|Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.|
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Wounded Knee is a stark, remote place in western South Dakota with freezing winters, blazing hot summers, and hard, rocky ground tough for raising crops. Wounded Knee Creek itself is a narrow, shallow, twisting stream -- barely 100 miles start to finish -- that snakes across the barren landscape through today's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before vanishing into another stream just south of Badlands National Park.
This creek never held much appeal for the Lakota Sioux Indians. But just north sat something much better, the Black Hills, a natural wonder of peaks and streams, lush grasslands and deep forests, rich with game -- bison, deer, and bighorn sheep. This was land worth fighting for. The Sioux -- a loose confederation of tribes -- had already dominated the North American plains for two centuries by the 1770s when they first moved into this area, captured it from the Cheyennes, and made it central to their culture, religion, and survival.
By the time white settlers began reaching this area in the early 1800s, they found Sioux tribes -- Lakota, Oglala, and others -- covering vast stretches from Minnesota to the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and as far west as Montana and Wyoming. (Note: This wasn't all their land; Sioux constantly fought with other tribes and permanent borders or settlements had little meaning on this frontier.) At first, relations between Indians and this handful of white settlers were calm. Tribes signed dozens of treaties with settlers during the 1820s and 1830s, setting vague boundaries and promising friendships. But as the trickle of settlers began to grow, demands for land increased. In 1851, the US government agreed to pay the Lakota Sioux $1.6 million for the entire Iowa territory plus large chunks of Minnesota in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. (Click here for full text.) Many Sioux objected to this rich deal -- ceding 24 million acres in one stroke -- but tribal chiefs insisted.