In 1874, there were rumors of gold in the Black Hills in South Dakota. Previously, the U.S. government had considered this region to be worthless, and gave it to the Native Americans. But now, the government sent thousands of white settlers to the Black Hills in search of gold, even though treaties prohibited white men from entering the region.
In one of the more blatant violations of a treaty, the U.S. government encouraged white settlers to travel to the Black Hills, contradicting treaties that specifically marked these lands as Native American territory.
In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led more than a thousand soldiers out to the Black Hills. This angered the Sioux chief Red Cloud, who saw Custer as encroaching on Native American land. At the time, Red Cloud was growing older, and he was frustrated by disrespectful settlers and the meager rations he received from the government.
We return to Red Cloud, one of the book’s key characters, by this point, Red Cloud was an old man, but no less willing to resist the U.S. government’s tyranny. Red Cloud won a series of key victories for his people, but as Brown has just shown, these victories didn’t last very long.
In August of 1874, a group of Sioux warriors arrived at a white settlement in the Black Hills, where settlers had put up tall flags. The Sioux began to cut down the flags with axes. In response the settlers called in U.S. troops to attack the Sioux. The soldiers succeeded in chasing away the Sioux, but the Sioux warriors were eager for conflict. They began to gravitate away from Red Cloud, a more moderate leader, and toward the more bellicose Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Ironically, Red Cloud’s followers came to regard him as weak and ineffective, even though he probably accomplished more for them than almost any other Native American chief of the era. That Red Cloud’s supporters gravitated toward more violent men speaks volumes about the panic and desperation of the era.
Tensions built between Crazy Horse’s followers and the white settlers in the Black Hills. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse refused to sell land to the U.S. In September 1875, Sioux representatives met with commissioners to discuss the sale of Native American land. The government spokesmen at first tried to purchase the Black Hills, but then tried to negotiate for “mineral rights.” The Sioux chiefs refused to negotiate—they knew that the government was trying to gain control of the gold mines for a fraction of their true value.
Unlike many Native American tribes of the era, Crazy Horse’s Sioux followers wouldn’t allow themselves to be intimidated by the U.S. forces. While the Sioux themselves had little use for the gold underneath their lands, they recognized that the U.S. wanted it and they used this fact to push back.
The Sioux’s refusal to give up control of the gold mines in the Black Hills led to a series of events that would “destroy forever the freedom of the northern Plains Indians.” In December 1875, the government ordered the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes to report to a reservation by January 1876, or else be moved by force. By February 1876, the government had deployed generals to remove Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who’d refused to go to reservations. This ultimatum was nothing short of a declaration of war against the Plains Indians.
The Sioux bravely resisted the U.S. government’s attempts to pressure the tribe into giving up its lands. But the fact that the Sioux refused to budge, while impressive, contributed to the tribe’s downfall. Unsatisfied with legal, political means of persuasion, the government turned to outright violence against the Sioux—always with the goal of annexing the Black Hills.
Crazy Horse saw that the government was using force to deprive Cheyenne and Sioux of their freedom. He told his followers that they were now at war with white Americans. In the spring of 1876, Crazy Horse led a raid on a small group of soldiers. He was a master tactician, and although his men were badly outnumbered, he was able to defeat a column of U.S. soldiers.
Again, Brown portrays Crazy Horse’s use of violence as retaliatory, first and foremost. Put another way, Crazy Horse was responding in kind to the white soldiers on his land, answering violent bullying with his own guerilla style of violence.
In retaliation for Crazy Horse’s attack on the column of U.S troops—later known as the Battle of Rosebud—General Custer led a large army to Little Bighorn, a large settlement area for the Plains Indians. Cheyenne warriors spotted the approaching troops and ordered women and children to leave immediately. At the same time, the Hunkpapa tribe prepared for battle.
The Battle of Little Bighorn is one of the most famous episodes in 19th century American history, and marked a rare, outright victory for the Native Americans. Notice that the Cheyennes tried to protect their women and children, knowing that the U.S. wouldn’t spare them in the fighting.
The U.S. troops’ first attack killed many women and children who hadn’t yet fled the scene. In response, the Plains Indians attacked the U.S. military’s flank and forced them to flee. Then, a group of Cheyenne warriors attacked General Custer’s column head-on while Crazy Horse and his lieutenants led additional soldiers to attack Custer’s forces from the rear. Many of Custer’s forces surrendered immediately, but the Native forces took no prisoners. Within a few minutes of the attack, the vast majority of Custer’s troops—and Custer himself—were dead. Victorious, the Native American troops pulled back and rode into the Bighorn Mountains.
It’s interesting that Brown doesn’t write about the Battle of the Little Bighorn at greater length. Part of his point, however, is that the battle, while important in Sioux and Cheyenne history, wasn’t really as big as the newspapers of the time portrayed it as being. The battle was a propaganda coup for the American press: yellow journalists of the era exaggerated the scope of the violence in order to sell more papers, and the U.S. government used the battle as an excuse to escalate violence against the Native Americans.
The news of the Bighorn “massacre” incensed white America. In July, General Sherman was ordered to treat all Sioux tribesmen as prisoners of war. The government passed further laws forcing the Sioux to surrender their rights to the Black Hills. Finally, the government passed laws moving all Sioux to a new reservation in Missouri. Fearing annihilation, but still painfully aware that the government was stealing the Black Hills from his people, Red Cloud agreed to the new laws.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn gave the U.S. government a convenient excuse to escalate violence against all Native Americans, even those who’d been uninvolved in the battle itself.
Meanwhile, the American military massacred Plains Indians in retaliation for the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull led his remaining followers across the country to escape the U.S. military. Sitting Bull “wanted only to be left alone to hunt buffalo.” Indeed, he sent messengers waving white flags to negotiate with the military. By 1877, Sitting Bull had decided to move his people into Canada. Meanwhile, the U.S. army continued to search for Crazy Horse. In January 1877, Crazy Horse, whose followers were starving, sent a group of chiefs to the Crows, a tribe of mercenaries working for the U.S. Even though the chiefs waved a white flag, the Crows shot them. Crazy Horse fled with his remaining followers. In April 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered to the United States. The “last great Sioux chief” was now a “reservation Indian.”
In the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it would seem, the military increased its aggression against Native Americans, driving them out of their homes. (This is a good example of the military strategy / foreign policy that Naomi Klein termed the “Shock Doctrine.”) It appears that the military was holding back prior to the Little Bighorn: now, it had carte blanche to use its full capabilities to wipe out the Native Americans. Soon enough, Crazy Horse—a living symbol of Native American resistance—was arrested and in effect imprisoned.
In September 1877, Crazy Horse was being escorted to the new Sioux reservation by U.S. soldiers. Suddenly, he turned and lunged at an American soldier. A few seconds later, the soldier stabbed Crazy Horse in the abdomen. Crazy Horse died a few hours later. He was buried near a little creek known as Wounded Knee.
Brown leaves it unclear how, exactly, Crazy Horse died. It’s possible that the soldier was acting in self-defense, but it’s also possible that the story was invented to justify the painful, sadistic manner of Crazy Horse’s death. As a symbol of Native American resistance, Crazy Horse’s death symbolized (and literally was) a crushing defeat for the Native American population, suggesting that the U.S. military would inevitably win.