The History Cat Classroom
Life on an Indian Reservation
There were two types of Indians during the era known as the Indian Wars: those who lived on reservations and those who didn’t. The U.S. government made it clear that any Indians who refused to move to their assigned reservation would be considered hostile and therefore hunted down by the army and brought there by force. Sitting Bull of the Hunkapapa Sioux and Geronimo of the Apache nation were those types of Indians. These men were the warrior Indians. These were the type of Indians the government feared.
Little Crow watched the same thing happening to his band of Lakota as was happening with other Indians. A treaty would be made with big promises. White settlers would move in by the thousands. Gold would be found. More whites would move in ignoring the treaty. Buffalo would be exterminated. The Indians began to starve. But, rather than fight the whites, Little Crow thought he could save his people by giving into their demands. People like Little Crow were distrusted by people like Sitting Bull. They were seen as imitation white men.
At first the reservations were just places to contain the Indians and for the most part their old way of life was left alone. Then as the Indian Wars dragged on the government changed the way it dealt with the “Indian problem”. Indian reservations began to look like white towns but with red faces. The teepees and dugout houses soon changed over to log cabins. Hunting was out, farming was in. Each family was given a plot of land to grow wheat & corn. Schools were built. Churches erected to convert the savages to Christianity. The old ways were being forgotten because people didn’t live like that anymore. Women were taught to sew and cook like a white woman. Men were taught to farm and fix tools like a white man. After a few generations the stories of their old life on the open prairie was just that–stories told by grandma.
The reservation began to take on a different feel–many described it like a prison. Hired to keep order was the Indian police. Indians policing Indians. In charge of the reservation was an Indian agent appointed by the government. Some were honest men who were saddened by the abuse the Indians suffered. Most were neither so sad nor sympathetic. To them the Indians were a closing chapter in American history. Another obstacle conquered. The dishonest agents openly cheated the Indians out of their payments of cash and goods. The worst part of living on the reservation was the uncertainty of it all. In the Indians’ experience treaties were made by one white man only to be broken by another. When gold was found in the Black Hills of South Dakota white settlers streamed in and staked their claim. When silver was found in Nevada, same thing happened. Even in Indian Territory the Cherokee saw their reservation shrink after oil was discovered in Oklahoma. Nothing was off limits to manifest destiny.
Nearby were the soldiers whose job it was to keep order and prevent the Indians from illegally leaving their reservation. Just like the agents, some of the soldiers were sympathetic, most were not. The soldiers were there to keep the peace. When conflict broke out between an Indian and a settler the Indians were almost always on the wrong side of justice. After all, legally the Indians lived on American soil but were not American citizens. The government saw them as independent nations but treated them like squatters.
After the dust settled following a land rush the Indians found that the land they had been given was often the most useless unproductive land. The soil was too dry, too rocky, or too far from a river to grow cash crops. Dependent on government payments of cash and goods reservation Indians sunk into poverty.
"The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged...."