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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

The Plains Indians

The Mexican War and Political Aftermath

The Plains Indians, page 2

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Summary

As Far Western Expansion picked up, it became clear that just as before, the goals of American expansionists conflicted with the needs of the Indians in the area of expansion. Many of the Plains tribes depended on the buffalo for survival. Several tribes followed the buffalo migration, harvesting conservatively to fill tribal needs. The Indians ate buffalo meat, used its hide for clothing and shelter. Sinews were used as bowstrings and bones were used as tools and weapons. Buffalo fat was used as grease, hoofs used to make glue, and even buffalo dung was used for fuel. By the 1870s, however, the buffalo population was on the decline. Non-Indians killed the buffalo for their pelts, to feed railroad construction crews, or even just for the pure sport of it. Army commanders who operated in the West often attempted to drive the Indians off of desired lands by killing the buffalo as a way to deprive the Indians of supplies. Between 1872 and 1875, only three years, hunters killed 9 million buffalo, most often taking the skin and leaving the carcass to rot in waste. By the 1880s the Indian way of life was ruined and the way was cleared for American settlement of the Plains.

As early as the 1860s, the US government had abandoned its policy of treating much of the West as a large Indian reserve, and introduced a system of small, separate tribal reservations, where the Indians were to be concentrated. Some tribes peacefully accepted their fate, but other tribes, with a total population of over 100,000, resisted. These tribes battled the US Army for control of the West. Early skirmishes and violent massacres prompted the US government to set aside two large areas in 1867, one North of Nebraska, and one south of Kansas, in which they hoped the nomadic tribes would finally settle. The government used the threat of force to convince the tribes to comply, and at first, many did, signing treaties them relocated them to these tracts.

However, many Indians refused to be confined to reservations. These tribes engaged in a constant battle with non-Indians, raiding settlements and attacking troop installments throughout the late 1860s and 1870s. The so-called Red River War posed American troops against Cheyennes in Kansas during a fierce winter campaign in 1874. The Apaches in what is now Arizona and New Mexico fought a similar guerilla war intermittently until 1886, when their leader, Geronimo, surrendered.

No instance of Indian resistance engendered more passion than the conflict between the Sioux and the US Army in the northern Plains. The Indian agents in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana had long tried in vain to control the Sioux, many of who entered and left the reservations at will. The US Army responded in 1874 by sending a force under Colonel George Armstrong Custer into the hills of South Dakota. When gold was discovered in the region, the federal government announced that Custer's forces would hunt down all Sioux not in reservations after January 31, 1876. Many Sioux refused to comply, and Custer began to mobilize his troops. At the battle of Little Bighorn, in June 1876, Custer unwisely divided his troops, and a numerically superior force of Indians wiped out him and all of his men. After this crushing defeat, the army took a different tack, harassing Sioux bands in a war of attrition. These tactics were generally successful against the Sioux and throughout the West, and the Indians gradually lost the will to resist.

The Sioux became desperate in the late 1880s, and turned to the prophet Wovoka, who assured them that they would return to their original dominance of the Plains if they performed the Ghost Dance. As the Ghost Dance swept the Plains, Sioux Indians gathered in bands wearing Ghost Shirts and performing the ritual, reaffirming their own culture. Indian officials and military authorities were suspicious of the movement and attempted to arrest chief Sitting Bull, a Sioux war hero whose cabin had become the center of the movement. In a skirmish outside the cabin, Sitting Bull was accidentally shot. Two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, 300 Indians were slaughtered by American troops at Wounded Knee. This massacre was the symbolic end to Indian resistance; the Plains Indians were essentially conquered and moved into reservations throughout the next decade.

Commentary

The destruction of the buffalo herds demonstrates the blind greed and selfishness with which Americans into the West without heeding or attempting to understand the lifestyle of the Plains Indians. In just a few years, the massive herds of buffalo, which had sustained the Indians there for centuries, were reduced to a sparse several thousand. Due to the dictates of Eastern fashion and the desire of entrepreneurial whites seeking to get rich quickly, the Indians' way of life was doomed forever. To add insult to injury, after destroying their way of life, whites next lay claim to Indian lands, explaining to the tribes that they would be better off on cramped reservations than pursuing their traditional lifestyle on the Plains. Whites believed strongly that the land of the West was theirs to take, and the Indians fiercely rejected this notion.

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