Spotted Tail, or Sinte Galeska, was an esteemed chief among the Brule tribe of the Sioux Nation. He was a man said to be of great ability both in battle and in peace and was a major Sioux leader in the Plains Indian wars.
The early years
Spotted Tail was born in 1823, near the banks of the White River west of the Missouri River in South Dakota, near present-day Pine Ridge, which is southeast of Rapid City, just north of the Nebraska border.
He was related to Chief Crazy Horse, who is well known for his role in the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In addition, Spoted Tail was a first cousin to Conquering Bear, a Brule chief.
His father was a Blackfoot Sioux named Tangled Hair, and his mother, named Walks-with-Pipe, was of the Brule Sioux, the marriage of which was to cause Sinte Galeska social problems later on.
So, during military practices and mock battles, Spotted Tail decided to take charge and use his innate intelligence to play the part of strategist for his “army.” He would be the one to make a battle plan and assign to the others their parts in the exercises. This gained him the needed respect and confidence to carry a leadership role into real battle.
Sinte Galeska, also known as Jumping Buffalo, got his adult name, Spotted Tail, from a raccoon’s tail that a white trapper had given him when he was younger. Spotted Tail incorporated the trophy into his war headdress, wearing it in his first battles.
By age 30, Spotted Tail had been selected for leadership¹ within his people; he was an honored Shirtwearer ². His battle shirt was adorned with more than 100 locks of hair that represented scalps that he had taken, coups of which he was a part, and horses that he had stolen.
Spotted Tail played a vital role in the first sizable battle between the Lakotas and the U.S. Army. Spotted Tail organized and led the assault on the flank and rear of Lieutenant Grattan’s command that created panic among the troops and facilitated their demise. In the summer of 1854, Chief Conquering Bear died during an incident with 2nd Lieutenant John Grattan and his command, known as the Grattan Massacre. Little Thunder then succeeded Conquering Bear as the chief of the Brules.
Spotted Tail was also involved in the Kincaid Coach Raid, and the army’s attack on the Bluewater camp of Little Thunder. To protect the tribe from any army reprisals, Spotted Tail voluntarily surrendered to General Harney at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and served about three years in prison.
While in prison, Spotted Tail learned to read and write English, and acquired skills that would be useful in dealing with whites when he became chief. Having witnessed the strength and numbers of the white military forces while incarcerated, he reached an understanding that in order for his people to survive, diplomacy had to replace armed conflict, whenever possible, if coexistence with the whites was to become a reality.
Spotted Tail would now evaluate the long-term interests of his people differently. He made a careful study of the white man, taking note of the white man’s customs and the way his mind worked, chiefly of his odd, desperate lust to acquire and own property as individuals rather than a community where everyone shared of the land and its bounty.
During the late 1850s and into the early 1860s, the Brules lived in relative peace in their homelands in southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. During this time, Spotted Tail gained responsibility and authority, becoming the trusted lieutenant of Little Thunder.
In November of that year, Colonel John Chivington led the Third Colorado Cavalry in a savage attack on a southern Cheyenne and Arapaho village, now known as the Sand Creek Massacre, in west central Colorado. The survivors escaped to a camp on the Smoky Hill River.
Messages calling for war went out to associated bands and allies, among them the southern Brules. Although Spotted Tail saw the futility of war, he accepted his responsibility as a war chief to lead his tribesmen into battle.
With Spotted Tail in the lead, the warriors attacked the stagecoach stop at Julesburg, in the Colorado Territory, in early January 1865. They returned a month later, to burn the town.
Troops from Fort Laramie, however, derailed their plans and attacked the war party in western Nebraska Territory, so Spotted Tail and his warriors decided they had had enough of war and brought his people to the fort to seek a peace settlement.
After the battle, the tribal council ignored the hereditary line and selected Spotted Tail to succeed Little Thunder, who had recently been killed in the unprovoked attack on his villiage at Blue Water Creek, as chief.
Spotted Tail eagerly negotiated with the government commission of 1867-1868. He signed the infamous “Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868,” which gave away Sioux lands along the Republican and the Platte rivers. In the latter part of that summer, the treaty required Spotted Tail's band to move to an area on Whetstone Creek near the Missouri River. Finding the new location for his band unsuitable, Spotted Tail moved them more than 30 miles from the agency. After signing the treaty, Spotted Tail was a major force in the early subduing, by negotiation, of hostile Indians.
The army, without consulting other leaders of the tribes, appointed Spotted Tail head chief of all the Sioux. This incited dissention and jealousy within the ranks of his own people. Not wanting a civil war among the Sioux, Spotted Tail relocated to a new agency at Fort Sheridan, Nebraska, on the south bank of the White River, which they called the "Spotted Tail Agency.”
In 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer marched into Dakota Territory on his exploration of the Black Hills. When it was confirmed that gold was there, the government decided to take back the Sioux’s new lands, and remove the Indians. All this was in violation of the 1868 treaty. In December 1875, President Grant ordered the internment of all Sioux into Indian agencies within two months or be considered hostile. Spotted Tail proceeded to negotiate Crazy Horse’s surrender.
Spotted Tail was an extraordinarily determined administrator; as head chief, he continued to keep an Indian police force to keep alcohol off the reservation, and he condemned army threats to force the Lakota to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Throughout the 1870s, jealousies, grudges, and the pressures of captivity of the previously nomadic people fueled aggressive disputes. Spotted Tail’s enemies began attacking him for his relationship with a woman who had left her husband ³.
In June 1876, word of the Battle of the Little Big Horn reached Spotted Tail and his people at the "Spotted Tail Agency." The Indian's victory proved to be a double-edged sword; on one hand it was a great victory in a bloody war of survival, on the other hand, it was also just the excuse that the white man needed to perfect the oppression and destruction of the Native American peoples and their culture.
In 1879, when the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened, in Pennsylvania, Spotted Tail enrolled many of his people from the Rosebud Reservation in the School, including members of his immediate family. He was outraged when he found that his children had been baptized as Episcopalians, given Christian names, dressed like soldiers, and were not learning English, but instead were made to farm and do industrial work.
At that point, Spotted Tail removed his entire family from Carlisle and instantly found the goodwill of many whites had evaporated.
Crow Dog, a nephew of the old chief, Conquering Bear, threatened to shoot Spotted Tail, and continued trying to humiliate Spotted Tail with the fact that he was chief not by the will of the tribe, but by the guns of the white soldiers. Crow Dog took up his gun and fulfilled his threat. In August 1881, Crow Dog shot Spotted Tail in the chest, killing him.
Spotted Tail still lives in the hearts of his people for trying to save them from annihilation or banishment to a place of oppression, starvation, and death called the “Oklahoma Territory.” Ultimately, he located his people on a preferred tract of land, and was able to preserve substantial amounts of the tribal culture and authority. He saw and espoused the belief that education is an important tool in preserving Sioux culture and tradition.
¹Leaders of the Lakota people were selected by a consensus of the people. They based their judgment on the character and actions that set a person apart.
² One of the highest honors and responsibilities accorded to males was the title of Shirtwearer. A Shirtwearer was expected to be an ultimate provider and protector of his people and to lead an exemplary life as a role model.
³ It should be noted that among some of the Sioux, it was the custom to allow a woman to divorce her husband at any time. She did so by simply moving in with relatives or with another man, or by placing the husband's belongings outside their lodge. Although some compensation might be required to smooth over hurt feelings, the rejected husband was expected to accept his wife's decision for the good of the tribe.
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