Sitting Bull

This image depicts a portrait of Sitting Bull, Lakota Chief, in bust view. His hair is braided and wrapped in fur. There is one feather in his hair. He is wearing a leather shirt and several chain necklaces.
This image depicts a portrait of Sitting Bull, Lakota Chief, in bust view.

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, LIBI_00312_11170, D. F. Barry, "Sitting Bull with Fur Wrapped Braids," circa 1881.

Sitting Bull, named Jumping Badger as a child, was 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, or perhaps along the Yellowstone River. Sitting Bull's father and two of his uncles were chiefs within the tribe. In boyhood, Sitting bull engaged in traditional games and contests like other young men of the village that tested one's agility, stamina, intelligence, and bravery. He soon became an accomplished hunter and warrior. By the time he killed his first buffalo at the age of ten, he was already emerging as a standout by 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 victoriously and in 1868 Red Cloud and others would sign the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In it, the Lakotas who attended agreed to withdraw their aggressions and live within the boundaries of a reservation comprised mostly of the western half of modern-day South Dakota.

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 soon emerge as a leader of what came to be known as the non-treaty Indians.

The following winter, 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 31st of 1876 were considered hostile. In the spring, Sitting Bull and his followers remained outside the reservation and expressed no wish to comply with the January 31st deadline. In fact, Sitting Bull sent word to his reservation Lakotas that while they were anemic on very few rations, he and his people were setting about the Powder River country to feast on buffalo meat.
Word spread across the allied tribes that Sitting Bull intended to seek another vision. Many began to leave the reservation for a summer hunt and headed to find Sitting Bull and others. Lakotas and Cheyennes held a Sundance in mid June. In his ceremony, Sitting Bull had 50 pieces of flesh sliced away from each arm. He went without water for two days and two nights. It is said that near the end of the second day, he collapsed.

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 an eerily similar vision to 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 8000 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 intellectually or otherwise capable of defeating such a sophisticated military outfit. Wild theories and speculation grew rampant. Rumors even spread that Sitting Bull, then thought of as the great architect of victory at Little Bighorn, had attended West Point Military Academy incognito where he mastered military tactics. Some even speculated that he was fluent in French. Sitting Bull had become a household name back East.

While the battle was over, the war continued. Expeditionary 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 determined that they could not live in the Dakotas or the Powder River country without being under constant harassment from the US Army, so they 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. Soon, Sitting Bull himself knew that there was no other way, and on July 20th, 1881 he surrendered to the United States at Fort Buford.
Sitting Bull was eventually sent to the Standing Rock Agency. Soon, life on the reservation grew difficult for Sitting Bull. Having led his people in the 1860's and 1870's, he garnered much power, acclaim, and respect. On the reservation, however, Indian agents recognized no chiefs. Many Lakotas, including Sitting Bull's protégé Gall, had already taken up the plow and 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.

Along with this notoriety came opportunity. To the chagrin of Standing Rock Agent James McLaughlin, Sitting Bull was able to make sufficient money on his fame alone. He would charge people to take his picture. Soon, he learned how to write his name in cursive and began to sell it for up to two dollars per autograph. Indian Agents on the reservation were looking for leaders of the tribe who would model the work of a farmer. Sitting Bull again waged resistance now by refusing to farm.

Since his initial detention at Fort Randall, Sitting Bull was being courted by Buffalo Bill Cody to join his already enormously famous Wild West Show. Eventually, Cody convinced Sitting Bull to join, and the chief was granted permission to travel with Cody's show in 1885. Sitting Bull was the instant headliner, performing in sold out venues wherever they stopped. Sitting Bull and Cody soon became friends. Cody even gifted Sitting Bull a grey horse that had been specially trained for the circus. After one season with Cody, Agent McLaughlin refused to allow Sitting Bull to return to the show. According to McLaughlin, "but for the good of the other Indians and the best interests of the Service I am forced to the conclusion that it would be unwise to have him go out this season."

Now, back on the reservation and considerable clout still lingering, Sitting Bull and Agent McLaughlin continued a contentious relationship for the next several years. While Sitting Bull likely never again wielded the same political power he had in the previous decade, he certainly demonstrated some residual influence, a fact which Agent McGlaughlin reviled.

On December 15th, 1890, Lakota Indian Police were sent to Sitting Bull's cabin to apprehend him for questioning regarding an emerging Ghost Dance movement. A force of over 40 men was sent for the job. At six in the morning, Indian Police kicked in his front door and escorted him outside. Sitting Bull's family members quickly exited the cabin, and some of his relatives and friends living next door were soon alerted to the commotion. As the crowd gathered they became infuriated and began to shout desperately at the Indian Police. Soon, the scene burst into gunfire, and by the time the guns went silent, Sitting Bull lay dead. He sustained a fatal gunshot to the chest.

In life, few had Sitting Bull's unique set of talents. Not only was he a brave and daring warrior, but he was an eloquent spokesman and statesman, as well as a powerful spiritual leader. In the history of Indian peoples, few if any, held the same unilateral power of that of Sitting Bull. In death, his resistance to white encroachment and abilities to lead have become legendary.

Last updated: August 8, 2019

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