Photograph Title ~ “SEVERELY MALNOURISHED DAKOTA INDIAN WOMAN IN A TIPI”, 1891. Following the systemic slaughter of the Buffalo nations…
~ “They take our land, they take our hunting and then they force us to work for food that make us sick.”
– On the Great Plains, tribes came to be seen grudgingly as “Wards of the Nation” and were guaranteed at least on paper, food rations by treaties signed with the United States government in exchange for their vast traditional lands.
Following the government sanctioned near extermination of the Buffalo to force tribes onto reservations and rid itself of the, “Indian problem, rations cards were issued by the indian agent to the heads of each household for up to nine dependents once weekly. Food rations were often late, the rotting meats caused rampant sickness and death especially for the children and elders. Rations came in the form of beef, flour and pork with the occasional coffee, sugar, soap and tobacco. Indian agents came to use rations as a form of coercement, to threaten against participation in cultural gatherings, forcing Native families to send their children to government boarding schools often hundreds of miles away, often with the warning threat to take away a family’s ration ticket.
Over time, the promise of rations came to be seen as a burden by society of the day, a view often promoted by politicians and in statements made the national media. Rations were decreased and ultimately eliminated. Over time the land and climate could not sustain and support the small-scale agriculture the government indian agents were forcing Natives into under the admonition issued, prevalent at the time, “Till or starve!”.
Brutal winters during the Reservation confinement era killed the native people’s cattle further environmental stressors were introduced through government issued passes allowing for settlers to graze cattle herds upon supposedly protected reservations lands, herds that trampled through and destroyed what crops the tribes managed to grow.
Drought stalked the Plains then, as today. Traditional roots, berries, and plants on the reservation became over-foraged, and bison herds that would have kept everyone fed, were by this time nearly driven extinct. Leading to despair, tribes no longer had an effective system of sharing food communally as was custom prior to reservation life that had always protected the poor, elderly, ill, and the disabled from starvation, furthering the breakdown of ancient life ways in, culture and community fueled by federal and state policies equaling genocide.
~ “The government is ready to assist in their support, to grant them reservations, to give them food and make them presents; but it must and will, with sharp hand, enforce their respect to travel, their respect to lives and property, and their respect to trade throughout all this region. And if this cannot be secured, short of their utter extermination, why extermination it must be.”
– Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, May 1865.