February 16, 2014

The Sicangu are part of the Lakota, one of the seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation


Origin stories tell of life beginning for the Lakota in a cave that is located in what is now Wind Cave National Park on the southern edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The people emerged from the cave to join their relatives the Pte or buffalo, which were to assist the people by sustaining life and providing shelter, clothing and tools.

The Lakota were nomadic; moving from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes and then to what is now North Carolina and back to Minnesota and then once again to the Black Hills.

Victor Douville, Rosebud historian, said that star knowledge puts the Lakota in the Black Hills in 1700 B.C. “It is important to understand our history, it is important to understand us as a people. The old ways, the origins give us basis,” Douville said.

The origin stories were used in land claims, especially for the Black Hills settlement that gave the courts enough evidence to prove the Lakota had title to the Black Hills, and that the land should not have been taken from them.

The Sicangu are part of the Lakota, one of the seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation. Sicangu means the Burnt Thigh people. The name was acquired when a prairie fire erupted near a lake in now eastern South Dakota and to escape many ran into the lake while others jumped through the fire, burning their thighs, thus the name. The Sicangu are also part of the Brule, some of whom live on the Lower Brule Reservation, along the Missouri River.

Before the treaties were established and reservations set, the Lakota roamed the prairies of what is now Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota following the vast herds of buffalo for survival.

As the white migration took place, the Sicangu were part of the Lakota who fought the settlers and the U.S. Military to protect their lands.

Today the Sicangu and all Lakota consider the ground where the Battle of the Little Big Horn took place to be theirs, not the Crow on whose reservation the battlefield is located.

“We let it get out of our hands, the land is important to us. We allowed the non-Indian and the Crow to take it over,” Douville said.

In 1868 the Fort Laramie Treaty was looked upon as a treaty of peace to the Lakota, who retained the rights to more than 11 million acres of land for their use.

The treaty was supposed to end the Red Cloud wars. But in 1874, Lt. Col. George Custer led an illegal expedition into the Black Hills to find gold. That lead to the opening of the Black Hills by Congress and other lands were opened after the reservation system was established.

Spotted Tail, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1875 to protest that thousands of miners had entered the Black Hills in search of gold, against the articles of the 1868 treaty.

Douville said Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail), who was the leader of the Sicangu at the time of the reservation’s establishment, did not want to settle on the banks of the Missouri River in fear that his people would be forced to become farmers.

Spotted Tail led his people through the difficult times of settlement and war with the U.S. government. He was born in 1823 and was given the name Jumping Buffalo. He earned the name Spotted Tail when he became a warrior and wore a raccoon tail given to him by fur traders.

In 1855 Spotted Tail and two other men surrendered themselves at Fort Laramie to spare the rest of the tribe from harm after an unidentified Brule was charged with murder. While imprisoned for one year he learned to read and write English. He was saved from hanging by President Franklin Pierce.

The Spotted Tail agency in 1877 was located just south of White Clay, Neb., south of what is now the Pine Ridge Reservation. Spotted Tail would move his agency five times before establishing it at Rosebud in 1878. The Rosebud then became homeland to the Sicangu.

Spotted Tail became the last real chief of the Sincagu Lakota Oyate. He earned the title through his battle exploits and his diplomatic tact. He was not a hereditary chief. He refused to sign the sale of the Black Hills in 1875 and played a central role in the negotiations for the sale, to which no Lakota leader agreed.

Spotted Tail was chosen to be a shirt wearer, one of the highest honors for a Lakota man. He was killed by Crow Dog in 1881.

The Rosebud Reservation was opened to homesteading in 1904. The Allotment Act of 1887 reduced the land owned by the Sicangu and the tribe from 3.3 million acres to less than 900,000 acres. Each family was given a parcel of land, the tribe was given acreage and the rest was opened to homesteaders for sale at the rate of $2.50 per acre.

In the late 19th century the U.S. government assigned religious groups to open schools and missions on the reservations in order to assimilate the American Indian.

The Rosebud was assigned to the Episcopal and Catholic churches. St. Francis Mission, now the town of St. Francis became a boarding school where many people were educated over the years, many on the Rosebud today, people in their mid-50s remember the boarding school days at St. Francis. Some remember those days fondly, others with disgust.

Speaking Native language was prohibited and many traditional students would sneak away and hide behind buildings in order to speak their language. The tribe took over the school and it is now a contract, tribal school still located at St. Francis with a new building on the edge of town, away from the mission.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is an IRA tribe – meaning they adopted the federal government’s Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that forced them to establish a constitution much like the U.S.’s and use blood quantum to ID members. They have administrative officers and a tribal council, a president that serves for two-year terms and a vice president who are elected at large. The 13 districts that make up the political structure of the reservation elect 20 representatives to serve on the tribal council.


David Melmer writes for Indian Country Today.

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