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May 2024
1min read

Twenty years after the Little Bighorn— what happened to a fighting people

Only seven years after the last spasm at Wounded Knee, a white storekeeper named James Freeman from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, a financial casualty of the Panic of 1893, got a job with the U.S. Indian Service at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. There, as a hobby, he took up photography and recorded the life of a people in the throes of cultural transition.

The Great Sioux Reservation—all of present South Dakota west of the Missouri River—had been set aside for the seven tribes of Teton Sioux by the Treaty of 1868. Pine Ridge Agency, established in 1878, was where the Oglala were driven after Ouster’s defeat.

The decade of the i88o’s was a traumatic and tempestuous time for the Pine Ridge Sioux. The reservation had been cut down by the Black Hills cession of 1877 and again in 1890, when the Tetons surrendered nine million acres and accepted six separate reservations in place of the single large one. Using control of rations as a lever, Indian agents sought to destroy the old system of government, the old religion, the old social customs, the old dress and hair styles—all, in short, that gave stability, continuity, and meaning to life. Instead of nomadic warrior-huntsmen following the buffalo, living in skin tepees, and worshipping deities associated with nature, the Sioux were to become sedentary Christian farmers. Rent by quarrelling factions, precariously ruled by the agent and his Indian police force, the Oglala dreamed of their past freedom. Most, refusing to recognize the finality of their conquest, resisted the “reforms” being forced on them.

Spreading over the Sioux reservations in 1889-90, the Ghost Dance religion seemed to offer a road back into the past, only to be shattered on the bloody field of Wounded Knee, eighteen miles east of Pine Ridge Agency. That tragedy accomplished what a decade of “civilization” programs had not: it broke the spirit of all the Teton Sioux tribes.

The life that James Freeman photographed in 1898 was thus, in the externals his cameras caught, a grotesque mixture of what the Sioux had been and what their white rulers wanted them to become. Shortly after taking these pictures, Freeman left Pine Ridge and ultimately returned to Mount Pleasant to live out a long and useful life. His photographs found their way into the collections of the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, where they now offer a fascinating record of a proud people in the early stages of cultural transformation.

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