BRAVES AND BADGES
True West|January 2022
EARLY AMERICAN INDIAN POLICE PLAYED A STRONG ROLE IN THE SETTLEMENT OF THE WEST.
JOHN LANGELLIER AND GLENWOOD J. SWANSON

Before recorded history, American Indians practiced some form of policing. The Sioux possessed the most organized tribal police society called the Akicita, also known as warrior societies, policing societies or whip bearers. Their duties included general social control. They especially played an active role during the annual hunts, keeping tribal members from starting too early or making unnecessary noise and controlling stragglers. Once the buffalo hunt ended, they ensured the equal distribution of meat and probably intervened in discussions of who could claim a specific kill. But the Cherokees created the original tribal police force recognizable to Europeans. By 1779 “Regulating Companies” came into being mainly to deal with horse thefts, some by the whites. In 1808 the Cherokees appointed sheriffs and a group of small companies called the “light horse” who patrolled the villages and enforced the first written code promulgated by an Indian tribe.

The First Indian Police

Nearly a century later, in 1865 at Fort Laramie, some Sioux wishing to remain aloof from growing conflict with the whites on the Northern Plains, set up camp east of the post. They received rations “for which, in return, they were to serve as scouts and camp police. Trader Charles Elliston commanded the paramilitary unit….” During May “some of Elliston’s police apprehended the Oglalas Two Face and Black Foot,” who the local commander, Col. Thomas Moonlight of the 11th Kansas Cavalry, subsequently hanged.

By 1869, Thomas Lightfoot, United States Indian agent to the Iowa and the Sac and Fox tribes in Nebraska, established a federally sponsored Indian police. Agent Lightfoot acted in response to a major shift in United States policy toward the Indians. Instead of viewing tribal peoples as sovereign nations, the evolving approach meant the government would engage with Native people as individuals. In 1869, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely S. Parker (U.S. Grant’s chief of staff at the end of the Civil War) expressed this view when he urged an end to treaty-making.

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