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Not-so-simple Sioux

May 2024
1min read

As a past contributor to American Heritage and as a historian of Uncle Sam’s last Indian War, in 1972-73 ( The Road to Wounded Knee , 1974), I thought I might have to reach under the bed for my automatic weapon when I saw the line “An Unsentimental View of Indians” on the magazine’s cover. However, when I read the article itself (“Indians in the Land,” August/September issue), I was mollified. It was balanced, fair, informative, and written with understanding and taste. The two authors are to be commended for producing an article that lives up to the high standards American Heritage has always practiced when dealing with the first Americans.

I have one small point of criticism: The authors make the blanket statement that the Sioux were not farmers. I remember distinctly that the Eastern Sioux (called Dakota in their own language, as opposed to Lakota, or Plains Sioux) did practice at least limited farming in historic times.

Several attempts were made to turn the Plains Sioux into farmers in the 188Os, but these failed for a variety of reasons. During the breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation in the 188Os, many of the groups that had cultivated fields were forced to abandon them in the middle of the first growing season. The frontier photographer L. A. Huffman took pictures of this tragic relocation, but unfortunately the glass negatives of what must have been a harrowing example of mismanagement were lost. Subsequently the patterns of heirship established when each Indian received title to a specific tract of land and then attempted to divide it among numerous heirs resulted in acreages usually too small for successful farming or ranching. The rainfall on the westernmost Sioux reservations is also extremely sparse. Last but not least, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934—at least according to many sincere activist friends of mine—did nothing to encourage economic independence but rather involved the Sioux in political competition—the white man’s way—rather than consensus—the red man’s way. The Sioux were subtly and perhaps accidentally encouraged to spend so much time squabbling among themselves for porkbarrel jobs that they had very little time for farming or much of anything else. As your authors wisely and correctly point out, Indians are not simple: their old-style tribal governments were quite complicated but at least provided a system of internal checks and balances. The IRA, in a misguided attempt to create a system of government that the “simple” Sioux could understand, inadvertently gave these intelligent and rather aggressive people something else to argue about—which they really didn’t need.

I can remember people who grew up among the Eastern Sioux describing adaptation of tribal farming methods as practiced in the 1930s and 1940s: fiftyfive-gallon oil drums filled with river water that was left to settle—the Indians then drank the top half of the barrel and used the sludge at the bottom for fertilizer; chickens encouraged to roost in trees; and so forth. One has the general feeling in dealing with the Sioux that they will probably make it no matter what—provided we don’t come up with too many new ideas about how they should run their lives.

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