by lyle e davis
Even if you never lived in the midwest you know the name “the Dakotas.”
While the Dakotas is a collective term used around the world that refers to the U.S. states of North Dakota and South Dakota together, the term has been also used historically to describe the Dakota Territory. Within the Dakotas, is the Upper Missouri River system which stretches as far east as Nebraska, westerly, into Montana. The first white person to reach the area was the French-Canadian trader La Vérendrye, who led an exploration party to Mandan villages in 1738. It became the main thoroughfare for French traders from that point on, and in 1804 it became the highway of discovery for Lewis and Clark. In fact, Explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, along with the Corps of Discovery, spent more time in (what is now) North Dakota than any other place on their journey. Much of present-day North Dakota was included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Much of acquired land was organized into Minnesota and Nebraska Territories.
The Dakotas also referred to a nation of Indians and its various family branches. The name Dakota (or its variants, Lakota and Nakota) probably means "allies," or “friends” all of which you and I generally refer to as the Sioux.
When it was still just the Dakota Territory it was a sacred place to a succession of Plains tribes who fought to hold them. The name "Dakota" comes from the Tipi Sapa, a Native American clan that is a branch of the Lakota. As the 19th century began, they had become the dominant tribe of the Northern Plains.
Sioux! It was more than a name
for a great tribe of warriors and hunters. Many Indian tribes have played parts in shaping the history and character of North and South Dakota, but the leading role has been that of the Sioux (Dakota) Indians for whom these States were named.
In the days of westward expansion, it became a cry of terror which swept across the plains like an echo. Redoubtable foes, the Sioux were rarely vanquished in war. Their defeat came, in the end, not alone by soldiers but by hunger and exposure.
All three groups were greatly reduced in numbers by the smallpox epidemic of 1837, which swept up the Missouri and over the plains, killing thousands of Indians. The bison, or buffalo, was basic to the Sioux economy, providing food, clothing, shelter, and an amazing variety of tools and equipment, as well as sacred objects for ceremonial use. The buffalo was often more than a
means of subsistence; it became
the center of a Sioux band's culture as well, determining their entire way of life.
The Sioux hunting pattern was similar to that of other Plains Indians. Acquiring horses--often stolen in raids--they became more mobile. Large groups, sometimes composed of several bands, were able to travel hundreds of miles during the summer chase, carrying their shelters with them. These were tipis, or conical tents of animal hides supported by several poles which also were used as the base of the travois, or load-bearing platform pulled by horses to transport household goods, supplies, and the infants, aged, or sick.
Sioux warriors also sought personal fame on the hunt and in war. For example, to count "coup" by touching an enemy in combat with the hand or stick and escaping resulted in the very highest honor. The counting of "coup" was long remembered and retold at gatherings.
Coming of the Settlers
Although habitually at war with other tribes, the Sioux did not actively resist white immigration until the whites began to intrude in great numbers. With discovery of gold in California during the late 1840's, waves of prospectors and would be business entrepreneurs swarmed over the plains en route to the west. These migrants were traveling through, not stopping to settle, so they posed little immediate threat to the Plains Indian tribes. Later, as pioneers chose to stake claims in this area, American Indian tribes took action to protect their lands and the buffalo which lived on those lands.
Indian attacks would eventually reach a point where settlers were demanding Government intervention. Much of the actitivity was focused on the western part of what was then Dakota Territory and what is known today as Laramie, Wyoming. In the spring of 1845, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny was detailed to take five companies of dragoons as far as South Pass to impress the Indians and to study problems associated with overland travel and to secure safe passage for travelers on the Bozeman Trail.
On June 16th he met 1200 Sioux at Fort Laramie and told them not to disturb the emigrants or molest their persons or property. He then "fired several shots with his howitzer, followed at darkness by a burst of rockets to tell the Great Spirit that they had listened to his words."
By 1850 the high tide of emigration passed nearly 50,000 people through Fort Laramie. Included among the many travelers were the Donner Party in 1846, on their fateful journey west, and Brigham Young who, in 1847, led the first of the Mormon emigrants through Fort Laramie in search of their Zion, the valley of the Great Salt Lake. A Mormon ferry was established on North Platte River.
The United States sought to forestall strife by negotiating the First Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) with the Sioux and other Plains peoples, among which were the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboin, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Hidatsa, and Mandan nations. The treaty assigned territories to each tribe throughout the northern Great Plains and set terms for the building of forts and roads within the region. In accordance with the treaty the Santee Sioux gave up most of their land in Minnesota in exchange for annuities and other considerations. They were restricted to a reservation and encouraged to take up agriculture, but government mismanagement of the annuities, depleted game reserves, and a general resistance to an agricultural lifestyle combined to precipitate starvation on the reservation by 1862.
In 1853 The Platte Ferry, just north of Fort Laramie, is seized by the Sioux. A skirmish results between Fort Laramie soldiers and the Sioux with the result of three Indians killed, three wounded, and two taken prisoner. It turns out that neither side lived up to the treaty terms, however, and in 1855, General W. S. Harney, hero of victories in Mexico, was summoned to command a campaign against the western Sioux. His defeat of a group of Brules led by Chief Little Thunder terrified all Teton Sioux bands, and several years of relative peace followed.
On March 2, 1861, President James Buchanan signed the bill creating the Dakota Territory, which originally included the area covered today by both Dakotas as well as Montana and Wyoming. The name was taken from that of the Dakota or Sioux Indian Tribe. Dakota Territory was settled sparsely until the late 1800s, when the railroads entered the region and aggressively marketed the land.
A breaking point came in 1862 when fighting broke out between American Indian people and white settlers in the Minnesota River Valley. That year, with many settler men away fighting the Civil War, Santee warriors under the leadership of Chief Little Crow mounted a bloody attempt to clear their traditional territory of outsiders. U.S. troops soon pacified the region, but only after more than 400 settlers, 70 U.S. soldiers, and 30 Santee had been killed. Soon after, military forts were established westward across the Northern Plains to protect pioneers, miners and others who came to stay.
The Minnesota Uprising brought renewed attacks by the Sioux upon all travel routes from the Missouri River to the Pacific. Wagons, stages, and telegraph lines were destroyed; travelers and entire white families were murdered; and the frontier became a scene of terror. The Army was moved in, and within months, large bands of Sioux were defeated in several North Dakota battles.
Not all Santee groups participated in the uprising and some actually helped the U.S. Army by rescuing white hostages. Nevertheless, the Government retaliated by confiscating all annuities and lands assigned to the Eastern Sioux and sentencing more than 300 Santees to death. (President Lincoln later pardoned all but 38 of these). The 38 Santees were ultimately hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
After their defeat many Eastern Sioux Santee were relocated to reservations in Dakota Territory and Nebraska. Some crossed the border into Canada, where their descendants still remain.
The Sioux were further inflamed with events of 1865. First, the Powder River Expedition was organized at Fort Laramie under General Patrick E. Connor to punish Indians in the region. Then Congress passed a bill authorizing new routes to the west through the great Teton buffalo ranges. The Sioux considered their very existence at stake if tribal lands were to become a thoroughfare for white prospectors and settlers.
Red Cloud, an Oglala Chief, had become one of the most powerful leaders of the Tetons. As a Sioux spokesman he protested the building of new roads and military posts, but without success. Plans for the new trail to goldfields in Montana and Idaho continued. Red Cloud and his people grew determined to stop the white invaders. Sioux warriors, strengthened by large groups of Cheyennes, were spaced throughout the country from the Yellowstone River to the Black Hills, besieging immigrants, soldiers, and surveyors. Attempts to cross the land became utterly impracticable. In the end, Red Cloud won.
In 1866 a second Peace Council was held at Fort Laramie to secure the right to use the Bozeman Trail. The peace council failed after Colonel Henry B. Carrington arrived with troops to establish Bozeman Trail forts. This became the Start of Red Cloud's War.
In 1868 Red Cloud wins his war with the government and yet another peace council is held at Fort Laramie, resulting in the signing of the Treaty of 1868, which sets aside the Great Sioux Reservation.
The odds began to stack up against the Plains Indians as the US government began to establish a number of forts to defend and protect the Dakotas.
Military Forts in the Dakotas
Fort Randall served many functions from the time it was built in 1856 until the fort was abandoned in 1892. During that time, the post provided military protection to settlements along the Missouri River, escorted many wagon trains and survey parties, and served as the central military supply depot for the area.
Fort Abercrombie served to guard wagon trains and steamboat traffic on the Red River and was also a supply base for wagon trains headed to the Montana border. The fort was at the crossroads of several major transportation routes in the Northern Plains until its abandonment in 1877.
Fort Sisseton was established in 1864 to provide military protection to new settlers in the region.
Fort Ransom was established in 1867 to protect overland travel from Minnesota to Montana.
Fort Abraham Lincoln - The military was dispatched to this area in preparation for the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Fort Sully - was built with cottonwood logs near Pierre in 1863. The fort was the first in a series which extended the power of the Army to the Rocky Mountains. Fort Sully was abandoned in late summer, 1866, because of the deplorable conditions.
Tension on the Reservations
In the 1870's, buffalo herds were systematically slaughtered by white commercial hunters. With the appalling destruction of the buffalo, the food supply disappeared and the tribes were forced to accept reservation life and rationed food.
The Black Hills were Lakota territory in 1874 when George Armstrong Custer returned from an expedition there to announce that his men had discovered gold. The rush of fortune seekers that followed led to war on the northern Plains, a war in which the Black Hills this time passed into the hands of Americans.
In the critical year of 1876 Benedictine Monks came to Dakota Territory and at the request of Sitting Bull at Standing Rock set up the first of several schools.
Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer
The Big Loser
Sitting Bull - The Big Winner
Custer's Last Stand
General Custer and his men moved into the valley of the Little Big Horn on the morning of June 25, 1876. His Crow scouts had sighted Sioux campfires at dawn, but Custer, making a mistake common to U.S. military leaders of the time, underestimated Indian strength.
Custer's famous "last stand" was brief. Within an hour or two, he and his entire command were annihilated. Several miles away the other two columns under Reno and Benteen continued to fight a second day until the Indians, sighting a relief column, disappeared into the hills.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn was the last great Sioux victory.
The Demise of the Sioux
Scattering throughout the country after their triumph, Indians were run down and defeated, band by band, by U.S. Army forces. Beaten, disarmed, and dismounted, they had no choice but to accept the terms of an 1876 agreement under which they at last relinquished not only the sacred Black Hills, but the long-fought-for Powder River and Yellowstone buffalo country as well.
One after another, Sioux chiefs surrendered. In 1877, Crazy Horse came out of hiding and surrendered to his old adversary, General Crook.
The Oglalas settled at Pine Ridge. In 1881, most of the Sioux bands who had escaped to Canada under Sitting Bull following the defeat of Custer returned to the United States under Gall, surrendered, and were taken to Standing Rock Reservation. Late the same year, Sitting Bull, too, returned and gave himself up to the U.S. troops. Ironically, Fort Buford was strategically located in the heart of the Lakota buffalo hunting grounds. As a young man, Sitting Bull had harrassed the fort’s builders with a band of warriors, and it was at Fort Buford where he finally surrendered in 1881. He would be sent to Standing Rock where he would later die at the hands of his own people.
The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations were at the center of the so-called Ghost Dance uprising among the Lakota in 1890. Standing Rock, to the north, was the new home home to Sitting Bull, whose murder by Indian police sparked a panic that led ultimately to the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Confined to reservations, unable to hunt or fight, betrayed by broken treaties and forbidden by the Government to seek supernatural help through the Sun Dance, the despairing Sioux turned to a new cult, the Ghost Dance. Started by a Paiute prophet who claimed to have received a message from the Great Spirit, the Ghost Dance spread like wildfire through the reservations.
The new religion called for dances and songs which would hasten the return of the buffalo, the arising of Indian dead, and the disappearance of the white man. It was harmless, in that it promised these things by supernatural means, and ruled out violence, but white settlers feared it as preparation for new Indian hostilities. As 1890 drew to a close, nearly 3,000 troops had been called into Sioux country to maintain peace.
Beginning in 1877, efforts were made to bring Dakota into the Union as both a single state and as two states. The latter was successful and on November 2, 1889, both North and South Dakota were admitted. President Benjamin Harrison went to great lengths to obscure the order in which the statehood proclamations were signed, so the exact order in which the two states entered is unknown. However, because of alphabetical position, North Dakota is often considered the 39th state.
The Sioux' Last Stand
Late in December 1890, troops from the 7th Cavalry intercepted a group of Sioux under Chief Big Foot on the Pine Ridge Reservation where they had fled after Sitting Bull was killed. About 20 miles northeast of the Reservation, the party stopped and pitched camp at Wounded Knee Creek, where they were joined by four additional troops of the 7th. Sioux tipis were entirely surrounded by soldiers, and guns were trained on them from a nearby bluff.
Ordered to surrender their arms, the Sioux warriors produced only two rifles, and soldiers then entered and searched Indian tipis.
There was a rifle shot. Soldiers at once directed their Hotchkiss (early machine guns) guns at the Sioux warriors. Some of the survivors of the first gunbursts fled in panic, pursued by hundreds of soldiers and raking gunfire. Bodies of women and children were found scattered as far as two miles from Wounded Knee, slaughtered in flight after all Sioux resistance had ceased.
Within a few days after the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, and some sporadic fighting at the Catholic Mission and the Indian Agency, the remaining Sioux refugee bands came in from the Badlands to surrender. The tragedy ended for all time armed and overt opposition, and they began their long and difficult road to a new life.
Today, most of the Sioux population of the Dakotas stems from the Teton Division. All its seven bands are represented in South Dakota, occupying Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Reservations.
The Indians of North and South Dakota are today people in transition between a time lost forever, but still recalled with bitterness, and a time yet to come, when poverty and isolation will no longer scar the living.
Today’s Indians of North and South Dakota
All of South Dakota's eight reservations, one in North Dakota, and one which straddles their common border, are today Sioux lands, a total of nearly 5 million acres. North Dakota is the home of four other Indian tribes: the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas, and members of the Hidatsa, Arikara, and Mandan Tribes.
Approximately 40,000 Indians live in the two Dakotas, the vast majority on or adjacent to 12 reservations. Indian life in the Dakotas is generally far below the minimums of economic and social comfort we think of in our modern society. There are more Indians out of work than in jobs. Apathy and discouragement characterize many reservations and Indian communities in outlying areas.
In spite of its violent past with much Indian blood as well as that of US military and settlers, today’s Dakotas shows a substantial difference. North Dakota, for example, has recently been ranked the friendliest state in the U.S., according to Cambridge University. A vacation here is called the most affordable of any state by AAA. North Dakota ranks #1 as the safest state to live in and North Dakota ranks #1 for high school completion rates.
Many of us who have not visited North Dakota may take away our impressions of that state based on the movie “Fargo.” I can vouch for the fact that folks do talk like that, not only in the Dakotas, but Minnesota and Wisconsin as well. The sing-song cadence of their speech is, in part, due to a heavy Scandinavian immigration. Succeeding generations have learned to speak English better than their immigrant ancestors, but the sing-song cadence lives on . . . as well as familar phrases such as, “ya sure, you betcha.” The writers, producers and actors on this film truly captured the essence of midwestern culture and speech patterns.
Fargo is, incidentally, the largest city in the state. Its capital is Bismarck. In terms of area it is ranked as the 19th largest state, however, with a population of only 641,000+, there’s lots of elbow room. The western half of the state consists of the hilly Great Plains, and the northern part of the Badlands to the west of the Missouri River. In the east, the Red River forms the Red River Valley, holding fertile farmland. Agriculture has long dominated the economy and culture of North Dakota. Former members of the US Air Force will recall there are two Air Force Bases in North Dakota, Minot and Grand Forks.
Anyone who has lived in the midwest can tall you that weather is a consideration for living in the Dakotas. North Dakota, for example, endures some of the most extreme temperature variations on the planet, characteristic of its continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers: the record low temperature is −60 °F (−51.1 °C) and the record high temperature is 121 °F (49 °C). You can also expect all kinds of weather surprises: Rain, snow, hail, blizzards, polar fronts, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and high-velocity straight-line winds.
Depending on location, average annual precipitation ranges from 14 in to 22 in.
Since the 1990s, North Dakota has experienced virtually constant decline in population, particularly among younger people with university degrees. One of the major causes of emigration in North Dakota looms from a lack of skilled jobs for graduates. They say it has nothing to do with the weather extremes, but perhaps that pays a part in it. To live in North Dakota, you have to be tough.
Looking at South Dakota, I have a bit more personal knowledge as we once seriously considered moving there. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, my dad was a landscape designer and architect. He was offered a job in South Dakota and we visited Sioux Falls and Mitchell. It was a pleasant summer trip, very attractive homes in Sioux Falls, and I was rather excited about the possibility of moving there. That excitement was enhanced on afternoon when dad, myself, and my brother, stopped to fish on the James River, just outside Mitchell, (the home of The World Famous Corn Palace). True, they were only carp, but every time we’d cast our line into the river, we’d haul out a scrappy carp. I figured South Dakota would be an okay place, with fishing like this . . . even for rough fish.
Dad turned down the job, however, and we stayed in Omaha.
South Dakota is probably more a vacation spot than North Dakota. You have Mount Rushmore National Memorial, our nation’s Shrine of Democracy, a destination that you have to see to believe. You’ll also find the world’s second and fourth longest caves, lunar-like surfaces in Badlands National Park and a one-of-a-kind attraction that takes you into the launch room of a deactivated Minuteman missile.
Another fall event is the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival. The Old West comes alive as cowboys, cowgirls and park staff round up nearly 1,500 free-roaming bison the last Monday in September. If you’re looking for something a little quieter, the fall colors of the state are easily observed with a walk along their hiking trails or driving down a scenic byway.
South Dakota is also known for its world class pheasant hunting. While I am not a hunter, my dad and uncles were and they would often journey to South Dakota in search of pheasant; they were always successful.
Sioux Falls is its largest city, its capitol is in Pierre. Like its neighbor, North Dakota, there is lots of elbow room. Ranked #46 in terms of national state population, it has only 804,000+ persons within 77,000+ square miles
South Dakota is bisected by the Missouri River, dividing the state into two socioeconomically distinct halves, known to residents as "West River" and "East River." Fertile soil in the eastern part of the state is used to grow a variety of crops, while ranching is the predominant agricultural activity in the west. The Black Hills, a group of low pine-covered mountains, is located in the southwest part of the state. The area is of great religious importance to local American Indian tribes.
Historically dominated by an agricultural economy and a rural lifestyle, it remains largely rural and has the fifth-lowest population density among U.S. states.
South Dakota can generally be divided into three regions: eastern South Dakota, western South Dakota, and the Black Hills. The Missouri River serves as a boundary in terms of geographic, social and political differences between eastern and western South Dakota, and the geography of the Black Hills differs from its surroundings to such an extent that it can be considered separate from the rest of western South Dakota.
It is not unusual for South Dakota to have severe hot, dry spells in the summer with the temperature climbing above 100 °F (38 °C) several times every year. Winters are cold with January high temperatures averaging below freezing and low temperatures averaging below 10 °F (- 12 °C) in most of the state. (Cold and hot, but not as bad as North Dakota).
South Dakota summers bring frequent, sometimes severe, thunderstorms with high winds, thunder, and hail. The eastern part of the state is often considered part of Tornado Alley, and South Dakota experiences an average of 29 tornadoes per year.
During the 1930s, several economic and climatic conditions combined with disastrous results for South Dakota. A lack of rainfall, extremely high temperatures and over-cultivation of farmland produced what was known as the Dust Bowl in South Dakota and several other plains states. Fertile topsoil was blown away in massive dust storms, and several harvests were completely ruined. The experiences of the Dust Bowl, coupled with local bank foreclosures and the general economic effects of the Great Depression resulted in many South Dakotans leaving the state. The population of South Dakota declined by more than 7% between 1930 and 1940.
Despite a growing state population and recent economic development, many rural areas have been struggling over the past 50 years with locally declining populations and the emigration of educated young adults to larger South Dakota cities, such as Rapid City or Sioux Falls, or to other states.
Five of the state's counties are wholly within Indian reservations. Living standards on many reservations are often very low when compared with the national average. The unemployment rate in Fort Thompson, on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, is 70%, and 21% of households there lack plumbing or basic kitchen appliances. A 1995 study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 58% of homes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation did not have a telephone.