Sitting Bull

A Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who led his people as a tribal chief during years of resistance to United States government policies.

Birth

Sitting Bull was born in Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull’s great-grandson asserted from family oral tradition that Sitting Bull was born along the Yellowstone River, south of present-day Miles City, Montana. He was named Jumping Badger at birth. When Jumping Badger was fourteen years old he accompanied a group of Lakota warriors (which included his father and his uncle Four Horns) in a raiding party to take horses from a camp of Crow warriors. Jumping Badger displayed bravery by riding forward and counting coup on one of the surprised Crow, which was witnessed by the other mounted Lakota. Upon returning to camp his father gave a celebratory feast at which he conferred his own name upon his son. The name, Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka(Tatanka Iyotake), which in the Lakota language means “Buffalo Bull Sits Down”, would later be abbreviated into English as Sitting Bull. Thereafter, Sitting Bull’s father was known as Jumping Bull. At this ceremony before the entire band, Sitting Bull’s father presented his son with an eagle feather to wear in his hair, a warrior’s horse, and a hardened buffalo hide shield to mark his son’s passage into manhood as a Lakota warrior.

Visions of Victory

Before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw the defeat of the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer on June 25, 1876. Sitting Bull’s leadership inspired his people to a major victory. Months after their victory at the battle, Sitting Bull and his group left the United States for Wood Mountain, North-West Territories (now Saskatchewan), where he remained until 1881, at which time he and most of his band returned to US territory and surrendered to U.S. forces. A small remnant of his band under Chief Waŋblí Ǧí decided to stay at Wood Mountain.

After working as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, 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 Service agent James McLaughlin at Fort Yates ordered his arrest. During an ensuing struggle between Sitting Bull’s followers and the agency police, Sitting Bull was shot in the side and head by Standing Rock policemen Lieutenant Bull Head (Tatankapah) and Red Tomahawk (Marcelus Chankpidutah) after the police were fired upon by Sitting Bull’s supporters. His body was taken to nearby Fort Yates for burial. In 1953, his Lakota family exhumed what were believed to be his remains, reburying them near Mobridge, South Dakota near his birthplace.

Dakota War of 1862

During the Dakota War of 1862, in which Sitting Bull’s people were not involved, several bands of eastern Dakota people killed an estimated 300 to 800 settlers and soldiers in south-central Minnesota in response to poor treatment by the government and in an effort to drive the whites away. Despite being embroiled in the American Civil War, the United States Army retaliated in 1863 and 1864, even against bands which had not been involved in the hostilities. In 1864, two brigades of about 2200 soldiers under Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked a village. The defenders were led by Sitting Bull, Gall and Inkpaduta. The Lakota and Dakota were driven out, but skirmishing continued into August.

In September, Sitting Bull and about 100 Hunkpapa Lakota came across a small party near what is now Marmarth, North Dakota. They had been left behind by a wagon train commanded by Captain James L. Fisk to effect some repairs to an overturned wagon. When he led an attack, Sitting Bull was shot in the left hip by a soldier. The bullet exited out through the small of his back, and the wound was not serious.

Northern Pacific Railway

Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapa continued to attack migrating parties and forts in the late 1860s. When in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railway conducted a survey for a route across the northern plains directly through Hunkpapa lands, it encountered stiff Lakota resistance. The same railway people returned the following year accompanied by federal troops. Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa attacked the survey party, which was forced to turn back. In 1873, the military accompaniment for the surveyors was increased again, but Sitting Bull’s forces resisted the survey “most vigorously.” The Panic of 1873 forced the Northern Pacific Railway’s backers (such as Jay Cooke) into bankruptcy. This halted construction of the railroad through Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota territory.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

An armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. The battle, which occurred June 25–26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana Territory, was the most prominent action of the Great Sioux War of 1876. It was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, led by several major war leaders, including Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake). The U.S. 7th Cavalry, including the Custer Battalion, a force of 700 men led by George Armstrong Custer, suffered a severe defeat. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated; Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count, including scouts, was 268 dead and 55 injured.