Reflections on the failures of Sioux resistance

Thomas Powers’ book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, details the actions of the Sioux leaders who dealt the US military one of its most renowned defeats by an indigenous group at Little Bighorn, but ultimately led to the Sioux being forced off their lands. While Powers goes into great detail about the specifics of who did what, where and when, it is worth taking a step back and reflecting on why the Sioux lost the war in 1876-7 and were forced to accept removal 200 miles to the south in Missouri.

While Crazy Horse was an excellent tactical leader who led the Sioux to victory or at least a draw in a number of engagements, Crazy Horse did not employ good strategies for dealing with the US. In fact good strategies would have been totally outside his cultural understanding. Crazy Horse was a military leader, but not a political one, so he was ill-equipped for the delicate task of negotiating and communicating his position. He was killed in large part simply because he didn’t want to personally engage in negotiation. As a military leader with a taciturn personality that craved solitude, he rarely talked and tried to send others to negotiate in his stead, but his reluctance to engage with others alienated his fellow Sioux leaders and caused the American officials to conclude that he was interested in peace and would rather renew the war.

General George Crook was also probably not the best choice to negotiate with the Sioux, since he made little attempt to understand the Sioux and also had a taciturn personality and made abrupt decisions without consulting either his staff or his allies among the Sioux. The leaders on both sides of the conflict were ill-suited for negotiation, but negotiation was doomed from the outset since the US government had decided to take the Black Hills, which was a non-negotiable point for certain factions among the Sioux. Once the Sioux began to starve during the war and to see the hopelessness of their fight, negotiation was likewise impossible, since the Sioux and Cheyenne factions engaged in the war weren’t communicating enough among themselves to even try and negotiate an end to the war.

The death of Crazy House is a complicated affair which is symptomatic of the internal rivalries which helped undermine the Sioux ability to present a united front when dealing with the United States government. According to Powers’ account, the nephew of Red Cloud reported to Gen. George Crook that Crazy House was planning to assassinate him, so Crook ordered Crazy Horse to be killed. Then, the Sioux translator Frank Grouard, also had reasons to want to eliminate Crazy Horse, so he mistranslated a meeting so it appeared that Crazy Horse was preparing to go back to war. Jesse Lee managed to convince Crook that Crazy Horse had no intentions of rebelling again, but Crook at this point considered Crazy Horse’s refusal to go to Washington with the negotiation team as a sign that Crazy Horse was unwilling to make peace, so he ordered him to be arrested and sent to a military jail in Florida, like Crook would later do with Geronimo.

It seems that some Sioux leaders like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail wanted Crazy Horse to be killed, since he rivaled their leadership and he was unwilling to work with them and often refused to even meet with them. Again, Crazy Horse simply didn’t have the psychological makeup to be a political leader of his people and often retreated into solitude, which ultimately allowed others to misinterpret his intentions and decide that he was a threat that needed to be eliminated.

There are so many scenarios which could have prevented the death of Crazy Horse. For example, if Sitting Bull had been on US soil, he would have been able to take Crazy Horse’s place as the leader of the hard-line faction at the negotiating table, which might have protected Crazy Horse, but Sitting Bull had gone to Canada, rather than submit. If Crazy Horse had not gotten depressed and retreated from the world or if he had just been willing to meet with the other Sioux leaders and negotiate a common position with them, he probably wouldn’t have been killed. Ultimately Crazy Horse was stabbed with a bayonet because he resisted his arrest, but Crazy Horse resisted in part Jesse Lee had tricked him into believing that he would have a chance to argue for his innocence. If Jesse Lee had told him directly that he was being arrested and sent to jail in Florida, he might have been angry, but he would not have been surprised and might not have resisted his arrest.

In large part, Crazy Horse and the Sioux in general lost because they simply didn’t understand their opponents and how the American system worked. None of the intransigent leaders knew the US military capability, so they didn’t understand how hopeless the war was. Those leaders who went to Washington and negotiated the 1868 treaty, such as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, understood that they could never win militarily, but leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull hadn’t seen US cities, so they didn’t understand the overwhelming resources of the US government. They had nobody to advise them on how to deal with the US either.

It is worth wondering what would have happened if the Sioux had waged a propaganda campaign in the US and taken their case to the US supreme court. They had impeccable grounds to win in a court of law, and Grant was less likely to act like Jackson and ignore a ruling of the US Supreme Court. Astute political negotiation probably could have granted the Sioux a large reservation without the Black Hills with Indian agencies placed in locations of their choice. Unfortunately, the Sioux were not politically united to carry out those negotiations, didn’t understand the hopeless of their cause on military grounds, and didn’t understand the American political system in order to gain the best possible outcome for their people. But even if the Sioux had been willing to play the political game, as the Cherokee did, it is also important to understand how culturally ill-equipped they were to engage in actions such as lobbying congress and presenting cases before the Supreme Court.

In many ways, their military successes were astounding considering their own lack of a military footing for war. Their culture was not organized in a way that could sustain long-term military campaigns, nor was it organized in a way that would grant a military leader the power to organize and control forces to fight the Americans in an effective way. The only reason that the Sioux had any success is the fact that the US government underestimated them and sent too few troops and Custer was downright foolhardy. Crook was more careful than Custer, but he also underestimated the Sioux and he narrowly avoided being lead into an ambush that would have massacred many of the men under his command. Despite the blundering of the US military, it is important to realize that the Sioux military successes were only possible because certain factions of the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies united their forces briefly, but they were unable to stay together for long, since they needed to hunt and graze in small bands.

The tactical leadership of Crazy Horse was a vital factor which allowed the Sioux to defeat the US military in a small number of engagements, but to gain that position of leadership on the battlefield Crazy Horse rode alone in front of the American lines and was shot at hundreds of times. In other words, his leadership was contingent upon his reputation of having strong medicine that resisted bullets, so he had to constantly place himself in danger of being killed and he was at best a temporary leader during battle who couldn’t command Sioux forces in the strategic ways necessary to win a long-term war.

Unfortunately, the Sioux simply didn’t have the food supply, ammunition or military command structure to engage in a long-term defensive war which might have worn down the American military. They weren’t even equipped to hold military prisoners, which could have gained them some leverage at the negotiating table. For example, if the Sioux had imprisoned rather than massacring Custer’s soldiers who surrendered, they might have been able to use hostages to negotiate a better settlement. The Sioux might have worn down the American forces if they had cut their supply lines and only engaged in sneak attacks and ambushes, rather than direct confrontations, but that would have meant a long war which the Sioux didn’t have the political organization to engage in. They would have had to organize large scale scouting and communications, to keep well apprised of their enemy movements so they could move their camps away from enemy forces so they couldn’t get raided. Despite the fact that the US military never beat the Sioux in a battle, the Sioux ultimately lost because their food reserves were destroyed when US solders attacked their camps. Since the Sioux didn’t have any backup food supply during the winter, so they starved and were forced to give up the fight.

There are many ways that the Sioux could have better resisted the American incursions on their lands, but all of them would have required a political structure and unity which the Sioux simply did not have. The existence of so many tribal groups and the lack of a unified political body to represent the Sioux people made it difficult for the Sioux to negotiate with the American government when gold prospectors started invading Sioux lands in 1874. Red Cloud managed to convince all the Sioux leaders to agree to the 1868 treaty. By 1874, however, the Sioux could not negotiate a new settlement, because they had become divided between the intransigents led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse who wanted to separate entirely from white culture and those led by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail who accepted that accommodation was the only realistic path to survival.

There are many “what ifs” we can ask. What if all the Sioux had organized a unified governmental structure, capable of representing their interests vis-a-vis the US government? The killing among the Sioux made it very difficult for them to resolve their internal differences peacefully, so they did not unify to speak with a single voice at the negotiating table before the war. What if a skilled communicator such as Sitting Bull or Red Cloud had been able to convince the intransigents and the accomodationists to unite when negotiating with the US government?

What if the Sioux had been able to count on skilled interlocutors who could have better informed them about how to deal with the Americans? By the time of the 1874-6 conflict, trappers, traders and soldiers had been living with the Sioux for several generations. Many of the mixed race offspring of those relations could speak both Sioux and English fluently, yet few knew how to read and write, and almost none had ever been outside the frontier zone, so they had little understanding of how the American political system worked. The few literate bilinguals, such as the mixed-blood William Garnett or the Sandwich Islander Frank Grouard, who could have advised them ended up siding with the American forces, so the Sioux intransigents had nobody to advise them how to deal with the Americans.

For example, what would have happened if the Sioux had sent a written complaint to the US State Department the moment Custer led the expedition into their lands in 1874 which would later discover gold in the Black Hills? What if the Sioux had written every US senator and all the major US newspapers demanding that the US government not sent exploratory expeditions onto their lands? Once the gold was found, what if the Sioux had gone through all the normal diplomatic procedures to sent representatives to Washington to file formal written complaints, grant interviews with reporters and try to lobby congress to keep gold prospectors off their lands? If the Sioux had sent a few of their children off to missionary schools, they might have had a chance, but there were few missionary attempts among the Sioux and the few schools at places such as Fort Laramie never lasted very long, so that there were few opportunities to learn to read and write or even travel to US cities.

What if the Sioux had engaged in better military strategies? For example, negotiations might have been different, if the Sioux had captured all the gold prospectors in the Black Hills and then told Crook that they would negotiate an end to the hostilities with those hostages. In the end, the Sioux simply surrendered to Crook. The only assurance that they obtained from Crook is that he would present their request to Washington that they wanted to stay on their lands with an agency farther north, away from the whites. Crook duplicitously promised to convey their demands to Washington, when he knew that Washington had already decided to take away most of their lands and move them 200 miles to the south to Missouri.

Although US military officials, such as George Crook, William Clark and Jesse Lee, were sympathetic toward the Sioux to some degree, none of them were very forthright when they tried to convince the Sioux to surrender or accept concessions. In the case of Lee, he honestly hoped that he could get a better deal for Crazy Horse, but all of them were willing to engage in deception to some degree in order to get the Sioux to surrender their arms and become dependent upon the US.

While one can cast blame upon these officials (and Lee certainly blamed himself for Crazy Horse’s death), their deceitful actions were dictated by their orders from Washington, so the blame ultimately lies with the US government, which bowed to popular pressure demanding Sioux lands. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the Grant administration initially tried to keep the gold prospectors out of the Black Hills. It is hard to imagine how the Sioux could have retained the Black Hills once the gold rush started, but if they had been willing to negotiate rather than fight, they probably could have kept most of their lands. If the Sioux had tried to appeal to the American public or had tried to work through US legal and diplomatic channels, or even negotiated their surrender, they probably would have gotten a better deal then they ultimately got. The tragedy of the Sioux was the fact that they were so divided and had so little understanding of the forces that they faced, that they were unable in the end to do anything but fight a pointless war which gained them nothing and left them so splintered internally that both the intransigents and accomodationists lost more than if they had been willing to hang together.

When examining the destruction of native cultures in the Americas, it is important to note the racism and avarice of the European colonizers who repeatedly engaged in deception and brutal force to rob from indigenous peoples, but that history should be tempered by a better understanding of how the lack of intercultural knowledge about the invaders, the internal divisions, and the debilitating debates between accomodation and isolation made it very difficult for indigenous peoples to negotiate for their lands or cultural rights, or even articulate a unified strategy of resistance.

It is telling that the 1868 treaty which ended the Red Cloud war was the last treaty with an indigenous group passed by the US congress. Not a single indigenous group in the US was unified and organized enough after that date to force the US to negotiate a treaty. In large part racist attitudes within US society were to blame for this failure. White society preferred to steal indigenous lands through military force rather than negotiate treaties granting indigenous groups more cultural and territorial rights. Nonetheless, the failure of Western indigenous groups to unify and organize politically, adapt their lifestyles to better resist colonization, and engage with the US political system also helped contribute to the destruction of these groups.

The horse culture that the Sioux adapted a century before the arrival of the European colonizers helped them become a military force capable of slaughtering Custer at Little Bighorn and fight Crook to a standstill at Rosebud, nonetheless that same horse culture made it much harder for the Sioux to unify and negotiate a better settlement for their people and adopt sedentary lifestyles that would better establish their claim to the land and feed themselves as the buffalo herds disappeared.

At the same time that environment and culture shaped how the Sioux confronted colonization, the leadership of the Sioux helped ensure their own destruction. The decision of Crazy Horse to refuse to even come to the negotiations in 1875 and to send emissaries declaring the death of any chiefs who negotiated away the Black Hills ensured that all negotiation with the US government was impossible and war was inevitable. The decision of the intransigents to engage in a strategy of cultural isolation rather than ‘know thy enemy’ ensured that they had little idea how to fight a long-term war with the US or how to use diplomacy or the political and legal system in the US. In other words, they decided to purposely blind themselves. The intransigent factions failed to coordinate their forces after Little Bighorn and failed to follow a unified strategy. They didn’t surrender as a group and some like Sitting Bull decided to escape to Canada rather than surrender, so it was impossible to negotiate their surrender and get better terms.

On the other side, the decision of the accomodationists like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail to ally with the US military and plot against Crazy Horse just left all Sioux weaker and less able to resist. The jealousy of Red Cloud and his plotting (or at least his nephew’s plotting) to get Crazy Horse assassinated left long-term divisions. The accomodationists and the Sioux scouts who collaborated with the US military understood the pointlessness of the war and articulated the best strategy for survival, but they should have tried much harder to reach out to the intransigents and to negotiate between the intransigents and the US military, instead of plotting against them. One cannot help but wonder if the later history of the Sioux would not have been different if these horrible decisions by their leaders hadn’t left them so riven by internal divisions. Later tragedies such Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge arose partly from the lack of political organization and unity among the Sioux.


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