Alvin Josephy once noted that when the American Government wanted to show off our country to the world, it used images of Plains Indians, splendid in feathered headdresses and riding horses. It matched the image of Indians carried by most non-Indian Americans—omitting the hundreds of tribes and cultures of farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing Indians that the Europeans encountered on arrival. And putting them on European horses.
Sadly and ironically, these iconic Indians were Lakota, or Dakota, known collectively as Sioux—and, historically, some of the most hounded and abused tribal people in America!
In the early days of the Civil War, the Dakota—four major bands of Siouxian Indians—were squeezed onto smaller and smaller reservations along the Minnesota River, and promised commodities and annuity payments by solemn treaty in exchange for the hunting, farming, and gathering grounds taken from them by white settlers. Federal Indian agents and a Minnesota governor skimmed and stole their fair treaty awards, and some Indians revolted, indiscriminately killing white settlers, launching a war against white settlement.
It was all futile—local troops were enlisted and others diverted from the Civil War in the East, and most of the Dakota were chased west, where they joined Lakota brothers and sisters. But many were rounded up in Minnesota, and a “military commission” sentenced 307 Indians and half-breeds (who were largely assimilated but had become caught up in the action) to be hanged. President Lincoln delayed the hanging, and had charges against each Indian reviewed. But 38 were hanged in what is still the largest public execution in our history.
|Mass grave at Wounded Knee
For the next 30 years the bands of Lakota and Dakota dodged settlers, gold miners, Custer’s regiment, and waves of federal troops. In the end, famous Indian leaders Crazy Horse, Big Foot, and Sitting Bull were killed, and, in the winter of 1890, a group of 350 hungry Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux, including many women and children, were attacked with Hotchkiss machine guns—at least 150 of them were massacred and put in a mass grave, and the military campaigns against Indians drew to a close.
The Plains Indians are in trouble again, as noted in a stinging editorial in the July 23 New York Times:
“It’s an old American story: malign policies hatched in Washington leading to pain and death in Indian country. It was true in the 19th century. It is true now, at a time when Congress, heedless of its solemn treaty obligations to Indian tribes, is allowing the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester to threaten the health, safety and education of Indians across the nation…
“In signing treaties with Indian nations in return for land, the federal government promised a wide array of life-sustaining services. One of the most important is the Indian Health Service, which serves about two million people on reservations and is grossly underfinanced even in good times…
“On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the tribal police force, facing cumulative budget cuts of 14 percent, or more than $1 million, has let 14 officers go. Its nine patrol cars are already pitifully inadequate for policing a 2.8-million-acre reservation plagued by poverty, joblessness, youth gangs, suicide, alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction. The tribe is cutting a program that serves meals to the housebound elderly. Its schools and Head Start program are cutting back. On a reservation with a chronic and worsening shortage of homes, where families double up in flimsy trailers without running water or electricity, a housing-improvement program with a 1,500-family waiting list was shut down. There were 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge, officials there said, but the reservation is losing two mental-health providers because of the sequester.
“Byron Dorgan, the retired United States senator from North Dakota who founded the Center for Native American Youth, demanded in an Op-Ed article in The Times that Congress hold hearings to examine its broken treaty promises and develop a plan for restitution. He said it should exempt Indian country from sequestration. He is right. Where the deficit zealots see virtue, we see moral failure.”