Sitting Bull was a medicine man, or holy man, of the Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux), who were being driven from their land in the Black Hills. He took up arms against the white man, refusing to be transported to the Indian Territory. Under his leadership as a war chief, the Lakota tribes united in their struggle for survival on the northern plains.
Birth, childhood, and early career
Sitting Bull was born on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota in 1831. His father bore the name Sitting Bull, and his mother was named Her-Holy-Door. When he was born, his parents named him Jumping Badger.
As a little boy, Jumping Badger, there was nothing remarkable to set him apart from other children of his tribe. His nickname was Hunkesi, meaning, "Slow," because he never hurried and did everything with care.
At an early age, however, the boy distinguished himself as a leader. On his first hunt at the age of 10, Jumping Badger killed his first buffalo. He gave the meat away to elders who were unable to hunt for themselves.
Following the hunt, Jumping Badger set out on his first vision quest. When the lad was just 14, his father gave him a coup stick, a slender wand with which he could gain prestige by touching or striking an enemy in battle. He joined his first war party against the Crow, anxious for a chance to prove himself at that tender age.
Jumping Badger struck his first Crow warrior with his coup stick, thus earning a coveted measure of bravery in combat. His father was so filled with pride at his son's early victory, that he gave the name Sitting Bull (Tatanka-Iyotanka) to his son as part of the ceremonies celebrating his elevation to warrior status. His new name suggested a stubborn buffalo bull planted unmovable on his haunches. The Indians thought of the buffalo as a headstrong, stubborn creature that was afraid of nothing, a creature that had great endurance, courage and strength. Those were fighting virtues that people saw in Sitting Bull.
As a young man, Sitting Bull successfully increased Sioux hunting grounds. By the age of 25, he was the leader of the Strong Heart Warrior Society and later, a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters, a group concerned with tribal welfare.
Soon, Sitting Bull became known for his fearlessness in battle. He also was generous and wise, virtues admired by his tribe. As young Sitting Bull matured into adulthood, he accumulated an exceptional war record in fighting with Assiniboins, Crows, Flatheads, Blackfeet, and other enemy tribes. That led, in 1857, to his designation as a tribal war chief.
At the same time, Sitting Bull mastered the sacred Lakota mysteries. He became as shaman and medicine man, and rose to eminence as a holy man.
Wives and children
Sitting Bull had at least three wives, and possibly as many as five over the years. His first two wives died. His last two wives, “Four Robes" and “Seen-by-the-Nation," gave him many children.
In his later years, Sitting Bull's most favored children were a son named Crow Foot and a daughter named Standing Holy. Although a Crow warrior had killed Sitting Bull’s father in 1859, his mother was a powerful presence in his teepee until her death in 1884.
From 1863 to 1868, the U.S. Army continually invaded Lakota territory, especially their hunting grounds, which created problems for the native economy. The Lakota fought the army's encroachment.
Sitting Bull experienced his first encounter with American soldiers in June 1863, when the army mounted a broad campaign in retaliation for the Santee Rebellion in Minnesota, in which Sitting Bull's people had played no part. The next year, Sitting Bull fought U.S. troops again, at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. In 1865, he led a siege against the newly established Fort Rice in present-day North Dakota. Widely respected for his bravery and insight, he became the first principal chief of the entire Lakota Sioux nation in 1868.
Although other tribal chiefs attended the peace conference of 1868, to sign the Fort Laramie treaty — declaring peace and the end to their free, nomadic sovereignty — Sitting Bull refused to attend. The stage was set for war between Sitting Bull and the U.S. Army in 1874, when an expedition led by General George A Custer confirmed that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. That was an area sacred to many tribes and placed off-limits to white settlement by the Fort Laramie Treaty. Despite the ban, prospectors began a rush to the Black Hills. By 1875, more than a thousand prospectors were camping there.
When government efforts to purchase the Black Hills failed, the Fort Laramie Treaty was set aside and the commissioner of Indian affairs decreed that all Lakota not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876, would be considered hostile — provoking the Lakota to defend their land. Sitting Bull and his people held their ground. In March, as three columns of federal troops under General George Crook, General Alfred Howe Terry, and Colonel John Gibbon, moved into the area, Sitting Bull and the Lakota realized they could not defeat the army alone, that they must stand with other tribes. Sitting Bull summoned other Lakota bands, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, to his camp on Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory.
Battle of the Rosebud
Sitting Bull performed an important religious ritual, called the Sun Dance, a type of self-sacrifice that could include a loss of consciousness. He offered prayers to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, then slashed his arms 100 times as a sign of sacrifice, while in a trance. When Sitting Bull emerged from his trance, he told of his vision of soldiers falling from the sky.
Inspired by Sitting Bull's vision, the Oglala Lakota war chief, Chief Crazy Horse, set out for battle with a band of 500 warriors, and on June 17, 1876, he surprised Crook's troops and forced them to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud. Following the battle, they set up camp at Little Bighorn, where they were joined by 3,000 more Indians who had left the reservations to follow Sitting Bull.
Battle of the Little Big Horn
Although Sitting Bull was the principal chief among the Lakota Sioux, he did not personally participate in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. On June 25, Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and the soldiers under his command first rushed the encampment along the Little Big Horn River, as if in fulfillment of Sitting Bull's vision. They then made a stand on a nearby ridge, where by the end of the day, Custer and his column of more than 200 soldiers were dead. That military defeat brought thousands more cavalrymen to the area, and over the next year, they ruthlessly persecuted the Lakota — who had split up following the Custer fight — forcing chief after chief to surrender.
As the battles continued, many of Sitting Bull's followers surrendered. However, the old chief defiantly would not capitulate. In May 1877, he led his band across the border into Canada, beyond the reach of the U.S. Army. When General Terry traveled north to offer him a pardon in exchange for settling on a reservation, Sitting Bull angrily sent him away.
Four years later, however, finding it impossible to feed his people in a world where the buffalo was almost extinct, Sitting Bull finally came south to surrender. On July 19, 1881, he had his young son, Crow Foot, hand over his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana, explaining that in this way he hoped to teach the boy that he had become a friend of the whites.
For his people, Sitting Bull asked for the right to cross back and forth into Canada whenever he wished, and for a reservation of his own on the Little Missouri River near the Black Hills. Instead, he was sent to Standing Rock Reservation.
When his presence there raised fears that he might inspire a fresh uprising, Sitting Bull was sent farther down the Missouri River to Fort Randall. He was held as a prisoner of war there for two years, before he was sent to join other Lakota at the Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota. The Indian agent in charge of the reservation was determined to deny the great chief any respect, even forcing him to do manual labor in the fields. Sitting Bull still knew his own authority, and when a delegation of U.S. Senators came to discuss opening part of the reservation to white settlers, he spoke forcefully, though futilely, against their plan.
In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. He toured the United States, Canada, and Europe, earning $50 a week for riding once around the arena, in addition to whatever he could charge for his autograph and picture. He stayed with the show only four months, unable to tolerate white society any longer.
During his adventures in the white man's world, he witnessed numerous things. White society and their version of civilization did not impress Tatanka Iyotaka. He was shocked and saddened to see the number of homeless people living on the streets of American cities. He gave money to hungry white people many times when he was in the large cities. In that time, he shook hands with President Grover Cleveland, which he took as evidence that he was still regarded as a great chief.
Back to Standing Rock
Returning to Standing Rock, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin on the Grand River, near where he had been born. He refused to give up his old ways as the reservation's rules required, still living with two wives and rejecting Christianity. He remained defiant toward American military power and contemptuous of American promises to the end. He sent his children to a nearby Christian school in the belief that the next generation of Lakota would need to be able to read and write.
Soon after his return, Sitting Bull experienced another mystical vision. This time he saw a meadowlark alight on a hillock beside him, and heard it say, "Your own people, Lakotas, will kill you."
Sitting Bull remained an influential force among his people. He counseled the tribal chiefs, who greatly valued his wisdom, and tried to influence his tribe to refuse to relinquish Indian lands. He counseled his people to be wary of what they accepted from white culture. He saw some things that might benefit his people, but cautioned them to accept only those things that were useful, and leave everything else alone.
Sitting Bull's last years found him in the familiar stance of opposing government aims. He battled the land agreements of 1888 and 1889, which threw half the Great Sioux (Lakota) Reservation open to white settlement and divided the rest into six separate reservations. Shortly after his return, the federal government again wanted to break up the tribal lands. They persuaded several "government-appointed chiefs" to sign an agreement, whereby the reservation was to be divided up and subsequently distributed among the tribal members. Missing from the list of recipients was Sitting Bull's name.
The death of a great warrior
In the fall of 1890, a Miniconjou Lakota named Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull with news of the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that promised to rid the land of white people and restore the Indians' way of life. Sitting Bull was leery of the Ghost Dance, but let his people believe what they wanted. Although he himself was not a follower, his people's involvement was perceived as a threat by the American government that the movement was becoming more militaristic and might erupt into rebellion. The federal agencies sent extra troops to the reservations.
At Standing Rock, the authorities feared that Sitting Bull, still revered as a spiritual leader, would join the Ghost dancers. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agent in charge of the Lakotas sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, to force him to stop the dance. They dispatched 43 Lakota policemen to bring him in. Before dawn on December 15, 1890, the policemen burst into Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside. When the chief resisted, one of the Lakota policemen put a bullet through his head. Crow Foot also was slain.
Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and in 1953, his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota.
Sitting Bull's legacy
Today Sitting Bull is remembered as one of the greatest of all Indian leaders, a man of power and renown among his own people, an uncompromising foe of white encroachments on his land and his way of life. His rocklike dedication to the principles that ordered his life ensured failure in the great purpose he set for himself, but also awarded him stature as one of American history's greatest patriots. He is remembered among the Lakota not only as an inspirational leader and fearless warrior but as a loving father, a gifted singer, a man always affable and friendly toward others, whose deep religious faith gave him prophetic insight and lent special power to his prayers.