What are the Key Events of Sioux History?

James Doehring

Most known events in Sioux history follow contact with European settlers in the Americas. The Sioux, a Native American tribe that originally settled in what are now the American states of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, engaged in trade with settlers and acquired new technologies that changed their way of life. A string of hostilities erupted between the Sioux and the Americans, however. The last major battle in Sioux history was in 1890 in South Dakota, where a large number of Sioux are located.

Wounded Knee, South Dakota, was an important location for Sioux civil rights protests.
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, was an important location for Sioux civil rights protests.

The Sioux are thought to have settled in a vast area around the source of the Mississippi River at the time of European contact. They both hunted and farmed for sustenance. French merchants engaged the Sioux in the fur trade by the 17th century. It is likely, though, that the Sioux came under indirect European influence before this time. European horses and metal tools, along with detrimental microbes, made their way through many Native American societies through trade.

General Custer and his army were killed by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
General Custer and his army were killed by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Intermittent war with the French escalated during the 1700s, and many Sioux were pushed south. Large-scale movements of the Sioux often resulted in conflict with other Native American groups that were occupying the lands in question. During the War of 1812, the Sioux allied themselves with Great Britain. The end of the war, however, signaled an end to major relations between the Sioux and European powers.

A series of conflicts with the US characterizes Sioux history during the 1800s. Treaty violations by the US government and late payments by Sioux financial agents resulted in violence between American settlers and the Sioux. These armed conflicts are collectively known as the Dakota War of 1862. Hundreds of American settlers were killed and 39 captured Sioux were publicly hanged. Remaining Sioux near US settlements were pushed further west.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was one of the few tactical Sioux victories against US troops. Lt. Colonel George Custer attacked a much larger Sioux force in southern Montana. Sioux warriors, who were mounted on horseback and possessed modern guns, retaliated and killed Custer along with 267 of his men. News of a Sioux victory shocked Americans, who had historically experienced military superiority over native groups.

The last major battle with US forces in Sioux history is known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. A US cavalry unit assigned to escort a group of Sioux away from their homes for forced relocation ended up in a firefight with the Natives. Twenty-five soldiers and 150 Sioux were killed during this engagement on 29 December 1890.

Another episode of Sioux history involves the Sioux civil rights protests during the 1960s and 1970s. The town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota was occupied by activists of the American Indian Movement for 71 days during 1973. The standoff ended peacefully, though US authorities surrounded the town.

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Discussion Comments


It's ironic that the Sioux''s greatest victory, The Battle of Little Bighorn, was ultimately the reason they were so thoroughly demolished by the American troops. Settlers and people who dealt directly with the Sioux knew they were fighters and could be dangerous, but the United States government saw them as more of a nuisance until what happened to General Custer and his troops.

After Custer's defeat, the U.S. government knew the Sioux had to be defeated once and for all in order to instill confidence in settlers and others helping to establish new territory for the U.S.


The important thing to remember is that Sioux history did not begin with the arrival of the French, English and Spanish. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Sioux people is that they made the long journey from Asia to North America.

After leaving Asia some 30,000 years ago, the Sioux continued their nomadic lifestyle and eventually reached what would later become the United States.


How sad is it that so seldom is American history told from the perspective of the Sioux and other peoples who were in North American before the Europeans arrived? The history of the Sioux people is a template for what most of the other tribes went through as they came into contact with European settlers and then the armies that followed.

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