Sitting Bull (Lakota: Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake [tˣaˈtˣə̃ka ˈi.jɔtakɛ]; c. 1831 – December 15, 1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota leader who led his people during years of resistance against United States government policies. He was killed by Indian agency police on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during an attempt to arrest him, at a time when authorities feared that he would join the Ghost Dance movement.
Before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw many soldiers, “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down into the Lakota camp, which his people took as a foreshadowing of a major victory in which many soldiers would be killed. About three weeks later, the confederated Lakota tribes with the Northern Cheyenne defeated the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer on June 25, 1876, annihilating Custer’s battalion and seeming to bear out Sitting Bull’s prophetic vision.
Sitting Bull’s leadership inspired his people to a major victory. In response, the U.S. government sent thousands more soldiers to the area, forcing many of the Lakota to surrender over the next year. Sitting Bull refused to surrender, and in May 1877, he led his band north to Wood Mountain, North-Western Territory (now Saskatchewan). He remained there until 1881, at which time he and most of his band returned to U.S. territory and surrendered to U.S. forces.
After working as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. Due to fears that he would use his influence to support the Ghost Dance movement, Indian Service agent James McLaughlin at Fort Yates ordered his arrest.
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During an ensuing struggle between Sitting Bull’s followers and the agency police, Sitting Bull was shot in the side and head by Standing Rock policemen Lieutenant Bull Head (Tatankapah, Lakota: Tȟatȟáŋka Pȟá) and Red Tomahawk (Marcelus Chankpidutah, Lakota: Čhaŋȟpí Dúta), after the police were fired upon by Sitting Bull’s supporters. His body was taken to nearby Fort Yates for burial. In 1953, his Lakota family exhumed what were believed to be his remains, reburying them near Mobridge, South Dakota, near his birthplace.
Sitting Bull’s Early Life
Sitting Bull was born in 1831 near Grand River, Dakota Territory in what is today South Dakota. He was the son of Returns-Again, a renowned Sioux warrior who named his son “Jumping Badger” at birth. The young boy killed his first buffalo at age 10 and by 14, joined his father and uncle on a raid of a Crow camp. After the raid, his father renamed him Tatanka Yotanka, or Sitting Bull, for his bravery.
Sitting Bull soon joined the Strong Heart warrior society and the Silent Eaters, a group that ensured the welfare of the tribe. He led the expansion of Sioux hunting grounds into westward territories previously inhabited by the Assiniboine, Crow and Shoshone, among others.
Sitting Bull Resists U.S. Government
Sitting Bull first battled the U.S. Army in June of 1863, when they came after the Santee Sioux (not the Dakota) in retaliation for the Minnesota Uprising, sparked when federal agents withheld food from the Sioux living on reservations along the Minnesota River. Over 300 Sioux were arrested in the Minnesota Uprising, but President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 39 of the accused.
Sitting Bull faced the might of the U.S. military again at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864, when U.S. forces under General Alfred Sully surrounded an Indian trading village, eventually forcing the Sioux to retreat. These face-offs convinced Sitting Bull to never sign a treaty that would force his people onto a reservation.
Sitting Bull and The Fort Laramie Treaty
His resolve was not shared by all. In 1868, Red Cloud, or Mahpiua Luta (1822-1909), chief of the Oglala Teton Dakota Sioux, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with 24 other tribal leaders and representatives of the U.S. government including Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman. The treaty created the Great Sioux Reservation and earmarked additional land for the Sioux in parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Sitting Bull’s anti-treaty stance won him many followers, and around 1869, he was made supreme leader of the autonomous bands of Lakota Sioux—the first person to ever hold such a title. Members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes soon joined him.
The uneasy peace of the Fort Laramie Treaty was short-lived. In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, a place sacred to the Sioux and within the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation. White settlers seeking their fortunes rushed to claim the land as their own. The U.S. government reneged on the treaty, demanding that any Sioux who dared resist move to the redrawn reservation lines by January 31, 1876 or be considered an enemy of the United States. Sitting Bull was expected to move everyone in his village an impossible 240 miles in the bitter cold.
Defiant, Sitting Bull refused to back down. He mustered a force that included the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux and faced off against General George Crook on June 17, 1876, winning victory in the Battle of the Rosebud. From there, his forces moved to the valley of the Little Bighorn River.
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This Date in Native History: On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, known as Tatanka Iyotake, was killed along the Grand River, near his birthplace in the Many Caches area of South Dakota, still only accessible on horseback. He was 59 years old. To his people, Sitting Bull was known as a Sun Dancer, a spiritual leader who came from a long line of spiritual people.
“Sitting Bull was a chief. He was a charismatic leader and war leader, and he won the following of his people,”. Said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock.
She said many people have mistakenly called him a medicine man. But, “In reality he was a spiritual leader who gave of himself to pray for the people. He was a spiritual man, responsible for prayer.”
Sitting Bull fought his first battle against the United States in 1863. “The Northern tribes were led by Sitting Bull and the Southern tribes were led by Crazy Horse,” Allard said. “They fought together against the United States Army.”. When Sitting Bull reached middle age. Allard said it was his place to give directions to the younger warriors rather than fight.
In June of 1876, just a week before the Battle of Little Big Horn. There a Sun Dance in which Sitting Bull said to have danced for 36 consecutive hours. There, he had a vision of a war victory. Just a few days after the vision, the Lakota won the Battle of Rosebud. And just a week after that George Armstrong Custer killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
In 1868 the Sioux accepted peace with the U.S. government on the basis of the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie. Which guaranteed the Sioux a reservation in what is now southwestern South Dakota. But when gold discovered in the Black Hills in the mid-1870s. A rush of white prospectors invaded lands guaranteed to the Indians by the treaty. Late in 1875 those Sioux who had resisting the whites’ incursions ordered to return to their reservations. By January 31, 1876, or considered hostile to the United States. Even had Sitting Bull been willing to comply. He could not possibly have moved his village 240 miles (390 km) in the bitter cold by the specified time.
General George Crook
In March, General George Crook took the field against the hostiles, and Sitting Bull responded by summoning the Sioux, Cheyenne. And certain Arapaho to his camp in Montana Territory. There on June 17 Crook’s troops forced to retreat in the Battle of the Rosebud. The Indian chiefs then moved their encampment into the valley of the Little Bighorn River. At this point Sitting Bull performed the Sun Dance, and, when he emerged from a trance induced by the rigours of the ceremony, he reported that he had seen soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers from the sky. His prophecy was fulfilled on June 25, when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer rode into the valley and he and all the men under his immediate command were annihilated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
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