acknowledged the United States had taken the Black Hills "without just compensation." But the Lakota refused the money offered and continue to insist that it is their land and they have a right to occupy that land.

The fact is the Lakota Sioux never accepted the validity of the United States appropriation. They continue to try to reclaim the property. The money supposedly remains in an interest-bearing account, which now amounts to over $757 million. And believe it or not, it's said that the Lakota still refuses to take the money.

The number of Lakota has now increased to about 70,000, and about 20,500 still speak the Lakota Sioux language. On the whole, they believe that accepting the settlement would allow the U.S. Government to justify taking ownership of the Black Hills. But to me, the U.S. Supreme Court decision or not, the Cheyenne also has a justifiable claim to the Black Hills. Just as much as the Lakota has if we're talking about who was there first.

So who would be the rightful owner of the Black Hills?

Well, since the Arikara were the first tribe to inhabit the Black Hills, it seems that they have a reasonable claim to the Black Hills. But they were forced out through bloody wars and were followed by the Crow, the Pawnee, then the Kiowa, and then Cheyenne, before the Lakota Sioux took it.

And then, there's the United States. Yes, the Black Hills was taken by the United States no differently than by any other tribe which took it from the previous occupants. Yes, by force. So to me, it belongs to the last nation that fought for it and won it. Yes, the United States.

The Lakota Sioux arrived in the West after being on the losing end of a war with other tribes in Minnesota in the late 1700s. Known as the Lakota, or simply the Sioux, they waged genocidal war on other tribes before they took over the Black Hills from the Cheyenne. So let me repeat this, they did the exact same thing that the United States did to drive the Lakota out.

What I find interesting is that the history of the Black Hills points to the fact that the Black Hills didn't belong to the Lakota in the first place. It is also interesting that there is a movement to try to return the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux, yet they are not its first occupants. The Lakota Sioux are saying the area belongs to them, but historically its longest occupants were the Arikara Indians. And even if they don't want it, there were other tribes after them who occupied it much longer than the 100 years or less than the Sioux had it.

Can you just imagine if the United States said they were only going to turn over the land to the original occupants, the Arikara Indians? Or how about the Cheyenne? Can you imagine the uproar by the Lakota? I do find it hypocritical for the Lakota to make a claim to the Black Hill when they, in fact, took it over after a bloody war with the Cheyenne that ended in 1776. In reality, they did the exact same thing the United States did a hundred years later, in 1876.

Americans should not accept the lie that is being perpetuated regarding some aspects of American History. Who the Black Hills "belongs" to is one of the great lies.

Whether we want to admit it or not, it is a fact that Indian tribes waged war and slaughtered each other routinely. Each time a tribe chased out an enemy tribe, the victors were conquerors. They took over lands, crops, the game, made slaves of those they defeated no differently than the Germans and French did for centuries.

As for Native Americans saying they were here first. Where's here? Since those different tribes were independent nations with their own cultures, languages, customs, religious beliefs, completely separate from other Indian nations, all having pushed each other out of lands by force, who are they to say that they were here first. Being first is irrelevant when they are not the last ones standing after a battle. They proved that by waging war on each other to conquer lands.

Until the United States came along, the Lakota Sioux were only the most recent Indian nation to occupy the Black Hills after a horrible war. Fact is, so many separate tribal nations have waged an all-out war to get the Black Hills. In the end, the Lakota Sioux nation lost the Black Hills to another nation which is the United States.

If we look at the United States no differently than we do any other tribal nation, then the United States is the last tribe to conquer a tribe that was occupying the Black Hills. After all, warfare being warfare, the United States took the Black Hills in the exact same way as the other tribes did. Through a brutal war, the United States did the very same thing. The United States fought for it. The United States conquered it, really no different than the Sioux did against the Cheyenne, and so on, and on.

In summary, what took place there over the centuries reads as a simple tale that starts, "To the victor goes the spoils ..." Yes, over and over again.

The hypocrisy of the Sioux today is their anger at the United States for doing exactly what their ancestors did to other Indian tribes. That's the definition of being a hypocrite. Americans got the Black Hills after a long line of other tribes fought for it. So, like it or not, the United States is the last tribe, the last nation, the last to go to war and die to get the Black Hills. And really, here's the irony, it has now been a part of the United States longer than it was ever part of the Sioux nation.

By the way, after I published this story, my friend in South Dakota, the man who had originally contacted me about this, contacted me again. He said that a few people there have read this and are not happy with me or this story.

He then said, "But I love it, I'm Cheyenne!"

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