The New Day

A specter that was always lifting up its head to haunt the Indian Service throughout the last century was the demand that the Bureau be transferred from the Interior Department to the War Department. This ghost too danced with Sitting Bull and his band. With the end of Sitting Bull, its power ended.

During these days of the Messiah craze General Miles repeatedly asked that “the Sioux agencies be turned over absolutely to the military authorities.” In replying to this request the Commissioner of Indian Affairs pointed out that “the great body of these Indians are friendly, submissive to authority, and engaged in peaceful pursuits.” He agreed with Turning Hawk; that “Peace has won the day.”

So the event proved. Putting the affairs of the Sioux under the control of the War Department would have been a confession that warfare with him was, if not actually desired, at least unavoidable; that dealings with the Indian were expected to be on the basis of war instead of peace. This confession the Government has not again been forced to make.

During all the days of warfare a less dramatic but more permanently effective campaign had been going on among the Sioux. Even before the Minnesota outbreaks the eastern or Santee branch, known also in those days as the Sioux of the Mississippi, were becoming friendly to the arts and ways of the white men around them. In their new lands in Nebraska and Dakota, they continued to progress in those arts. It was a harder task to wean the western branch, the Sioux of the Missouri, away from their savage life; but even here the work had its measure of success. Engaged in it were the employees of the Government service and many preachers, teachers and physicians sent through missionary agencies.

Up to 1872 the Government did not as a rule establish schools for Indian children. The funds appropriated by Congress for educational purposes were applied by pay for the support and tuition of pupils in schools maintained by missionary boards. But about this time the establishment of schools entirely under government management, supported by appropriations, became more frequent. At first these were day schools chiefly, but as an official report for 1873 pointed out:

“Instruction in the day schools merely, except among Indians who are already far along in civilization, is attempted at great disadvantage on every hand….It is well-nigh impossible to teach Indian children the English language when they spend twenty hours out of the twenty-four in the wigwam, using only their native tongue. The boarding-school, on the contrary, takes the youth under constant care, has him always at hand, and surrounds him by an English-speaking community, and, above all, gives him instruction in the first lessons of civilization, which can be found only in a well-ordered home.

The following two decades saw a great development of the school system for Indians, and the establishment of many school for the Sioux, especially among those bands whose more settled life and greater amenability to instruction gave encouragement to such a policy. There were schools in operation, churches and missionaries at work, and Sioux living in houses and tilling the soil, all over the Dakota country the very year of the Custer tragedy; and when the Seventh Cavalry had its revenge at Wounded Knee, in 1890 there were in operation among the different bands of Sioux no fewer that forth-day school and ten boarding schools, with a combined capacity of about twenty five hundred.

The civilizing efforts had by no means been confined to the younger generation. The purpose of the Indian Bureau had uniformly been to transform the nomads of the plains into settled farmers; and while it was an ideal that seemed also ridiculously impossible of attainment, yet is gained ground, and year-by-year more of the Sioux settled upon plots of their own and learned the use of the plow and the hoe.

But so long as the reservations remained the property of the tribes as a whole it was felt to development that would come with the receipt of individual rewards for individual effort. A great wave of popular sympathy for the Indian spread over the country during the Eighties; particularly in those sections where the memories of Indian wars were not so close nor so keen. The most far-reaching result of this popular reaction against the military attitude was the General Allotment Act, passed in 1887, which provided that reservations should be broken up into individual holdings, and a patent for his share-usually a hundred and sixty acres per individual-issued to each member of the tribe. For twenty-five years this land was to be held in trust, inalienable and untaxable; and during this period it was expected that the Indian would learn the ways of industry and foresight so that at its close he might be able to meet the ordinary world of affairs on the same basis as any other member of society. As a further means of accelerating his development and raising his status, he was to become a citizen, both of the United States and of the State in which he lived, from the date of receiving his allotment.

Allotting parties were already at work upon a number of Sioux reservations while the ghost dance craze was at its height. Sitting Bull and the hostiles generally, opposed the idea of receiving lands in severalty; but nine-tenths of the Sioux were ready for the change. It was a far-reaching change indeed, the first step on the path which led to the disappearance of tribal control and the emergence of the Indian as an individuals nor reserved for some common use such as pasturage, should be thrown open to settlement and purchase; the purchase moneys being collected by the Government for the benefit of the Indians of the reservation.

This opening of the reservations was to serve a dual purpose. The money derived from the lands was to provide a fund; which would give the Indian the buildings, implements and other necessities of his life as a farmer. And the approach of the white farmer as a neighbor would surround him with the kind of life; which it was hoped he would lead thereafter. He would be in the midst of the white man’s farms and towns and schools, and would learn by example as well as by precept.
The plan was put in operation thirty years ago. A single generation is but a brief time in which to make the transfer from tribal life to individual independence, from the buffalo hunt to the labor of farm or town, from the warpath to the schoolhouse door. That a substantial proportion of the Sioux have made the change is matter for congratulation to both whites and Indians.

There have been, besides, some very serious hindrances to development, growing out of the mistaken idea of kindness. For a long time rations were issued to all the Sioux; even yet a large number are fed regularly at the expense of the nation. In the days when the buffalo had vanished and no opportunities for self-help offered themselves, the giving of rations was a necessity if the Sioux were not to starve. But is was a necessity that worked a great deal of harm. It removed all incentive to effort and it undermined the self-respect of the Indian. Today, except in the case of the really helpless, it is a pauperizing force that stands in the way of much good that might be accomplished. To this reactionary agency must be added the annuity payments that come without labor and are so much more attractive than the rewards of real effort. It takes undoubted stamina to resist insidious influences such as these.

Yet many have resisted; and many Sioux Indians today, children perhaps when Sitting Bull made medicine for the last time, are now leading an existence very like that of their whit neighbors in the lands of the Dakotas. The till the soil and tend their herds; their children attend the little public schools that dot the countryside and study and play with the children of the whites. The younger generations grow up together, old enmities forgotten.

The law has provided that an Indian landholder may apply for a patent in fee to his allotment. Inquiry is then made into his character and record; and if in the judgment of the Secretary of the Interior these establish his ability to handle his own affairs, a “certificate of competency” is issued and he may thereafter manage his own property free from governmental supervision.

It would be presumed that an Indian thus officially declared “competent” would no longer offer any problem either to the government or to society in general. But the presumption outruns the fact. Too often the issuance of such a certificate has been merely the preliminary formality leading to the sale of the Indian’s land. Actual foresight, careful weighing of benefits, is still far from the childlike primitive mine. The price to be obtained by the sale of his acres is a very attractive bird in the hand. The Indian is apt to look no further ahead than this immediate benefit, unmindful of the day when these easily acquired funds shall have been dissipated and the problem of further subsistence shall arise.

So many of these “patent in fee Indians,” citizens who have sold their lands and wasted their inheritance, are to be found among the different bands of the Sioux. Often they are drifting about, living upon the easy generosity of those who have not yet been declared independent of supervision. But in the end there will be a realization that they are no more exempt than others from the rule that man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.

This necessary connection between labor and productiveness is the greatest civilizing force the human race has known. Too easy living conditions produce an indolent people, lacking in initiative and barren of accomplishment. The need of preparation for the winter season developed all the foresight and industry the aboriginal Indian had to show. By issues of food, clothing and money, by fostering care of his property, the nation has taken away from his even such incentive as the change of seasons used to offer him. The policy was well meant but the results were often far from good.

So the Indian who can learn but stumblingly at best all the intricate ways of an alien civilization, has to overcome not only his own native handicaps, but the obstacles as well that the mistakes of the white man have imposed upon him; and in some cases he must rid himself of the gifts he has received before he can learn to demand for himself what life has to bestow upon those who combine effort and desire. Others will learn less painfully, will rise from the plane on which circumstances have placed them without the preliminary descent to need. But necessity is the stern teacher from whom we must all learn at last. In this school many a Sioux Indian is making real strides in intelligence and application.

At the Advisory Council of One Hundred called together by Secretary of the Interior Work in December, 1923, for the discussion of Indian problems, there was present a Sioux three-quarters blood, who had spent the first fifteen years of his life in the wild ways of the hostile bands; who had emerged from such a war camp to accept the ways and learning of the white man, to become physician, lecturer and author of many books. There was present a Sioux woman known all over the country for her eloquence in her people’s behalf. And there came also to that gathering General Nelson A. Miles, veteran of many wars against the Sioux. Both conqueror and conquered had but one desire; to work for the best interests of the Indian race.
But is is not to the special examples of success among the Sioux that we must look, encouraging as it is to realize the shining records of accomplishment occasional gifted individuals have made. Nor is it those who have met utter defeat and failure who must influence our judgment, though the pessimist would make us feel that they tell the whole tale. It is the great mass of this numerous people, coming step by step on a long, hard pathway, that give us the real story. And in the end it will be a story we shall be glad to read.

During the time when the late Franklin K. Lane was Secretary of the Interior, there was a declaration of policy under which competency commissions issued many certificates and released many Indians from further supervision by the Government, the versatile Secretary devised a pretty little ceremony which should impress upon the mind of the Indian the importance of the new stage upon which he was entering. John Strikes-the-Bear would first send an arrow far into the blue as a symbol of the life he was leaving behind; then he would plow a furrow as an indication of the productive industry to which he would henceforth apply himself.

“I have shot my last arrow,” he would say. “Now I take the plow. The straight furrow shall show the path that lies before me. From this day on I follow the new way.”

It was a bit of drama such as the Sioux heart might delight in; and it may have inspired many a young man or woman to renewed effort in what is after all a struggle. A transition period is hard for all, young or old; hardest for the generation that must span the gap between the two stages of civilization. The warriors who fought with Sitting Bull are old men now. They will draw their rations and their per capita payments but a few years longer. The children who are being born today will grow up in a life not greatly unlike that of the white folk about them. But those who have heard in their infancy the war cry, who have seen their fathers lay down the gun and the scalping knife and must see their children take up the prosaic hoe, are in harder case. Their hearts may often stay with the old while their steps go forward with the new. And that their steps sometimes falter, that they sometimes lag upon the pathway, need cause no wonder. Slowly, slowly comes any people out of old faiths and old customs.

So though the tepee still stands beside the house of wood, though incantations are still heard where the sick man lies, we can only be surprised that so much of the old life has vanished that so much of the new has taken its place; that so many steps have already been taken by these sturdy people on their strange way, the “white man’s road.”


Seymour, Flora Warren. The Story of the Sioux Indians. Haldeman-Julius Company. 1924.

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