Negotiations for the Treaty of Fort Laramie at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory in 1868. Photo: Department of Defense / National Archives and Records Administration

Tim Giago: Anniversary of 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie approaches

Notes from Indian Country

1868 Fort Laramie Treaty 150 years later
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

April 29, 2018, marks the 150th anniversary of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

The Treaty is often the focal point for discussions among Treaty Council representatives and other tribal members. I often wonder how many people actually read the Treaty.

Last week Bill Means, brother of Russell, and Phil Two Eagle, were guests on the weekly television show I and my wife Jackie produce called Oyate Today. They were there to discuss the upcoming events that will take place at Fort Laramie in Wyoming to commemorate the historic occasion.

Means pointed to the fact that the Treaty was an agreement between two sovereign nations: the United States and the Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. He said that the American people often question the validity of the 1868 Treaty because it is old, it happened too many years ago.

He said he always responds by pointing to the U. S. Constitution. “Is the U. S. Constitution obsolete because it is too old,” he asks?

Means points out Article 6 of the U. S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

He emphasizes “Supreme Law of the Land” in order to strengthen the validity of the 1868 Treaty.

Honoring The Spirit: April 28, 2018. Sunrise to Sunset. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Image courtesy Phil Two Eagle

Two Eagle talked about the historic gathering that will be taking place at Fort Laramie on April 29, 30 and May 1. He pointed out that he will be leading the Rosebud delegation but there would be delegates from every tribe of the Great Sioux Nation attending. A total of 156 Sioux signed the Treaty of 1868.

The government chose to ignore portions of the treaty, or to "comply only as long as conditions met their favor," and between 1869 and 1876, at least seven separate skirmishes occurred. The government eventually broke the terms of the treaty following the Black Hills Gold Rush and an expedition into the area by George Armstrong Custer in 1874, and failed to prevent white settlers from moving onto tribal lands. Rising tensions eventually lead again to open conflict in the Great Sioux War of 1876.

George Armstrong Custer and most of his command was wiped out at the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. This victory by the Indian Nations eventually led to the total disregard of the Treaty by the government.

The 1868 treaty would be modified three times by the U.S. Congress between 1876 and 1889, each time taking more land originally granted, including unilaterally seizing the Black Hills in 1877.

On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the government had illegally taken the land. It upheld an award of $15.5 million for the market value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years-worth of interest at 5 percent, for an additional $105 million. The Lakota Sioux, however, have refused to accept payment and instead continue to demand the return of the territory from the United States. As of 24 August 2011[update] the Sioux interest on the money has compounded to over 1.5 billion dollars.

A survey taken by Indian Country Today nearly 20 years ago found that 98 percent of the Lakota people stood behind the message, “The Black Hills are not for sale.” A survey taken by Native Sun News Today last year saw that number dwindle to 74 percent. If the money now held in trust by the Interior Department and invested in stocks or bonds was $1.5 billion in 2011 it could be as high as $2 billion at this time.

An effort has been made in the past year to pull the tribes together and unite them behind introducing another bill similar to the Bradley Bill which Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey attempted to introduce in the 1980s. It called for a return of 1.5 million acres of land in the Black Hills. The lack of unity among the Tribes caused Bradley to back away and the Bill was never introduced. There has been no support from South Dakota’s Congressional delegation to support another such effort.

The Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation continue to waffle and disagree at nearly every turn about what else can be done to regain land in the Black Hills. As our surveys would indicate, many of the young people are beginning to lose patience with the different Treaty Councils and Tribal governments. As one young Lakota woman put it, “They either need to poop or get off of the pot.”

Means and Two Eagles talked about uniting the Tribes at Fort Laramie to a common cause. 150 years have passed since the signing of the Treaty. Crazy Horse and his delegation refused to attend the meeting at Fort Laramie. There was a lack of unity then and there is a lack of unity now. Perhaps the historic commemoration of the Fort Laramie Treaty will change that.

The old saying that “time will tell” may culminate in unity 150 years later; or not.

Tim Giago (Oglala Sioux) can be contacted at A Harvard Nieman Fellow, he is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association.

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