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Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890), a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man, was
born on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, at a place the
Lakota called "Many Caches," because of the number of food storage
pits they had dug there.
His native name is Tatanka-Iyotanka, which is often depicted as a
male bison (buffalo bull), sitting on its haunches. Hence his name,
As a young man, Sitting Bull was elected a leader of the Strong Heart
warrior society. Later he became a member of the Silent Eaters, a group
concerned with tribal welfare. His first battle was at age 14, in a raid
on the Crow.
Sitting Bull first encountered U.S. Army soldiers in June 1863, during
a military retaliation against the Santee Rebellion in Minnesota. The
fact that Sitting Bull and his people played no part in the Rebellion
didn't matter to the Army.
The very next year Sitting Bull found himself smack dab in the middle
of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain.
Then in 1865 he led a siege against Fort Rice in present-day North
By about 1868, he became the head chief of the Lakota nation due, in
large part, to his bravery and insightful leadership.
An example of his courage occured in 1872, during a skirmish with some
soldiers who were protecting railroad workers on the Yellowstone River.
Sitting Bull and four other warriors casually strolled out onto the tracks
and sat calmly, sharing a pipe. As bullets buzzed all around them, they
slowly tapped out the pipe and then casually walked away.
Black Hills Gold Fever
In 1874 an expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer confirmed
that vast amounts of gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of the
Fort Laramie Treaty
The area was sacred to the Lakota ... and had been placed off-limits
to white settlement according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. However,
the federal government seldom felt it necessary to honor its word when it
came to gold.
White prospectors and settlers swarmed into the Black Hills, provoking
the Lakota to defend their land.
Government Purchase Offer
The government offered to buy the Black Hills from the Lakota for some
ridiculously small amount, but the Lakota refused to sell off their sacred
That made the government angry ... and what they couldn't buy with a
paltry pay-off, they could always take by force.
Army Forces Lakota to Evacuate
Ignoring the Fort Laramie Treaty, the commissioner of Indian Affairs
decreed that all Lakota who had not settled on the reservations by
January 31, 1876 would be considered hostile. Sitting Bull and his people
held their ground.
In March, three columns of federal troops moved into position, led by
General George Crook, General Alfred Terry, and Colonel John Gibbon.
Sun Dance Ritual
Meanwhile, Sitting Bull had summoned the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho
nations to his camp on Rosebud Creek in the Montana Territory. There
he led the combined bands in the Sun Dance ritual, offering prayers
and sacrifices to Wakan Tanka [referred to as the Great Spirit by the
anthropologists ... but which only partially portrays the full meaning
of the term, Wakan Tanka].
The Sun Dance is one of the sacred rituals of the Oglala people. During
the Sun Dance ritual, the dancers speared their flesh with wooden spikes
tied to rawhide cords and then leaned back until the spikes ripped chunks
of flesh from their body.
The dancers could also choose to slash their flesh with knives.
Sitting Bull cut 100 pieces of flesh out of his arms to show his
conviction to the cause.
During his prayers and sacrifice, Sitting Bull had a vision in which
he saw hundreds of army soldiers falling everywhere in the Lakota camp
like so many grasshoppers falling from the sky.
Inspired by Sitting Bull's vision, another Oglala holy man, Crazy Horse set out with 500 warriors
to join the fight. On June 17, he launched a surprise attack against
Crook's troops, forcing them to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud.
To celebrate this victory, they moved their camp to the valley of the
Little Bighorn River. There they were joined by some 3,000 more Native
Americans who had left their reservations in order to follow Sitting Bull.
On June 25, General Custer, thinking he was attacking a small
encampment, led the Seventh Cavalry in a headlong charge into the middle
of the camp. He discovered his mistake too late to do anything about it,
and the thousands of warriors camped along the Little Bighorn came after
him like maddened hornets.
Custer and his cavalry troops fled to a nearby ridge, where they were
all killed in what has come to be known as "Custer's Last Stand."
It seems that Sitting Bull's vision of falling soldiers came true
after all. After the defeat of Custer, the camp split up, each going
their own way.
Sitting Bull's Surrender
Public outrage over the embarrassing military catastrophe brought
thousands of Army cavalrymen into the area. Over the next year, they
relentlessly pursued the Lakota, forcing one chief after another to
But Sitting Bull remained defiant, leading his band north across the
Canadian border in May 1877 ... beyond the reach of the U.S. Army.
When General Terry crossed the border to offer him a pardon in exchange
for his agreement to settle his people on a reservation, Sitting Bull
angrily sent him away. I guess he had learned that the government's word
wasn't worth much.
However, defiance came at a price. Unable to feed his people in a
world where the Whites had slaughtered the buffalo to near extinction,
Sitting Bull crossed the border back into the United States.
On July 19, 1881, he handed his rifle to his young son, who turned
it over to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana. In this
way, he hoped to teach his son "that he [had] become a friend of the
Sitting Bull added, "I wish it to be remembered that I was the last
man of my tribe to surrender my rifle." At the same time, he asked for
the right to cross back and forth into Canada. He also asked for a
reservation on the Little Missouri River near the Black Hills. Instead
he was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation.
But the people at Standing Rock welcomed him with such enthusiasm that
the military feared he might inspire a fresh uprising. So he was sent to
Fort Randall, further down the Missouri River, where he and his followers
were held as prisoners of war for nearly two years.
Finally, on May 10, 1883, Sitting Bull was allowed to rejoin his people
at Standing Rock. James McLaughlin, the Indian Agent at the reservation,
ignored his position as chief among his people, forcing him to work in the
When a delegation of U.S. Senators came to discuss opening part of the
reservation to white settlers, Sitting Bull objected forcefully ... but to
no avail. There was no way, it seems, to stop the great white tide.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
In 1885 Buffalo Bill pulled some strings to allow Sitting Bull to leave
the reservation to appear in his Wild West show. Sitting Bull earned $50
a week for riding once around the arena ... plus whatever he could earn
from signing autographs or his picture.
He stayed with the show only four months, finding it hard to tolerate
white society any longer. After leaving the show, he returned to the
Standing Rock reservation, living in a cabin on the Grand River near
It was shortly after his return that he had another mystical vision ...
received in much the same manner as the one that had prophesied Custer's
defeat. In this vision, Sitting Bull saw the end of his own life foretold
as a meadowlark told him, "Your own people, the Lakotas, will kill you."
Nearly five years later, this vision also came true.
Indian Way of Life
The rules of the reservation required that he give up the Indian way of
life ... which he flatly refused to do. He lived with his two wives ...
and continued to reject Christianity and the missionaries who had tried
to force him to accept their ways.
Nevertheless, he sent his children to a nearby Christian school,
believing that his descendants would fare better than he had if they
knew how to read and write English.
In the fall of 1890, Kicking Bear (Miniconjou Lakota) came to Sitting
Bull with news of the spread of the Ghost Dance ceremony throughout the
Lakota nation. Performance of the ceremony promised to rid the land of
white settlers, and to restore the Indian way of life.
The Indian agents at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations had already
called for federal authorities to bring the growing unrest under control.
Sitting Bull was still revered as a spiritual leader among the Lakota
at Standing Rock. Fearing that he might join in the Ghost Dance, and
thereby stir up the people even more, the authorities sent 43 Lakota
policemen to arrest him.
Sitting Bull's Death
Before dawn on December 15, 1890, the policemen forced their way into
Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside. A number of loyal Lakota
tried to protect Sitting Bull ... and in the gunfight that followed, one
of the Lakota policemen shot Sitting Bull in the head.
Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota. In 1953, his
remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, where a granite shaft marks
his grave. His was the legacy of a fearless warrior and an inspirational
leader ... a loving father ... an affable and friendly man ... and a man
whose deep religious faith gave him prophetic insight.
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