William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Sitting Bull


A Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man under whom the Lakota tribes united
in their struggle for survival on the northern plains, Sitting Bull
remained defiant toward American military power and contemptuous of
American promises to the end.

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-Iyotanka,
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
Santee Rebellion in Minnesota, 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. Widely respected for
his bravery and insight, he became head chief of the Lakota nation about

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 General George Armstrong Custer confirmed that
gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of 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. Sitting Bull and his people held their ground.

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 summoned the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho to his camp on Rosebud
Creek in Montana Territory. There he led them in the sun dance ritual,
offering prayers to Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit, and slashing his arms
one hundred times as a sign of sacrifice. 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 3,000 more Indians who had
left the reservations to follow Sitting Bull. Here 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.

Public outrage at this military catastrophe brought thousands more
cavalrymen to the area, and over the next year they relentlessly pursued
the Lakota, who had split up after the Custer fight, forcing chief after
chief to surrender. But Sitting Bull remained defiant. In May 1877 he led
his band across the border into Canada, beyond the reach of the U.S. Army,
and 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, however, finding it impossible to feed his people in a
world where the buffalo was almost extinct, Sitting Bull finally came
south to surrender. On July 19, 1881, he had his young son 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 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.

Returning to Standing Rock, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin on the Grand
River, near where he had been born. He refused to give up his old ways as
the reservation's rules required, still living with two wives and
rejecting Christianity, though he sent his children to a nearby Christian
school in the belief that the next generation of Lakota would need to be
able to read and write.

Soon after his return, Sitting Bull had another mystical vision, like the
one that had foretold Custer's defeat. This time he saw a meadowlark
alight on a hillock beside him, and heard it say, "Your own people,
Lakotas, will kill you." Nearly five years later, this vision also proved

In the fall of 1890, a Miniconjou Lakota named Kicking Bear came to
Sitting Bull with news of the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that promised to rid
the land of white people and restore the Indians' way of life. Lakota had
already adopted the ceremony at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations,
and Indian agents there had already called for troops to bring the growing
movement under control. At Standing Rock, the authorities feared that
Sitting Bull, still revered as a spiritual leader, would join the Ghost
Dancers as well, and they sent 43 Lakota policemen to bring him in. Before
dawn on December 15, 1890, the policemen burst into Sitting Bull's cabin
and dragged him outside, where his followers were gathering to protect
him. In the gunfight that followed, one of the Lakota policemen put a
bullet through Sitting Bull's head.

Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and in 1953 his
remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, where a granite shaft marks
his grave. He was remembered among the Lakota not only as an inspirational
leader and fearless warrior but as a loving father, a gifted singer, a man
always affable and friendly toward others, whose deep religious faith gave
him prophetic insight and lent special power to his prayers.


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