The Siouan words "Tatanka-Iyotanka" describe a stubborn buffalo seated on his haunches. The name was given to a Hunkpapa Sioux who emerged as a resistance leader against U.S. colonialism in the northern Plains. He was called Sitting Bull.
Around 1831, Sitting Bull was born along the Grand River at a place known as Many Caches in present-day South Dakota. Originally, he received the name Jumping Badger from his father, who bore the name Sitting Bull. His mother, Her-Holy-Door, created a close bond with him during his formative years. His childhood behavior earned him the alias Slow. He entered combat at age fourteen, counting his first coup on the Crow and earning the honor of his father's name. With distinction, he entered the Strong Heart, the Kit Fox, and the Silent Eaters societies. He married his first wife in 1851, but she died during childbirth. After his father died in 1859, he married two additional wives. They gave birth to two daughters and a son. In addition, he adopted his nephew, One Bull, as a son.
Sitting Bull became known as a blotaunka, or war chief, in the Strong Hearts, a warrior society. Standing five feet ten inches in height, he possessed a muscular frame and dark braided hair. As he matured, Sitting Bull earned acclaim as a singer, an artist, and a dancer. The scars on his chest, back, and arms testified to his repeated sacrifices in Sun Dances. He embodied the cardinal virtues of his people, that is, bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. He traded furs with the Chouteau company at Fort Pierre and encountered U.S. soldiers at Fort Berthold. In 1864, he fought against blue-clad regulars at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. Thereafter, he laid siege to the newly established Fort Rice as well as Fort Buford.
By the 1870s, Sitting Bull's reputation as a wichasha wakan, or holy man, elevated his power among the Lakota Sioux. He was anointed wakiconza, a supreme chief, seeking to unite the diverse bands and contentious factions into a spirited resistance movement. In a ceremony, he was borne into a large circle on a buffalo robe and crowned with a magnificent headdress. He denounced the wasichu, or white people, who were invading Sioux country along the Powder and Yellowstone Rivers.
Sitting Bull tried to stop their invasion into the Paha Sapa (Black Hills), where gold was found by prospectors. Even though the Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the "unceded" territory near the Great Sioux reservation as a traditional hunting ground, officials in Washington, D.C., broke their promises. They announced that tribes not settled on the reservation by January 31, 1876, would be considered "hostile." In fact, three columns of soldiers were deployed to drive them into confinement under the surveillance of government agents. One column, led by Brigadier General George Crook, moved north from Fort Fetterman. Under Colonel John Gibbon, another column headed east from western Montana. The third column, commanded by General Alfred Terry, marched westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln. Surrounded on all sides, the off-reservation Sioux had nowhere to escape.
Thus began the Great Sioux War. In the Spring of 1876, Sitting Bull communicated with Wakantanka, or the Great Mystery, at the top of a butte. He received a dream about a dust storm propelled by high winds from the east. He saw uniformed troops advancing, their weapons and horse trimmings glistening in the sunlight. When the approaching fury crashed into a rolling cloud, thunder pealed, lightning cracked, and rains poured. The tempest passed, leaving an open sky.
On June 6, 1876, roughly 3,000 Lakotas and Cheyennes joined Sitting Bull for a Sun Dance along the Rosebud Creek in Montana. Following purification in a sweat lodge, he entered the dance circle. After staring into the blazing orb overhead, he offered his flesh and slashed his arms 100 times. As blood flowed from his body, Sitting Bull received another vision. He foresaw the mounted bluecoats attacking—"as many as grasshoppers." However, they descended upside down toward the ground as they rode. They possessed no ears and therefore could not heed the warnings to turn back.
Inspired by his visions, the Oglala war chief Crazy Horse organized a band of 500 warriors for action. On June 17, he surprised Crook's troops at the Battle of the Rosebud. Then the Sioux and their allies moved their camps to the valley of the Little Bighorn River at a place the Sioux called Greasy Grass. In search of an elusive enemy, Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the Seventh Cavalry located their camps on June 25 with the help of Crow scouts. Outnumbered more than four to one, he ignored the warnings of his scouts and led the troops toward the camps. Along the Little Bighorn, 261 men of the Seventh Cavalry died that day.
After the stunning loss at the Little Bighorn, Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan deployed 2,500 additional troops to avenge the death of Custer. Congress took away the Black Hills in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty and seized another 40 million acres of promised land. Sitting Bull, however, refused to accept defeat. He and his loyalists fled beyond the reach of the armed forces by crossing the border into Canada. General Terry traveled north to offer Sitting Bull a pardon in exchange for settling on the reservation, but he defiantly rejected the offer.
With the buffalo herds dwindling, Sitting Bull finally decided to end his exile. On July 19, 1881, he told his young son, Crow Foot, to hand his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana. After the gesture, he spoke: "I wish to be remembered as the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle." He donned a pair of sunglasses to protect his sensitive eyes and boarded a steamer for Bismarck. Dispatched to Fort Randall, he and his followers were prisoners of war for nearly two years.
Assigned to the Standing Rock Agency after 1883, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin. Devoted to his family, he retained his two wives. His two adult daughters were married and presented him with grandchildren. He continued to raise five children in his immediate household, including two pairs of twins and a daughter named Standing Holy. His mother, Her-Holy-Door, lived with the family until her death in 1884. He fathered two more children thereafter. Although he eschewed Christianity, he sent his children to a nearby Christian school to learn to read and to write.
The government agent, James McLaughlin, permitted Sitting Bull to participate in a traveling exhibition in 1884. In 1885, the legendary figure was allowed to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, earning $50 a week for appearing on horseback in an arena. On tour, he profited from the sale of his autograph and pictures. He stayed with the show only four months, having the opportunity to shake hands with President Grover Cleveland while in Washington, D.C.
After returning home, Sitting Bull spoke against the unjust policies of the agency. He openly defied the land agreements of 1888 and 1889, which threw half the Great Sioux Reservation open to non-Indian settlement and divided the rest into six separate reservations. "I would rather die an Indian," he prophetically stated, "than live a white man." Indeed, he received a vision of a meadowlark telling him that he would die at the hands of the Sioux.
In the fall of 1890, a Miniconjou Sioux named Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull with news of the Ghost Dance religion, which promised to restore the traditional way of life. Though skeptical of the religion at first, he planted a prayer tree at Standing Rock. He began dancing while wearing a shirt with a painted red cross. When attempting to arrest him at his cabin on December 15, 1890, a Lakota Sioux policeman shot him in the head, and his final vision came to pass. His killing led to the tragic events at Wounded Knee two weeks later.
Sitting Bull died a martyr in the last days of Sioux resistance to U.S. colonialism. He was originally buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota, but in 1953 according to some sources, his remains were relocated to Mobridge, South Dakota. Researchers continue to disagree about the actual location of his bones, and grave sites are maintained in both locations. On March 6, 1996, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council voted to change the name of the tribal community college to Sitting Bull College (SBC). As a tribute to his spirit, the institution adopted its motto from his words: "Let us put our minds together to see what we can build for our children."
Brad D. Lookingbill
Anderson, Gary C. 1996. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: HarperCollins.; Ostler, Jeffrey. 2004. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.; Sitting Bull College. No date. Available at: http://www.sittingbull.edu. Accessed February 14, 2005.; Utley, Robert. 1993. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Ballantine Books.; White, Richard. 1978. "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." Journal of American History 65 (September): 321–323.