Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2003


Great Plains Quarterly (Winter 2003) 23(1): 3-17.


Copyright 2003, Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


In 1876 the bilingual Cherokee diplomat and lawyer William Penn Adair expressed great pride in the level of "civilization" that his nation had achieved. Defining civilization as commercial agriculture, literacy, Christianity, and republican government, Adair believed that his society had reached a sophistication that equaled and in certain areas surpassed that of the United States. Speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Territories, the diplomat claimed that his people produced surpluses of "every agricultural product that is raised in the neighboring States of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas." Schools in the Indian Territory, he added, produced a vast number of students who were literate either in their own language or English, or both. "About four-fifths at least of the population of the Indian Territory can read and write, which cannot be said of the people of the United States," the lawyer bragged. He also claimed, with an unfortunate degree of intolerance, that Christianity was stronger in the Indian Territory than in the surrounding states. "All of our nations and tribes have more or less embraced the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, and have generally repudiated their ancient traditional religious beliefs and superstitions," he stated. "And, I must say that our religion is pure and free from the contaminations of ... Mormonism, Mahotmetanism, Spiritualism, and that other class of religionists that murdered our SAVIOUR." Adair was particularly proud of his nation's political and judicial system. Since the early nineteenth century, the Cherokee had had a national legislature, a principal chief, and a supreme court. Such institutions produced a degree of law and order that white communities could not match. "I need only to call your attention to the fact," Adair stated, "that there is more crime and of a more heinous character among whites of the United States than there is among the Indians."

Adair certainly overstated the degree to which his people adopted Euro-American civilization, but he did describe several characteristics of his nation that made it different from other Native societies, especially the Lakota, who were receiving the bulk of America's attention in 1876. The Lakota were among the last Native American nations to confront Euro-American domination and to begin the process of adopting what whites and many Cherokee considered "civilization." The Lakota had contact with Euro-Americans since the 1700s, but very few spoke English, even fewer practiced Christianity, and constitutional government was a foreign concept to the loosely allied tribal bands. Moreover, as late as 1876, many Lakota lacked experience as settled farmers. The majority of the Northern Plains tribe, including bands headed by Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, had only recently abandoned buffalo hunting and become confined to reservations in the Dakota Territory, where they remained dependent on the federal government. Other bands led by such individuals as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse remained off the reservation, hunting in Montana and Wyoming and subsisting on what few buffalo remained.

Despite the seemingly deep cultural and historical gulf that separated the two nations, the "civilized" Cherokee found their own fate intersecting with that of the "uncivilized" Lakota in 1876. By 1 February1876 all Lakota Indians, according to the order of the Secretary of the Interior, were to gather at their agencies, where US agents hoped to pressure them into ceding the Black Hills and removing to Indian Territory, thus becoming the neighbors of the Cherokee. Two years earlier the US Army had invaded the Black Hills and announced the presence of gold; prospectors flooded into the sacred homeland of the Lakota, and western politicians called for the immediate acquisition of the valuable real estate. The Lakota, however, resisted the loss of the Black Hills. When 1 February 1876 passed, several bands remained off the reservation, forcing the US military to track them down. The military campaign reached its most significant point on 25 June when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse's warriors and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies destroyed George Armstrong Custer and his entire detachment of men. Unfortunately, Custer's defeat only increased the federal government's efforts to punish Native Americans. For those Indians on the reservation, US agents stepped up their demands that the Lakota give up their sacred land and move to a distant home in Indian Territory.