Sitting Bull in 1885 Tribe Hunkpapa Born c. 1831 Grand River, South Dakota Died December 15, 1890 (Age 59) Standing Rock Indian Reservation Native name Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka (born Hoka Psice) Known for Battle of Little Big Horn Cause of death Shot by US authority Resting place South Dakota
Spouse(s) Light Hair Four Robes Snow-on-Her Seen-by-her-Nation Scarlet Woman Children One Bull (adopted son) Crow Foot (son) Many Horses (daughter) Walks Looking (daughter) (adopted daughter) Parents Jumping Bull (father) Her-Holy-Door (mother) Relatives Big Foot (half brother) White Bull (nephew) Signature
Bull (Lakota: Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (in Standard Lakota Orthography), also
nicknamed Slon-he or "Slow"; ca. 1831 – December 15, 1890) was a
Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man, born near the Grand River in South
Dakota and killed by reservation police on the Standing Rock Indian
Reservation during an attempt to arrest him and prevent him from
supporting the Ghost Dance movement. Sitting Bull was originally named
"Jumping Badger" but was given his father's name "Sitting Bull" when he
was a teenager, after killing his first bison (buffalo).
notable in American and Native American history for his role in the
major victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Lt. Col.
George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment on June 25,
1876, where Sitting Bull's premonition of defeating the cavalry became
reality. Seven months after the battle, Sitting Bull and his group left
the United States to Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he
remained until 1881, at which time he surrendered to American forces. A
small remnant of his band under Chief Waŋblí Ǧí decided to stay at Wood
Mountain. After his return to the United States, he briefly toured as a
performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
After working as a
performer, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South
Dakota. Because of fears that he would use his influence to support the
Ghost Dance movement, Indian Affairs authorities ordered his arrest.
During an ensuing struggle between Sitting Bull's followers and the
police, Sitting Bull was shot in the side and head by American police
after they were fired upon by his supporters. His body was taken to
nearby Fort Yates for burial, but in 1953, his remains were possibly
exhumed and reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota, by Sioux who wanted
his body to be nearer to his birthplace. However, some Sioux and
historians dispute this claim and believe that any remains that were
moved were not those of Sitting Bull.
Bull was born with the name Ȟoká-Psíče (Jumping Badger), which was
understood by members of his tribe as only a temporary name. His
father was named Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull, after whom he would
later be named), his mother was named Her-Holy-Door, and he had a
sister, six years older than he, named Good Feather. As a youth,
Sitting Bull excelled at foot races and was an expert horseback rider
and was very accurate with a bow and arrow.
At about the age of
14, Sitting Bull participated in a war party that met Crow warriors.
He overtook one of the warriors during their retreat, and knocked the
Crow off his horse. For this, Sitting Bull earned a white eagle
feather, symbol of a first coup, and also received the name of his
father. His father changed his name to Jumping Bull, and henceforth
Sitting Bull would be known as Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, or Sitting Bull
(usually misspelled as Tatanka Iyotanka or Tatanka Yotanka). It was
also at this ceremony that Sitting Bull received a personalized shield
from his father, which was richly decorated with a scene depicting one
of his father's dreams and consecrated by the band's medicine man. Sitting Bull, 1882
He was also known as Húŋkešni, meaning "slow" for thinking before acting.
Marriage and family
Bull's early family history is not clear, but his first marriage likely
took place in 1851 to a woman named Pretty Door or Light Hair. By
1857, Sitting Bull's marriage to Light Hair produced a son (who died of
disease at a young age), but Light Hair died during childbirth. Sitting
Bull adopted his nephew, One Bull, at the time of his biological son's
death. Also in 1857, Sitting Bull adopted a young Assiniboine as his
brother, and he came to be known as Jumping Bull (a tribute to Sitting
Status as holy man
Bull became a Sioux holy man, or wičháša wakȟáŋ, during his early
twenties. His responsibilities as a holy man included understanding the
complex religious rituals and beliefs of the Sioux, and also learning
about natural phenomena that were related to the Sioux beliefs. Sitting
Bull had an "intense spirituality that pervaded his entire being in his
adult years and that fueled a constant quest for an understanding of
the universe and of the ways in which he personally could bring its
infinite powers to the benefit of his people." Sitting Bull also knew
techniques of healing and carried medicinal herbs, though he was not a
Because of his status as a wichasha wakan, Sitting
Bull was a member of the Buffalo Society, a dream society for those who
dreamt of buffalo. He also was a member of the Heyoka, a society for
those who dreamed of thunderbirds.
a result of treaty violations by the United States during the late
1850s and early 1860s, eastern bands of the Dakota (one of the three
major divisions of the Sioux, along with the Lakota and Nakota) became
increasingly agitated with both white settlers and traders alike. On
August 17, 1862, a skirmish between Dakota hunters and white settlers
resulted in a Dakota war council decision to attack white settlements
throughout southern Minnesota. However, by late 1862, the Dakota were
forced to surrender and were expelled from Minnesota.
the Lakota largely were unaffected by the war, some Dakota refugees
(some of whom had refused to surrender to United States forces) from
Minnesota moved into Lakota territory along the Missouri River, and
Minnesota regiments pursued them. In 1863, Hunkpapa warriors joined
with Dakota refugee warriors to fight against the military. However,
Col. Henry Sibley defeated them at the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on
July 26, 1863 and at the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863.
Sitting Bull likely participated in both of these battles, and also
possibly took part among other Hunkpapa warriors in the Battle of
Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863. As in the previous battles, the
Army prevailed, killing about 100 Sioux and capturing about 160.
Hunkpapa retreated after this defeat, though the Lakota were aware of
the military's intentions to continue the fighting. In June 1864, Gen.
Alfred Sully led American forces out from Fort Sully (a few miles south
of Fort Pierre, South Dakota). To counter their advance up the
Cannonball River, several bands of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux had
assembled in camp at the foot of the Killdeer mountains. Among these
several thousand warriors were both Sitting Bull and his elder nephew
White Bull, who was preparing to fight in his first battle.
the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, which took place July 28, 1864, the
Sioux attacked Sully's assembled forces, but were defeated
overwhelmingly by the soldiers' combined artillery and rifles. Sitting
Bull's uncle, Four Horns, was wounded though survived, and the Sioux
retreated. However, they attacked Sully's forces again from August 7 to
August 9, 1864, and were defeated again. Sitting Bull made efforts to
persuade the Sioux forces to withdraw, and as a result of his pleas and
Sully's second victory, the Sioux pulled back from attacking Sully's
column as it continued through the Badlands. The several bands broke
up after Killdeer Mountain, and Sitting Bull and a group of Hunkpapas
On September 2, 1864, Sitting Bull and the
Hunkpapas attacked a wagon train of emigrants led by Capt. James L.
Fisk that was traveling through Sioux lands. Sitting Bull again was
wounded, this time through the hip and back. The emigrants forted up
and a standoff ensued until the Sioux eventually gave up and retreated
to track buffalo. The fighting from 1863 to 1864 caused Sitting Bull to
harden his views about the presence of whites in Sioux lands, and he
assumed a sense of uncompromising militancy against whites that would
characterize him for the rest of his life.
Red Cloud's War
Bull led numerous war parties against Fort Berthold, Fort Stevenson,
and Fort Buford and their environs from 1865 through 1868. Although
Red Cloud was a leader of the Oglala Sioux, his leadership and attacks
against forts in the Powder River Country were accompanied by Sitting
Bull's guerrilla attacks on emigrant parties and smaller forts
throughout the upper Missouri River region.
By early 1868, the
U.S. government desired a peaceful settlement to Red Cloud's War, and
agreed to Red Cloud's demands that Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith be
abandoned. Chief Gall of the Hunkpapas (among other representatives of
the Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Yankton Sioux) signed a form of the
Treaty of Fort Laramie on July 2, 1868 at Fort Rice (near Bismarck,
North Dakota). However, Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty and
continued his hit-and-run attacks on forts in the upper Missouri area
throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The events of 1867-8
mark a historically debated period of Sitting Bull's life. According to
historian Stanley Vestal who conducted interviews with Hunkpapa still
alive in 1930, Sitting Bull was made "Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux
Nation" at this time. However later historians have refuted this
concept of constitutional authority in a society that was inherently
individualistic and decentralized.
The Great Sioux War of 1876-77 For more details on this topic, see Great Sioux War of 1876-77.
Bull's band of the Hunkpapas continued to make attacks on emigrant
parties and forts in the late 1860s, but in 1871, the Northern Pacific
Railway conducted a survey for a route across the northern plains
directly through Hunkpapa lands. The 1871 survey encountered stiff
Sioux resistance, and in 1872, the surveyors were accompanied by
federal troops. This survey party also was resisted by Sitting Bull and
the Hunkpapa, and was forced to turn back. In 1873, the military
accompaniment for the surveyors was considerably larger, but Sitting
Bull's forces resisted this survey "most vigorously."
the Panic of 1873 forced the backers (such as Jay Cooke) of the
Northern Pacific Railway's into bankruptcy. This halted the
construction of the railroad through Sioux territory, but also
encouraged interest in the possibility of gold mining in the Black
Hills. A military expedition led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in
1874 left from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, to explore the
Black Hills for gold and to determine a suitable location for a
military fort in the Hills. Custer's announcement of gold in the Black
Hills triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and increased tensions
between the Sioux and whites seeking to move into the Black Hills.
Sitting Bull did not attack Custer's expedition in 1874, the government
was increasingly pressured to open the Black Hills to mining and
settlement based on reports of Sioux depredations (encouraged by
Sitting Bull). In November 1875, the government accordingly ordered all
Sioux bands outside the Great Sioux Reservation to move onto the
reservation, with the knowledge that these bands would not comply.
These bands living off the reservation were certified by the Interior
Department as hostile on February 1, 1876. This certification allowed
the military to pursue the Sioux and Sitting Bull.
Battle of Little Bighorn For more details on this topic, see Battle of the Little Bighorn.
period between 1868-1876 should be seen as the time over which Sitting
Bull developed into the most important of Indian Chiefs. After the
Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation,
many traditional Sioux warriors such as Red Cloud of the Oglala and
Spotted Tail of the Brule came to reside permanently on the
reservations and lived a life of dependency upon the Indian Agencies.
Many other chiefs, including members of Sitting Bull's own Hunkpapa
band such as Gall, at times temporarily adopted a residence at the
agencies. This was because they offered supplies at a time when the
white encroachment and the depletion of the buffalo stock challenged a
life of complete Indian independence. Sitting Bull, however,
intransigently refused to adopt any sort of dependence on the white
man. During this period, at times this meant that Sitting Bull was left
isolated on the plains with a small band of warriors. However at times
when the Indians and Indian land came under threat from the United
States, Indians of a multitude of Sioux bands and other Indian tribes
such as the North Cheyenne came to Sitting Bull's camp. His reputation
for "strong medicine" developed as he continued to evade the whites.
After the January 1st Ultimatum, when the United States army tracked
down Indians living off the reservation for extermination, Indians
flocked to Sitting Bull's camp. Sitting Bull also took an active role
in encouraging this "unity camp", sending scouts to the reservations to
try and lure away agency Indians and also telling his Hunkpapa to share
their supplies with the Indians that joined them. An example of this
generosity is Sitting Bull's response to Wooden Leg's Nothern Cheyenne
tribe. Where the North Cheyenne who had been impoverished by Captain
Reynold's attack, fled to Sitting Bull's camp for safety. The Hunkpapa
chief duly provided the resources to sustain his new recruits. This was
clearly self fulfilling, with Indians being attracted to the safety of
this growing camp and its reputation for generosity. Over the course of
the first half of 1876, Sitting Bull's camp continually expanded as the
Indians sought safety in numbers. It was this camp that Custer found on
June 25 1876. Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the
ensuing battle, as a head chief he was charged with defensive
responsibilities. Nevertheless it was his intransigence and leadership
abilities that had attracted such a large village together in the first
place capable of defeating Custer.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s
7th Cavalry advance party of General Alfred Howe Terry’s column
attacked Indian tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River
expecting a similar victory. The U.S. army did not realize that before
the battle began, more than 2,000 Native Americans had left their
reservations to follow Sitting Bull. The attacking Sioux, inspired by a
vision of Sitting Bull’s, in which he saw U.S. soldiers being killed as
they entered the tribe’s camp, fought back. Custer's badly outnumbered
troops lost ground quickly and were forced to retreat, as they began to
realize the true numbers of the Native American force. The tribes then
led a counter-attack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, ultimately
annihilating the soldiers.
The Native Americans' celebrations
were short-lived, however, as public outrage at Custer's death and
defeat and the heightened awareness of the remaining Sioux brought
thousands more soldiers to the area. Over the next year, the new
American military forces pursued the Lakota, forcing many of the
Indians to surrender. Sitting Bull refused to surrender and in May 1877
led his band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada where he
remained in exile for many years near Wood Mountain, refusing a pardon
and the chance to return.
and cold eventually forced Sitting Bull, his family, and nearly 200
other Sioux in his band to return to the United States and surrender on
July 19, 1881. Sitting Bull had his young son Crow Foot surrender his
rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford, and he told the
soldiers he wished to regard them and the white race as friends. Two
weeks later, Sitting Bull and his band were transferred to Fort Yates,
the military post located adjacent to the Standing Rock Agency.
with 185 people, his band was kept separate from the other Hunkpapa
gathered at the agency. Army officials remained concerned that the
famed Hunkpapa chief would use his influence to stir up trouble among
the recently surrendered northern bands. Consequently, the military
decided to transfer him and his band to Fort Randall to be held as
prisoners of war. Again loaded on a steamboat, Sitting Bull's band, now
totaling 172 people, were sent downriver to Fort Randall where they
spent the next 20 months. He was finally allowed to return to the
Standing Rock Agency with his band in May 1883.
Wild West Show participation
1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo
Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He earned about $50 a week for riding once
around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Although it is
rumored that he often cursed his audiences in his native tongue during
the show, some historians argue that he did not, and there have
been reports that Sitting Bull in fact gave speeches relaying his
desire for education for the young and the normalization of relations
between the Sioux and whites. Sitting Bull also was reported to have
cursed his audience during an opening address celebrating the
completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1884.
only stayed with the show for four months before returning home.
However, during that time, he had become somewhat of a celebrity and a
romanticized freedom fighter. He earned a small fortune by charging for
his autograph and picture, although he often gave away his money to the
homeless and beggars. During this time, Sitting Bull realized that his
enemies were not limited to the small military and settler communities
he had encountered in his homelands, but in fact they were numerous and
possessed technological advancements. He also realized that the Sioux
would be overwhelmed if they continued to fight.
Death and burial
Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota after 4
months in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In 1890 James McLaughlin, a
U.S. Indian Agent feared that the Lakota leader was about to flee the
reservation and join the Ghost Dancers, so he asked the police to
arrest Sitting Bull. On December 14 1890, McLaughlin drafted a letter
to Lt. Bullhead that included instructions and an outlined plan to
capture the chief. The plan called for the attack to happen during dawn
on December 15, and also advised the use of a light spring wagon to
facilitate the chief's removal before his followers could rally. Lt.
Bullhead decided, however, not to use the wagon. Instead, the police
officers would force Sitting Bull to mount a horse as soon as the
arrest was made.
At around 5:30 a.m. on December 15 1890, a
freezing drizzle fell as 39 police officers and 4 volunteers moved
towards Sitting Bull's house. They surrounded the house, knocked and
entered. Lt. Bullhead told Sitting Bull that he was under arrest and
led him outside. At this time the camp was awake and they converged at
the house of their chief. As Lt. Bullhead ordered Sitting Bull to mount
the horse, he explained that the Indian affairs agent needed to see him
and then he could come back to his house. However, Sitting Bull refused
and the police used force on him. The Sioux in the village were
enraged. A Sioux Man known as Catch-the-Bear shouldered his rifle and
shot Lt. Bullhead who, in return, fired his revolver into the chest of
Sitting Bull. Another police officer shot Sitting Bull in the head and
the chief dropped to the ground. A terrible close quarters fight
erupted and within minutes it was over. Six policemen were killed
immediately and 2 more died shortly after the fight. Sitting Bull and 7
of his supporters lay dead along with 2 horses. As the guns went off, a
circus horse presented to Sitting Bull at the conclusion of his tour
with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Tour responded to its cue, sitting
down on its haunches and offering a hoof to "shake hands." Sitting
Bull's body was taken to Fort Yates for burial, but it is possible that
in 1953, his remains were exhumed and reburied near Mobridge, South
Dakota by Sioux who wanted his body to be nearer to his birthplace.
However, some Sioux and historians dispute this claim and believe that
any remains that were moved were not those of Sitting Bull.
his death, his cabin on the Grand River was taken to Chicago to become
part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The cabin was exhibited
along with Native American dances and a sign that said "War Dance Given
Daily." Later, Sitting Bull became the subject of or a character in
several Hollywood motion pictures, such as Sitting Bull: The Hostile
Sioux Indian Chief (1914), Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre
(1927), Sitting Bull (1954), Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting
Bull's History Lesson (1976), and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007).
time passed, Sitting Bull's legacy became a product of the public's
lasting perception of him as an archetype of Native American resistance
movements. Legoland Billund, the first Legoland park, contains a Lego
sculpture of Sitting Bull, which is the largest sculpture in the park.
On September 14, 1989, the United States Postal Service released a
postage stamp featuring a likeness of Sitting Bull with a denomination
of 28¢. On March 6, 1996, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council
voted to rename Standing Rock College (formerly Standing Rock Community
College) as Sitting Bull College in honor of Sitting Bull.
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