Why So Many Lakota Stay Off The Reservation

Through treaty and agreement the U.S. government has established reservations where the various tribes of native people must live. The government assumes that they will become farmers and “Americans.” Their traditional ways are to be abandoned.  The religious denominations teach them Christianity; Indian religion is banned. The schools—many of them boarding schools away from the family—teach the ways of white society. This is called a policy of assimilation—making “red people” into “white people.”

Is this system working? Will it work in the future? Major General D. S. Stanley of the Department of Dakota presents a gloomy picture of compliance with reservation policy. According to army figures, 1,500 of the 2,000 Hunkpapa Lakota have refused to go to their reservation. Stanley calls them “turbulent and mischievous.”

The Itazipco number 1,500; more than 1,000 remain, to use Stanley’s words, “hostile.” Of the Minneconju, 1,600 of 2,000 are living off the reservation.  More than1,500 Oglala refuse to accept government policy. Stanley reports that the “hostiles abuse the agents, threaten their lives, kill their cattle at night, and do anything they can to oppose the civilizing movement.”

Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the Seventh Cavalry believes that the reservation has robbed the Indians of their nobility. According to the Colonel, the reservation Indian “in reality is groveling in beggary, bereft of many of the qualities which tended to render him noble.” To Custer, assimilation will not work: “He cannot be himself and be civilized; he fades away and dies. Cultivation such as the white man would give him deprives him of his identity.”

Custer explains one reason why so many Lakota reject the reservation: crooked Indian agents. Agents, those who dispense food, clothing, and other essential materials to the Indian people, are lining their own pockets.  “In a few years, at furthest, they almost invariably retire in wealth,” Custer charges. “If the agent, instead of distributing all of the goods intended for Indians by the government, only distributes one half and retains the other half, who is the wiser?” the Colonel asks. The Indians are “defrauded.”
D. C. Poole, who has been an Indian agent in Dakota Territory for the Dakota and Lakota, claims that the government has not lived up to its treaty obligations. He calls the quantity of good that he receives, “entirely insufficient.”  Poole complains that the people at his agency had no use for white clothing. Ready-made clothes (1,500 pairs of pants and dress coats, 700 overcoats, and 100 hats), he relates, were sent to his agency.
The people threw away the hats and ripped the pants apart for more traditional leggings. The coats were, too, “disassembled.” “Thus the plan of immediate civilization failed,” Poole observes. “And many good men, who believed that it is not necessary to plod through a generation or two of the people to change their mode of dress to that of their enlightened benefactors, were doomed to disappointment.”
Poole, like Custer, believes that the reservation is an unnatural situation: “The strong and active are not likely to surrender their cherished habits without a struggle.” He predicts that many will cross into Canada where “the encroachments of the settler do not make such rapid strides.”
Both Custer and Poole agree that the reservation destroys the spirit and natural ways of Indian people. Neither is surprised that so many Lakota stay away from the reservation.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change