He united the Lakota tribes in their struggle for survival on the Northern Plains, remaining defiant toward U.S. military power and scorning official promises to the end.
On this day in history, December 15:
Chief Sitting Bull and seven members of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe were killed in a gunfight with Indian police while they resisted arrest in Grand River, South Dakota, in 1890.
Born in 1831, Sitting Bull excelled as a youth as a runner, horseback rider, and with a bow and arrow. Originally named Jumping Badger, he was given his father’s name after he killed his first buffalo.
Sitting Bull became a holy man responsible for understanding Sioux religious beliefs and rituals in his early 20s. Known for his “intense spirituality,” he learned healing techniques and carried medicinal herbs.
Sitting Bull led many war parties against U.S. military forts in 1865-68 along with Red Cloud, a leader of the Oglala Sioux, in the upper Missouri River region. The U.S. government sought to end Red Cloud’s War, so the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1868.
With the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, traditional warriors like Red Cloud came to reside there and lived a life of dependency. But Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty and continued his guerrilla attacks on U.S. forts. Widely respected for his insight and bravery, he became head chief of the Lakota nation.
Great Sioux War
From 1871 to 1873, Sitting Bull’s forces resisted a survey undertaken by the Northern Pacific Railway for a route that ran directly through Hunkpapa Sioux land. The Panic of 1873 forced the railway into bankruptcy. This halted construction of the railroad, but also encouraged interest in gold mining in the Black Hills.
In 1874, a military expedition led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer found gold in the Black Hills. This triggered a gold rush and increased tensions between the Sioux and whites who moved into the area.
In 1875, the government ordered all free Sioux bands to move to the reservation, knowing they would not comply. They were certified by the Interior Department as “hostile,” which allowed the army to pursue Sitting Bull and his Sioux.
By 1876, Sitting Bull had become the most important Native American chief. He had refused to become dependent on the white man. His reputation for courage and “strong medicine” among the Sioux and other tribes such as the North Cheyenne grew.
Custer’s Last Stand
More than 2,000 Native Americans flocked to his “unity camp,” which Custer found in June 1876. Sitting Bull did not take a direct, military role in the ensuing battle because, as head chief, he was responsible for defense. But it was his leadership that had created a village large enough to defeat Custer.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked the tribes at the camp on the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux, inspired by Sitting Bull’s vision in which he saw soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky, fought back. Custer’s outnumbered troops were forced to retreat. The tribes then led a counterattack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, annihilating them.
Shocked by Custer’s death and defeat, more soldiers poured into the area. In the next year, they pursued the Lakota, forcing many Indians to surrender. Sitting Bull would not do so and, in May 1877, led his band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada, where he went into exile near Wood Mountain.
In 1881, Sitting Bull returned with 185 members of his band and surrendered to the U.S. on July 19 on a promise of a pardon. They lived at Fort Yates, the military post located adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas.
The military decided to transfer them and hold them as prisoners of war. Loaded on a steamboat, they were sent downriver to Fort Randall, where they spent the next year and a half. They were allowed to return to Standing Rock in 1883.
Wild West Show
In 1885, Sitting Bull was permitted to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, which usually ended with a reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand. He earned about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, and managed to shake hands with President Grover Cleveland, which he interpreted as proof that he was still a great chief. He remained with the show for only four months before he returned home.
During that time, Sitting Bull became a celebrity who charged for his autograph and picture, though he often gave away his money to the needy. He also realized that the Sioux would be defeated if they continued to fight.
But his championship of the Native American cause did not end. He encouraged the Sioux to refuse to sell their land and advocated the ghost dance religion, which led an Indian agent at Fort Yates to order his arrest.
Death of Sitting Bull
Before dawn on December 15, 1890, 43 Lakota policemen burst into Sitting Bull’s cabin and dragged him outside, where his followers gathered to protect him. In the ensuing gunfight, one of the Lakota policemen put a bullet through his head. Sitting Bull and seven of his supporters lay dead, along with two horses. Six policemen were also killed and two more died shortly afterward.
Sitting Bull was buried in North Dakota, but in 1953 his remains were exhumed and reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota, by his Lakota family, who wanted his body closer to his birthplace. But some Sioux and historians dispute this and claim that the remains that were moved were not those of the great chief.
In 1989, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp with an image of Sitting Bull. “I wish it to be remembered,” he once said, “that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”