" Tatanka-Iyotanka "
|A Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux Chief
and Holy Man under whom the Lakota tribes united in their
suruggle for survival on the northern plains. Sitting Bull remained defiant toward American
military power and contemputous 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 presen-day North Dakota.
Widely respected for his bravery and insight, he became head chief
of the Lakota nation about 1868.
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 Sittling Bull and the U.S. Army in 1874, when an expedition
confirmed that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory,
an area sacred to may tribes and placed off-limits to white settlements 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
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 bision 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 when-
ever 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 regoined 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 Show,
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
Soon after his return, Sitting Bull had another mystical vision, like the one that had forefold
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
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 move-
ment under control. At Standing Rock, the authorities feared that Sitting Bull, still reveared 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 policmen 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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