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Native History: Indian Agent Report Leads to Great Sioux War

Alysa Landry

This Date in Native history: On November 9, 1875, Indian Inspector E.C. Watkins issued a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs stating that hundreds of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota were openly hostile against the United States.

That report set into motion events that led to the Great Sioux War, a series of battles during 1876 and 1877 that included the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

In his report, Watkins stated that American Indians associated with Chief Sitting Bull and his warrior, Crazy Horse, “set at defiance all law and authority, and boast that the United States authorities are not strong enough to conquer them.” The Natives “laugh at the futile efforts that have thus far been made to subjugate them and scorn the idea of white civilization,” the report stated. In order to enforce domination, the Army would need to “whip them into subjection.”

Under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, however, the Lakota Sioux had ownership of the Black Hills of South Dakota and hunting rights in neighboring states. Yet white miners chasing reports of gold in the Black Hills trespassed on that land and President Ulysses S. Grant did nothing to stop them.

“The Grant Administration had a choice,” said Tim Lehman, professor of history at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. “It could honor the treaty and acknowledge its responsibility to remove the miners from the hills—which would have been unpopular politically—or it could renegotiate the treaty for a smaller land base. The only way to do that was through coercion.”

The Secretary of the Interior issued an order on December 3, 1875, declaring that all Natives who were not on reservations would be considered hostile. Natives had until January 31, 1876, to report to their separate agencies or be removed by the military, said Ken Woody, chief of interpretation at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

The order was slow to reach the people. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe received it on December 22, 1875, and Fort Peck received it January 21, 1876—just 10 days before the deadline, Woody said.

Many individuals had no intention of complying with the order, and when they refused to leave their land, the War Department took over. The Great Sioux War, which began in March 1876, pitted Army greats like George Armstrong Custer against Native forces. Custer and 262 of his soldiers fell in June 1876 during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Great Sioux War marked “the last of the free-roaming Northern Plains Indians,” Lehman said. “The Battle of the Little Bighorn marks a triumph for the Indian people, but in a longer view, it was part of a war that was the beginning of the end.”

According to U.S. Senate documents from 1876, the military operations were not against the Sioux Nation, “but against certain hostile parts of it which defy the government.”

If the Natives were hostile, it was because they were forced to leave land to which they had legal rights, said Herman Viola, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Viola called the Great Sioux War little more than a scorched earth policy employed to rid the country of American Indians.

“The government wasn’t going to stop until they drove the Indians into the ground,” he said. “They’re still recovering from that. It was called the Great Sioux War, but it was more like the Great Sioux Destruction.”

The war ended in the spring of 1877 when the last of the Natives either surrendered to their agencies or fled to Canada.