Early American Indian Police played a strong role in the settlement of the West.

Longtime friends to the whites, the Shoshones served as allies, scouts and police in their Wyoming homeland. All images are from the collection of Glenwood J. Swanson unless otherwise indicated.

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 “lighthorse” who patrolled the villages and enforced the first written code promulgated by an Indian tribe.

“I have appointed a police, whose duty it is to report to me if they know of anything that is wrong.”

—Thomas Lightfoot, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1869

By the turn of the century Sioux police at Pine Ridge could stand tall and compete with counterparts in many metropolitan precincts of the era.

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.


In 1878, at the end of the Sioux War, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, the agent at Pine Ridge, decided to organize a police department, appointing Man Who Carries the Sword (Mi-wa-kan-yu-ha-la) aka Sword or George Sword (center in uniform) as captain and had him recruit 50 warriors for his force. He rose to captain of the police force on his reservation because of his leadership skills and the respect of his people. Later, Sword temporarily headed up the police for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.


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.

George Sword
Capt Sword Pine Ridge

The Navajo Police

While policy waxed and waned, Lightfoot and others improvised. For example, in 1872, Agent William Arny commissioned Navajo police to guard the reservation borders and control cattle- and horse-rustling, while Special Indian Commissioner for the Navajos Gen. Oliver O. Howard organized a cavalry of 130 Navajos to guard reservation boundaries, arrest thieves and recover stolen stock. The force successfully recovered 60 head of stock in three months and continued to exist despite orders from Washington that it be disbanded.


Indian policemen began to wear badges much like their counterparts in other law enforcement agencies. This copy was based on an original belonging to Henry Bullhead.


In fact, although they were effective and served as a model for others to follow, the Navajo units were disbanded by the Department of the Interior partly because they lacked official funding or approval. A similar, long-lasting initiative, however, took root among the Apaches in Arizona.

Sometimes erroneously known as the “sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand,” Crow scout Curly (standing) later became a policeman, a not uncommon transition for men from many reservations.

John Clum Arrives

On February 26, 1874, John P. Clum received an appointment as Indian agent for the White Mountain Apaches at the San Carlos Reservation. There he was charged with the well-being of 4,500 Apaches. Recently discharged from the U.S. Army Signal Corps in nearby New Mexico, he arrived at San Carlos on August 8, which, according to his son, Woodworth Clum in Apache Agent; the Story of John P. Clum, opened “a new era in southwestern Indian affairs.” The 22-year-old New Yorker “soon demonstrated his innovative character,” although his “cocky” demeanor alienated many important Army officers who resented Indian Bureau interference into Arizona matters.

Clum came onto the scene in the wake of the ever-changing approach to settling the “Indian Question” during another experiment by U.S. Grant’s administration dubbed the “Peace Policy.” Several different religious denominations assumed operations of various Indian reservations. The Dutch Reformed Church took on responsibilities for San Carlos, which resulted in the need for a new agent.


Although other American Indians have served as police officers since the 1860s, John Clum, the agent to the Apaches at San Carlos, made much of his establishment of such a force at that reservation during the 1870s, intimating that he pioneered the concept. Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions


Despite “no experience with Indian affairs, based on recommendations of former classmates at Rutgers College, Clum accepted a commission from the church, which also supported his alma mater. His knowledge of the Southwest was limited to a three-year stint” taking meteorological observations in Santa Fe.

Clum travelled to Tucson and from there to the agency. According to Clum’s son, wise heads in that community advised him not to go to San Carlos, warning “Better go back to the farm and save your money as well as your scalp.” He answered, “The Government is paying my traveling expenses so I cannot lose any money by going to San Carlos, and having no hair, I cannot very well lose my scalp.”

When Clum arrived, he was not pleased by what he saw: “Of all the desolate, isolated human habitations! Wikiups [sic], covered with brush and grass, old blankets, or deerskins, smoky, smelly. Lean dogs, mangy, inert. A few Apaches strolling around as wild and vicious as the inmates of an old folks’ home!” The agency office consisted of adobe chinked between small poles. The same poles served as the roof with dried grass as a covering.


Fast Horse signed on to the Pine Ridge Indian Police on June 2, 1882, and remained on the rolls for years thereafter as indicated by this portrait taken in the 1890s. Demonstrating the close connection between scouts and police, Fast Horse wears the regulation uniform prescribed by the U.S. Army in 1890 for Indian scouts.


Fortunately, Clum was not easily frightened, otherwise he might have resigned after he was shown where an agency employee was stabbed to death, another location by the Indian trader’s store where 5th U.S. Cavalry 1st Lt. Jacob Almy met his death on May 27, 1873, and a third spot where two teamsters were murdered—all by reservation Apaches.

The next morning five Apaches brought a gunny sack into Clum’s office which contained the head of an Indian renegade, an instigator of a recent outbreak. General George Crook, a major proponent of deploying Indian scouts as part of his strike force against Geronimo, had told them they could only return to the agency if they brought in the man. They had not been able to bring him in alive, and could not carry the body, so they brought the head! 


Under Quanah Parker and other fierce fighters, the Comanches, dubbed Lords of the Plains, ruled their vast empire. When they made peace, a number of former warriors became competent policemen.


Impressed with Clum’s progress, in 1878, the U.S. Congress approved $30,000 for the employment of 430 privates and 50 officers at various agencies in the West. In 1880, appropriations provided for 480 Indian police; but in 1881, 49 of 68 agencies had Indian police. Nevertheless, in its 1883 session Congress authorized 1,000 privates and 100 officers.

The rest is history. Tribal police remain a vital part of life on reservations to this day.

John Langellier provided this abbreviated excerpt from a work in progress—Indian Scouts, Police, Judges, and Soldiers, based on preliminary efforts by the late Glen Swanson.

Given the size, remoteness and rugged terrain of many reservations, such as Pine Ridge, horses often played a role in maintaining law and order.


The Akimel O’odhams, or Akimel O’othams, had long been referred to as the Pimas. These residents of central and southern Arizona farmed extensively, living in settled villages where police helped maintain order.


The Ojibwas or Chippewas lived mostly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ontario. At many of these locales members of the group provided law enforcement for their people.


Renowned photographer Edward Curtis produced an incredible portrait of a Navajo policeman. Today, Navajo Nation law enforcement officers carry on a long tradition, while their fictional counterparts remain the mainstay of novelists Tony Hillerman and Anne Hillerman. Courtesy Library of Congress


This 1890 photograph of Black Dog, a member of the Sioux police at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, reveals the lack of uniformity typical among tribal law enforcement members. For instance, he has pinned his badge on a surplus U.S. Army five-button blouse with first sergeant chevrons as well as added military fur gauntlets and cap plus a fanciful neckerchief. He holds a Springfield.45 caliber rifle, while his holster flap is opened to expose the grips of his Remington nickel-plated revolver.


Perhaps best known for their heroic 1877 exodus under Chief Joseph and other leaders, later in the century, the Nez Perce tribe was among the many Native groups to have a police force. Courtesy Phil Spangenberger Collection


Some of his neighbors near the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation in North Dakota often called this member of the local police force “Medicine Joe.”


Middle Bull wears sergeant chevrons on a surplus U.S. Army five-button blouse indicative of the paramilitary nature of law enforcement on the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation in South Dakota in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


Indian police officers stood with a group of women in front of their homes at Big Foot’s village in 1890. John C.H. Grabill, Courtesy Library of Congress


During the Ghost Dance in South Dakota, policemen were sent to arrest Sitting Bull. While he was being taken into custody, the officers were attacked by angered Sioux Indians, and a half dozen officers, including Lieutenant Bullhead (seen here), died in the violent aftermath.

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