The Lakotas’ Last Stand

The Black Hills were sacred to many northern Plains tribes, and especially to the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes. Despite an 1868 treaty prohibiting white incursions into the area without Indian permissions, rumors of gold lured prospectors into the hills, and Custer’s Black Hills expedition confirmed those stories. The United States government began to pressure the Lakotas into selling the land, but neither the reservation Indians, led by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, nor the “wild” Lakotas, led principally by Sitting Bull, were in the least bit interested in parting with the Black Hills. Despite numerous attempts by treaty commissioners to convince the Lakotas to sell, the agents returned to Washington without a deal. Therefore, the government resolved to offer the Indians no choice; either they would sell the land to the United States, or the United States would take the land.[1]

In late 1875, Indian agents ordered all Lakota and Cheyenne bands off the reservation to come in to the agencies by the end of January 1876. Any Indians who failed to do so would be considered hostile and treated accordingly, and in February the Army made good on those threats as expeditions set out to find Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Throughout the late winter and into spring, Terry and Crook led their troops in and around the Powder River country, but met with limited success. Meanwhile, many Lakotas and Cheyennes had been leaving their reservations in search of buffalo, and a good number of them fell in with Sitting Bull’s people. By June 1876, Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band had grown to several thousand as other Lakotas and Cheyennes made camp along the Little Bighorn River.[2]

The story of Custer’s discovery of and attack on this enormous Indian village has been told numerous times, and the debate still rages about what, if any, mistakes Long Hair made. What is not disputed, of course, is that the battle was a stunning victory for the Lakotas and Cheyennes, and a shocking and demoralizing defeat for the United States Army. Word of the disaster reached the eastern United States just as the nation was celebrating its centennial, and the fact that such a renowned officer could have been defeated and killed by “savages” was unthinkable and unacceptable.[3] Though the Lakotas and Cheyennes won that particular battle in such spectacular fashion, that very success spelled doom for them in the long run. The United States government’s resolve was thoroughly stiffened, and the army expanded by several magnitudes its efforts to crush the Indians. Even the peaceful bands who remained on the reservations felt the nation’s wrath, as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, faced with the prospect of withheld rations, were forced to sign away the Black Hills and the Powder River Country. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led their bands on desperate flights from Crook’s angry troopers, but both eventually tired of running. Crazy Horse surrendered his band, and was bayoneted to death by a guard a short time later. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, and the Northern Cheyennes were exiled to Indian Territory. The Indians’ victory on the Little Bighorn had awakened a sleeping giant, one who refused to be defeated by an “inferior” race, and the United States mustered all its strength to crush the Sioux Uprising.[4]


[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador. Originally published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 226-84.

[2] Ibid., 284-8.

[3] Nathaniel Philbrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (New York: Viking, 2010), xvii.

[4] Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 297-313.

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