The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was the second of two important midnineteenth-century treaty documents signed by Native nations of the American Great Plains and the United States government.
The terms of the treaty guaranteed ownership of Paha Sapa ("Black Hills") to the Lakota, the removal of military forts along the Bozeman Trail in the Powder River Country, and the establishment—on Lakota land—of the Great Sioux Reservation, a 26-million acre reserve of land that ran from the north line of the state of Nebraska to the forty-sixth parallel, bordered on the east by the Missouri River, and running westward to the hundred and fourth degree of longitude. Moreover, the treaty closed the Powder River Country to military and settlement incursions. The treaty, however, also prophetically designated this same country as "unceded Indian Territory" and therefore left the land in a temporary relation of ownership to the Lakota and outside the official "reservation." Additionally, the treaty articles specified the intention of the U.S. government to pursue the stated long-term goals of forced assimilation with agriculture, education ("They [the Lakota] therefore pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school" (Art. 7), and the division of land held in common. The treaty document is lengthy and relies heavily on dense legal language that often contradicts its own provisions. Red Cloud himself would later claim that the only provisions of the treaty that he was able to understand were the continued tenure of the Lakota in their own land and the expulsion of the United States military from the Powder River Country.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was signed by representatives of the Oceti Sakowins, Seven Council Fires of the Lakota, the Sincangus (Brûlés), Oglalas, Minniconjou, Hunkpapas, Sihasapas (Blackfeet), Pabaskas (Cuthead), Itazipacolas (Two Kettle), and Oohenupas (Sans Arc) of the Lakota nation; by the Yanktonais of the Nakota nation; by the Mdewakantonwans and Wahpekutes of the Dakota (Santee) nation; by members of the Inunaina (Arapaho) nation; and by members of a U.S. treaty commission. The treaty document itself, as well as a year-long process of negotiating for signatures, was the result of a successful war waged against the United States by the Lakota, led by Makhpyia-luta (Red Cloud). Red Cloud's War (also known as the Bozeman War) was fought in the Wyoming and Montana Territories from 1866 to 1868 for control over the important hunting grounds of the Powder River Country in north central Wyoming.
Signatories of the treaty documents included Makhpyia-luta (Red Cloud), Tasunka Kokipapi (Young Man Afraid of His Horses), Lieutenant General William T. Sherman, General William S. Harney, and General Alfred H. Terry. The Fort Laramie Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress on February 16, 1869.
For the Lakota and their Native allies, as well as for Euro-American immigrants and the U.S. government, the Fort Laramie Treaty was important to the history of the late nineteenth century, from the Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn (1876) to the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Discovery of gold in the sacred Paha Sapa ("Black Hills") by George Custer's governmentally sanctioned expedition resulted in the Black Hills Gold Rush, which only increased the pressure on Lakota land already under attack by settlement, by the decimation of the great buffalo herds, by the demands of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and by unstable and changing governmental and military policy.
In September of 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant sent a special commission to Lakota territory to negotiate for the sale of "unceded Indian Territory" of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and the Paha Sapa themselves; the Lakota refused to sell. In November of 1875, the Indian Bureau ordered all Lakota who were in the "unceded" hunting lands to come into the reservation and submit to agency control by January 31, 1875. The government launched a military campaign against the Lakota who were unwilling and unable to comply with the order; the campaign began in the winter of 1876 and lasted into the spring of 1877. The Battle of Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn—a military engagement in which an allied Lakota–northern Cheyenne force and the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army—was one battle in the so-called Indian Wars of 1876–1877, fought by the Lakota to maintain the ownership of the land they believed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 guaranteed them. The Massacre at Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890, in which 150 Minniconjou Lakota were killed while surrendering to the Seventh Cavalry, was the result of the same complex of factors involving struggle over land tenure in Lakota country and the United States' attempt to confine the Lakota to a shrinking and reconfigured reservation space.
As it was in the nineteenth century, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 remained an important document in the struggle over native rights and land claims in the twentieth century. Two important events in the history of the Indian Movement during the 1960s and 1970s were predicated on the language and history surrounding the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty: the occupation of Alcatraz in 1964 and again in 1969; and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. On March, 8, 1964, a group of about forty Native people from various tribes took possession of the unoccupied island of Alcatraz off the coast of California and its abandoned prison complex under the provisions of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which guaranteed surplus or federally abandoned property to the Lakota. The first occupation of Alcatraz paved the way for another longer and more spectacular occupation of the island starting in November of 1969 and lasting until a forcible eviction in June of 1971. The dramatization of land claims, issues of tribal sovereignty, racism, poverty, and other important issues that characterized the two occupations of Alcatraz under the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 also defined the American Indian Movement's occupation in 1973 of the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. The statement of demands made by the occupiers of Wounded Knee and passed to the Justice Department opened with an appeal to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868: "Communicate this to whomever [sic] is in charge. We are operating under the Provisions of the 1868 Sioux Treaty."
In the twenty-first century, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 continues to be an important aspect of the long-standing Black Hills Land Claim wherein the Lakota nation continues to press the U.S. government for the return of the Paha Sapa that were guaranteed to them by the 1868 treaty. The Supreme Court of the United States itself ruled in 1980 that the sacred land was indeed unlawfully seized by the government and ruled that the monies that were never paid to the Lakota, along with interest accrued over time (over $100 million dollars), be given to them. The Lakota refused the payment and continue to argue for the return of their land.
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