Mounted Dakota Sioux Indian police at Rosebud Agency in South Dakota, 1896.
Indian police forces first appeared on the Great Plains during the 1830s, when the federal government relocated eastern tribes such as the Cherokees to Indian Territory. Known as the Lighthorse, Cherokee police units performed law enforcement duties similar to their European American counterparts of the period. During the 1860s and 1870s Indian agents throughout the American West began to organize police forces to protect reservations from cattle and horse rustlers, timber thieves, and liquor peddlers.
These police forces operated autonomously, without federal approval or funding. This changed in 1878, when Congress legitimized Indian police forces by providing funds and operational guidelines. BIA agents quickly organized Native police forces, in part because this increased their influence over reservation affairs and removed the need for military troops.
The early 1880s were the heyday for Indian police forces on the Great Plains. During these years Indian police forces performed all law enforcement duties on their reservations and operated largely free of federal control. By the mid-1880s, however, federal laws began to encroach on the autonomy of the criminal justice system on reservations. The Major Crimes Act of 1885 gave the federal government jurisdiction in most felonies, limiting the duties of Indian police officers. The Dawes Act further curtailed the authority of Indian police by placing allottees under the jurisdiction of the state in which they resided. By 1900 the large Indian police forces of the 1880s had disappeared. Without federal financial support, most reservations could employ only one or two police officers by the 1920s; even the largest Lakota reservation employed only seventeen officers. By the 1950s Bureau of Indian Affairs police forces had supplanted most agency forces. In 2000 Bureau of Indian Affairs police forces operated in every Great Plains state except Texas.
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains