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  • “Whoever Makes War upon the Rees Will Be Considered Making War upon the ‘Great Father’”Sahnish Military Service on the Northern Great Plains, 1865–1881
  • Mark van de Logt (bio)

In the mid-1860s the Arikaras, or Sahnish, struggled against Sioux (Dakota and Lakota) incursions into their territory. After first forming an alliance with the Mandans and Hidatsas to resist Sioux expansion, Sahnish leaders White Shield and Son of Star also attempted to create a military alliance with the United States. By allowing Sahnish men to scout for the U.S. Army, White Shield and Son of Star pursued a strategy that would take the war into enemy territory and place the Sioux on the defensive.

Although racist attitudes were widespread in the U.S. Army, the Sahnish scouts gradually earned respect and appreciation for their service from regular officers and enlisted men. Among these was Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who developed a close friendship with the Sahnish people. Meanwhile, realizing the danger posed by the Sahnish-U.S. military alliance, the Sioux began to target the scouts deliberately to discourage other Sahnish men from enlisting. Sadly, although the military establishment respected and appreciated the sacrifices and contributions of the scouts, the U.S. government did little to help these men after their service with the U.S. Army was over.


In the mid-1800s the United States and the Sioux battled each other for supremacy on the central and northern plains. The Sahnish were [End Page 9] caught in the middle of this war. They faced a difficult decision: stay neutral, join the Sioux, or join the United States?

Joining the Sioux against the United States was not at all a logical choice for the Sahnish leadership. For nearly a century the Sahnish had suffered from attacks and harassment by the western Sioux, who had invaded Sahnish territory. According to one visitor, when they were not fighting them, the Sioux treated the Sahnish as a “kind of serf, who cultivates for them and who, as they say, takes for them the place of women.”1 Although a handful of Sioux subbands were friendly, attempts to make lasting peace agreements with the larger Sioux bands proved to be a frustrating exercise. Most of these peaceful interludes were short-lived and ended as soon as the trading season was over. Frequently, peace negotiations broke down shortly after they had started, prompting one Sahnish leader to lament that the Sioux “enter with the calumet [pipe] by one door and kill us at the other.”2 Thus, from the Sahnish perspective, long before the United States began its disgraceful record of treaty violations, the Sioux habitually broke agreements with the Sahnish people. To make matters worse, for many years the Sioux had devised a strategy to keep the Sahnish divided from their Mandan and Hidatsa neighbors and on numerous occasions intrigued to foment discord and conflict between these tribes.3

Considering these factors, it comes as no surprise that the Sahnish chose neutrality in the conflict between the Sioux and the United States. Frustrated by this decision, however, the Sioux attempted to bully the three tribes into taking up arms against the United States. In 1862 army captain John Patter reported that unless the United States furnished military assistance to the three tribes, the Sioux would soon “compel them to join with them against the whites.”4

Faced with increasing pressure from the Sioux, Sahnish neešaánu’ (chief) White Shield sought closer ties with the United States. In July 1864 White Shield dictated a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, reminding the government that it had promised to protect the Sahnish people in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty:

We have a long time been the friends of the white man, and we will still be. . . . We are afraid of the Dakotas; they will kill us, our [women] and children, and steal our horses. We must stay in our village for fear of them. Our Great Father has promised us soldiers to help us keep the Dakotas out of our country. No help has come yet; we must wait. Has our Great Father forgotten his...


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pp. 9-28
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