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Spotted Peace, Spotted Tail

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as has been frequently mentioned during the bicentennial commemoration of their expedition, mostly trekked and camped in peace. They handed out peace medals and gave peace talks to the natives. On the Upper Missouri, they and their fellow explorers encouraged the Arikaras, Mandans and Hidatsas to make nice with their enemies. Sounds wonderful, but the main enemy of those three tribes shunned niceties and refused to cooperate. The aggressive “Teton Bands of Soues,” as Clark called them, were the scourge of the Missouri Valley, and the explorers themselves nearly came to blows with them while heading upriver in 1805 and again while descending the Missouri the following year.

The Dakota-Lakota-Nakota speakers known as the Sioux had plenty of enemies at the turn of the 19th century, and they saw the Euro-Americans as more of the same— unwelcome intruders who were potential trading and political rivals. That sentiment continued through the fur-trading era, though some Tetons supplied furs to palefaced traders, and grew stronger as white-topped wagon trains and then smoke-belching steam engines crossed the buffalo lands. Despite the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty and other efforts to make peace in the West, conflict between Sioux and non-native Americans became the order of those early days of yesteryear. The Grattan Fight kicked off the so-called First Sioux War of 1854-56, between Teton Sioux (the Western group, often referred to as Lakotas) and U.S. soldiers. Still ahead were bloody clashes along the Platte River Road (1864-65), Red Cloud’s War along the Bozeman Trail (1866-68), the Great Sioux War (1876-1877) and ever-controversial Wounded Knee (1890). Other Sioux, to the east, also fought the white men. Chief Inkpaduta’s band of Wahpekute (“shooters among the leaves”) Dakotas committed murder and mayhem at Spirit Lake, Iowa, in 1857, and Little Crow’s Wahpekute and Mdewakanton (“people of the Mystic Lake”) Dakotas led the devastating Minnesota (Sioux) Uprising in 1862. For the Lakotas and Dakotas, peace was often just another word for nothing left to lose.

Because of all this 19th-century bloodshed, it’s easy to forget that the warlike Sioux and the warlike U.S. cavalrymen were not always at war. Sometimes there were peaceful moments, if not outright peace. Flash back to March 6, 1866. A particularly harsh winter had brought the 1865 war to a close, and on this day, Brulé Sioux Chief Spotted Tail, a veteran of the Grattan Fight, was bringing his deceased daughter to Fort Laramie for burial. While her father was in prison in 1855-56, Mini-Aku (Brings Water) lived with relatives at Fort Laramie, and her final wish had been to rest in peace in the post cemetery. The ranking officer, Colonel Henry Maynadier, was obliging, and more than 500 of his soldiers and 300 of teary-eyed Spotted Tail’s Brulés took part in the moving ceremony. Six days later, Spotted Tail, Red Cloud and other Sioux leaders were back at the fort for a council with Maynadier. “With these events, prospects for peace on the Plains looked promising,” McDermott writes. Alas, promising means promises, and these are easily broken. As anyone who has ever heard of the Bozeman Trail knows, another Sioux war was soon in the works. But it would be Red Cloud’s War, not Spotted Tail’s War. The Brulé leader, McDermott says, “had made his peace forever.”

The relatively unsung tale of Spotted Tail did not end peacefully, though—another Brulé leader, Crow Dog, killed him in a personal dispute in 1881. Several years after that, the even more unsung John Alvin Anderson came to the Rosebud Agency in Dakota Territory and began shooting Brulés and other Sioux men, women and children with his camera. While Anderson was befriending and photographing his neighbors on the reservation, many other homesteaders became increasingly fearful of the Sioux. Still, for reasons not explained, Anderson went east on January 8, 1890, and stayed away for 17 months, thus missing the Ghost Dance troubles and the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Other photographers were on hand to make pictures before and after the “massacre,” but Anderson never indicated that he regretted missing that photo opportunity. The Indians were his subjects and his friends; he would not permanently say goodbye to the Rosebud until 1936, when he and his wife moved to Rapid City, S.D., and opened their own Sioux Indian Museum. The images he left behind speak of a culture that stood for many things besides war.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.