Standing Tall at Standing Rock

In July 1888, a commission led by Richard H. Pratt, William J. Cleveland, and John V. Wright arrived at Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory with the mission of convincing the Sioux living there (Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota) to vote to accept the terms of the Dawes Act.

The act sought to assimilate Indians into European-American society and suppress or eliminate tribal identities. It would replace collective ownership of tribal lands with allotment of lands to individuals, grant U.S. citizenship to Indians who accepted and lived on an individual allotment, and free “excess” tribal lands for settlement by whites.

The U.S. was required by the terms of its treaties with the Sioux to receive “yes” votes from three-fourths of the adult males in the tribe. As the Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, Transmitting … Report Relative to Opening a Part of the Sioux Reservation records, after a month of discussion and explanation of the terms of the proposed act, deeds of acceptance and rejection were presented, and “the Indians were called on to sign one or the other.” The report continues: “As each man signed he received an illustrated certificate … to that effect, bearing on its face his own name, the date of signature, and the names of the commissioners.”

The report includes copies of these certificates, which are fascinating examples of propaganda. The certificate given for a vote of acceptance was printed in blue, and depicts the U.S. government’s ideal view of the outcome of this vote: a Sioux leader shakes hands with (and bows gratefully to) a group of four white men, probably President Grover Cleveland and the commissioners; Native children rush into a new schoolhouse in the foreground; in the background are scenes of prosperous agriculture and industry; and the Sioux are leaving their tipis.

On the other hand, the certificate for a vote of rejection was printed in the bright red of a sign of warning, and it portrays the Sioux, standing proudly upright, with arms raised to reject the proposal. The schoolhouse is empty, the fields are untilled, and the Sioux return to their tipis.

Presumably, the certificates were created as visual enticements. But they were unsuccessful: the Sioux roundly rejected the commissioners at Standing Rock, with only 120 men signing the deed of acceptance. The commissioners listed eight cogent objections given by the tribal leaders, including Sitting Bull. Most notably, the chiefs insisted “that they did not have more land than would be needed by their children, and they did not wish to part with any of it”; their lands might appreciate in value in the near future, and they did not believe they would be paid full value for it.

Nevertheless, in an official U.S. government document, the commissioners insisted that “the defeat of this act was a victory for indolence, barbarism, and degradation as against the influences of the farm, the work-shop, the schools, and the Gospel.”

By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services