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“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”
So spoke Sitting Bull, greatest of Sioux chiefs, as he bitterly watched his people bargain away their Dakota homeland
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
In the 1880’s he had to watch repeated attempts to buy, wheedle, or steal the Sioux reservation. While he was still a prisoner at Fort Randall, in 1882, the Sioux were offered, after an intense barrage of government propaganda, eight cents an acre for much of their territory. The deal was forestalled only by determined Indian opposition and the fact that even Congress became alarmed at the greed of the government negotiators. Sitting Bull, always a dominant voice in the Sioux councils, spoke out firmly against any agreements, and indeed any negotiations, until the old promises, so long ignored, were kept. He wanted to hang on to every Sioux acre until the new generation had enough education to deal with the whites on their own terms. Now his people were helpless and naïve in the hands of the invaders: “We are just the same as blind men, because we do not understand them.” He fenced stoutly with the land commissioners, learned to understand better and better what was hiding behind their words, and endeavored, sometimes angrily, to explain why his people needed their land, almost as birds needed air. The commissioners, knowing him to be against “progress,” tried to ignore his stature in the Indian community. He insisted on it. As he explained it to a Senate investigating committee in 1883,
I am here by the will of the Great Spirit, and by his will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, because whatever passes near me puts out its tongue to me; and yet you men have come here to talk with us, and you say you do not know who I am. I want to tell you that if the Great Spirit has chosen anyone to be chief of this country, it is myself.
A senator baited him, saying there was no need to recognize chiefs designated by spirits and Indians; and the fierce old Hunkpapa threw the conference into a turmoil by telling the senators that they must be drunk. But his concern for his people overcame his anger, and he came back to apologize.
If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it he will find it, and that is what the Indians are doing now when they ask you to give them the things that were promised them in the past; and I do not consider that they should be treated like beasts, and that is the reason I have grown up with the feelings I have. … You white men advise us to follow your ways and therefore I talk as I do. When you have a piece of land, and anything trespasses on it, you catch it and keep it until you get damages, and I am doing the same thing now … I am looking into the future for the benefit of my children, and that is what I mean when I say I want my country taken care of. … I sit here and look about me now and I see my people starving … our rations have been reduced to almost nothing, and many of the people have starved to death. Now I beg of you to have the amount of rations increased so that our children will not starve. …
In 1888, millions of acres were again demanded, at fifty cents an acre. When the Sioux still proved cold to the offer, a party of great chiefs (including Sitting Bull) was brought to Washington for further pressure. Again they resisted. But in the ill-omened year 1889, new commissioners arrived in the Dakotas, offering $1.25 per acre for 16,000 square miles—and behind them were whites agitating to take the land if it couldn’t be bought.
Frustrated by the stony resistance of the famous chief, fearful that he would prevent the Sioux from voting to concede the land, the commissioners resorted to intrigue. Working through Major James McLaughlin, director of the Standing Rock Agency, they singled out four susceptible chiefs, carefully keeping them apart from Sitting Bull until the moment of decision came. Through them, the commissioners tried to pressure the braves into yielding the necessary number of signatures—by treaty, three quarters of the total was required—before Sitting Bull could rally an opposition. Some of the Sioux, now dimly in touch with a money civilization, inflamed by the chance to buy the white man’s clothes, whiskey, and other goods, and above all hungry for better food, were pleased to barter their birthright. Others signed without understanding what they were doing. Still there were not enough signatures; and in a hurried, ambiguous procedure which McLaughlin later described evasively—and which many Indians were to call fraud—two hundred more signatures were quickly obtained. It was announced that the deal had been completed. Sitting Bull felt betrayed: he had not even been allowed into the meeting where the last signatures were gathered. When asked how the Indians felt about the affair, he replied bitterly, “There are no Indians left now but me.”