Lower Brule Territory

1825 - 1963

​On June 22, 1825, representatives of the US government signed a treaty with several bands of Lakota, Yancton, and Yanctonnais at Fort Lookout on the Missouri River. Fort Lookout is on the southern boundary of the present-day Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, at the south end of the Fort Hale District. This treaty was seemingly “For the purposes of perpetuating the friendship which has heretofore existed, as also to remove all future cause of discussion or dissension”. To perpetuate this friendship, however, the Tribes had to agree “that they reside within the territorial limits of the United States, acknowledge their supremacy, and claim their protection”.


Deeper into this agreement came a phrase that would have profound impacts on these assembled tribes – and every other Tribe in the Americas: “the limits of their particular district of country”. For the first time, the Sioux tribes faced an issue alien to their way of life – limits to their territory.

​On September 17, 1851, at Fort Laramie, commissioners appointed by the President of the United States signed a treaty with representatives of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Assiniboine, Gros-Ventre, Mandan and Arikara Nations. For the first time, Lakota people had to accept a specific portion of land as their territory: “commencing the mouth of the White Earth River, on the Missouri River; thence in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River; thence up the north fork of the Platte River to a point known as the Red Buts (sic), or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills, to the head-waters of Heart River; thence down Heart River to its mouth; and thence down the Missouri River to the place of beginning”.  Brulé hunting parties had traditionally gone south of the Platte River, but soon the Tribe realized that the United States regarded such acts as illegal.

​On October 14, 1865, at Fort Sully, the US government and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe signed a treaty that established the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation as a tract of land extending north from below the mouth of the White River along the Missouri River to Fort Lookout – about 20 miles as the crow flies – and west ten miles in depth.

​Three years later, in 1868, the second Fort Laramie Treaty created a Sioux Nation territory, called the Great Sioux Reservation. Without acknowledging the 1865 treaty, this treaty encompassed all the lands from the south boundary of Dakota Territory, west from the east bank of the Missouri River to the west side of the Black Hills and north to near the present-day boundary of North and South Dakota. The northern boundary was later extended to the Cannonball River.


The treaty included this statement: “the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except such officers, agents and employees of the Government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory”. These were fine words, as it set apart a homeland that included the sacred Black Hills, but this did not stop settlers from streaming west.


In 1874, when a US Army expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer entered the Black Hills and discovered gold, they announced it to the public, and the flow became a flood. The Tribes fought back, and in 1876, defeated General Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn), near present-day Hardin, Montana.

In retribution, the United States first attached a rider to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 that cut off all rations for the Sioux – who faced starvation because of the extermination of the buffalo – unless they ended hostilities and ceded the Black Hills. Soon after, this threat forced the Sioux to agree to the Manypenny Agreement, and the Act of February 2, 1877 then officially removed the Black Hills from the Great Sioux Reservation. That this was an illegal act was verified in 1979, when the United States Court of Claims concluded that this seizure violated the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

​While the United States broke this treaty with the Sioux, their explicit goal was to break up reservations and to force Indians to assimilate into the dominant white culture. The first attempt after the Act of 1877 was the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887 (Dawes Act), which allotted Indian lands into 160-acre tracts to individual heads of households and smaller amounts to other family members. Once all Indian people had their allotments, the federal government began to sell off unallotted lands within reservation boundaries to non-Indians.

The next assault on the Lakota land base began with the Act of August 7, 1882, which in part authorized the government to "negotiate with the Sioux Indians for such modification of existing treaties and agreements with said Indians as may be deemed desirable by said Indians
and the Secretary of the Interior". The government sent out a group of Commissioners to obtain agreements from the Sioux Tribes, but Lower Brule refused to sign. To force the Kul Wicasa into an agreement, the Commissioners and the Brules at Rosebud Agency agreed on a Lower Brule Reservation on January 27, 1883. There were no Lower Brule signatories.

The Great Sioux Reservation, as agreed by the Sioux Tribes, was broken up into smaller reservation by the Act of March 2, 1889. The Act split the Sicangu into two: the Rosebud Reservation was established south of the White River; but the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation was not maintained in the White River location, as outlined in the 1883 agreement, which Lower Brule had not signed. Instead, the Reservation was moved north, so that its southern boundary was 20 miles upstream from the White River, at Fort Lookout, where the 1825 Treaty was signed. This ‘new’ reservation, an area of 446,500 acres, was actually well within Lower Brule aboriginal territory. 

In 1898, the US government forced another agreement on the Lower Brule. relating to tribal members who continued to resist removal to the Reservation north of Fort Lookout. The Act of March 3, 1899 made these tribal members and their families members of the Rosebud Reservation – and also transferred their rights to Lower Brule trust land. This reduced the Lower Brule Reservation to 326,500 acres.

The Reservation boundary was fixed for less than ten years. The Act of April 21, 1906, allowed the US government to take 56,560 acres of unallotted lands in the Stanley County portion of the Reservation and provide them to non-Indian homesteaders. This area is now known as the Fort Pierre National Grassland. The Tribe still disputes the legality of this takeover.

That same year, the Act of May 8, 1906 (Burke Act) allowed the Secretary of the Interior to convert an Indian allotment, which could not be bought or sold, to fee land (saleable to non-Indians, and subject taxation), even without the knowledge or permission of the allottee. This was typical of divisive measures that contributed to the steady erosion of Lower Brule land well into the 20th century, as tribal members, enduring great poverty, were forced to sell their allotments to non-Indian ranchers and farmers.

In 1923, a group of non-Indian writers and social scientists formed the American Indian Defense Association (AIDA) and elected a social worker named John Collier as executive secretary. The AIDA promoted American Indian cultural autonomy by recommending radical changes in the US government’s approach to Indian land rights and culture. When US President Franklin J. Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933, it created a tide of change. Unlike previous government politicians, commissioners, and agents, Collier understood the starkly different concept of land held by aboriginal peoples, as he stated in his annual report to the government in 1938: “the Indian by tradition was not concerned with possession, did not worry about titles or recordings, but regarded the land as a fisherman might regard the sea, as a gift of nature, to be loved and feared, to be fought and revered, and to be drawn on by all as an inexhaustible source of life and strength”. 

The constant efforts of tribal representatives, non-Indian activists and Commissioner Collier’s work within the government resulted in the Indian Reorganization Act, June 18, 1934 (Wheeler-Howard Act), which finally eliminated the discreditable land grab initiated by the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. It stated that “hereafter no land of any Indian reservation, created or set apart by treaty or agreement with the Indians, Act of Congress, Executive order, purchase, or otherwise, shall be allotted in severalty to any Indian”; that “the existing periods of trust placed upon any Indian lands and any restriction on alienation thereof are hereby extended and continued until otherwise directed by Congress; and that “the Secretary of the Interior, if he shall find it to be in the public interest, is hereby authorized to restore to tribal ownership the remaining surplus lands of any Indian reservation heretofore opened, or authorized to be opened, to sale, or any other form of disposal by Presidential proclamation, or by any of the public land laws of the United States”.


The next loss of Lower Brule territory did not come to light until 1932. In the Act of 1889, the southern boundary of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation was defined as the 44th parallel of latitude. After the Sioux Tribes sued the United States for an accounting of all the lands which had been opened for settlement and disposed of under the Act of 1889, it emerged that the location of the 44th parallel by the surveyor in 1890 did not agree with the location of the parallel as determined by the United States Geological Survey, which placed it more than a mile south. In 1934, the Sioux Tribes, on the basis of this report, amended their petition to include a claim for the more than 30,000 acres of land which would have been included in the Lower Brule Reservation if the United States Geological Survey line had been its southern boundary. After a succession of court cases between 1934 and 1963, the courts agreed that the southern boundary was improperly located, and that lands which were properly part of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation had been sold as public lands. To this date, the Tribe has not been justly compensated.

The Lower Brule people had to endure two more damaging actions by the US government in the mid-20th century, when they passed the Pick-Sloan Act in 1944, which authorized the construction of dams on the Missouri River. The Fort Randall Taking Act (1958) and the Big Bend Taking Act (1962) took away the bottomland of the Missouri River valley and with it, almost the entire social, cultural and economic base of the Tribe. These lands, 22,296 acres of prime, rich floodplains and terraces, were sacrificed when the government decided in a cost-benefit analysis that destroying tribal homelands along the Missouri River was better than placing the dams where they might impact non-Indian farmers and settlements. The entire town of Lower Brule, once the largest settlement between the Missouri and the Black Hills, was inundated – sixty-nine percent of the reservation families forced from their homes, miles of roads, housing, farm and ranch buildings, a rodeo arena and a race track lost, many ancestral areas, including worship and gathering places, flooded or destroyed, and whole cemeteries of our people once again uprooted and moved to higher ground! This left us with an open wound, as every year, the crashing waves of Lake Francis Case and Lake Sharpe eat away more land and more of our ancient cultural sites.


1963 - present

After almost 300 years since Lakota tribal leaders signed a treaty with the United States at Fort Lookout (1825), the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation is a confusing checkerboard of lands with several different kinds of ownership: land belonging to the Tribe or tribal members, held in trust by the US government (trust lands, tribal lands, and allotted lands); and land removed from trust and owned outright by tribal and non-tribal individuals (fee lands). Because the inheritance of allotted lands was to descendants, a single plot of land today might be divided among many relatives, making it extremely difficult to deal with land management issues.

​The most urgent priority in this complex cultural landscape has been the return of lost lands. As almost half the property in the Reservation was non-Indian-owned as late as the 1950s, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe has established an aggressive land re-purchase and consolidation program. Lower Brule has now regained at least 20% of this land and recovered several large tracts of aboriginal territory:  93 acres in Oacoma, near the old Lower Brule Agency of the late 1800s; 1,080 acres near our most important sacred place, Bear Butte, in the Black Hills; and several ranches along the Native American Scenic Byway (Highway 1806), from the northern Reservation boundary almost to the town of Fort Pierre.  

The first federal government action to return lands taken from Lower Brule took place in 1999. Title VI of the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 included the “Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and State of South Dakota Terrestrial Wildlife Habitat Restoration Bill”. This legislation eventually resulted in the return of 7,000 acres – what was left of the dry lands along the shorelines of Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case that the United States took from Lower Brule when it authorized the dams on the Missouri River in 1944.


In 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Montana, and others, filed a class action suit against the Department of Interior. The suit contended that the Department had mismanaged trust accounts and failed to pay appropriate funds to individual tribal members whose ancestors had been assigned allotments under the General Allotment Act of 1887. In 2009, the parties ended the suit with the Cobell Settlement Agreement and it became law in the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. As part of this agreement, the Department of Interior established a Land Buy-Back Program that allows interested individual owners to receive payments for voluntarily selling their land, which would be put back in trust for their Tribe. As of 2017, Lower Brule has regained more than 13,000 acres, divided between surface and mineral rights, sold by allottees to the government and placed into trust. The program is ongoing.

The other land claim issues outlined above in this brief history are still unresolved.