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The Great Sioux Nation and Mount Rushmore

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Both the titles 'The Great Sioux Nation' and 'Mount Rushmore' are names adopted by white Americans for things that have been named since ancient times. The myths and histories of the native peoples of this land, currently known as the United States of America, have been largely forgotten or never learned by the presently dominant culture. This entry will attempt to impart a clearer understanding of just who the 'Sioux' are and were and how they relate to the present day national monument 'Mount Rushmore'.

The Great Sioux Nation

What is known today as the Sioux nation was already in existence as the Oceti Sakowin before any white men came to the country. Oceti Sakowin (which translates as 'Seven Council Fires') is used to represent the seven original tribes of this continent. According to their myths, Tokahe, the first, is tricked into bringing himself and six other men with their families to the surface of the Earth by Inktomi, the spider. Prior to this, the peoples lived below the Earth, with no culture and no contact with the gods. These first seven families account for the seven fires, as they are known today.

The term 'Sioux' actually came from the Chippewa word nadouessioux which means 'little snake' - however, though some have interpreted this as an insult, its etymological history is complex, and it actually is more likely derived from a form of the word that means simply 'speak foreign language.' Nadouessioux was shortened by the white settlers who obtained the name from the Chippewa, long time enemies of the Oceti Sakowin. In a very complex story, with many diverging details of alliances and warring nations, it is told how from those first seven fires came the nations that make up the Oceti Sakowin.

The Oceti Sakowin are generally classified according to the language they speak, and how the word 'friend' translates in that language, either as dakota, nakota, or lakota.

The Teton

The Teton, who are by far the largest portion of the Sioux Council, make up the tribe known as the Lakota and they have seven bands:

  • Oglala
  • Sicangu (Brule)
  • Hunkpapa
  • Miniconjous
  • Shiasapa
  • Itazipacola
  • Oohenupa

The Santee

The Santee are the tribe often known as the Dakota and they have four bands:

  • Mdewakantonwon
  • Wahpeton
  • Wahpekute
  • Sisseton

The Yankton

The Yankton are also known as the Nakota and they have three bands:

  • Yankton
  • Upper Yanktonia
  • Lower Yanktonia

For the remainder of this accounting, the following native terms will be used, rather than their more widely known counterparts.

  • Oceti Sakowin- Great Sioux Nation
  • Teton - Lakota
  • Santee - Dakota
  • Yankton - Nakota

The Great Sioux Uprising

The Oceti Sakowin once ranged through out North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. The spiritual centre of their nation, was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These hills, called Paha Sapa, contain the Wind Cave, from which the Oceti Sakowin believed Tokahe had emerged.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress. It was designed to 'free up' some more desirable land for new, white settlers, while relocating the tribes to less desirable areas: 'Indian Reservations'.

By the mid-1800s, virtually all of the tribes and bands in the hills had experienced relocation and war, even amongst themselves. The Teton bands Oglala and Brule controlled the Black Hills, allowing the Cheyenne to remain as allies but driving away the other tribes. The rest of the Teton soon followed the Oglala and Brule into the area.

Around 1850, an effort began to exterminate the buffalo herds roaming the plains. It was believed that by killing the buffalo, the tribes' abilities to resist further assimilation by the Americans would be reduced. The Fort Laramie series of treaties, beginning in 1851, had given rights of safe passage to the settlers, in return for annuity payments to the natives. The payments were often late and conditions on the reservations continued to degenerate.

The members of the Oceti Sakowin had two choices at this point in history; to stay on the reservations and starve, or to roam the lands and be considered 'hostile'. The Homestead Act of 1862 unleashed a flood of settlers onto the Oceti Sakowin's territories and the Santee War or Sioux Uprising began in Minnesota in August of 1862 as a result of these circumstances. The Santee of Minnesota, aided by the Teton of South Dakota, launched an all-out war to regain some of their freedoms.

The Santee were eventually subdued though, and by December 1862 38 of their men were executed for murder, with the rest confined to a reservation on the Missouri River. By 1864, most of the Santee, and many of the Teton who had aided them, had been killed or were in prison for their part in the war.

Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868

Between the years of 1864 and 1866 the wars between the settlers and the Oceti Sakowin continued as the rush to Montana, for gold discovered there, was under way. In April 1866, the war chief Red Cloud, among others, came to Fort Laramie to try and negotiate an end to the violence. While the chiefs were at the negotiations, Col Henry Carrington began to build forts along the so-called Bozeman trail. Seeing that the negotiations were a faƧade, Red Cloud led a fight to close off the trail where it crossed over the hunting grounds of the Teton. Under the leadership of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, the tribes managed to make it impossible for the US military to occupy the territories and the US sued for peace. This the only incident where the United States has admitted defeat in war.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 withdrew troops from the Black Hills and created the Great Sioux Reservation. It also pledged to keep white people out of the territory. Not all the tribes were in agreement with the treaty, but many accepted the US's promise that no person except those listed in the treaty, designated and authorised to do so, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle on, or reside in the territory...

This reservation included most of what is today the state of South Dakota.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

In 1874, the United States Government violated the terms of the treaty to investigate claims of gold in the Black Hills. General George Custer, with over 1,000 pony soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry rode into the Black Hills. When Custer reported that gold was in fact in abundance in the hills, prospectors flooded into the area. During 1875-76 attempts were made to 'buy' the black hills and it was declared that all tribal members not on the reservations were to be considered hostile. The number of natives now classified as hostile was greatly under-estimated by the US government.

In the spring of 1876, Sitting Bull organised the greatest gathering of the Northern Plains Indians to combat the intrusion, killing General Custer and 210 of his men in the Battle of Little Bighorn that summer. The government then moved its focus from war with the natives to forcing submission by other means.

In 1875, President Grant opened the Black Hills to miners. The clothes and rations promised under the Fort Laramie treaty were not delivered. By this time the buffalo that had once numbered upwards of 50 million had been mostly exterminated and the Manypenny Commission persuaded the natives to sign over the Black Hills as an alternative to starvation. In 1877, the Manypenny agreement was ratified by congress taking the Black Hills and confining the tribes to reservations.

The Dawes Act of 1887 gave the President the power to reduce what land the tribes held by allotment. The outcome was that the Great Sioux Reservation was split into six smaller reservations and the majority of their land was opened to settlers.

The Ghost Dance

In the year 1890, the tribes were confined to ever decreasing acreage and dependent on the governments hand outs for their survival. A Paiute shaman from Nevada, called Wovoka, had begun a new mysticism that predicted that the earth would rise up and cover the whites and the tribes would once again claim their freedom to roam and hunt on their ancestral grounds. The Ghost Dance became a key ceremony in this belief and it spread through the reservations bringing new energy to the tribes and fears to the whites.

When attempts were made to arrest Sitting Bull for the part he played in spreading the Ghost Dance, he was killed and much of his band fled to the Pine Ridge reservation for the protection of Red Cloud. The cavalry caught them at a place called Wounded Knee and 300 men, women and children, many of whom were fleeing at the time of their death, died that day, their bodies left to freeze in the snow. Most of them were unarmed, yet no soldiers were ever brought to trial for their part in the massacre.

This is believed to have been the end of the Great Sioux Uprising. From this point forward the government exercised increasing control over the tribes and their survival.

Mount Rushmore

Five years before the Wounded Knee Massacre, one peak of the Black Hills acquired a new name. It was called Mount Rushmore by Americans then and still is, named for Charles Rushmore, a lawyer investigating mining claims in the Black Hills in 1885.

As the new century dawned it was a desire of the Americans to have monuments to their pride created across this great new country. A sculptor named Gutzon Borglum undertook to create the most impressive of these monuments on the peak of the Black Hills now known as Mount Rushmore. The intention, according to Borglum, was to show the world what manner of men these founding fathers were. It was decided that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln would be immortalised in this monument. Drilling began in 1929 and was completed by Borglum's son in 1941, while the displaced tribes were forced to watch in horror as their sacred hills slowly took the shape of huge replicas of the white faces of their oppressors.

While this monument may not have had the expressed intent of intimidating the tribes, as a reminder to their defeat, arguably that is their perception. It served as a warning, a reminder: the opposition is huge and cannot be resisted. The proud quotes of the forefathers, on all men being created equal, could not have meant much to those it did not apply to. The fact that this new world and new form of liberty was entrusted to the Americans to realise, would not seem like a good thing under the circumstances of the Oceti Sakowin. They only knew of the suffering they had experienced as the results of these forefathers and their followers.

Increasingly resentful and enclosed, they were subject to a tribal government controlled by the US Government itself. The government was aided by such tribe members that valued position and wealth above the traditions of their tribes. The murder rate on the reservations was many times that of the national average. Alcohol, not known to them before the coming of the white man, had worked its disastrous effects on much of the surviving population. Children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to schools that would teach them to behave as white people. The children grew up with the seeds of resentment and anger for the white men who had seized control of their world.

The New World

In the late 1960s the elders of the tribes still held on to the ancient knowledge of their people. Passing it down to this new, white man modified, generation was a difficult endeavour. The new generation was ready to take drastic actions, and they had the energy and attitude to attempt it. The elders were weary of life under such conditions and desperate for something to lift the morale of the tribes. The American Indian Movement was born out of the tribes' desperate need for an outlet for the rage and frustration felt for so long; many consider the AIM to be militant by nature, while others feel it is a much needed symbol of solidarity for the native peoples.

Despite the mutilation of their beloved mountains, the tribes try even today to regain possession of them. What they would do with Mount Rushmore if they were successful is a matter of speculation. Perhaps it can be as Gutzon himself suggested, and 'the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away'. Some present day Americans feel that the long overdue return of the Black Hills to their rightful owner, would be a small but sincere gesture to end the oppression our native peoples. Many millions more, most unaware of the true nature of the monument and the meaning of the Black Hills, consider it a point of national pride.


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