DIED: December 15, 1890 • Standing Rock, South Dakota
Native American tribal chief
Sitting Bull was a Sioux chief and holy man who defended his people and their way of life until the end of his own life. An honorable warrior and leader, Sitting Bull always put the well-being of his tribe before anything else. As their chief, he refused to sign his name to a treaty that would allow the U.S. government to take Sioux land. His death in 1890 remains a mystery, and historians have never been able to disprove the theory that he was assassinated for political reasons. He is most famous for his participation in the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly referred to as "Custer's Last Stand."
"What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the whites ever made with us red men have they kept? Not one."
A typical childhood
Sitting Bull was born around 1831, in South Dakota's Grand River Valley. He was born into a Lakota tribe, which is a member of the Sioux (pronounced SUE) Nation. His given name was Tatanka Iyotanka, which describes a buffalo sitting on its haunches, immovable. Sitting Bull lived up to the name, always giving much thought to every situation before making a move.
Sitting Bull, a serious youth, lived an uneventful childhood until the age of fourteen. At that time, he engaged in a successful raid on the Crow, a tribe known for its courage. His complete lack of fear made him known throughout neighboring tribes as a dedicated warrior. In 1847, at just fifteen, Sitting Bull proved the truth of his reputation when he galloped his horse past the skirmish line in a battle with the Flatheads. With arrows flying from all directions at him, the young warrior laughed and teased his enemies and managed to suffer only minor injuries. This convinced the Sioux that he must have been born with strong medicine powers.
In 1856, Sitting Bull became a leader in both the Strong Heart and the Kit Fox warrior societies. Native Americans and others considered these Lakota societies to be the finest light cavalry in the world, and it was an honor to be a member. A few years later, Sitting Bull became a respected member of the Silent Eaters, an organized group concerned with tribal welfare.
Goes head to head with U.S. soldiers
Sitting Bull first fought U.S. soldiers in June 1863, when the U.S. army engaged in a campaign to seek revenge on Native American tribes that had rebelled against the government and killed hundreds of white settlers, including women and children. This event was known as the Santee Rebellion (named after the primary warring tribe), and it took place in 1862 in Minnesota. Sitting Bull's people took no part in the killings, but the army was not particular in which Native Americans it targeted for revenge.
Throughout the next five years, Sitting Bull fought against the U.S. cavalry time and time again. In 1868, as proof of the respect he commanded, the fearless warrior was named head chief of the Lakota Nation.
Sitting Bull was made chief just two years into the Plains Indian Wars (1866–90). During the span of the wars, the federal government was trying to force Native Americans from their tribal lands so that white settlers could move into the region. Although most Plains tribes were peaceful and lived together harmoniously, they were not about to let white men take their land without a fight.
Sitting Bull was a dedicated enemy of the U.S. government and military. He knew that defeat would mean an end to his people's way of life and culture. Even in the first years of the wars, he saw the slaughter of the buffalo, the animal his people depended on for food, clothing, and shelter. He watched as white men brought their diseases and bad habits, such as drinking alcohol, into the native villages and camps.
The worst years
Hostilities peaked between 1869 and 1878. More than two hundred battles were fought during those years. By the late 1870s, the goal of the federal government became the Americanization of those whom many American officials and citizens called "savages." The tribes were expected to live on specific parcels of land. They were also forced to participate in American schooling and to learn to live the way white American society lived. In their speech, dress, and behavior, Native Americans were expected to turn their backs on their cultures and beliefs.
In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) led an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, searching for gold. When they found what they were after, prospectors (those hopeful of finding gold) rushed into the Black Hills. This territory had formerly been off-limits to white settlers because it was considered sacred ground by many tribes. (The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 provided the official protection.) The Lakota living in those hills were forced to defend themselves against the criminal prospectors. The government then tried to buy the land from the tribes, but the Lakota refused to sell. Since buying the land did not work, the treaty was simply ignored, and the government informed the Lakota that if they had not willingly moved to reservations by January 31, 1876, they would be considered hostile. Sitting Bull, true to his name, did not move.
In March 1876, federal troops began moving into the area. Sitting Bull knew they were coming, and he summoned the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho to his camp in Montana Territory. They held a sun dance ritual, and during the ceremony, Sitting Bull had a vision. In it, he saw soldiers falling from the sky into the Lakota camp.
Sitting Bull shared his vision with other chiefs and leaders, and on June 17, Chief Crazy Horse (1842?–1877) set out with five hundred of his men. They surprised U.S. troops on their way to Montana and forced their retreat.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
To celebrate their major victory, Sitting Bull moved the Lakota camp to the valley of Little Big Horn River, where they met with three thousand more Native Americans who left their reservations to follow the great chief. On June 25, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry attacked the camp. Greatly outnumbered, Custer and his men were killed. Sitting Bull's vision had come true.
Custer's death outraged the American public. Although the general had defied orders and moved into battle sooner than he was told to do, and despite the fact that he was completely unaware that Crazy Horse had forced the retreat of U.S. troops, Custer became an overnight hero. His life and death were exaggerated in songs, poems, and tall tales. His career before his "last stand" had been ordinary, but now he was portrayed as a courageous hero whose life had been snuffed out by blood-thirsty savages. America wanted revenge.
Exile and surrender
Custer's defeat brought thousands more soldiers into the region, and the Lakota were specific targets. In May 1877, Sitting Bull took his tribe into Canada, where the United States could not capture him. When the government sent an official across the border to offer the chief a pardon (formal forgiveness for his "crime") in exchange for settlement on a reservation, an angry Sitting Bull refused.
As recorded in Great Speeches by Native Americans, Sitting Bull's response to the government was, "For sixty-four years you have kept me and my people and treated us bad. What have we done that you should want us to stop? We have done nothing. … Don't you say two more words. Go back home where you came from. … This part of the country does not belong to your people. You belong on the other side; this side belongs to us."
Sitting Bull and his people lasted four long years in Canada. When the buffalo were all but extinct and he could no longer keep the tribe fed and healthy, he crossed the border once more. On July 19, 1881, he surrendered at Fort Buford, Montana. According to the PBS Web site New Perspectives on the West, thegreatchiefsaid,"Iwishittobe remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle." For Sitting Bull, surrender was the beginning of the end. But surrendering during the Plains Indian Wars was often used as a strategy to buy more time and eventually escape, and other famous Native American warriors used it to their advantage.
Officials sent Sitting Bull to Standing Rock Reservation. When they realized how popular he still was and saw how welcomed he was there, they feared he might instigate an uprising, so he was sent down the Missouri River to Fort Randall. He was held as a prisoner of war for two years.
Returns to Standing Rock
In May 1883, Sitting Bull was reunited with his Lakota tribe at Standing Rock. The chief worked alongside his people in the fields, but it was common knowledge that he still had authority over the Native Americans there. When government officials visited to tell the tribes of their desire to open part of the reservation to white settlers, Sitting Bull spoke out against the plan.
He left the reservation for four months in 1885 to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. This variety show featured several famous figures of the West, including Buffalo Bill Cody (1846–1917). It traveled the country entertaining settlers whose only knowledge of the wild frontier came from books and stories. For his part in riding around the arena once during each performance, Sitting Bull earned $50 a week. White society became too much for the aging chief, and here turned to his cabinat Standing Rock.
Although the rules of the reservation required Sitting Bull to embrace Christianity and other white cultural norms, the chief refused. He lived with his two wives and children and never gave up his traditional lifestyle. Not long after he returned, Sitting Bull had another vision. In it, he was told that he would be killed by one of his own people.
Vision comes true
Sitting Bull was visited by a Lakota named Kicking Bear (Mato Wanahtaka; 1846–1904) in the fall of 1890. Kicking Bear shared with the chief news of a ceremony that was supposed to get rid of white people and give back to the Native Americans their traditional way of life. The ceremony was known as the Ghost Dance, and Lakota at other reservations had already adopted it.
Officials at those reservations called in the military to keep the tribes under control. Those in charge at Standing Rock feared Sitting Bull would join the Ghost Dancers. If he did that, the movement would have a power beyond control. Before dawn on December 15, 1890, forty-three Lakota police officers broke down Sitting Bull's front door and dragged the chief to his front porch. Word of the arrest had already spread, and Sitting Bull's followers were waiting for him outside to lend their support.
Geronimo: Famous Apache Warrior
Geronimo was born in 1829 in either Arizona or New Mexico. Regardless, the region belonged to Mexico at the time. He was born into an Apache tribe and given the name Goyakla, which means "one who yawns." For unknown reasons, Mexican soldiers gave him the name he is known by: Geronimo.
Although not himself a hereditary leader, Geronimo was often mistaken for one by outsiders because he acted as spokesman for his brother-in-law, an Apache chief named Juh (c. 1825–1883). Juh had a speech impediment, which made him unable to speak clearly.
Geronimo had a wife and three children by the 1850s, and he was also responsible for the care of his widowed mother. In the summer of 1858, his tribe traveled to Mexico to trade with the Mexicans in a town the Apaches called Kaskiyeh. They set up camp, and women and children remained behind while the men went to town to trade. When the men returned to camp on the third day, they found most of their women and children murdered. Mexican soldiers from a neighboring town had attacked the camp, and Geronimo's wife, children, and mother were among the massacred. The loss of his family sent the warrior in search of vengeance, and he led his tribe in raids on Mexican towns and villages. He attacked people in New Mexico and Arizona along the way.
Geronimo was a role model for other Apaches, who saw in him the values they held most dear. He was aggressive and courageous in battle, and his vow of vengeance was considered an honorable way to live. Many Apaches believedGeronimo had powers, which began to come to him in visions shortly after that fateful day in 1858. Legend claims he could walk without leaving footprints. His powers earned him the highly respected title of medicine man.
As the U.S. government began forcing Native Americans from their lands and onto reservations (assigned lots of land), Geronimo and his Apaches fought fiercely. Although many people credited him with being the last Native American to surrender to the United States, in fact he surrendered more than once. The first time came in 1884, and his tribe members were taken to the San Carlos Indian Reservation. He and 144 Apaches escaped the following year, but surrendered ten months later when they were found in Mexico. As they were being brought back across the border, Geronimo and a small group of his men escaped. Although the United States had fifty-five hundred soldiers searching for the escapees, it took them five months and more than 1,600 miles (2,574.4 kilometers) to find them.
Geronimo's final surrender took place near Douglas, Arizona, in September 1886. The U.S. government sent the warrior, along with 450 Apache men, women, and children, by train to Florida, where they lived for a year at Fort Pickens and Fort Marion. In 1888, they were moved to Mount Vernon, Alabama, where they stayed until 1894, when they were sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Throughout all these years, the Apaches were technically considered prisoners of war.
Geronimo died at Fort Sill in 1909. He was eighty-five years old. Despite having requested to be allowed to die in his native land of Arizona, he was never set free.
A gunfight broke out, and in the chaos, Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a Lakota policeman. Catherine Weldon, a missionary and teacher who lived among the Lakota, described the chief in these words, as reported by Sally Roesch Wagner in her article "Sitting Bull: In Memory": "As a friend … sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree." Weldon believed Sitting Bull was murdered so that he could not ever tell of secrets he knew that would disgrace the U.S. government.
Wagner also claims that the government and military both were guilty of changing census records to reduce the number of Native Americans required to sign agreements to sell their land (as required by the Treaty of 1868). In addition, she declares that officials used illegal means to gather signatures to reach the required numbers.
Weldon and Wagner voiced opinions that reflected those of others. According to Wagner's article, the New York World newspaper reported on December 21, 1890, that "The lying, thieving Indian agents wanted silence touching past thefts and immunity to continue their thieving." The editor of that paper supported his reporter's claims and said a military official's report of Sitting Bull's death gave evidence of the claims. "As it stands now it was organized butchery, and one of the most shameful incidents in our 'century of dishonor' toward the Indians," wrote the editor.
An investigation into the murder was never made, and the assassination charges have never been found to be untrue. Wagner's article includes a quote from General Leonard Colby, head of the Nebraska National Guard. Colby claimed there was an "understanding between the officers of the Indian and military departments that it would be impossible to bring Sitting Bull to Standing Rock alive, and even if successfully captured, it would be difficult to tell what to do with him." Colby further reports that there was an arrangement between the commanding officers and the Indian police that the death of Sitting Bull would be preferable to his capture, and that "the slightest attempt to rescue him should be the signal for his destruction."
Sitting Bull was buried without ceremony. It was not until 1953 that his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, where his grave was marked with granite.
For More Information
Blaisdell, Bob, ed. Great Speeches by Native Americans. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
Geronimo. Geronimo: His Own Story. Edited by S. M. Barrett. New York: Dutton, 1970. Reprint, New York: Meridian, 1996.
Marker, Sherry. Plains Indian Wars (America at War). New York: Facts on File, 2003.
Roop, Connie, and Peter Roop. Sitting Bull. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2002.
Utley, Robert. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
"Chief Sitting Bull." History Channel.http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/sioux/sittingbull.html (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"Geronimo." Arizona State Museum.http://www.statemuseum.arizona.edu/artifact/geronimo.shtml (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"Geronimo." Indians.org.http://www.indians.org/welker/geronimo.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"History of Sitting Bull." Canada's Digital Collections. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/beaupre/promme92.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
McLaughlin, James. "An Account of Sitting Bull's Death." PBS: Archives of the West.http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/eight/sbarrest.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
PBS. "Sitting Bull." New Perspectives on the West.http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/sittingbull.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
Wagner, SallyRoesch."SittingBull:InMemory." First Nations: Issues of Consequence.http://www.dickshovel.com/sittingbull.html (accessed on September 4, 2006).