This month I thought we would take a look at one of the most famous Sioux Indians - Sitting Bull and one of the most famous battles in which he led his people.
Sitting Bull was born c. 1831 at Grand River, Dakota Territory. He was named Jumping Badger. His father was Jumping Bull and his mother, Her Holy Door.
When Jumping Badger was fourteen years old he accompanied a group of Lakota warriors (which included his father and his uncle - Four Horns) in a raiding party to take horses from a camp of Crow warriors. Jumping Badger displayed bravery by riding forward and counting coup on one of the surprised Crow, which was witnessed by the other mounted Lakota. Upon returning to camp his father gave a celebratory feast at which he conferred his own name upon his son. The name, Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka (Tatanka Iyotake), which in the Lakota language means "Buffalo Bull Sits Down", would later be abbreviated to "Sitting Bull". Thereafter, Sitting Bull's father was known as Jumping Bull. At this ceremony before the entire band, Sitting Bull's father presented his son with an eagle feather to wear in his hair, a warrior's horse, and a hardened buffalo hide shield to mark his son's passage into manhood as a Lakota warrior.
During the Dakota War of 1862, in which Sitting Bull's people were not involved, several bands of eastern Dakota people killed an estimated 300 to 800 settlers and soldiers in south-central Minnesota in response to poor treatment by the government and in an effort to drive the whites away. Despite being embroiled in the American Civil War, the United States Army retaliated in 1863 and 1864, even against bands which had not been involved in the hostilities. In 1864, two brigades of about 2200 soldiers under Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked a village. The defenders were led by Sitting Bull, Gall and Inkpaduta. The Lakota and Dakota were driven out, but skirmishing continued into August.
In September, Sitting Bull and about 100 Hunkpapa Lakota came across a small party near what is now Marmarth, North Dakota. They had been left behind by a wagon train commanded by Captain James L. Fisk to effect some repairs to an overturned wagon. When he led an attack, Sitting Bull was shot in the left hip by a soldier. The bullet exited out through the small of his back, and the wound was not serious.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
During the period 1868–1876, Sitting Bull developed into the most important of Native American chiefs. After the Treaty of Fort Laramie (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, moved 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.
In 1875, the Northern Cheyenne, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Sans Arc, and Minneconjou camped together for a Sun Dance, with both the Cheyenne medicine man White Bull or Ice and Sitting Bull in association. This ceremonial alliance preceded their fighting together in 1876. Sitting Bull had a major revelation.
At the climactic moment, "Sitting Bull intoned, 'The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us. We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers.' Ice too observed, 'No one then knew who the enemy were – of what tribe.'...They were soon to find out."(Utley 1992: 122–24)
Sitting Bull's refusal to adopt any dependence on the white man meant that at times he and his small band of warriors lived isolated on the Plains. 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 European Americans.
After the January 1st ultimatum of 1876, when the US Army began to track down as hostiles those Sioux and others living off the reservation, Native Americans gathered at Sitting Bull's camp. The chief 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 his generosity was Sitting Bull's taking care of Wooden Leg's Northern Cheyenne tribe. They had been impoverished by Captain Reynold's March 17, 1876 attack and fled to Sitting Bull's camp for safety.
The Hunkpapa chief provided resources to sustain the new recruits. Over the course of the first half of 1876, Sitting Bull's camp continually expanded, as natives joined him for safety in numbers. His leadership had attracted warriors and families, creating an extensive village estimated at more than 10,000 people. Lt. Col. Custer came across this large camp on June 25, 1876. Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the ensuing battle; instead he acted as a spiritual chief. A week prior to the attack, he had performed the Sun Dance, in which he fasted and sacrificed over 100 pieces of flesh from his arms.
Custer’s 7th Cavalry advance party attacked Cheyenne and Lakota tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River (known as the Greasy Grass River to the Lakota) on June 25, 1876. The U.S. Army did not realize how large the camp was. More than 2,000 Native American warriors 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 led a counter-attack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, ultimately annihilating 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 the North-West Territories, Canada. He remained in exile for four years near Wood Mountain, refusing a pardon and the chance to return. When crossing the border into Canadian territory, Sitting Bull was met by the Mounties of the region. During this meeting, James Morrow Walsh, commander of the North-West Mounted Police, explained to Sitting Bull that the Lakota were now on British soil and must obey British law. Walsh emphasized that he enforced the law equally and that every person in the territory had a right to justice. Walsh became an advocate for Sitting Bull and the two became good friends for the remainder of their lives.
While in Canada, Sitting Bull also met with chief Crowfoot, who was a chief of the Blackfeet, long-time powerful enemies of the Lakota and Cheyenne. Sitting Bull wished to make peace with the Blackfeet Nation and Crowfoot. As an advocate for peace himself, Crowfoot eagerly accepted the tobacco peace offering. Sitting Bull was so impressed by the Blackfeet chief that he named one of his sons after him. Sitting Bull and his men stayed in Canada for 4 years. Due to the smaller size of the buffalo herds in Canada, Sitting Bull and his men found it difficult to find enough food to feed his people, who were starving and exhausted. Sitting Bull’s presence in the country led to increased tensions between the Canadian and the United States governments. Before Sitting Bull left Canada, he may have visited Walsh for a final time and left a ceremonial headdress as a memento.
He became a Holy man and Tribal Chief of the Hunkpapa, Lakota.
Around 5:30 a.m. on December 15, 39 police officers and four volunteers approached Sitting Bull's house. They surrounded the house, knocked and entered. Lt. Bull Head told Sitting Bull that he was under arrest and led him outside. Sitting Bull and his wife noisily stalled for time, the camp awakened and men converged at the house of their chief. As Lt. Bullhead ordered Sitting Bull to mount a horse, he said the Indian Affairs agent needed to see the chief, and then he could return to his house. When Sitting Bull refused to comply, the police used force on him. The Sioux in the village were enraged. Catch-the-Bear, a Lakota, shouldered his rifle and shot Lt. Bullhead, who reacted by firing 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. He died between 12 and 1 p.m.
A close-quarters fight erupted, and within minutes several men were dead. The Lakota killed six policemen immediately and two more died shortly after the fight, including Lt. Bullhead. The police killed Sitting Bull and seven of his supporters at the site, along with two horses.
Sitting Bull's body was taken to Fort Yates, where it was placed in a coffin (made by the Army carpenter) and buried. A monument was installed to mark his burial site after his remains were reportedly taken to South Dakota.
Sitting Bull Monument
I hope you have enjoyed reading this small snippet about Sitting Bull and I look forward to bringing you another interesting tidbit next month.
Western Historical Romance Author
Rone Award Nominee 2014
Rone Award Nominee 2015
Finalist Laramie Awards 2015