Hand color tinted photo of Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotaka, a Hunkpapa Sioux Native American Chief 1884
Sitting Bull (Lakota: Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (in Standard Lakota Orthography), also nicknamed Slon-he or “Slow”; c. 1831 – December 15, 1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man who led his people as a war chief during years of resistance to United States government policies.
Early life and education
Sitting Bull was born near the Grand River in South Dakota. He was named Slon-He (Slow) as a child. In traditional Lakota fashion, he was given one of his father’s names after strong action in a war party. He led a charge and struck before the enemy Crow party could, resulting in his people being unharmed. He was not yet 15.
Sitting Bull is notable in American and Native American history for his role in the major victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment on June 25, 1876. That day Sitting Bull’s premonition of defeating the cavalry became reality. Seven months after the battle, Sitting Bull and his group left the United States for Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, Canada, where they remained until 1881.
Sitting Bull returned to the US that year with most of his band and surrendered, coming to live at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas. A small remnant of his band under Chief Waŋblí Ǧí decided to stay at Wood Mountain. After his return to the United States, Sitting Bull briefly toured as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.
After working as a performer, he returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. Because of fears that he would use his influence to support the Ghost Dance movement, Indian Service agent James McLaughlin at Fort Yates ordered his arrest. During a struggle between Sitting Bull’s followers and the agency police, his supporters fired at police. Standing Rock policemen Tatankapah (Bull Head) and Marcelus Chankpidutah (Red Tomahawk) shot Sitting Bull in the side and head in return fire.
Sitting Bull’s body was taken to nearby Fort Yates for burial. In 1953, remains thought possibly to be his were exhumed and reinterred near Mobridge, South Dakota, by his Lakota family, who wanted his body nearer to his birthplace. However, some Sioux and historians dispute this claim and believe that any remains that were moved are not those of Sitting Bull.
Red Cloud’s War
Sitting Bull led numerous war parties against Fort Berthold, Fort Stevenson, and Fort Buford and their environs from 1865 through 1868. Although Red Cloud was a leader of the Oglala Sioux, his leadership and attacks against forts in the Powder River Country were supported by Sitting Bull’s guerrilla attacks on emigrant parties and smaller forts throughout the upper Missouri River region.
By early 1868, the U.S. government desired a peaceful settlement to Red Cloud’s War, and agreed to Red Cloud’s demands that Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith be abandoned. Chief Gall of the Hunkpapas (among other representatives of the Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Yankton Sioux) signed a form of the Treaty of Fort Laramie on July 2, 1868 at Fort Rice (near Bismarck, North Dakota). Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty. He continued his hit-and-run attacks on forts in the upper Missouri area throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Sitting Bull adorned with eagle feathersThe events of 1867-8 mark a historically debated period of Sitting Bull’s life. According to historian Stanley Vestal, who conducted interviews with surviving Hunkpapa in 1930, Sitting Bull was made “Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation” at this time. Later historians and ethnologists have refuted this concept of authority, as the society was decentralised. Lakota bands and their chiefs made individual decisions. While many Lakota bands allied with the Cheyenne during the Plains Wars, it was because they thought the other nation was under attack by the US. To them, it should have been called “The Great Cheyenne War”. Before 1876, the US Army destroyed seven Cheyenne camps, more than those of any other nation.
The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877
Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapas continued to attack migrating parties and forts in the late 1860s. When in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railway conducted a survey for a route across the northern plains directly through Hunkpapa lands, it encountered stiff Sioux resistance. The same railway people returned the following year accompanied by federal troops. The survey party was again attacked by Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa and was forced to turn back. In 1873, the military accompaniment for the surveyors was considerably larger, but Sitting Bull’s forces resisted this survey “most vigorously.”
The Panic of 1873 forced the Northern Pacific Railway’s backers (such as Jay Cooke) into bankruptcy. This financial condition halted construction of the railroad through Sioux territory. At the same time, other men became interested in the possibility of gold mining in the Black Hills. In 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a military expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, to explore the Black Hills for gold and to determine a suitable location for a military fort in the Hills. Custer’s announcement of gold in the Black Hills triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Tensions increased between the Sioux and European Americans’ seeking to move into the Black Hills.
Although Sitting Bull did not attack Custer’s expedition in 1874, the US government was increasingly pressured to open the Black Hills to mining and settlement. It was alarmed at reports of Sioux depredations (encouraged by Sitting Bull). In November 1875, the government ordered all Sioux bands outside the Great Sioux Reservation to move onto the reservation, knowing full well that not all would comply. As of February 1, 1876, the Interior Department certified as “hostile” those bands who continued to live off the reservation. This certification allowed the military to pursue Sitting Bull and Lakota bands.
Battle of Little Bighorn
It was during the period between 1868-1876 that Sitting Bull developed into the most important of Native American chiefs. After the Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, many traditional Sioux warriors, such as Red Cloud of the Oglala and Spotted Tail of the Brulé, came to reside permanently on the reservations. They were largely dependent for subsistence on the US Indian agencies. Many other chiefs, including members of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band such as Gall, at times lived temporarily at the agencies. They needed the supplies at a time when white encroachment and the depletion of buffalo herds reduced their resources and challenged Native American independence.
Sitting Bull’s refusal to adopt any dependence on the white man meant that at times he lived isolated on the Plains with a small band of warriors. When Native Americans were threatened by the United States, numerous members from various Sioux bands and other tribes, such as the North Cheyenne, came to Sitting Bull’s camp. His reputation for “strong medicine” developed as he continued to evade the whites. After the January 1st ultimatum, when the United States army began to track down Sioux and others living off the reservation for extermination, Native Americans flocked to Sitting Bull’s camp.
Sitting Bull took an active role in encouraging this “unity camp”. He sent scouts to the reservations to recruit warriors, and told the Hunkpapa to share supplies with those Native Americans who joined them. An example of this generosity is Sitting Bull’s taking care of Wooden Leg’s Northern Cheyenne tribe. They had been impoverished by Captain Reynold’s attack and fled to Sitting Bull’s camp for safety.
The Hunkpapa chief provided resources to sustain the new recruits. Native Americans were attracted to the camp not only for security but by its generosity. Over the course of the first half of 1876, Sitting Bull’s camp continually expanded, as natives joined him for safety in numbers. It was this large camp which Custer found on June 25 1876. Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the ensuing battle; as a head chief he was charged with defensive responsibilities. His leadership had attracted the warriors and families of the extensive village, estimated at more than 10,000 people.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s 7th Cavalry advance party of General Alfred Howe Terry’s column attacked Cheyenne and Lakota tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River. The U.S. army did not realize how large the camp was. More than 2,000 Native Americans had left their reservations to follow Sitting Bull. Inspired by a vision of Sitting Bull’s, in which he saw U.S. soldiers being killed as they entered the tribe’s camp, the Cheyenne and Lakota fought back. Custer’s badly outnumbered troops lost ground quickly and were forced to retreat. The tribes then led a counter-attack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, ultimately annihilating most of them.
The Native Americans’ victory celebrations were short-lived. Public shock and outrage at Custer’s death and defeat, and the government’s knowledge about the remaining Sioux, led them to assign thousands more soldiers to the area. Over the next year, the new American military forces pursued the Lakota, forcing many of the Native Americans to surrender. Sitting Bull refused to surrender and in May 1877 led his band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada. He remained in exile for many years near Wood Mountain, refusing a pardon and the chance to return.
Hunger and cold eventually forced Sitting Bull, his family, and nearly 200 other Sioux in his band to return to the United States and surrender on July 19, 1881. Sitting Bull had his young son Crow Foot surrender his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford. He told the soldiers that he wished to regard them and the white race as friends. Two weeks later, Sitting Bull and his band were transferred to Fort Yates, the military post located adjacent to the Standing Rock Agency.
Arriving with 185 people, Sitting Bull and his band were kept separate from the other Hunkpapa gathered at the agency. Army officials were concerned that the famed chief would stir up trouble among the recently surrendered northern bands. Consequently, the military decided to transfer him and his band to Fort Randall, to be held as prisoners of war. Loaded onto a steamboat, Sitting Bull’s band, now totaling 172 people, were sent down the Missouri River to Fort Randall. There they spent the next 20 months. They were allowed to return to the Standing Rock Agency in May 1883.
Wild West Show participation
In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He earned about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Although it is rumored that he often cursed his audiences in his native tongue during the show, some historians argue that he did not. Historians have reported that Sitting Bull gave speeches about his desire for education for the young, and reconciling relations between the Sioux and whites. Sitting Bull was reported to have cursed his audience in Lakota during an opening address celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1884.
Sitting Bull stayed with the show for only four months before returning home. During that time, he had become somewhat of a celebrity and a romanticized warrior. He earned a small fortune by charging for his autograph and picture, although he often gave his money away to the homeless and beggars. Sitting Bull realized that his enemies were not limited to the small military and settler communities he had encountered in his homelands, but were in fact numerous and possessed technological advancements. He also realized that the Sioux would be overwhelmed if they continued to fight.
Death and burial Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota after 4 months in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1890 James McLaughlin, the U.S. Indian Agent at Fort Yates on Standing Rock Agency, feared that the Lakota leader was about to flee the reservation with the Ghost Dancers, so he ordered the police to arrest Sitting Bull. On 14 December 1890, McLaughlin drafted a letter to Lt. Bullhead that included instructions and an outlined plan to capture the chief. The plan called for the attack to happen during dawn on December 15, and also advised the use of a light spring wagon to facilitate the chief’s removal before his followers could rally. Lt. Bullhead decided, however, not to use the wagon. Instead, the police officers would force Sitting Bull to mount a horse as soon as the arrest was made.
At around 5:30 a.m. on December 15, 1890, 39 police officers and 4 volunteers approached Sitting Bull’s house. They surrounded the house, knocked and entered. Lt. Bullhead told Sitting Bull that he was under arrest and led him outside. The camp awakened and men converged at the house of their chief. As Lt. Bullhead ordered Sitting Bull to mount a horse, he explained that the Indian affairs agent needed to see him and then he could return to his house. However, Sitting Bull refused to comply with orders and the police used force on him. The Sioux in the village were enraged. A Sioux man known as Catch-the-Bear shouldered his rifle and shot Lt. Bullhead who, in return, fired his revolver into the chest of Sitting Bull. Another police officer, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head and the chief dropped to the ground.
A terrible close-quarters fight erupted, and within minutes several men were dead. Six policemen were killed immediately and two more died shortly after the fight. Sitting Bull and seven of his supporters lay dead, along with two horses.
Sitting Bull’s body was taken to Fort Yates to be placed in a coffin (made by the Army carpenter) and for burial. It is possible that in 1953 his remains were exhumed and reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota by Lakota family members who wanted his body to be nearer to his birthplace. Some Sioux and historians dispute this claim and believe that any remains moved were not those of Sitting Bull.