Spotted Tail (Sinte Gleska) was a Sicangu (upper Brûlé Lakota), born in 1823 in the Ring band (tiyospe), a community of bilaterally related extended families on the White River in south central South Dakota. He learned to hunt bison, to conduct raiding expeditions against the Pawnee, to protect his community's southern lands that lay beyond the Platte River in western Nebraska, and to take the proper path toward leadership under the guidance of Little Thunder, leader of the Ring band. By midcentury, he became a Shirt Wearer (Wicasa), the official band executive for the council (Wiscas Itacans), locating good hunting and campgrounds, deciding family disputes, and negotiating with foreign officials.
Traders were part of Spotted Tail's early life, but increased non-Native immigration to Oregon in 1843, to Utah in 1847, and to California in 1849 brought overland travelers through the Brûlés' Platte River territories, and soon the American military followed to protect the immigrants. These events forever changed Spotted Tail's life.
In 1854, a Mormon emigrant abandoned a lame cow and a Minniconju Lakota killed the animal. This "Mormon cow affair" convinced the brash recent West Point graduate Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan to take a detachment and demand that Little Thunder's Brûlé band pay compensation and release the guilty Lakota to military control. After an unfruitful negotiation, Grattan's men fired their heavy artillery and the Lakota retaliated, killing the entire unit. After learning of Grattan's fate, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered General William S. Harney to prepare a punitive campaign against the guilty tribespeople. The following year at Ash Hollow in western Nebraska, Harney's expedition attacked Little Thunder's band, killing eighty-six people and taking prisoners. Harney then demanded the surrender and imprisonment of the leading men. Spotted Tail (among others) surrendered at Fort Laramie in the fall of 1855. He was incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth and later Fort Kearny before returning to his people the following fall. Upon his return, he decided to stand with Little Thunder and avoid war with the whites but to continue to fight the traditional Pawnee foes.
In 1866, Spotted Tail succeeded Little Thunder as headman of the Ring Band and joined with Swift Bear of the Corn band for protection. Together they stood for peace, signing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and moving to the Whetstone Agency on the Missouri River. There Spotted Tail killed Big Mouth during a leadership dispute in 1869. The agency was moved to northwest Nebraska shortly afterward, and then war began in the north when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse's followers refused to stay inside the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation. At the same time, miners violated Lakota boundaries and invaded the Black Hills. The escalating frustration culminated on the banks of the Greasy Grass Creek when Lakota soldiers and their allies destroyed Brevet General George A. Custer's entire command.
While Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull fought, Spotted Tail's agency was known as a peace camp. As General Nelson Miles pursued the warring chiefs, General George Crook sought Spotted Tail's help and in the fall of 1876 unilaterally and illegally declared that the United States "recognized Spotted Tail as chief of all the Sioux." Spotted Tail, with U.S. backing, maintained his status by signing the Black Hills Treaty (Agreement) in 1876 that enabled the United States to take control of that region. In early 1877, with Crook's urging, Spotted Tail went north on a peace mission seeking Crazy Horse's surrender. The two men met and Crazy Horse accepted the terms Spotted Tail presented. The war was nearly over when Crazy Horse surrendered in late spring and Sitting Bull and his people went to Canada in an effort to retain their independence.
After briefly moving their people to the old Ponca Agency on the Missouri River, Spotted Tail and other upper Brûlé leaders moved in the summer of 1878 to the Rosebud Agency in south central South Dakota. At Rosebud, old tribal conflicts merged into new battles. Spotted Tail tried to follow Lakota tradition but lacked credibility because he owed his position to U.S. intervention. As he attempted to maintain control over all the Brûlé bands, Spotted Tail encountered increasing tension between himself and Two Strike, White Thunder, Crow Dog, and Hollow Horn Bear. Rosebud leaders sent some children to the Carlisle boarding school in 1879, and Spotted Tail removed the children without Brûlé authority, violating tribal political protocol. These ill feelings erupted following a meeting in early August 1881, when Crow Dog shot Spotted Tail, killing him instantly.
Bray, Kingsley M. 2002. "Spotted Tail and the Treaty of 1868." Nebraska History 83, no. 1: 19–35.; Clow, Richmond L. 1998. "The Anatomy of a Lakota Shooting: Crow Dog and Spotted Tail." South Dakota History 28, no. 4: 209–227.; Hyde, George E. 1961. Spotted Tail's Folk: A History of the Brule Sioux Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Seagle, William. 1970. "The Murder of Spotted Tail." Indian Historian 3, no. 4: 10–22.; Worcester, Donald F. 1964. "Spotted Tail: Warrior, Diplomat." American West 1, no. 4: 38–46, 87.