It often happens among the Plains tribes that a Medicine man
achieves so much power and has such a great influence upon the
affairs of the group that he becomes more leader than advisor. Such
a medicine man was Sitting Bull, whose fame as a leader of the Sioux
in the difficult years of their war against the U.S. Army exceeds
that of any of the official chiefs of the tribe.
Sitting Bull was born in the Grand River region of what now is South
Dakota, about 1834. His father, Jumping Bull, and uncles, Four Horns
and Hunting-His-Lodge all were Sioux chiefs. His name originally was
The Sacred Stand, but when he was 14 he became known as Tatanka
Yotanka-Sitting Bull. As a young man he displayed hostility toward
the white men and thus gathered a following, but was repudiated by
the tribal leaders who wanted to maintain peaceful relations with
During the Civil War, Sitting Bull led some raids into Minnesota and
Iowa in which numbers of white persons were killed. The U.S. Army
drove Sitting Bull and his band into the Big Horn River region and
to the Yellowstone River. In 1866 he made peaceful overtures to the
Government, tricking the enemy into relaxing their vigilance. In
less than a year he again was engaged in warfare against the U.S.
also venting his wrath upon some of the Indian tribes that were
friendly with the whites. He often was associated with such noted
chiefs as yellow Hand and Crazy Horse, whose implacable hatred for
the white man was well known.
In the winter of 1868, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were
headquartered in the Big Horn Valley near Powder River, an area
hemmed in by forts and Indian agencies. Tiring of the Sioux raids on
these outposts, the army sent General Reynolds and a large force
against Sitting Bull's village. The troopers took the village in the
first fight, but the Sioux regrouped and returned to chase the
soldiers out. The Sioux were elated over this victory and Sitting
Bull's strategy was highly praised.
In May, 1870, the army reorganized its Indians-fighting forces and
determined to settle the Sioux question once and for all. General
Crook, the most famous Indian-fighter of all, led the troops from
Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, toward the Sioux camp on the Rosebud River.
When he reached the Tongue River, Crook received a message from
Chief Crazy Horse telling him on to cross the Tongue. Crook sent
back the reply that all the Indians in America could not stop him.
On May 15, Crook left a garrison to guard his supply wagons and sent
his best troops across the river. The soldiers marched to the
Rosebud and made camp there on the 16th. At 8 a.m. next morning they
moved forward and were attacked by a huge army of Sioux. A pitched
battle raged for three hours before the Indians withdrew. Crook
remained on the battlefield, had his dead buried, then returned to
the Rosebud camp. The wounded were Sioux, meantime, flushed with
victory, were ready to take on all corners.
The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought more white men into
the region the Sioux claimed as their own. Towns grew where the best
bison hunting grounds had been, kindling redskin fury to new
heights. On June 22, 1876, the Seventh Cavalry under General George
Armstrong Custer left its Powder River camp under orders from
General Terry to proceed up the Rosebud and follow the trail of the
Sioux until Sitting Bull's camp was located. Terry was supposed to
join Custer in a few days and consolidate a campaign against Sitting
On the evening of June 24 Custer's troops camped on the Little Big
Horn. The vainglorious Custer, apparently ill-informed as to the
strength of his enemy, wanted to attack without waiting for
additional troops, believing that he could wipe out the Sioux forces
without Terry's assistance. On the morning of June 25, Major Reno
crossed the river with about 200 men and headed toward the Sioux
camp. Hidden in the high ground, the Indians opened fire and routed.
Reno's detachment, killing about half of the troopers. Reno and his
remaining soldiers dispersed, pursued by a wave of Sioux warriors.
Meantime, another detachment attacked the Indian camp from another
direction, and they, too, were quickly surrounded and decimated.
After an all night siege, in which almost every soldier in Custer's
command died, the Sioux set fire to the grass and rode off into the
Bid Horn mountains. Thus ended the battle of the Little Big Horn,
the most famous Indian massacre of all. Custer and 266 of his men
were dead. Although Custer's tactics were foolhardy and stupid, the
Sioux reported that the troopers fought with unexcelled bravery, not
one man offering to surrender. Controversy over this battle rages
Such famed Indian fighters as Crook, Mackenzie, Miles and Merritt
entered the north country in an attempt to subdue the Sioux and
their allies, the Comanches. These raids were better planned and
more successful than the bungled attempts of previous years, and now
the Indians were kept on the run. Sitting Bull's group was defeated
Crazy Horse in a spectacular fight on a cliff overlooking the Tongue
River in January, 1877, and the demoralized chief was forced to
surrender. In the following May two other leading Sioux chiefs, Lame
Deer and Iron Star, were killed by Miles troops their villages were
Of the great Sioux leaders, only Sitting Bull managed to escape,
leading a small band of followers into British Columbia. There he
remained for years, a fugitive unable to return to his own country.
At last, General Miles offered terms of amnesty to Sitting Bull and
his people, and the old medicine man agreed to return. On July 10,
1881, Sitting Bull left Canada with 187 men, women and children,
arriving 10 days later at Fort Buford, North Dakota. On July 29 the
Indians were put aboard the steamer General and sent to Fort Yates
and the Standing Rock Agency. There, they were declared prisoners of
war and moved to Fort Randall. Sitting Bull, surrounded by the might
of the U.S. Army, knew that forth resistance was futile.
Still recognized as the spiritual leader of the Sioux nation,
Sitting Bull received Indian visitors from every direction, all of
them seeking advice as to what to do. He told them that the cause of
Indian independence was hopeless because there were no more buffalo
herds and too many white men. Himself the last Sioux leader to lay
down his arms, Sitting Bull's capitulation brought to an end the
resistance of his people.
On May 10, 1883, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency
in South Dakota, where he was to live the rest of his life. About
five years later the Sioux and some of the other tribes took up a
new religious movement introduced by a Paiute Indian named Wovoka.
This man claimed to have had a vision in which he was named the
Messiah, for Christ, having been crucified by the white men, had
decided to return as an Indian. The new religion promised that to
those who believed there would be a return to the earth of the great
bison herds and the warriors slain by the white men. The believers
were told to join in the sacred Ghost Dance to prove their faith.
Each convert was given a special shirt which was supposed to make
them impervious to the bullets of the white men.
The religious revival spread like wildfire among the hopelessly
demoralized Indians. It promised them the return of the life they
loved. Like the Christianity of which it was an offshoot, the Ghost
Dance religion was a peaceful one, advocating tolerance, honesty and
non-violence and promising a bright future in the hereafter. The
Indian agents, appointees of the Republican administration, viewed
he Ghost Dance phenomenon calmly, seeing no harm in it. Most of
these agents were forced to resign, however, when the Democratic
party came into power. In their places came new agents, political
appointees inexperienced in Indian affairs and frightened at being
surrounded by the recently hostile red men.
At the Pine Ridge agency, where Red Cloud's Ogalalas now lived, the
Ghost Dancing ceremonials brought terror to the new Indian agent. He
saw in it the probability of a new uprising, and in a moment of
panic he sent out a call for troops. General John Brooke arrived at
Pine Ridge on November 19, 1890, with a large number of troopers.
The Ghost Dancers, thinking they were being attacked, set fire to
their lodges and haystacks and fled into the Badlands. Reports from
the agency, distorted and garbled, made the Ghost Dance affair sound
like an outbreak of warfare.
At Standing Rock, the news triggered an order for the arrest of the
Sioux. Indian police under the command of Lieutenant Bullhead were
sent to Sitting Bull's log cabin in the early morning hours of
December 15. The revered old medicine man was dragged from his bed.
The police immediately were surrounded by a crowd of outraged Sioux.
Among them was Catch-the-Bear, a loyal friend of Sitting Bull, who
fired a bullet into Bullhead. As Bullhead fell, he shot through the
head. A fierce battle followed in which 12 men were killed and three
others seriously injured. Within a few minutes troops arrived to
quell the fighting. Sitting Bull was buried in the Fort Yates
cemetery, but later was reentered near Mobridge, South Dakota.
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