By the turn of the 19th century the Oglala Sioux and other Plains Indians had developed a way of life that depended on hunting buffalo. After gold was found in the Black Hills in 1874, prospectors, merchants, and settlers streamed into the tribes’ territory. The culture clash led to a series of broken treaties and unfavorable legislation, confining the Indians to an ever shrinking area.

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The original Fort Laramie treaty formalized the U.S. government’s relationship with the Sioux and officially recognized the Sioux Nation’s boundaries for the first time. The treaty promised land rights and annuities for the Sioux and other tribes, while providing access across Indian lands for settlers and their army escorts.


Despite the 1851 treaty, skirmishes between settlers and Indians had continued to escalate. A new treaty established a Sioux reservation on land comprising the western half of present-day South Dakota.


The U.S. Army fought the Sioux who remained outside the reservation. Colonel Custer’s troops were annihilated at the Little Bighorn. The government then seized the Black Hills and other Sioux land.


As North and South Dakota moved toward statehood, the 21-million-acre reservation was cut by half and the remaining land divided into six smaller reservations. Some of that reservation land was later opened to settlers.


Although reduced in their scope, government seizures of land from Indian reservations continued through the first decade of the 20th century (hatched areas above). In 1980 the Supreme Court ordered the U.S. government to pay for its appropriation of the Black Hills. With interest, the amount is now more than a billion dollars, but the Sioux won’t touch it.
They want their land back.

Pine Ridge Today

On Pine Ridge and five other reservations, the Sioux own five million acres of their original treaty land. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribes can arrange leases of reservation land, used mainly for grazing. Some leases go to Indians, others to outsiders. Because of the way land was originally allotted, the Sioux have been left with the least productive tracts.

Martin Gamache, NGM Staff. Sources: David Bartecchi, Village Earth; Bureau of Indian Affairs; U.S. Census Bureau; Richmond Clow, University of Montana; Raymond J. DeMallie, Indiana University; U.S. Dept. of the Interior; Library of Congress; Margaret Pearce, University of Kansas.

Present boundaries and drainage shown