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Who Was Sitting Bull?

Sitting Bull as depicted in Robert Redford's The West
Sitting Bull as depicted in Robert Redford's The West

Perhaps history’s most powerful Native American, and almost certainly its most famous, Sitting Bull unified tribes in their fight against white settlers. To this day, he remains a rallying symbol of hope and rebellion, the world over.

A Hunkpapa Lakota, Sitting Bull was born in 1831 near the shores of the Grand River, in what is now South Dakota. Originally named “Jumping Badger”, he did not immediately show warrior credentials and was nicknamed “Slow”.

Sitting Bull proved himself at 14, when, fighting in his first war party, he knocked a Crow warrior from his horse. To honour his bravery, he was named “Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down” (later abbreviated to “Sitting Bull”), symbolising a buffalo sitting steadfastly on its haunches in the face of danger. The description proved apt.

Throughout the 1860s, Sitting Bull fiercely opposed growing encroachment of Sioux land. In July 1864, he helped defend a Teton encampment in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. In 1865, he led an attack on the newly built Fort Rice in what is now North Dakota.

The US Army began invading Powder River Country in 1865 and Red Cloud, the Oglala Lakota leader, spearheaded its defence from 1866 to 1868. Sitting Bull played an active role in “Red Cloud’s War”, leading several war parties and mounting guerrilla attacks.

In 1868, Red Cloud signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the US, agreeing to live on a reservation. Sitting Bull defied the treaty and continued fighting, drawing large swaths of followers – not only Sioux but also Cheyenne and Arapaho.

In 1930, surviving Hunkpapa tribesmen interviewed, claimed Sitting Bull became “Supreme Chief of the Whole Sioux Nation” in 1869. Later historians have argued the Sioux’s decentralised nature made this impossible but accepted Sitting Bull inspired unified, intertribal support as had never seen before.

In 1872, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led a large war party in their campaign to block the Northern Pacific Railway’s construction. It is said, Sitting Bull and four other warriors settled in front of the construction path, within firing range. He then smoked his pipe, passed it, cleaned it and casually walked away with his companions, as bullets flew around him.  

In 1874, General Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, a sacred Native American area, protected by the Fort Laramie Treaty. The US Government tabled the treaty and declared war on any who resisted.

All the while, Sitting Bull continued his resistance, amassing more and more Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho followers.

As well as a warrior and chief, Sitting Bull was also known as a holy man, believed to possess spiritual insight and the gift of prophecy. During a Sun Dance ceremony in the summer of 1876, he made 50 sacrificial cuts into each arm and danced without water for 36 hours before falling into a trance. When he awoke, he predicted a great Sioux victory.

A week later, on June 25, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors obliterated Custer and his 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Contrary to popular belief, Sitting Bull did take a direct military role, but acted as a spiritual leader.

After their humiliating defeat, the US Army came back with a vengeance and Sitting Bull fled with his people to Canada. Life proved tough, as buffalo were scarce, and followers increasingly abandoned camp and crossed the border. Sitting Bull finally did likewise, surrendering on July 19, 1881, with most of his remaining band.

After two years as a prisoner, he joined Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 1883. In 1885, he toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for four months, seeing it as an opportunity to improve relations between white men and Native Americans. He was firm friends with fellow performer and markswoman Annie Oakley, who he unofficially adopted, naming her “Little Sure Shot”.

Sitting Bull soon tired of travelling, was shocked by the poverty he witnessed, and suffered abuse from a handful of audience members. Saying famously, he “would rather die an Indian than live a white man”, he rejoined his family in Standing Rock, where he continued his traditional life.

In 1889, the Ghost Dance Movement emerged, so called because participants danced and chanted for deceased relatives to rise, buffalo to return and the white world to be buried. When the movement reached Standing Rock, Sitting Bull did not take part but allowed the dancers to gather at his camp. US officials recognised the ritual’s subversive power and feared Sitting Bull’s involvement. On December 15, 1890, police came to arrest him. He resisted, and a skirmish broke out between police and tribesmen. Sitting Bull was shot and killed alongside seven other Sioux and eight officers.

He was laid to rest at Standing Rock’s Fort Yates. In 1953, his descendant, Grey Eagle, moved him to his birthplace, Mobridge in South Dakota. Rumours persist, however, that he took the wrong remains and Sitting Bull’s bones still lie at Fort Yates. Other rumours claim they were dug up before 1953 and are buried at Turtle Mountain in Manitoba, Canada.