Sitting Bull (c. 1831-1890) was a Teton Dakota Native American chief who united the Sioux tribes of the American Great Plains against the white settlers taking their tribal land. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty granted the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota to the Sioux, but when gold was discovered there in 1874, the U.S. government ignored the treaty and began to remove native tribes from their land by force.
The ensuing Great Sioux Wars culminated in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led united tribes to victory against General George Armstrong Custer. Sitting Bull was shot and killed by Indian police officers on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 1890, but is remembered for his courage in defending native lands.
Sitting Bull’s Early Life
Sitting Bull was born in 1831 near Grand River, Dakota Territory in what is today South Dakota. He was the son of Returns-Again, a renowned Sioux warrior who named his son “Jumping Badger” at birth. The young boy killed his first buffalo at age 10 and by 14, joined his father and uncle on a raid of a Crow camp. After the raid, his father renamed him Tatanka Yotanka, or Sitting Bull, for his bravery.
Sitting Bull soon joined the Strong Heart warrior society and the Silent Eaters, a group that ensured the welfare of the tribe. He led the expansion of Sioux hunting grounds into westward territories previously inhabited by the Assiniboine, Crow and Shoshone, among others.
Sitting Bull Resists U.S. Government
Sitting Bull first battled the U.S. Army in June of 1863, when they came after the Santee Sioux (not the Dakota) in retaliation for the Minnesota Uprising, sparked when federal agents withheld food from the Sioux living on reservations along the Minnesota River. Over 300 Sioux were arrested in the Minnesota Uprising, but President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 39 of the accused.
Sitting Bull faced the might of the U.S. military again at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864, when U.S. forces under General Alfred Sully surrounded an Indian trading village, eventually forcing the Sioux to retreat. These face-offs convinced Sitting Bull to never sign a treaty that would force his people onto a reservation.
Sitting Bull and The Fort Laramie Treaty
His resolve was not shared by all. In 1868, Red Cloud, or Mahpiua Luta (1822-1909), chief of the Oglala Teton Dakota Sioux, signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with 24 other tribal leaders and representatives of the U.S. government including Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman. The treaty created the Great Sioux Reservation and earmarked additional land for the Sioux in parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Sitting Bull’s anti-treaty stance won him many followers, and around 1869, he was made supreme leader of the autonomous bands of Lakota Sioux—the first person to ever hold such a title. Members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes soon joined him.
The uneasy peace of the Fort Laramie Treaty was short-lived. In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, a place sacred to the Sioux and within the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation. White settlers seeking their fortunes rushed to claim the land as their own. The U.S. government reneged on the treaty, demanding that any Sioux who dared resist move to the redrawn reservation lines by January 31, 1876 or be considered an enemy of the United States. Sitting Bull was expected to move everyone in his village an impossible 240 miles in the bitter cold.
Defiant, Sitting Bull refused to back down. He mustered a force that included the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux and faced off against General George Crook on June 17, 1876, winning victory in the Battle of the Rosebud. From there, his forces moved to the valley of the Little Bighorn River.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
It was in a camp at Little Bighorn River that Sitting Bull, then a revered leader and holy man, or “Wichasa Wakan,” participated in a Sun Dance ceremony where he famously danced for 36 hours straight, making 50 sacrificial cuts on each arm before falling into a trance. When he awoke, he revealed that he had a vision of U.S. soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky, which he interpreted as an omen that the army would soon be defeated.
On June 25, 600 men under the leadership of General George Custer, a West Point graduate, entered the valley. Sitting Bull ensured the women and children of the tribe were safe while Crazy Horse (c.1840-77) led over 3,000 Native Americans to victory in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, overwhelming Custer’s smaller force of 300. Custer and every single one of his men were killed in what came to be known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Sitting Bull Surrenders
In the wake of The Battle of Little Bighorn, the incensed U.S. government redoubled their efforts to hunt down the Sioux. At the same time, the encroachment of white settlers on traditionally Indian lands greatly reduced the buffalo population that the Sioux depended on for survival. In May 1877, Sitting Bull led his people to safety in Canada.
With food and resources scarce, Sitting Bull surrendered to the U.S. Army on July 20, 1881 in exchange for amnesty for his people. He was a prisoner of war in South Dakota’s Fort Randall for two years before being moved to Standing Rock Reservation.
Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show
Sitting Bull was occasionally permitted to travel, and it was on one of his trips outside the reservation that he struck up a friendship with sharpshooter Annie Oakley, whom he affectionately nicknamed “Little Sure Shot” after seeing her perform in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1884.
In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Oakley in performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill was by then a celebrity with a storied past straight out of a Western: He’d rode horses for the Pony Express, fought in the American Civil War and served as a scout for the Army.
Sitting Bull rode in the show’s opening act, signed autographs and even met President Grover Cleveland, though he could also be mocked and booed onstage. He left the show in October at age 54 and never returned.
Sitting Bull’s Death and Burial Site
Standing Rock Reservation soon became the center of controversy when the Ghost Dance Movement started gaining traction. Followers believed that deceased tribe members would rise from the dead along with killed buffalo while all white people would disappear. Worried that the influential Sitting Bull would join the movement and incite rebellion, Indian police advanced on his cabin to arrest him.
On December 15, 1890, Indian police woke the sleeping Sitting Bull in his bed at 6 a.m. When he refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered. A young man shot a member of the Indian police, who retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the head and chest. Sitting Bull died instantly from the gunshot wounds. Two weeks after his death, the army massacred 150 Sioux at Wounded Knee, the final fight between federal troops and the Sioux.
Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates Military Cemetery in North Dakota by the army. In 1953, family members exhumed what they thought was Sitting Bull’s grave and reburied the bones they found near Mobridge, South Dakota, overlooking the Missouri River.