Sitting Bull: Immortal Native Icon
Updated: May 11
He is the most famous Native American in history. But the man was far more complicated than the legend.
Sitting Bull. His name inspires awe. Power. Reverence. It represents the courage and valor of the Native American struggle against Manifest Destiny. His name is synonymous with the greatest Native victory against the U.S. Army’s greatest war hero: The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer’s Last Stand. Battle of the Greasy Grass.
That bloody day on June 25, 1876 was near the Little Bighorn River on the Crow Reservation in the grassy hills of southern Montana. It was between the Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho allied against the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Three of the greatest Lakota Chiefs, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall played leadership roles in the battle. Before the battle, very famously, Sitting Bull had a powerful vision in which he saw many soldiers “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down in a Lakota camp. He believed the vision foretold a bloody victory in which many soldiers would be killed. The vision came true.
The utter victory of Native Americans was especially shocking to white Americans and the military because it took place the week before the entire country would celebrate its 100th Anniversary as a nation. The parades, pageants, celebrations, and fireworks that took place about a week later were overcast with the devastating defeat and bloody death of their greatest Indian fighter and champion of the Indian Wars.
Although Crazy Horse and Gall were certainly associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull was the Native name most associated with the battle. But, ironically, Sitting Bull was not actually in the battle. Sitting Bull led the Sundance ceremony before the battle, beseeching the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka to make their warriors strong. In the process, he slashed his arms between 50 and 100 times and danced for 36 hours before the battle. He was so weak from his exertion, he could not ride. The Oglala war chief, Crazy Horse, actually led the initial battle against the 7th Cavalry. But, because Sitting Bull had been one of the main fomenters behind gathering the formidable forces against the Army, he was perceived as the leader.
Sitting Bull was born around 1831 near the Grand River Valley in what is today South Dakota. He was first named Jumping Badger, but was later called Slon-ha, meaning “slow” because he had a quietly deliberate and thoughtful manner about him. At the young age of 14, he rode on his first battle, raiding the Crow, and struck an enemy with his coup stick. His feat of bravery won for him the prestigious name, Tatanka-Iyotanka, which meant "buffalo bull sitting down."
Because he inspired such respect and admiration, he became a "shirt wearer" who counseled high-ranking tribal leaders, decided who would become akicita (Lakota warrior), and presided over important annual gatherings. He soon graduated to the status of esteemed holy man and presided over the sacred Sun Dance. The dance was extremely brutal and showed bravery, strength in overcoming pain, and spiritual power. He participated many times in the Sun Dance, which required spearing sticks through the flesh on the chest or back, which were connected to lashings from a center pole. The dancers would lean against their ropes causing immense pain for many hours until the flesh tore or the dancers collapsed. Sitting Bull became renown for his ability to withstand immense pain and was greatly honored.
Leading up to Little Bighorn
Sitting Bull also became a war leader and as such was honored and admired. He was able to expand the territory of his tribe and stood strong against signing treaties to give up land or go to the reservation. He led or participated in at least 30 engagements against other tribes or the U.S. military. His grace and mettle under pressure became legendary. In the battle on the Yellowstone River in 1872, his warriors watched him calmly finish smoking his pipe as bullets flew about him.
Two of the biggest events that led up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn were the Northern Pacific Railway’s plan to build a rail through Dakota territory and gold being discovered in the Black Hills. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had protected the Black Hills lands as sacred to the Lakota and off-limits to white settlement. With the discovery of gold and the railroad wanting right-of-way, the U.S. government then broke the treaty and decreed all Lakota must move to the reservation by January 31, 1876. Sitting Bull and the Lakota refused to leave their native lands. The Lakota had reached the day of reckoning, and Sitting Bull began to amass forces from the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho for war. The result was the Little Big Horn.
After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Native warriors dispersed. The Army hunted down the chiefs and forced many to surrender and were imprisoned or moved to reservations. Sitting Bull and many of his followers escaped to Canada in 1877. But, like much of the American prairie, the buffalo had been decimated in Canada and the Lakota nearly starved.
Later in 1877, the Nez Perce Chief Joseph led his people against the white military who had tried to force them onto a reservation, like the Sioux. Chief Joseph began a 1,500-mile exodus through Oregon, Idaho, Yellowstone, and Montana, fighting the U.S. Cavalry the entire way, to try to reach Canada and Sitting Bull’s village. Several hundred Nez Perce managed to finally reach Sitting Bull’s village in Canada. But Joseph stayed back to fight at the Bear Paw and protect the wounded and was forced into bitter surrender 40 miles from the Canadian border and freedom.
Sitting Bull and his people, though they had been traditional enemies of the Nez Perce (who had aligned themselves with a Sioux enemy, the Crow) welcomed them and chanted mourning for Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce who had not made it to freedom.
Sitting Bull stayed in Canada for four years, but his people struggled to survive. In 1881, he returned to the U.S. and was imprisoned for two years at Fort Randall in South Dakota. Finally, he was allowed to return to his people and family at Standing Rock Reservation, where he lived in a humble log cabin.
Life with Buffalo Bill & Annie Oakley
In 1884, Sitting Bull was convinced to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show after meeting the woman sharpshooter, Annie Oakley. He was immensely impressed with Annie’s amazing marksmanship. Annie was only five feet tall and he called her affectionately "Watanya Cicilla," Lakota for "Little Sure Shot."
Sitting Bull was paid $50 per week, an immense salary at the time. He was a huge attraction for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and attracted a million spectators in one year. Sitting Bull rode thunderously around the arena at the end of the show and became more famous than ever. After his act, he signed autographs, charging an one dollar for each signing.
As lucrative as his participation in the Wild West Show was, Sitting Bull was unhappy with the depiction of himself and Native warriors. He lasted only four months before leaving the show and returning to the reservation. He remained friends with Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley until the end of his life, however, holding no grudges.
The Ghost Dance & Sitting Bull's Death
In the late 1880’s, a desperate movement invoking the Ghost Dance spread across reservations of many tribes. The Ghost Dance was a spiritual ceremony that beseeched the Creator to drive out whites from Native land, restore tribes to their land, legacy and way of life, and bring back the buffalo and other species they relied on for their well-being. It was believed that ancestors, especially those killed by white violence, tyranny and disease, would return to Earth. The Ghost Dance was a wild and mystical ceremony that required rich regalia, exhausting ritual, and often visions and hallucinations. It terrified whites and the U.S. military regarded the dance as seditious and invoking violence and was prohibited.
The U.S. Army accused Sitting Bull of sanctioning the Ghost Dance at Standing Rock and invoking violence. The government send dozens of Lakota police officers working for the government to arrest Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890. As Sitting Bull began to resist and his supporters tried to protect him, a gunshot went off. Then two Lakota police called “Metal Breasts” because of their tin badges, shot Sitting Bull; Bull Head shot him in the chest; Red Tomahawk shot him in the head, both at point blank range. Sitting Bull was killed instantly. He was 59 years old.
Violence ensued and many others were killed, including Sitting Bull’s 17-year-old son, Crow Foot, as well as six other warriors and seven police.
After Sitting Bull’s Death
Sitting Bull’s death at Standing Rock set off a chain reaction of violence and Ghost dancing in retaliation. The Ghost Dance was viewed as seditious and inciting violence by the U.S. government. Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, on December 29, 1890, nearly 200 Sioux were massacred at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The victims were later dumped into a mass pit.
Sitting Bull was buried unceremoniously in an isolated area near Standing Rock Reservation. Over the decades, his grave was repeatedly vandalized and desecrated. In 1953, some family members agreed to allow his grave to be moved to South Dakota near his birthplace, where business leaders, anxious to have his grave as a tourist attraction, promised to maintain the grave. In the middle of the night during a blizzard, business leaders, a mortician and grave diggers showed up to disinter Sitting Bull's remains and removed them to Mobridge, South Dakota. But, there again, his grave fell into horrible disrepair. In recent history, descendants of Sitting Bull have suggested moving his grave to the Battlefield of the Little Big Horn, where his greatest victory took place, and where his grave would be honored and protected. That saga still continues.
Despite the many injustices and indignities Sitting Bull sustained--before and after his death--his name remains in vaunted immortality, a hero in Native and American history, who stood against the white juggernaut destroying his people.
SPECIAL ENDNOTE: Look for a future post on Sitting Bull’s graves and the controversy around them. Like his life, his death was complicated and the controversy around his burial sites continues 130 years later.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
• The Ghost Dance
• Gall, The Mightiest Warrior
• The Legacy of Crazy Horse
"Sitting Bull" was originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on February 13, 2021.
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