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The Treason of Bear Ribs*


Territorial Governor William Jayne reported the death of Sioux Chief Bear Ribs on this date in 1862. Chief of all Sioux, Bear Ribs was killed by his own kinsmen for the act of accepting annuity payments from the U.S. Government, an act that the Sioux had forbidden as treasonous only months before.

Chief Bear Ribs was leader of a small band of Hunkpapa Sioux when he was invited by General William Harney to Fort Pierre in 1856. Unlike the Eastern Sioux tribes, the Western Sioux had been mostly peaceful, although encroachments by whites into Sioux territory, especially the Black Hills, had caused some skirmishes between the two groups. Harney hoped to quell the violence by creating a new treaty that would secure peaceful passage for white settlers.

The Sioux leaders who met with Harney were largely impressed with the reception Harney made for them. Harney also wished to nominate a single leader to represent the many factions of the Sioux, which would simplify tribal negotiations. He nominated Chief Bear Ribs, a respected leader known for his bravery. The Sioux leaders agreed with Harney’s choice, and Bear Ribs was named head chief of all Sioux. However, the next six years proved tragic for the Sioux along the Western Missouri. They suffered from disease and malnourishment as white settlers drove away the buffalo, and annual government annuities arrived late and meager.

Bear Ribs began to lose respect among his Sioux peers for his failure to act, and a call was issued against the acceptance of annuities, believing that by accepting the payments, they were legitimizing the actions of the government against them. They declared acceptance of any such goods as treason, punishable by death among the Sioux.

In 1862, when Indian agent Samuel Latta arrived at Fort Pierre with the annual payments, Chief Bear Ribs was there to turn him away. Eventually, however, Latta convinced the reluctant Bear Ribs to accept the payments for his people, which he had brought by steamship up the Missouri. Three days later, a small group of Sans Arc Sioux assassinated their appointed leader for treason just outside the fort’s gates. The U.S. Government never again attempted to appoint a head chief of all Sioux.

Dakota Datebook by Jayme L. Job

*Note: Chief Bear Ribs is alternately called ‘Bear’s Rib’, ‘Bears Ribs’, and ‘Bear Rib’; the most exact translation from the Sioux would be ‘Side of Bear,’ although that is seldom used to refer to the Sioux Chief. Also, there are other chiefs by the same name, although they lived at different times.


Ambrose, Stephen. 2012 Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors: Chapter 4: Curly’s Vision. Premier Digital Publishing.

Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1913 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History: pp. 187-189. Liberty Press: Washington, DC.

Price, Catherine. The Oglala People, 1841-1879: A Political History: pp. 49-50. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE.

Vestal, Stanley. 1932 (1957) Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux, a Biography: pp. 50-51. Houghton Mifflin Company: Norman, OK.