A Great American: Sitting Bull

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In this text I will tell about the great Native American Sitting Bull. He was a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man under whom the Lakota tribes united in their struggle for survival on the northern plains. He remained defiant towards American military power and contemptuous of American promises to the end. He was born around 1831 on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, at a place the Lakota called "Many Caches" after the number of food storage pits they had dug there. Sitting Bull was given the name “Tatanka-Iyotanka”, which describes a buffalo bull sitting intractably on its haunches. It was a name he would live up to throughout his life.


The stage was set for war between Sitting Bull and the U.S. Army in 1874 when an expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer confirmed that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. This area was sacred to many tribes and placed off-limits to white settlement by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Despite this ban, prospectors began a rush to the Black Hills, provoking the Lakota to defend their land. When government efforts to purchase the Black Hills failed, the Fort Laramie Treaty was set aside and the commissioner of Indian Affairs decreed that all Lakota not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876 would be considered hostile.


Intractably, Sitting Bull and his people held their ground. In March, as three divisions of American troops lead by General George Crook, General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon moved into the area, Sitting Bull called the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho to his camp on Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory. They performed sacrificial rituals and danced to honour Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit. During this ceremony, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw soldiers falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky. Inspired by this vision, the Oglala Lakota war chief, Crazy Horse, set out for battle with a band of 500 warriors. On June 17 at the Battle of the Rosebud, he surprised Crook’s troops and forced them to retreat. To celebrate this victory, the Lakota moved their camp to the valley of the Little Bighorn River, where they were joined by 3,000 more Indians who had left the reservations to follow Sitting Bull. On June 25, the Seventh Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer attacked them. His badly outnumbered troops first rushed the encampment, as if in fulfilment of Sitting Bull’s vision, and then made a stand on a nearby ridge, where they were destroyed. This caused thousands more Cavalrymen to be sent to the area and over the nest year they pursued the Lakota who had split up after the Custer-fight. Chief after chief was forced to surrender, but Sitting Bull remained defiant. Sitting Bull fled north into Canada with his band. An attempt by General Terry to offer Sitting Bull a pardon in exchange for settling in a reservation failed, and Sitting Bull sent him angrily away. Finding it impossible to feed his people in a world where the buffalo nearly was extinct, Sitting Bull four years later came south to surrender. He had his young son hand his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana, but he wanted it to be known that he was the last of his men to hand over his rifle. He wished to be able to travel back and forth across the Canadian Border and have a reservation of his own, but he and his men were instead placed at Fort Randall in Missouri as prisoners of War for two years.


In May 1883 Sitting Bull finally rejoined his tribe at Standing Rock Reservation, and in 1885 he was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. He earned 50 dollars for riding once around the arena. During the four months he stayed with the show, he managed to shake hands with President Grover Cleveland. He took this as evidence that he still was regarded as a great Indian chief. Back in his cabin at Standing Rock, he still refused to give up his old ways and rejected Christianity, though he sent his children to a nearby Christian school. Soon after his return Sitting Bull had another mystical vision; A meadowlark alight sat on a hillock beside him, and said that his death would be at the hand of his own people.


In the fall of 1890, a Miniconjou Lakota named Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull with news of the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that promised to rid the land of white people and restore the Indians’ way of life. In fear of that Sitting Bull, who still was regarded as an influential spiritual leader, would join the Ghost Dancers, the authorities at Standing Rock sent 43 Lakota policemen to bring him in. The policemen went in to his cabin to bring him out where his people had gathered to protect him. In the gunfight that followed one of the policemen put a bullet through the back of Sitting Bull’s head. Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and in 1953 his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, where a granite shaft marks his grave. He was remembered among the Lakota not only as an inspirational leader and fearless warrior, but as a loving father, a gifted singer and a man always good-natured and friendly toward others. Sitting Bull’s courage was legendary. Once, in 1872, during a battle with soldiers who were protecting some railroad workers on the Yellowstone River, Sitting Bull led four other warriors out between the lines. They sat down and calmly shared a pipe as bullets flew. When they were finished, he carefully reamed the pipe and then casually walked away.

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