Sanctuary: Native Border Crossings and the North American West

Article excerpt

The Sioux, Sitting Bull, and the Border

The forty-ninth parallel boundary between western Canada and the United States appears like a quiet and unexplained guest in North American history, with its seemingly arbitrary straight line, slightly mysterious origin, and hazy significance, and to none more so than North America's Native peoples, whose territories it divided. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s the "medicine line," as many Native groups came to call the boundary, became, however briefly, their friend. [1] As they were pushed and pulled across it, groups on both sides of the line saw in its "medicine" the hope of political refuge from the American or Canadian government on the other side. The first were the American Sioux, when suddenly in 1877 the American side meant exposure, pursuit, and captivity, and the Canadian side, sanctuary. Cross the line into the Great Mother's country and there was still hope of living as hunters rather than as the hunted. Cross it, said Robert Higheagle, a Sioux, and you "are altogether different. On one side you a re perfectly free to do as you please. On the other you are in danger." It was a simple formula, less a tale of two nations than of one North American West, upon which history tells a story of variations (Higheagle n.d.).

Their camp stretched along the west bank of Greasy Grass Creek in south central Montana, probably the largest off-reservation gathering of Indians ever seen. The Blackfeet, Hunkpapa, Ogalala, Sans Arc, Brule, Minneconjous, and the Cheyenne, strung together like the segments of a caterpillar. At around noon on 25 June 1876, the attack of Lt. General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry took them by surprise. Suddenly, "the squaws were like flying birds," recalled Sitting Bull, leader of the Hunkpapa; "the bullets were like humming bees."

The women, it turned out, thought of seeking sanctuary first. By dusk, the women and children were moving camp, and by morning they had crossed Greasy Grass Creek, beyond the sound of gunfire, where groups of warriors began to join them. Their annihilation of Custer's forces that day and the next is the most famous defeat of the U.S. army in the history of the West. It is the most famous Indian military victory, it was also, for the remaining Plains tribes, the beginning of the end of freedom. "We kept moving all summer," a man named Red Horse recalled, "the troops being always after us" (Graham 1995, 54-55, 86, 70, 104; Neihardt 1961, 108-09; Hardorff 1991, 92-95).

The Indians had seen this coming. The Sioux and the United States were both expanding their territories, the Sioux ever since many of them left the Great Lakes region for the plains in the late-eighteenth century, and the United States in its relentless westward migration that poured across and onto the western plains beginning in the 1840s. They fought bloody battles throughout the 1850s and 1860s and made treaties--at Fort Laramie on the North Platte River in 1851 to control intertribal warfare and protect westering whites, and in 1868 to create a "Great Sioux Reservation" out of what later became South Dakota, with added hunting grounds west in the Yellowstone and Powder River country of present-day Montana and Wyoming. At the same time, in 1869 the Grant administration formed an idealistic Indian Peace Commission just as determined to turn the Plains Indians into crop-growing Christians as the U.S. Army was to round them up or kill them. Even in the 1870s, many Indians disregarded the treaties entirely, e specially the young hotheaded ones and those most resistant to change. The Sioux still pushed westward, gaining turf from the Crow. Faced with a choice of falling into the hands of earnest humanitarians or fighting and starving, many chose the latter (Utley 1993, 43, 82; Prucha 1984, 17-21; Greene 1991, 4-5).

By the time Custer and the Seventh Cavalry arrived at the Greasy Grass, the Sioux were restive. In the summer of 1874, Custer himself had led an expedition of soldiers and miners into Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, which jut four thousand feet from the plains in what was then the western third of the Great Sioux Reservation, and they found substantial gold deposits there. …