The Cook Collection and its connection to Sioux Chief Red Cloud at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument mentioned in my previous post served as the perfect transition to and preparation for our next stop, Fort Robinson State Park. Located in the ruggedly beautiful Pine Ridge landscape of northern Nebraska, close to South Dakota, it was the site of momentous events that determined the fate of several Plains Indian tribes.
Fort Robinson was established in 1874 and served multiple functions until 1947. It played a major role in the era of the “Indian Wars” of the late 1870s, and the ensuing banishment of regional tribes onto totally inadequate reservations – the sad reality repeated time and again all across the country. As was typical, the fort was established near an Indian Agency, in this case, the Red Cloud Agency. Agencies were supposed to provide food and additional supplies to Native Americans who had “agreed” to cede their land to the US Government, or to exchange it for land considered less valuable, until something of value was discovered. This befell several Sioux (Lakota) groups, who had been guaranteed possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, in a treaty. Like most other treaties, this one was broken after the discovery of gold, and the Lakota rose up in defense of their land and way of life, fighting bloody and bitter battles, until they were outnumbered and outweaponed.
When the combined forces of multiple native tribes defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry in the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was called among Indigenous peoples, but more commonly referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse, among the best-known leaders of the Oglala Sioux, became one of the most-hated and sought-after men. Custer was considered a national hero since the American Civil War and his death contributed to the resolve to deal with the “Indian question” once and for all. Following loss of land and bison, the center around which the Plains tribes’ life revolved, Crazy Horse eventually surrendered in 1877. Though he was guaranteed safe keeping, he was instead stabbed to death at Fort Robinson in a sequence of events that has sparked a heated debate to this day.
A few years later, in 1879, a group of Northern Cheyenne, attempting to return to their homeland in Montana Territory, were imprisoned at Fort Robinson, after fleeing from a reservation in “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma), where they had been deported. When they were threatened with transport back, they attempted to flee, thinking it better to die near home than to live in a strange, inhospitable place. And die they did, as the text on a number of commemorative plaques reminded us.
Compared to the ugliness of humans’ actions against fellow humans, the area’s natural beauty stood in stark contrast. The rocky splendor of the Pine Ridge, the lush vegetation, the various animals in the vicinity, including a herd of 150 reintroduced bison, seemed somewhat surreal in the context of the region’s tumultuous history.
After several days of inclement weather the sun showed again, and we slept in the tent without the risk of getting soaked, having the primitive camping area adjacent to the developed campground basically to ourselves. Very near to where Crazy Horse was murdered, and where the Cheyenne Outbreak started, we breathed the same air and gazed at the same stars as the First Americans, whose spirits are said to linger in their native lands.