Sitting Bull was believed to have been born into a prominent Hunkpapa Lakota family between the years of 1831-1837, near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers in present day South Dakota. Sitting Bull's father and two of his uncles were chiefs within the tribe. Sitting Bull became an accomplished hunter and warrior. By the time he killed his first buffalo at the age of ten, he was already demonstrating the four cardinal Lakota virtues of bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. At age 14, he counted his first coup, an honor earned in immediate proximity to the enemy. From that day on he would bear his father's name and was known as Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull).
Soon, Sitting Bull became a member of the Kit Fox Warrior Society, and the legendary Midnight Strong Heart Society among others. The Strong Hearts were an elite group of warriors who had earned entry into this prestigious society by repeatedly demonstrating their bravery and prowess against their enemies. His meteoric rise continued, and soon he emerged as one of two Sash Wearers of the group. It was not long before Sitting Bull was made leader of the entire society.
As a leader, Sitting Bull was heavily involved in the Lakota's struggle for identity during the 1850's. While some members of the community were open to engaging in relationships of commerce and diplomacy with the encroaching white world, others insisted the best position was to avoid such activities altogether. Sitting Bull was a vocal member of the latter camp."I have seen nothing that the white man has…which is as good as our right to roam and live on the open plains as we choose." Sitting Bull avoided white settlements and forts nearly altogether until the 1880's.
His leadership of the Lakotas extended beyond policy and into the spiritual realm as well.Through Sundances and Vision-Quests, many Plains Indian people sought guidance. On several occasions, the visions given to Sitting Bull by Wakan-Tanka (the Everywhere Spirit) came true according to many of his followers. He soon became known as a spiritual leader in addition to his many other roles.
In 1866, Chief Red Cloud and the Lakotas unleashed a massive campaign against travelers and forts along the Bozeman Trail. Within two years, they emerged victorious and in 1868 Red Cloud and others would sign the Treaty of Fort Laramie. In it, the Lakotas who attended agreed to live within the boundaries of a reservation comprised mostly of the western half of modern-day South Dakota in the Lakota's sacred Paha Sapa, the Black Hills.
However, Sitting Bull refused to be a part of these treaty negotiations. As a result, he and others who did not agree to the conditions of the treaty felt no obligation to them. In Sitting Bull's view, those that agreed to the treaty represented themselves alone. These events began the fracturing of the massive Lakota nation into two ideological camps. Some would follow Red Cloud and Spotted Tail onto the reservation, while others followed Sitting Bull and continued to live as they always had. Sitting Bull would emerge as a leader of what came to be known as the non-treaty Indians.
By 1875, the United States decreed that the Unceded Territory, an area many non-treaty Lakotas inhabited, was now deemed closed. Those not on their respective reservation by January 31, 1876 were considered hostile. In the spring, Sitting Bull and his followers remained outside the reservation and did not comply with the deadline. In fact, Sitting Bull sent word to reservation Lakotas that while they were living on few rations, he and his people were feasting on buffalo meat.
Many began to leave the reservation for a summer hunt and went to find Sitting Bull and others. Lakotas and Cheyennes held a Sundance in mid-June, where Sitting Bull had 50 pieces of flesh sliced away from each arm and went without water for two days and two nights.
Sitting Bull said he saw soldiers on horseback falling into their camp upside down. Their hats were falling off as they fell like grasshoppers. A voice told him: "I give these to you because they have no ears." Lakotas translated this to mean that they were soon to have a great victory against the bluecoats. Many have speculated that this was what would take place just a few short weeks later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
On June 25th, while camped along the Little Bighorn River, Sitting Bull's village with approximately 7000 Lakotas and Cheyennes was attacked by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry. Sitting Bull, beyond fighting age, did not participate in the combat, though he did send his nephews White Bull and One Bull into battle with his own personal medicine to protect them. The battle resulted in the deaths of approximately 80 Lakotas and Cheyennes and the complete annihilation of five companies of soldiers under Custer's immediate command among others. News quickly spread back east of Custer's defeat. People were in disbelief that Plains Indians were capable of defeating such a sophisticated military outfit.
While the battle was over, the war continued. Forces led by Generals George Crook and Nelson Miles continued to pursue the non-treaty Indians for the next year and a half. In the fall of 1877, Sitting Bull and his followers headed north to the White Grandmother (Canada). Life in Canada was tough.The buffalo were scarce, his people were plagued with sickness, and the winters were harsh. Through the next few years, Sitting Bull's followers would again fracture. Gradually more and more left Sitting Bull's Canadian band and returned to reservation life back in the United States. By 1881, even Sitting Bull's closest relatives, friends and advisors were beginning to leave and on July 20,1881 he surrendered to the United States at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory.
Life on the reservation was difficult for Sitting Bull. Indian agents recognized no chiefs. Many Lakotas, including Sitting Bull's protégé Gall, were working diligently at learning to farm. But now, internationally famous as the great architect of Custer's defeat (whether accurate or not), Sitting Bull's name garnered enormous fame amongs whites as well.
Sitting Bull was courted by Buffalo Bill Cody to join his famous Wild West Show. The chief was granted permission to travel with Cody's show in 1885. Sitting Bull was the instant headliner and Sitting Bull and Cody became friends. Cody even gifted Sitting Bull a grey horse that had been specially trained for the circus. After one season with Cody, Standing Rock Agency Agent McLaughlin refused to allow Sitting Bull to return to the show.
Sitting Bull and Agent McLaughlin continued a contentious relationship for the next several years. By 1890, a new concern had arisen for the U.S. Army. A movement known as the Ghost Dance had begun in the southwest but was brought north to the Lakotas. The Ghost Dance said that if the Indians gave up all white ways and items, the buffalo would return, the ancestors would return and the Indian would have freedom again.
On December 15, 1890, more than 40 Lakota Indian Police were sent to Sitting Bull's cabin to apprehend him for questioning as McLaughlin believed Sitting Bill was involved in the Ghost Dance movement. At six in the morning, Indian Police kicked in his front door and escorted him outside. As a crowd gathered they became infuriated and began to shout desperately at the Indian Police and the scene burst into gunfire. By the time the guns went silent, Sitting Bull lay dead, killed by a shot to the chest.
Learn more: "Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot" by Robert M. Utley (Holt McDougal, 2008), "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn" by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Press, 2010)
Last updated: March 4, 2023