The Victory of the Sioux

Last week I had lots of opportunity to look at a map of South Dakota. Notice the shaded areas that represent the Sioux Indian Reservations. Go ahead, look. I’ll wait here…
Did you notice? A full one fifth of South Dakota belongs to the Sioux. This is an area about the size of Wales. A chunk of North Dakota is theirs, as well.

colignycalendarI wondered how it was that the Sioux had managed to keep so much territory in the face of everything the United States threw at them. Surely it was not because of our government’s bighearted generosity.

I wondered if the land there was so awful that the white folks didn’t want it. Ha! It turns out most of that land is just fine for ranching and farming. The US would have taken it if it could. (In fact, large portions of these reservations are now owned or rented by whites.) Compare that to West Texas or Arizona, where the land is much worse, but there are no reservations of comparable size.

So how did the Sioux manage to keep all that land?

I did a little research.

The Lakota, or Western, Sioux Indians developed their nomadic way of life in the early part of the 19th century. By 1840 they controlled a huge swath of the Midwest, pushing aside neighbors such as the Cheyenne, and following the buffalo herds at will across North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, a region comparable in size to France and Germany combined. They were unmatched horsemen and marksman, using bows and arrows, rifles, repeaters, and pistols. It was not uncommon to see a brave riding into battle hanging off the side of his horse, gripping with one foot and one hand, using his animal as cover while he fired. Prior to the Black Hills Gold Rush, there were few direct conflicts between the Sioux and the U. S. Army, and the results of the encounters were inconclusive.

In the 1860s, the United States fought the Civil War. During this time, the nascent US military became a world-class force. Military technology developed by the Union and the Confederacy during the war was unequaled in Europe, as well as the military’s expertise in moving men and matériel across vast distances rapidly and effectively. While the rank-and-file soldier suffered from poor training and lack of supplies, the military training given to the US officers was top-notch: most military historians consider the combination of Lee and Jackson to be nearly the equal of Napoleon, and Sherman’s doctrine of total war was an unfortunate but heavy influence on nearly every war fought since.

When Civil War hero Lt. Col. George Custer led the 7th cavalry into the Black Hills of South Dakota, he was leading trained troops, many of which had seen action, from one of the best armies in the world.

This force was utterly smashed by Chief Crazy Horse and the combined might of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Half of the 7th cavalry was destroyed. Not one white man survived the final confrontation under Custer.

Now, it’s true that the 7th cavalry was outnumbered three to one. But Custer had the element of surprise. And there’s little question who fought harder: the Sioux lost no more than 100 people, while the 7th cavalry lost over 250. If the Sioux’s battlefield advantage had only been a question of numbers, you might expect a few more casualties on their side.

To me it seems clear: on the plains of South Dakota, the Sioux military capability was at least equal to, and probably superior to, the military capability of the United States.


Why, then, were the Sioux confined to the reservations less than a year after the battle? Treachery, disunity, sickness, and famine. Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back while protected by a flag of truce; the Sioux could not unite again under another leader; a smallpox epidemic devastated them; and indiscriminate killing of the bison by whites left them with almost no food. The Sioux had the victory in their hands, but they could not hold onto it; their way of life and their society disintegrated.

And even with the Sioux in that sorry state, the US government didn’t dare ask for more than 4/5 of South Dakota. The United States must have been quite eager to see the end of that war.

This isn’t the usual story you hear. You hear about the merciless advance of the whites, how the native Americans never had a chance against the hardy pioneers and the advanced US military. You don’t hear that the US military was soundly beaten and that the whites only won because of disease, ecological warfare and treachery.

The older I get, the more I realize just how little my public education was worth.


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