"They Made Us Many Promises": The American Indian Experience, 1524 To the Present

By Philip Weeks | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
The Bitter Years:
Western Indian Reservation Life

Donald J. Berthrong

In 1878 Washakie, a perceptive and eloquent Shoshoni chief; described the plight of his people. Within his lifetime Washakie remembered when Indians roamed free, enjoying abundant food provided by Mother Earth and her creatures. But the white man came with superior tools and terrible weapons better for war than bow and arrows, driving Indians from their vast hunting and gathering ranges on to confining reservations. The Shoshoni and other tribes, Washakie said, were only “sorry remnants once mighty, [who] are cornered in little spots of the earth all ours by right—cornered like guilty prisoners, and watched by men with guns, who are more than anxious to kill us off.” United States government representatives promised the Shoshoni a “comfortable living” and protection from white intruders. Those promises were not honored. In Washakie's later life, he asked is it any wonder the Shoshoni, “nearly starved and… half naked… have fits of desperation” and think of revenge?

Numerous other Indian leaders could have echoed Washakie's remonstrance as the U.S. government, after the Civil War, implemented its reservation policy. The Comanches once ranged from north of the Arkansas River to south of the Rio Grande. Their population grew to about 14,000 people before warfare, disease, and reduced buffalo ranges began to diminish their numbers. In 1865 they still hunted over 30 million acres, although their population had declined to about 5,000 people. Two years later, the Comanches were forced to cede all but 3 million acres in southwestern Oklahoma, a reservation on which they would be made to live with the Kiowas and the Plains (Kiowa) Apaches. The confederated Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes shared the central Great Plains until the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rushers carved Colorado Territory out of much of the tribes' domain. After three treaties and a presidential executive order, the southern division of the two tribes was pushed aside to a 5 million-acre reservation in western Oklahoma. The southern Cheyennes and Arapahos were hardly settled on the new reservation when the U.S. government promptly lopped more than 300,000 acres off from it without the tribes' consent in order to provide lands for the recently removed Wichita and affiliated tribes. The Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho divisions were even less fortunate. The Northern Arapahos, rather than submit to Oglala Sioux dominance at the Pine Ridge agency, in 1878 joined the Shoshonis in the Wind

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