Still Indian Country: The Indigenous Northern Plains in the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories, the Oral History Association, and the Western History Association

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Midwest; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; West


The northern Great Plains have been home to diverse societies including Lakotas, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Mandan, as well as Euro-Americans. Many historical narratives about the northern plains recognize them as a crucial zone of interaction and conflict in the seventeenth through end of the nineteenth centuries. In the past decade however, historians have taken a renewed interest in this region and its importance to the history of the North American continent in more recent times. Historians have specifically emphasized the continued presence of Native peoples and their centrality to the culture, economics, and politics of the modern northern plains, combining their histories with scholarly subfields and methodologies such as urban history, public history, and the history of religion.

This panel highlights the presence and importance of Native actors to the region’s history during the twentieth century. As Americans colonized the northern plains, they enforced a settler colonial social and political regime that dispossessed Native Americans of their land and sacred spaces, built cities and towns, and substantially altered the region’s ecology. The papers presented here emphasize both the history of settler colonialism and inequality in the region, as well as the ways in which Indigenous people resisted the homogenizing efforts of American society and adapted to changing circumstances; in short, how they remade and retained Indian Country on the northern plains. Native people adopted new religions, maintained their older ceremonies and material cultures, and remained constantly in motion during the twentieth century. This panel showcases the newest scholarship on the northern plains region of North America and in doing so, makes the argument that the northern plains are a central part of the story of race, settler colonialism, religion, and Indigenous resistance in the modern American West.

Papers Presented

Dakota Wicohan: Indigenous Cradleboards as Material Culture and History

Dakota historian Waziyatawin has utilized and centered the Dakota language and oral histories/tradition in her monograph, Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (2005). Waziyatawin skillfully articulates the importance of using Dakota language and oral histories/traditions as an important research methodological tool when writing about Dakota history, language, and identity. This presentation seeks to further build upon indigenous methodology by using material culture to better understand the interconnectedness of Dakota culture, child-reading practices, and gender. This paper will specifically focus on Dakota cradleboards to better understand the importance of cradleboards as historical “artifact.” In the Dakota context, cradleboards change over a period of time after contact with non-Dakota peoples and the introduction of various textiles and beads. How did Dakota women indigenize and incorporate these “foreign” textiles and beads into their cradleboards? Why did the use of cradleboards slowly disappear? And why are Dakota cradleboards currently being reclaimed, used and revitalized within tribal communities and members? Finally, this paper will juxtapose indigenous cradleboards and oral histories against the historical written record of how non-Dakotas viewed Dakota women and children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Presented By
Elise Boxer, University of South Dakota

Reclaiming Noaha-vose (Bear Butte): Cheyenne Resistance to Settler Colonialism in a Sacred Place

Noaha-vose or Bear Butte is a vital landscape for Cheyenne religious belief and practice. Cheyenne people have visited this site to pray, fast, and conduct national ceremonies for centuries. After Lt. Col. Armstrong Custer’s expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, however, life changed dramatically for Cheyenne people. By 1877, federal officials had ended Cheyenne treaty rights to the Black Hills and began the process of removing the Cheyenne living in the northern plains to Oklahoma. While these actions affected every facet of Cheyenne lifeways, this paper focuses on the effects on Cheyenne people’s ability to maintain the primacy of their relationship to Bear Butte. The barriers Cheyenne people experienced when attempting to access this sacred space severely restricted full practice of Cheyenne religion. Yet over the past one hundred and fifty years, Cheyenne people continued to travel to Bear Butte for ceremonies despite removal and the restrictions of reservation life. Since the end of World War II, Cheyenne people have begun to use new tools in their efforts to reclaim the mountain as sacred space and to gain recognition of this connection by nonnatives. This paper delineates Cheyenne efforts to continue to travel to Bear Butte during the most restrictive moments of the reservation period. It then explores the relationships Cheyenne people built between land owners and later the park service to retain their connection to the land. It argues that Cheyenne have used methods as varied as building relationships with landowners and park rangers, protesting development, and purchasing land to retain, rejuvenate, and protect their relationship to their sacred mountain, Noaha-vose. It posits that by engaging on multiple levels with the settlers who now inhabit the area, Cheyenne people have continued to remake their relationship with the land, ensuring their presence in their sacred landscape by challenging the inequalities of settler colonialism that have tried to erase it.

Presented By
Christina Gish Hill, Iowa State University

Urban Indian Country: Segregation and Disaster in Twentieth-Century Rapid City

In 1972 a flood tore through Rapid City, South Dakota, killing 238 people. Many whose lives and homes were destroyed lived in a predominately Native American neighborhood known as “Osh Kosh Camp.” This paper asks: Why did those people live in that neighborhood at that time? I argue that white Americans racialized certain spaces under the conceptual framework of Indian Country as part of the process of American conquest on the northern plains, creating continuities between policies of removal, the institution of the reservation system and twentieth-century urban segregation. The American project of racializing western spaces erased Indians from histories of Rapid City. The importance of a tourism industry rooted in white conquest narratives to the region’s economy played an important role in keeping Indians out of urban spaces. Despite this, Indians continued to live and work in the city, particularly after the imposition of the federal policies of termination and relocation. In Rapid City restrictive housing laws and rampant discrimination forced Native Americans in Rapid City to live in poor neighborhoods cut off from city services, including one neighborhood along Rapid Creek’s floodplain. After the flood, activists retook the concept of Indian Country as a tool of protest. My paper claims that environment and race must be understood together in the twentieth-century American West.

Presented By
Stephen Hausmann, University of St. Thomas

The Catholic Sioux Congress of 1910 and Indigenous Mobility in the Northern Plains

In the summer of 1910, over four thousand Indians from across the northern Plains converged on the Standing Rock Reservation for the annual Catholic Sioux Congress. The congress brought together delegates from reservations throughout the region and a number of Catholic officials, including the papal delegate to the United States. It was the largest gathering of its kind. Yet Indigenous peoples would continue attending not only Catholic convocations but also large Episcopal and Congregational meetings in the upper Missouri River valley through the mid twentieth century. As scholars have shown, Indigenous peoples used these meetings for their own purposes, melding Christian and Lakota religious practices and carrying on Indigenous traditions of gift giving. This paper situates the religious convocations from the early twentieth century within the longer history of Indigenous diplomacy and communication in the upper Missouri River valley. By traveling throughout the river valley to attend the convocations, delegates visited homelands, communicated with friends and relatives on neighboring reservations, and crossed reservation borders. While Catholic officials believed that these meetings would supplant Indigenous ceremonies, Indigenous peoples used them to maintain older Indigenous networks along the Missouri River.

Presented By
Christopher Steinke, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jeff Ostler, University of Oregon
Jeff Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon.

Presenter: Elise Boxer, University of South Dakota
Elise Boxer is an enrolled tribal member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribe located in northeastern Montana. She is currently an Assistant Professor in History and Native American Studies. Boxer is the Program Coordinator for the Native American Studies Program and also serves as a board member of the American Indian Studies Association, the oldest organization in the discipline.

Presenter: Stephen Hausmann, University of St. Thomas
Stephen Hausmann is an Assistant Professor in the history department at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He earned his PhD from Temple University in 2019 and is working on his book manuscript, an environmental history of settler colonialism in the Black Hills, which focuses on the deadly 1972 Black Hills Flood. His research has been funded by the Newberry Library, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Linda Hall Library, and the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.

Presenter: Christina Gish Hill, Iowa State University
Christina Gish Hill is an associate professor in the World Languages and Cultures department at Iowa State University. She focuses on American Indian/Native cultures of the Northern Plains, using the methodologies of ethnography and ethnohistory to research the employment of cultural and political expressions of social cohesion by Native communities, particularly in response to the pressures of Euro-American encroachment on Native landscapes and the resulting removals. While much research on Indigenous sovereignty and political autonomy has focused on political constructions, Gish Hill’s research focuses on the social relationships that undergird them. This emphasis allows her to explore the impact of kinship on exercising political autonomy, on asserting this autonomy in negotiations with the United States, on negotiating colonial impositions, on cultural expressions of identity, and on sustaining a relationship with the landscape. Christina Gish Hill’s 2017 book, entitled Webs of Kinship, addresses these issues by tracing Northern Cheyenne experiences of removal and massacre, to understand how this group continued to sustain a cultural political identity and a relationship with their traditional homeland. Her current research expands her exploration of how these social relations impact current cultural expressions of Native relationships with their landscapes and food ways in the face of colonial forces working to disrupt these relationships. She has recently published articles on Indigenous foodways, seed sovereignty, food sovereignty as a protected treaty rights. She is also currently conducting research on the relationship between Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the Black Hills.

Presenter: Christopher Steinke, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Chris Steinke is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. His work focuses on Indigenous history in the Great Plains.