North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Beaded GlovesChanging Circumstances

When Everything Got All Mixed Up

The rapid series of events in the last quarter of the nineteenth century brought tremendous change to the lives of the Plains peoples. These encounters and conflicts with Euro-Americans are often seen as symbols for all the hardships that Native Americans have confronted.

In 1876 the Lakota and Cheyenne fought General George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. The Lakota were forced to give up their sacred Black Hills to gold-mining interests by an act of Congress in 1877. The last buffalo hunt occurred in 1882. In 1890 Chief Big Foot and his band were brutally fired upon at Wounded Knee Creek.

The Lakota have continued to occupy a central role in the national political Indian movement of the last half of the twentieth century. Two Lakota were founding members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the militant Indian rights group whose protests culminated in the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. The site at Wounded Knee has become a symbol of Native American desire for sovereignty based on the tribal system of values.

Although many Lakota have relocated from reservations to urban areas, and despite daunting social and economic problems, including high unemployment and poor health care, the Lakota people continue a rich ceremonial and community life. Traditional Lakota values, the use of the Lakota language, and an expressive artistic heritage remain strong.

Coming to the City

Jacket Since the end of World War II there has been a large-scale movement of American Indian people away from the reservations to urban areas. Today more than sixty percent of the American Indian population live in cities.

The U.S. government encouraged the urban migration in the 1950s by developing a federal relocation program. The aim was to attract Indian people to the cities, where jobs were more readily available than on the reservations. Thousands of Native people responded to the promise of "good jobs" and "happy homes" as advertised in the governmental brochures.

For many, relocation was a failure. What they found, in general, were low-paying jobs and high-cost rents. Although some stayed and built a life, many returned to the reservations.

Unfamiliar challenges confront Native people who move to urban areas. Life in the city often means living next door to non-Indian strangers. It means trying to balance one's traditional cultural values with the often-conflicting requirements for success in mainstream society.


Image 1: Gloves
Lakota, collected ca. 1900
Once buffalo hunting, raiding, and warfare were no longer possible, the single pursuit that Plains men found attractive was becoming cowboys. Even though the U.S. government encouraged the former warriors to become farmers, Lakota men had little aptitude and no interest in agricultural work. Lakota women made elaborate cowboy clothing such as these gloves for men to wear for Fourth of July parades and other special occasions.
Tanned hide, glass, commercial silk, sinew, brass, commercial cotton; L 39.1 x W 17.5 cm; 9560-78 a & b, gift of Henry P. Walker

Image 2: Jacket
George Thunderhawk, Lakota, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, 1990
The insignia on this jacket was created especially for a group of Lakota youth runners from Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, to commemorate the 1990 centennial of the death of Sitting Bull. On December 15, 1890, fearing the leader's influence and endorsement of the Ghost Dance messianic religion, Indian Agent James McLaughlin sent policemen to arrest Sitting Bull. In the ensuing scuffle, Sitting Bull was shot. In 1990 the young runners ran ahead of the Big Foot Memorial Riders as they crossed the reservation during their commemorative ride toward Wounded Knee.
Nylon, polyester, steel, ink, commercial cotton; L 72.1 x W 104.2 cm; 35417-1

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