The Right of Conquest
Since the white man has made a road across our land and has killed off our game, we are hungry , and there is nothing for us to eat. Our women and children cry for food and we have no food to give them.
The gold rush had proved a disaster for the Indians of the Plains. The cholera brought by the wagon trains had killed half of the northern Cheyennes. When a group of Pawnees went off to hunt buffalo, they found that the herds along the main wagon trail had been driven away. Some starved to death on the way back to their villages. And competition for the dwindling game intensified rivalries between tribes which had been going on for generations.
is a period of incredible chaos on the Plains. The Lakota and their allies
are expanding, there's warfare everywhere. The Americans are beginning
to penetrate across the Plains to California. It's a real challenge for
the American government to bring the situation under control. What they
succeed in doing, is making it absolutely worse."
In 1851, the United States government's plan was to convene all the Plains tribes at Fort Laramie and convince them to stop fighting one another -- and endangering the whites heading through their lands on the way to California.
The Comanches and Kiowas stayed away: We have too many horses, one chief said, to risk "among such notorious horse thieves as the Lakotas and Crows." The Pawnees also refused to come: they were afraid the Lakotas would kill them. Still, 10,000 Indians, representing nearly a dozen tribes finally attended.
The government offered them $50,000 worth of supplies every year for 50 years, if they would agree not to harass the wagon trains and to grant the army the right to build forts. Most important, each tribe was to stay within a territory reserved for it and stop warring against its neighbors.
"You have naive American negotiators show up to try to distinguish tribal territories. At this time there are no tribal territories in the sense that Americans believe them to be. And so they try to draw lines on a map, they try to get Indians to conform to those lines. And they're going to fail. Furthermore, the Indians themselves see through the hypocrisy of all this. The Lakota, who are also an expanding people, frankly tell the Americans, 'Look, you're expanding. When you want lands, you push the Indians out of them. All we're doing, is what you do. You have no more right to stop us, than we have the right to stop you.'"
moved into these plains, maybe three hundred years ago, from Eastern homelands
in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We were terrific warriors and we were very
good at what we did. We swept the enemy aside and we took this land for
ourselves. We took the Black Hills. We chased other people out of it and
then our supernatural beings heard us in those hills, and so we own those
hills partly by right of conquest. And Americans understand the right
When the Lakotas refused to give up the lands they had taken from other tribes, the Americans backed down. On the map they finally drew, the Black Hills -- once the Kiowas', then the Cheyennes' sacred ground -- now belonged to the Lakotas.
The Lakota were given rights to the Black Hills and other country that we, the Northern Cheyenne, had claimed.... The squaw men told us, "This ground does not belong to you now."
To conclude the treaty, the Americans insisted that each tribe name a head chief who could sign for his people. But none of them acknowledged a single leader, so the Americans picked chiefs for them. A warrior named Conquering Bear was chosen to represent the Lakota, and the Fort Laramie treaty was finally signed on September 12th, 1851.
That winter, the Lakota chronicler Lone Dog commemorated the Fort Laramie treaty with a picture of two Indians -- a Lakota and a Crow -- exchanging pipes as a token of peace. In 1852, Lone Dog drew an Indian from another tribe approaching a Lakota teepee with a pipe instead of a weapon. And in 1853, he showed a government agent bringing a striped, blanket -- part of the treaty payment the United States had promised.
But in August of 1854, the fragile peace came apart. When a calf strayed from a Mormon wagon train into a Lakota camp, a warrior shot it with an arrow. Thirty soldiers from Fort Laramie marched into the camp of Conquering Bear, trained a howitzer on the teepees, and demanded that the guilty man surrender. He refused. Conquering Bear apologized and promised to pay more than the animal was worth. The two sides argued for forty-five minutes. Suddenly, the officer in charge ordered his men to fire. Conquering Bear was the first to die. The enraged Lakotas swarmed over the Americans. Only one soldier managed to crawl back to Fort Laramie, before he, too, died.
"Conquering Bear was supposed to be the person who would settle this in the appropriate manner, and they kill the agent of their own relationship. They kill Conquering Bear. And what had been a minor dispute over a cow, instead becomes a sign to the Lakota that, How can you trust these people?"
Nothing between the Lakotas and the United States would be ever be the same again.
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