The Black Hills are holy to the Lakota Sioux, the area's indigenous inhabitants when European immigrants came. For some, the four presidents chiseled into the hill have bad connotations. For others, they are a testament to the men who led the country during its formative years.
The first known reference to the name "Black Hills" occurs in a report written by Lt. Zebulon M. Pike of the U.S. Army during his expedition up the Missouri River in 1807. He called the high points along his route "the Black Hills". In a letter to his father, General William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana, who had asked him to find a route across the west, Pike described the appearance of the region he was exploring: "The country through which we passed is very barren and worthless excepting such small quantities of game as can be taken advantage of by hunters. But beyond the Black Hills it becomes more fertile and contains many fine streams with bottoms well suited for farming."
In a report to Congress in 1876, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite referred to the Black Hills region when he said, "These hills are the most sacred spot of all the Great Lakota Nation. Here is where the spirits live of all those who were killed in battle by the Americans or any other tribe.
The Western Sioux Indians used the Black Hills as a hunting field and holy land. At least parts of the land were holy to other Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho, and the area had previously been occupied by the Crow. During the 19th century, the Sioux controlled most of what is now South Dakota, except for a small portion near Fort Randall that was traded away in return for ammunition.
In 1876, the federal government forced the Sioux to give up their claim to most of the land in South Dakota in exchange for cash and food. The following year, Congress passed a law authorizing the president to negotiate settlement agreements with Indian tribes willing to settle on designated reservations. In 1889, the final piece of land was opened for white settlement when a treaty was signed with the Sioux at Wounded Knee; this event marked the end of the last major battle between European settlers and Native Americans.
The Black Hills are important to the Sioux because they are part of their traditional homeland and sacred burial ground. The land is also rich in minerals worth millions of dollars. Despite the wealth brought to the region by mining companies, the majority of funds generated have always gone back to the United States government, which has kept most of the money earned from the sales of mineral rights.
Currently, efforts are being made by some members of the Sioux tribe to have the land returned to them.
Because of its holiness in native culture, the Black Hills were respected by different tribes, including the Lakota, Omaha, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache Tribes. They used the area as a place to go on vision quests and pray for good hunting seasons.
The first Europeans to visit the region were French explorers who traveled through the area in 1737. American pioneers soon followed, and by 1876 the entire area was owned by the United States government. In 1877, an army officer named George Armstrong Custer led hundreds of soldiers into the hills after hearing about gold deposits there. The soldiers never returned home, and historians believe that most were killed by Native Americans. This tragic event is known as "Custer's Last Stand."
In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed a treaty with seven Sioux nations, including the Teton Sioux, Gros Ventre, and Miniconjou. The treaty set aside part of the Black Hills as a reserve for these tribes, and also gave them $20 million in cash and annuities over 20 years. However, many Indians did not get all they were promised, and some leaders abused their power by taking money from other people's pockets. This caused more resentment than gratitude. By 1996, when the last reservation was closed, only about 150 Indians remained.