Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was a Lakota Native American chief and the last chief to surrender to the U.S. government. A great military leader, the Sioux tribes of the Great Plains coalesced under his leadership, culminating in the Great Sioux Wars of the 1870s (which included the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn).
Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanka, was born in 1831 in what is now the state of South Dakota. From as early as 14, he fought and hunted for his Lakota tribe. He took after his father, Returns-Again, who was renowned as a great warrior.
It wasn’t long before Sitting Bull also became known for his courage. Much of this was shown in his fighting to halt the United States’ relentless western expansion, which drove directly into Native American territories. In the 1860s he first came across the white settlers. The interactions were mainly uprisings and battles, sometimes resulting in other tribes being cast into reservations. In 1864 he participated in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, and the fighting continued into the 1870s.
Clash of Cultures and the Little Bighorn
As U.S. territory spread, Sitting Bull and the Native Americans moved further west. This accomplished two goals: avoiding the advancing white settlers and getting closer to herds of buffalo.
Red Cloud, the chief before Sitting Bull, became unpopular with many because of the Fort Laramie treaty, which forced many Native Americans into reservations. In stark contrast, Sitting Bull took a leading role in risings against the U.S. government during this period. Partly due to the popularity of this, he rose to prominence as a medicine man, and he was named the “head chief of the Lakota nation” in 1868. All of this made a violent, major encounter with U.S. troops nearly inevitable.
The situation was exacerbated when gold was found in South Dakota’s Black Hills. These Hills were defined as sacred land to the Native Americans in the Fort Laramie treaty, but the American government and prospectors ignored this and planned to grab the disputed area. They also proclaimed that the Lakota had to be in reservations by 1876.
Needless to say, Sitting Bull and his supporters, including the famous warrior Crazy Horse, took offense. They set about attacking U.S. General George Crook and other cavalry who had positioned themselves in the Black Hills. The Battle of the Rosebud resulted in a Native American victory, but the key ambush was still to come. The year 1876 also saw the Battle of the Little Bighorn, known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were dwarfed by the thousands of Native Americans they faced. This, combined with Custer’s strategic mistakes, resulted in a massacre of the U.S. troops.
Although Sitting Bull was not actually leading the warriors, he had led prayers prior to the battle and had announced visions of the victory. Many credited their triumph to his actions as their leader. Unfortunately, partly due to this perception, Sitting Bull found that the U.S. army was then pursuing him (along with Crazy Horse and the various tribal chiefs involved). Fearful for his life, he went to Canada in 1877. Sitting Bull ventured back into the U.S. in 1881 and gave himself up to the U.S. government, which put him in Fort Randall and then Standing Rock Reservation.
Standing Rock Reservation
In his last few years, Sitting Bull still sought to protect the territory of Native Americans and to preserve their way of life. Interestingly, he also got a job in 1885, touring in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. But Sitting Bull still rejected the new American society; he practiced polygamy and mantained his role as a holy man. This reached a crest in 1890, when the idea of a Ghost Dance gained a sudden popularity in Standing Rock Reservation. This Dance was associated with a belief that the Native American dead would come back to life, that the buffalo would roam the plains once more, and that the white Americans would vanish from their lives. Although it’s uncertain if Sitting Bull participated in these Dances, he refused to use his leadership to curb its popularity. The U.S.—fearing an uprising—decided to bring him in, but a small battle broke out, and a number of people on both sides were killed, including Sitting Bull.
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Word bank: American, army, Bighorn, born, brave, Custer, photographs, reservations, sculpture, South Dakota, surrender, westward.
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