The Life of Sitting Bull
A Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota Nation, Sitting Bull was known for his leadership and compassion for his people. He was born around 1831 on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, at a place the Lakota called "Many Caches" for the number of food storage pits they had dug there.
Sitting Bull was given the name Tatanka-Iyotankaas an adult, which describes a buffalo bull sitting intractably on its haunches. It was a name he would live up to throughout his life.
As a young man, Sitting Bull became a leader of the Strong Heart warrior society and, later, a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters, a group concerned with tribal welfare.
He first went to battle at age 14, in a raid on the Crow, and saw his first encounter with American soldiers in June 1863 when the army mounted a broad campaign in retaliation for the Minnesota uprising, in which Sitting Bull's people played no part.
The next year, Sitting Bull fought U.S. troops again at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, and in 1865 he led a siege against the newly established Fort Rice in present-day North Dakota.
Sitting Bull's courage was legendary. Once, in 1872, during a battle with soldiers protecting railroad workers on the Yellowstone River, Sitting Bull led four other warriors out between the lines, sat calmly sharing a pipe with them as bullets buzzed around, carefully reamed the pipe out when they were finished, and then casually walked away.
The stage was set for war between Sitting Bull and the U.S. Army in 1874, when an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer confirmed that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, an area sacred to many tribes and placed off-limits to white settlement by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Despite this ban, prospectors began a rush to the Black Hills, provoking the Lakota to defend their land.
When government efforts to purchase the Black Hills failed, the Fort Laramie Treaty was set aside and the commissioner of Indian Affairs decreed that all Lakota not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876, would be considered hostile. It was a bad winter and the people could not move their camps. In March, as three columns of federal troops under General George Crook, General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon moved into the area.
Sitting Bull and those who camped together gathered for the annual Sun Dance. During this ceremony, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw soldiers falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky. Inspired by this vision, the Oglala Lakota war chief, Crazy Horse, set out for battle with a band of 500 warriors and on June 17 he surprised Crook's troops and forced them to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud. To celebrate this victory, the Lakota moved their camp to the valley of the Little Bighorn River, where they were joined by more Indians who had left the reservations because of the starvation.
They were attacked on June 25 by the Seventh Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer, whose badly outnumbered troops first rushed the encampment, as if in fulfillment of Sitting Bull's vision, and then made a stand on a nearby ridge, where they were destroyed. June 25, 1876 is one of the greatest victories of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe people.
Public outrage at this military catastrophe brought thousands more cavalrymen to the area, and over the next year they relentlessly pursued the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahos who had split up after the Custer fight. Indian leader after leader were forced to surrender and be placed on the reservations. But Sitting Bull, Black Moon and Four Horns remained defiant against the U.S.
In May 1877, Sitting Bull led his band across the border into Canada to join with others who were already in Canada beyond the reach of the U.S. Army. When General Terry traveled north to offer him a pardon in exchange for settling on a reservation, Sitting Bull angrily sent him away.
Four years later, finding it impossible to feed his people in a world where the buffalo was almost extinct and Canada refused to help, Sitting Bull finally came south to surrender. On July 19, 1881, he had his young son Crow Foot hand his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana, explaining that in this way he hoped to teach the boy "that he has become a friend of the Americans."
Yet at the same time, Sitting Bull said, "I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle." He asked for the right to cross back and forth into Canada whenever he wished and for a reservation of his own on the Little Missouri River near the Black Hills. Instead he was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation, and when his reception there raised fears that he might inspire a fresh uprising, sent further down the Missouri River to Fort Randall, where he and his followers were held for nearly two years as prisoners of war.
Finally, on May 10, 1883, Sitting Bull rejoined his tribe at Standing Rock. The Indian agent in charge of the reservation, James McLaughlin, was determined to deny the great chief any special privileges, even forcing him to work in the fields, hoe in hand. But Sitting Bull still knew his own authority, and when a delegation of U.S. Senators came to discuss opening part of the reservation to white settlers, he spoke forcefully, though futilely, against their plan.
In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West, earning $50 a week for riding once around the arena, in addition to whatever he could charge for his autograph and picture. He stayed with the show only four months, unable to tolerate white society any longer, though in that time he did manage to shake hands with President Grover Cleveland, which he took as evidence that he was still regarded as a great chief.