The earth shifted for Native Americans at Medicine Lodge

Time Before Now, October, 1867  The Viennese were dancing to the  “Blue Danube” just introduced by Waltz King Johann Strauss.  Jesse James was getting blamed for robbing the Savannah, Missouri, John McClain Banking House in March. It was one of the few crimes Jesse may not have actually committed.  Thirteen weeks later the James-Younger gang, beyond a doubt, robbed the Hughes & Wasson Bank in Richmond, Missouri, killing a man named Shaw and at least one other unidentified victim.  Wall Street got happier with the invention of  ticker tape (left) by American Telegraph Company employee, Edward A. Callahan and Texas cattle guys got really unhappy with Lucien B. Smith’s patent for barbed wire. 

October 21, 1867

On this day chiefs from five southern plains tribes signed on to the Medicine Lodge Treaty, a bate-and- switch agreement that ignited controversies lasting into the next century.

Artist’s depiction of Medicine Lodge Treaty site

Photograph of Medicine Lodge Treaty site

Some 52 signatories represented the Kiowa, Comanche, Plains Apache, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho.  One of the largest conclaves ever of Native American leaders, it had been organized by the Indian Peace Commission established by Congress that same year.

Native American signers of  Medicine Lodge Treaty

The Commission was made up of four civilians and initially three members of the military.  Its four civilian members, abolitionists all, included commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and former minister Nathaniel Green Taylor, Missouri Senator John Henderson, former Union general, John B. Sanborn, and Samuel Tappen, a Native American activist who investigated the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Commissioners and unidentified woman, perhaps a translator

Military members were principally former and future nemeses of the tribes, including General Alfred Terry, relentless pursuer of Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé a decade later; General William Harney, U.S. commander at  Nebraska’s 1855 Ash Hallow Massacre and William Tecumseh Sherman who advocated for “extermination of the Sioux,” if necessary.   

Negotiations were originally set for the Army’s Kansas Fort Larned.  In one of the government’s few concessions, at the chiefs’ request, talks were moved to the Medicine Lodge River south of Fort Larned, a traditional ceremonial site for tribes.

Artist’s  1867 drawing of Fort Larned on the Pawnee River

U.S. Park Service’s Fort Larned National Historic Site

Given the immense difficulties translating for so diverse a group, suspicions soon grew the chiefs may not have been fully informed about what they were agreeing to.  The Kiowa and Comanche gave up more than 60,000 square miles of traditional territory the first day, facing confinement to a 3-million-acre reservation in present-day Oklahoma.  They would receive houses, barns and schools from the federal government, they were told, valued at $30,000, a little north of $500,000 today.   But the chiefs made it clear they would rather do without the government’s trappings. 

Comanche Chief Ten Bears, (left) who had also signed the Treaty of Little Arkansas River two years earlier, objected to the provision.  “There are things which you have said which I do not like,” he told the group. “You said you wanted to put us upon reservations, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges.  I do not want them.  I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.  I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew a free breath.  I want to die there and not within walls.”

The Cheyenne and Arapaho lost even more land a week later.  Their territory was cut in half but were granted permission to hunt buffalo north of the Arkansas River as long as the buffalo held out and they avoided white settlements.

Tribal encampment near treaty site

Ultimately the chiefs agreed to the Commission’s terms. The treaty’s final version, however, was to be ratified by three-fourths of the adult males living on the reservations prior to cessesion.  That provision was rendered moot with the Dawes Act a decade later.  Congress voted to change the formula for communally held lands to individual 160-acre parcels per household, allowing the government to “sell the surplus.”

Following passage of the Dawes Act, a second commission was hastily  dispatched to seek approval from the adult males living on the reservations.   But the 1892 Jerome Act simply put the new allotment formula in place without any tribal approval.  It stripped away millions of acres of tribal holdings from the reservations.

The commissioners had failed to mention the sale price for the “surplus land.”  It prompted Kiowa leader, Lone Wolf the Younger, (right) to sue the Secretary of the Interior.  Not surprisingly, the 1903 case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, was decided by the Supreme Court  in favor the government.  The Court’s opinion found that while the tribes had not consented to further land cessions, Congress held “plenary power” over Native Americans as “wards of the nation” who depended on the U.S. “for their daily food.”

Leaning on the Lone Wolf decision, Congress set about making similar unilateral decisions over tribal lands beginning in 1903 and 1904 with the Rosebud Reservation in southern South Dakota. 

The fight didn’t end there, however.  Nearly half a century later, Kiowa, Apache and Comanche representative won back tens of millions in compensation from the Indian Claims Commission for land sales under the unratified Jerome Act.  

Rosebud Sioux tribal headquarters located in Rosebud, S.D.

Additionally, in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the Rosebud Sioux compensation due to the illegal Jerome Act.   The more than 21,000 tribal members, like a number of other South Dakota Lakota, have refused to accept money, seeking instead to have their land restored.

Southern Plains Indian Museum, 801 East Central Boulevard, Anadarko, Oklahoma, includes exhibits on the history and culture of eight major plains tribes.  Represented are the Caddo, Chiricahua Apache, Comanche, Delaware Nation, Kiowa, Plains Apache, Southern Arapaho, Southern Cheyenne, and Wichita.  The museum was jointly founded in 1947 by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the State of Oklahoma.

The recent Rosemary Ellison Gallery, completed in 2001, houses the museum’s extensive permanent collection of works by more than a dozen Native American artists including Blackbear Bosin, acclaimed for his painting, “Prairie Fire” and  Allan Houser, internationally known modernist painter and sculptor.  Admission is free and regular hours are 10 to 4:30 Tuesday through Friday.  For more information go to, call (405) 247-6221, fax (405) 247-7593 or write Southern Plains Indian Museum, PO Box 749, Anadarko, Oklahoma 73005.

Before planning to visit, go to the website above for up-to-date information on the museum’s Covid-19 guidelines.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.