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Native Sun News: Ration cards were part of reservation life

Filed Under: National
More on: native sun news, oglala sioux, south dakota

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Ration cards were meant to replace the buffalo as the means to feeding families during early reservation days. The card shown here had been issued to an Oglala, Woman’s Dress. COURTESY/Smithsonian Institute

Ration Cards embarrassed early Native Americans
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Standing in line waiting for a small ration of food supplies to feed your family; this in place of the tradition of hunting for your food is one of the indignities served up to Indian people in the early reservation era.

Now, as a part of the American history displayed among the Smithsonian collections in Washington, a small heavy piece of paper no bigger than a business card, a reminder of that indignity, a ration card, is displayed.

Written on this card, issued to an Oglala named Woman’s Dress, is the hand written number nine probably indicates Woman’s Dress was allowed to draw rations of beef and, when available, beans, corn, flour, salt, and occasionally sugar, coffee, soap and tobacco for nine dependents each Saturday.

The flour and grains were often moldy, and the beef was a poor, less flavorful, substitute for the healthier buffalo meat the tribes were used to. For these foreign and sorry substitutions, Indian men no longer able to support themselves sometimes had to perform labor.

Of the some 136 million objects and specimens in the grand Smithsonian collections, most carry an implied positive energy, or a promise of better things to come, or sometimes just simple joy. But there are also, though fewer, things of a darker mien, artifacts revealing caliginous corners of American history, including one so unimposing in size and materials as to appear insignificant; you could slip it into a shirt pocket, forget it’s there and run it through to its destruction in the wash.

For the tribes who were used to hunting buffalo to eat, to clothe themselves, build their homes and honored the buffalo, the food ration lines were the antithesis of their culture and way of life. Gone were the opportunities for young men to capture their first kill, to be honored as a man who provides for his family. The young women no longer had fresh skins to clean and scrape and then decorate with their own unique designs, establishing their feminine artistry in the tribe.

These rations which were meant to satisfy the governments treaty obligation to the tribes is the result of an 1883 act of Congress that furthered the appropriation of Indian lands west of the Missouri by moving tribal peoples onto assigned reservations, where, proclaims the act, “they may live after the manner of white men.”

The reality was something else. The enforced reservation system meant native, nomadic tribes could live neither like white men—unless those whites were indigents—nor like the red men they had so recently been.

By the time Woman’s Dress was issued this particular ticket, the buffalo had been hunted to near extinction by white hunters. These hunters went for the pleasure of the kill and perhaps took only the tongue or hide, leaving the rest to rot. The buffalo went from a time when they were killed with gratitude and honor for its sacrifice and gifts to sustain life, where all parts of its body was used for practical and often spiritual purpose to the undignified killing that served no purpose.

It was not unheard of for a holder of a ration ticket to decorate their ticket, perhaps in an attempt to add culture and dignity to what the heavy piece of paper stood for. Reminiscent of the honor and spiritual meaning once given to the buffalo that once sustained life for the tribes, ration cards were often decorated with porcupine quills and sometimes red tape. Among many of the Plains tribes to paint something red is to bestow sacredness on it.

Some of the ration card holders made elaborately decorated cowhide leather pouches to carry and protect their cards.

The lower third of the ticket, once imprinted with the dates for collecting rations, shows each numeral punched out with a hole in the shape of a cross. The symbolism exists, whether intentional or not.

A genuine essence of humanity and generosity existed behind the rationing system as revealed by a remark in the 1850 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “It is, in the end, cheaper to feed the whole flock for a year than to fight them for a week.”

Two years later, Gen. E. D. Townsend wrote in his California Diary of the Indians facing pressure from the 1849 gold rush: “If the tale of the poor wretches...could be impartially related, it would exhibit a picture of cruelty, injustice, and horror scarcely surpassed by that of the Peruvians in the time of Pizarro.”

The ration card from the late 1800s still stands for many as a symbol of the bowing of the head by tribal members forced into reservation living. To others it symbolizes the perseverance of the people who stand to this day as the greatest adaptors to their environment and plight. History reveals the story of both sides.

(Contact Karin Eagle at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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