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Gold in the Black Hills

by James H. Nottage & Johanna M. Blume, Eiteljorg curators | Mar 26, 2015

Hedren-3 - resized for blackhills blog

Custer’s Black Hills Expedition, 1874
Image courtesy of Paul L. Hedren

A treaty with the Lakota Nation in 1868 guaranteed the tribe’s right to occupy its beloved homeland, Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. As rumors of gold being found in the region spread, the government at first discouraged trespassers on the Indian land. However, in 1874 the Army sent Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry to explore the region. The expedition entered the Black Hills with more than 1,000 men, 100 wagons, a brass band, geologists, and reporters. When gold was found, word spread rapidly, and the rush was on. Although efforts were made initially to stop intrusions on the Lakota land, the tide of prospectors swept in, unrestrained by the federal government.

President Ulysses Grant tried but failed to purchase the Black Hills from the Lakota. Abandoning efforts to keep intruders from the Black Hills, the government summarily ordered the Indians onto a reservation by January 31, 1876. The war that resulted is sometimes referred to by the Lakota as “the fight where we lost the Black Hills.” To this day, Lakota writers and leaders make the violation of the 1868 treaty and the taking of the Black Hills a core theme of their advocacy for tribal rights.

Gold has been found at several places. . . . I have on my table forty or fifty small particles of pure gold . . . most of it obtained today from one pan full of earth.

—George Custer’s report to General Alfred Terry, 1874

The Americans stole my country, and the gold in the Black Hills. We asked the Americans to give us traders, instead they give us death. All of them robbed, cheated, and laughed at us.

—Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull), Hunkpapa Lakota 1877

All of our origin stories go back to this place. We have a spiritual connection to the Black Hills that can’t be sold. I don’t think I could face the Creator with an open heart if I ever took money for it.

—Rick Two Dogs, Oglala Lakota spiritual leader, about 2011

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