Chief Sitting Bull – Sioux – Tatanka-Iyotanka

Sitting Bull, Sioux Chief (circa 1831 to 1890)

Sitting Bull, the man who would later become the Hunkpapa Sioux chief, was born in South Dakota, near the Grand River. His Lakota name was Tatanka-Iyotanka. In his thirties, he began to build his reputation as a warrior, leading war parties in Red Cloud’s War against a number of Dakota Territory forts. Although the U.S. negotiated with the Sioux in order to end the war and although Chief Gall signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in July of 1868, Sitting Bull, who never trusted the government’s promises, refused to acknowledge the treaty and continued to lead raids in the area into the 1870s.

It is, however, the events of June, 1876 for which Sitting Bull is known: leading a large band of warriors (historians debate the numbers, but estimates range from 900 to 2000) against roughly 650 officers, troops and scouts, annhilating the advance troops. Of course, public outcry brought even more troops and scrutiny to the Sioux, and Sitting Bull was forced to retreat with approximately 200 Sioux to Canada during the spring of 1877. For several years Sitting Bull refused to surrender and offers of a pardon, but by 1881, the combination of the weather, hunger, and dwindling numbers forced him to return. After surrendering at Fort Buford, Sitting Bull and his band were transferred to Fort Yates, and later to Fort Randall, where they were held for nearly two years.

An O.S. Goff cabinet card portrait of Sitting Bull. (p4A item # D9994743)

By spring of 1883, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency, and by 1885, he received permission to begin traveling with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which lasted for four months. For $50 a week, he performed as part of the show, gave autographs, and met admirers, before returning to Standing Rock with a new attitude toward relations with whites. While living in the Dakotas, Sitting Bull had only seen small settlements with frontier technology and small groups of whites, but during his travels, he gained a much better sense of how large America was, the number of whites, and the technological advances being made. Although only gone a short time, he returned home convinced that the Sioux would be destroyed if they continued to fight.

Sitting Bull’s autograph on an autograph album page. (p4A item # D9961940)

For the next four or five years, Sitting Bull lived a fairly peaceful life on the Standing Rock Agency, continuing to make money from selling his photograph or autograph, but in 1890, the Ghost Dance movement began. The fervor with which the Plains Indians embraced the Ghost Dance movement alarmed whites, who were nervous that after years of reduced tensions, the Ghost Dance would reignite the violence of the Indian Wars.

In the late fall of 1890, James McLaughlin, the U.S. Agent in charge of Standing Rock, became concerned that the Ghost Dancers were about to leave the agency and that Sitting Bull might accompany them, potentially become a roving band with a prominent figure to promote rebellion. McLaughlin decided to send men to arrest Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890. Perhaps worried about not appearing in control, 43 men arrived just around dawn to arrest Sitting Bull. Some of Sitting Bull’s people encouraged him to resist, and perhaps concerned that the situation would get out of hand, members of the police began to attempt to use force. Members of Sitting Bull’s community were outraged. Catch-the-Bear, a Sitting Bull supporter, shot Bullhead, one of the policemen, setting off a round of gunfire that left Sitting Bull and six policemen dead along with seven Sioux. Two policemen would die later of wounds.

Sitting Bull’s body was taken to Fort Yates for burial. In 1953, his Lakota family had his body exhumed and moved so that he could be reburied closer to his place of birth, but there is some discussion that the body moved was not that of Sitting Bull.

Hollie Davis, p4A Senior Editor, January 29, 2010

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