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Saga of the Sioux
An Adaptation from Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
By Dwight Jon Zimmerman
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 The Dee Brown LLC
All rights reserved.
Who Are the Sioux?
My friends, this country that you have come to buy is the best country that we have ... this country is mine, I was raised in it; my forefathers lived and died in it; and I wish to remain in it.
— Crow Feather of the Sans Arcs Sioux
* * *
PROBABLY THE MOST FAMOUS Native American people of North America, the Sioux gave to history one of the great images of the American West: a proud Plains warrior on horse back. But the Sioux are much more than just that image. The Great Sioux Nation, known as Oceti Sakowin, or " Seven Council Fires," is one of the largest tribal confederations in North America. In general, its people are identified by one of their three language dialects (Dakota, Nakota, Lakota), location (the eastern Santee, central or middle Wiciyelas, and western Teton), and more specifically by their individual band or sub-band (such as Yankton or Oglala). For instance, Chief Red Cloud could be identified any one of three ways: as a Teton because he lived in the westernmost part of Sioux land, as a Lakota because this was the dialect he spoke, or as an Oglala because he was a member of that sub-band. (here.)
The name "Sioux" comes from what their enemies the Ojibwa called them: Na dou esse, which means " Snakelike Ones" or " Enemies." French traders, the first to encounter both nations, spelled the Ojibwa word Nadousioux. The English and American traders, who came later, shortened it to Sioux.
The Sioux originally lived along the southeast coast of North America — the Santee River in South Carolina got its name from the Santee Sioux. They were gradually pushed west by other tribes, like the Ojibwa, who were themselves pushed west by white settlers. By the 17th century, the Sioux had settled in the north-central section of the North American continent. Like many other Native American peoples, the Sioux were nomads. They were primarily hunters, though the eastern Santees also did some farming, with buffalo being their most important source of food.
Though the Sioux had chiefs who had individual leadership responsibilities (such as war chiefs), the important decisions that affected the tribe were always discussed in groups called councils. Councils included the chiefs, as well as medicine men and other respected members of the tribe. Council gatherings were always public affairs held in front of the rest of the tribe, and everyone had a right to speak.
The most sacred land for the Sioux, particularly the Lakota, is Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota. According to their tradition, it is there that Wakantanka, the Great Spirit, created them and gave them their sacred symbols and rites, including the Sun Dance.
At its height, the Great Sioux Nation stretched from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Montana and Wyoming, and from North Dakota to Iowa and Nebraska. They were proud, fierce, and feared warriors. It would take the United States government about 30 years to finally defeat them.
The opening battles of that campaign would begin in the eastern part of their territory, in the Santee land of Minnesota at the same time the United States was fighting the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861–1865).CHAPTER 2
War Begins in Minnesota
Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day.
— Little Crow of the Santee Sioux
* * *
DURING THE 10 YEARS leading up to the Civil War, more than 150,000 white settlers pushed into Santee country. This was the result of two treaties signed in 1851: the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the Treaty of Mendota. By agreeing to the treaties, these woodland Sioux surrendered nine-tenths of their land. They were crowded into two reservations, also known as agencies: the Upper Sioux Agency near Granite Falls and the Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls. Both were on the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota. In return, the Santee were guaranteed that this reservation land was theirs forever, and they were supposed to receive cash and annual payments called annuities totaling $2,806,000.
Because they had so little land left, the Santee were forced to give up their traditional way of life and to learn how to farm like the white man. This was something the government wanted all along. Sixty-one-year-old Ta-oya-te-duta (Little Crow) was one of the chiefs who signed the treaties. Little Crow was a third-generation chief of the Mdewakanton. He had been to Washington to see the Great Father, President James Buchanan, and had agreed to learn how to dress and live like a white man. He had joined their Episcopalian religion and started a farm. He had hoped that the Santee and the white men would be able to live together peacefully. But those hopes had been dashed.
Over the years, promised annuities did not always arrive on time. This forced the Santee to buy their food, clothing, and other goods on credit from traders authorized by the government to sell to the Indians. The Santee learned to hate the credit system because they had no control over the accounts. Traders would charge high prices. Sometimes they would cheat by saying they had sold the Santee supplies when they hadn't. When the Santee protested to the agents from the Office of Indian Affairs, the government agency responsible for Indian welfare, the agents sided with the traders.
In the summer of 1862, relations reached the breaking point. Drought had struck in 1861 and returned in 1862. With the Indians' crop yields so poor, many Santees had to buy food on credit. Earlier that summer the Lower Agency Mdewakantons took their growing resentment out on Little Crow, accusing him of betraying them when he signed away their lands by treaties. They elected Traveling Hail to be their speaker in place of Little Crow. Though Little Crow was still a chief, few of his own people now listened to him.
At the end of the month known to the Sioux as the Moon of the Red Blooming Lilies (July), several thousand Santees assembled in front of the warehouse and fort compound in the Upper Sioux Agency to collect their annuities so that they might buy food. The money did not arrive. They heard rumors that the Great Council in Washington (Congress) had spent all their money fighting the Civil War and could not send anything to the Indians. Little Crow and some of the other chiefs went to their agent, Thomas Galbraith. They asked him to issue food from the agency warehouse, which was filled with provisions.
Galbraith replied that he could not do this until the money arrived. He posted 100 soldiers from the nearby fort to guard the warehouse. It was in the Moon When the Geese Shed Their Feathers (August) that the Santee decided they had waited long enough. On August 4, some 500 armed Santee warriors surrounded the soldiers. Other warriors broke into the warehouse and began carrying out food. The white soldier chief, Timothy Sheehan, sympathized with the Santees. Instead of shooting them, he persuaded Galbraith to issue food to the Indians and await payment from the government. After Galbraith did this, the Santees left peacefully. Little Crow did not leave for his home until the agent promised to issue similar amounts of food to the Santees at the Lower Agency.
Early on August 15, Little Crow and several hundred hungry Mdewakanton assembled at the Lower Agency. It soon became obvious that Galbraith and the four traders had no intention of issuing food before the arrival of the annuity funds.
An angry Little Crow arose, faced Galbraith, and spoke. "We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving."
Galbraith turned to the traders and asked them what they would do. Trader Andrew Myrick declared, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."
Myrick's words angered all the Santees, but to Little Crow they were like hot blasts upon his already seared emotions. For years he had tried to keep the treaties, to follow the advice of the white men, and to help his people learn how to live like white men. Little Crow knew that Myrick's words would destroy what little respect Little Crow still had among the Santee.
In the old days he could have regained leadership by going to war, but the treaties pledged him not to engage in hostilities with either the white men or other tribes. Why was it, he wondered, that the Americans talked so much of peace between themselves and the Indians, and between Indians and Indians, and yet they themselves waged such a savage war with the Graycoats (Confederates) that they had no money left to pay their small debts to the Santees? He knew that some of the young men in his band were talking of war against the white men to drive them out of the Minnesota Valley. It was a good time to fight the whites, they said, because so many Bluecoat soldiers were away fighting the Graycoats. Little Crow considered such talk foolish. He had been to the East and seen the power of the Americans.
On Sunday, August 17, Little Crow attended the Episcopal Church at the Lower Agency and listened to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Samuel D. Hinman. Reverend Hinman had established his church at the agency in 1860 and had learned the Sioux language. His mission in life was to convert all the Sioux to Christianity and make them live like white men. At the conclusion of services, Little Crow shook hands with the other worshippers and returned to his house. It was the last time he attended Reverend Hinman's church.
Late that night Little Crow was awakened by the sound of many voices and the noisy entry of several Santee. Chiefs Shakopee, Mankato, Medicine Bottle, and Big Eagle came in, along with four frightened young warriors. The group said they had also summoned Chief Wabasha because they needed to hold an emergency council. As soon as Wabasha arrived, the group began to speak.
Earlier in the afternoon, four hungry young men from Shakopee's band had crossed the river that was the border of the reservation to hunt in the Big Woods near Acton Township, which now belonged to white men. Something very bad then happened. Big Eagle explained,
They came to a settler's fence, and here they found a hen's nest with some eggs in it. One of them took the eggs, when another said, "Don't take them, for they belong to a white man and we may get into trouble." The other was angry, for he was very hungry and wanted to eat the eggs, and he dashed them to the ground and replied, "You are a coward. You are afraid of the white man. You are afraid to take even an egg from him, though you are half-starved. Yes, you are a coward, and I will tell everybody so." The other replied, "I am not a coward. I am not afraid of the white man, and to show you that I am not, I will go to the house and shoot him. Are you brave enough to go with me?" The one who had called him coward said, "Yes, I will go with you, and we will see who is the braver of us two." Their two companions then said, "We will go with you, and we will be brave, too." They all went to the house of the white man, but he got alarmed and went to another house where there were some other white men and women. The four Indians followed them and killed three men and two women. Then they hitched up a team belonging to another settler and drove to Shakopee's camp ... and told what they had done.
On hearing of the murders of the white people, Little Crow scolded the four young men. Then he asked Shakopee and the others why they had come to him for advice when they had chosen Traveling Hail to be their spokesman. The leaders assured Little Crow that he was still their war chief. No Santee's life would be safe now after these killings, they said. It was the white man's way to punish all Indians for the crimes of one or a few. The Santees might as well strike first instead of waiting for the soldiers to come and kill them. It would be better to fight the white men now while they were fighting among themselves far to the south.
Little Crow rejected their arguments. The white men were too powerful, he said. Yet he admitted the settlers would exact bitter vengeance because women had been killed.
Then one of the young braves cried out, "Ta-oya-te-duta is a coward!"
Little Crow replied, "Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children; you know not what you are doing."
Little Crow added, "Kill one — two — ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count. ... Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day."
But because of the 10 years of broken treaties and broken promises, he understood why they wanted to fight. Though he knew it was a war the Santees could not win, Little Crow finally agreed they must fight. He then repeated, "Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you." The Santee chiefs promised to gather their warriors for battle. Then they and the four young warriors left.
Little Crow sent messengers upstream to summon the Wahpetons and Sissetons to join in the war. The women were awakened and began to make bullets while the warriors cleaned their muskets. The war that would be called Little Crow's War was about to begin.
One of the chiefs who participated in the war was Big Eagle. Years later, he recalled that Little Crow gave orders to attack the Lower Agency trading post early the next morning and "kill all the traders." When the force started to attack the agency's trading post, he said, "I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend he did not want killed; of course he did not care about anybody else's friend. The killing was nearly all done when I got there."
One of the dead was Andrew Myrick. Someone had stuffed his mouth with grass. Big Eagle recalled the warriors saying, "Myrick is eating grass himself."
The Santees killed 20 men, captured 10 women and children, emptied the warehouses of provisions, and set the other buildings afire. The remaining 47 inhabitants (some of whom were aided in their escapes by friendly Santees), including Reverend Hinman, fled across the river to Fort Ridgely, 13 miles downstream.
On the way to Fort Ridgely, the survivors met a company of 45 soldiers marching to the aid of the agency. Reverend Hinman warned the soldiers to turn back. The soldier chief, John Marsh, refused to heed the warning and marched into an ambush. Only 24 of his men escaped.
Encouraged by this success, Little Crow decided to attack Fort Ridgely. By this time, Wabasha and his band had arrived, Mankato's force had also been increased by more warriors, and fresh allies were reported to be on their way.
During the night, these chiefs and their several hundred warriors moved down the Minnesota Valley. Early on the morning of August 19, they began assembling on the prairie west of the fort.
Excerpted from Saga of the Sioux by Dwight Jon Zimmerman. Copyright © 2011 The Dee Brown LLC. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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