Born near his people’s traditional hunting grounds north of Redfield, SD, in 1821, Drifting Goose was the leader of his Hunkpati band for 45 years. He provided his people with a good livelihood and protected them against danger.
Drifting Goose lived most of his life in the free area of eastern South Dakota. His people, the lower Yanktonai, migrated there in the late 1600s from Minnesota. Initially, Drifting Goose and his people spoke the Nakota dialect. But, over time, their dialect merged with the Dakota.
The Yanktonai, like other Sioux, were a nomadic people. Following their primary food source, the bands spent their days hunting bison and camping throughout their respective territories. Drifting Goose traveled extensively in eastern South Dakota up and down the James River and into southwestern Minnesota. Yet, Drifting Goose’s people also lived a more agricultural life than most. They planted corn, gathered berries and wild turnips, and raised stock.
It was most important, however, for the Hunkpati to find a place they could call home. So in 1840, the Drifting Goose band with 300 members set up a permanent camp in abandoned earth lodges at Armadale Island in the James River to the northeast of Mellette, SD. This village later became the heart of Drifting Goose Reservation.
By the mid-1850s, the idyllic life of the Hunkpati began to change as Europeans and non-Indians came flooding into Dakota land through Yankton and up the Missouri River. The trouble started when the Sisseton Indians, in the 1851 Treaty of Traverse de Sioux, ceded land also claimed by the Yanktonai.
As the Indians were forced to sign more treaties, thousands of white settlers pushed their way into Dakota Territory, shrinking the homelands of Drifting Goose and his people. As other Sioux ceded their lands, Drifting Goose held out. He refused to sign any treaties relinquishing the homelands of his people.
During the 1870s, Drifting Goose struggled to retain his people’s traditional lands, fending off squatters and surveyors, the railroad, and the government.
A wise and wily chief – in his 50s at the time – Drifting Goose is credited with changing more courses of South Dakota development and having more impact on Washington bureaucracy than any other representative of his people.
His intimidation tactics were so successful early settlers referred to his persistence as “The Drifting Goose War.” Confrontations between Drifting Goose and railroad surveyors are legendary. After he removed and covered the surveyors’ landmarks numerous times, the railroad was rerouted for good 10 miles west of the original right of way, a respectful distance from Drifting Goose village.
Although his intentions to remove squatters from his territory were serious and very successful, Drifting Goose was known as a peaceful, friendly man. He thought more of his people and their survival than he did about making war.
But, surviving on the James River during harsh winters, with dwindling buffalo resources and constant pressure from the government, became increasingly difficult. Drifting Goose began moving with his people between the Sisseton and Crow Creek reservations for food rations.
His friend, Gabriel Renville, gave him food when it could be spared. Together, they persuaded a reservation agent to ask Washington for $2,000 in relief money during the severe winter of 1874-75. Even General H.H. Sibley, who Drifting Goose had aided as a scout after the Sioux outbreaks, wrote to Washington on Drifting Goose’s behalf.
However, these measures only served to delay the inevitable, and in 1878, his band was forced to the Crow Creek reservation on the Missouri River. At Crow Creek, Drifting Goose continued to wield his greatest strengths, using his keen intelligence and wit to adapt to his new world. It is said he had no enemies and many friends, both white and Indian. He quickly made friends with the clerics at Crow Creek and so admired Bishop Marty that he asked to be baptized in the Catholic Church.
For all of Drifting Goose’s admirable traits, his most enduring legacy remains his influence in developing the Indian School at Stephan. Legend has it Drifting Goose met with famed “black robe” missionary Father Pierre-Jean De Smet along the banks of the Missouri.
As a result, the school at Stephan became a reality. He wanted his children and their children to have the education to help them survive in the modern world. The land where the school now sits once belonged to Drifting Goose. And fittingly, his gravestone rises above all others in the Immaculate Conception cemetery behind the school, a singular pillar on the dusty prairie for an extraordinary man.
The Life and Time of Magabobdu, 1821-1909 by Kathleen Newman.