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The cooperative Blackfoot Lakota became a culture broker.

John Grass, a major Blackfoot Lakota leader, is often overlooked because his reputation was not based primarily upon his exploits as a warrior. Rather, it was his outstanding leadership ability that brought him recognition. He was the chief leader, along with great Hunkpapa war chief Gall, at the Standing Rock Reservation, which today straddles the boundary between the states of North and South Dakota.

The Blackfoot Lakotas and the Hunkpapas were two of the seven Lakota Indian tribes that shared this reservation with the Yanktonai Sioux.

James McLaughlin, Standing Rock’s shrewd Indian agent during the 1880s and 1890s, recognized Grass’ effective leadership and tended to go to him first if there was a serious problem involving his Indian charges. Although McLaughlin usually praised Gall the most because of his widespread fame as a Lakota war leader who fought federal soldiers along the Yellowstone River and at the Little Bighorn, it was often Grass who spearheaded a solution for any problem McLaughlin faced.

Grass was a member of one of his tribe’s most influential families and bore a name that had been passed down for three generations. But like many Lakotas, he had other names, such as Jumping Bear and his warrior name Charging Bear. As a young warrior, he gained recognition fighting against such enemy tribes as the Crows and Mandans and probably the Assiniboines and Arikaras.

Whether Grass ever fought against federal troops with anything like the same determination he demonstrated fighting enemy tribes is open to question. There are claims that he fought in one or two battles against the Army during the intrusion into Dakota country in the early 1860s by forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully and Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley. Yet he is probably best remembered during this time for helping to return to her people a widely sought kidnapped white woman named Fanny Kelly in December 1864, five months after the Indians had battled General Sully’s victorious troops at Killdeer Mountain.

Sitting Bull’s nephew, White Bull, later claimed that Grass was with an 1865 war party in Wyoming that attacked Camp Conner (later renamed Fort Reno). He said that Grass was able to count coup there because he used his bow to touch one of three fleeing Omaha Indians serving as Army scouts. But a decade later he declined to join Gall when Gall left the Standing Rock Agency to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the Great Sioux War. Gall would play a key role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a conflict in which John Grass probably had no part.

Although Grass and his wife were captured at the Battle of Slim Buttes on September 6, 1876, there is no hard evidence that he actually fought there. When troops under Brig. Gen. George Crook attacked a Minneconjou village at Slim Buttes, on the western edge of the Great Sioux Reservation, they inevitably encountered other Lakota Sioux, including Hunkpapas and Blackfoot Lakotas, encamped nearby.

Grass’ first response to the attack on Slim Buttes was to refuse Army pressures on him to convince his more intractable comrades to surrender, resulting in his arrest on September 10 by Lt. Col. W. P. Carlin. His subsequent incarceration in an Army jail apparently did not embitter him permanently. Like his father, “the Grass,” he eventually became an Army scout, serving as a corporal in General Crook’s company of Indian scouts.

Grass was released a short time later with the understanding that he would convince a well-known fellow Blackfoot Lakota chief named Kill Eagle, along with other Lakota hardliners, to surrender. He succeeded in the case of Kill Eagle and some of the other intransigent warriors, thus preventing further casualties in the ongoing Great Sioux War.

By the mid-1870s John Grass had become what ethnohistorians and cultural anthropologists would call a culture broker, one who tries to bring opposing cultures together. In October 1877, he was the first Lakota leader at Standing Rock to speak to the Manypenny Commission, a panel established by the federal government to acquire the Black Hills. Although the eloquent Lakota leader agreed to cede the Black Hills to the government, he also stressed at this meeting the importance of having the necessary agricultural tools for farming as well as receiving their needed food rations. His strong leadership continued at the agency, where Grass worked as a Lakota headman in behalf of his band, or tiospaye.

Grass recognized earlier than most that the Indians at Standing Rock needed to use their partly arid land for grazing as well as for agriculture. Grass, like Gall, also served as a district or “boss” farmer and as a judge on the Court of Indian Offenses. Both of these positions involved teaching their people the knowledge and sense of order needed to adjust to their seemingly inevitable assimilation into the dominant white culture.

When Sitting Bull came to Standing Rock in 1883 after his surrender, the old chief’s resistance to almost all the strong-willed McLaughlin’s policies complicated his management of the agency. McLaughlin felt it was necessary to organize a faction to oppose Sitting Bull and his followers. John Grass and Gall were the natural leaders of this more cooperative group, along with Crow King, who died prematurely in 1884.

The major challenge facing these new leaders was the strong desire on the part of the government to reduce the size of the Great Sioux Reservation and open up its lands to white homesteaders. In 1883 a commission headed by Newton Edmunds, a former governor of Dakota Territory, made an unsuccessful attempt to partition the reservation. In 1888, following the passage of the Dawes Act, which made partitioning reservation lands much easier, a similar effort was made; Grass and Gall spoke forcefully against it, receiving support from McLaughlin, who also thought it was unfair.

After defeat of the 1888 measure, however, Congress passed another bill in 1889, again calling for the controversial land partition scheme and putting enormous pressure on McLaughlin to support it. McLaughlin turned to the reliable Grass, who made a crucial speech reversing the Indian position against the partition of the Great Sioux Reservation. The once-large reservation became six separate ones with such important agencies as Standing Rock and Pine Ridge now receiving more autonomy.

Grass’ support of the 1889 Sioux bill, along with Gall’s, made these two leaders controversial among an increasing number of Standing Rock residents. The loss of land to white homesteaders, which may have ultimately reached more than 9 million acres, was not only felt by the Indians at Standing Rock but also by those from the five other reservations that once comprised the Great Sioux Reservation. It was one of the causes, along with bad weather and poor health, that led to the divisive Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance sparked the resistance that resulted in Sitting Bull’s death and the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek in December of 1890. Grass and Gall, who would become Christian converts, opposed the Ghost Dance, an Indian religious movement that had spread panic among many whites living in the Upper Great Plains because of the incessant dancing and mournful chants that accompanied the rituals.

Yet, despite the bloody controversies that made the year 1890 such a stormy one, Grass’ influence among his people remained strong throughout most of his long life. When he died in 1918, at almost 80 years of age, outliving Gall by nearly a quarter of a century, his prestige had not diminished significantly; indeed, his grandson, Albert Grass, became the hereditary head chief of all the Blackfoot Lakotas at Standing Rock.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here