The story

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

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Sitting Bull was a medicine man, or holy man, of the Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux), who were being driven from their land in the Black Hills. Under his leadership as a war chief, the Lakota tribes united in their struggle for survival on the northern plains.Birth, childhood, and early careerSitting Bull was born on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota in 1831. When he was born, his parents named him Jumping Badger.As a little boy, Jumping Badger, there was nothing remarkable to set him apart from other children of his tribe. His nickname was Hunkesi, meaning, "Slow," because he never hurried and did everything with care.At an early age, however, the boy distinguished himself as a leader. He gave the meat away to elders who were unable to hunt for themselves.Following the hunt, Jumping Badger set out on his first vision quest. He joined his first war party against the Crow, anxious for a chance to prove himself at that tender age.Jumping Badger struck his first Crow warrior with his coup stick, thus earning a coveted measure of bravery in combat. His father was so filled with pride at his son's early victory, that he gave the name Sitting Bull (Tatanka-Iyotanka) to his son as part of the ceremonies celebrating his elevation to warrior status. Those were fighting virtues that people saw in Sitting Bull.Promising maturityAs a young man, Sitting Bull successfully increased Sioux hunting grounds. By the age of 25, he was the leader of the Strong Heart Warrior Society and later, a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters, a group concerned with tribal welfare.Soon, Sitting Bull became known for his fearlessness in battle. That led, in 1857, to his designation as a tribal war chief.At the same time, Sitting Bull mastered the sacred Lakota mysteries. He became as shaman and medicine man, and rose to eminence as a holy man.Wives and childrenSitting Bull had at least three wives, and possibly as many as five over the years. His last two wives, “Four Robes” and “Seen-by-the-Nation,” gave him many children.In his later years, Sitting Bull's most favored children were a son named Crow Foot and a daughter named Standing Holy. Although a Crow warrior had killed Sitting Bull’s father in 1859, his mother was a powerful presence in his teepee until her death in 1884.Later careerFrom 1863 to 1868, the U.S. Army continually invaded Lakota territory, especially their hunting grounds, which created problems for the native economy. The Lakota fought the army's encroachment.Sitting Bull experienced his first encounter with American soldiers in June 1863, when the army mounted a broad campaign in retaliation for the Santee Rebellion in Minnesota, in which Sitting Bull's people had played no part. In 1865, he led a siege against the newly established Fort Rice in present-day North Dakota. Widely respected for his bravery and insight, he became the first principal chief of the entire Lakota Sioux nation in 1868.Although other tribal chiefs attended the peace conference of 1868, to sign the Fort Laramie treaty — declaring peace and the end to their free, nomadic sovereignty — Sitting Bull refused to attend. By 1875, more than a thousand prospectors were camping there.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 — provoking the Lakota to defend their land. Sitting Bull summoned other Lakota bands, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, to his camp on Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory.Battle of the RosebudSitting Bull performed an important religious ritual, called the Sun Dance, a type of self-sacrifice that could include a loss of consciousness. When Sitting Bull emerged from his trance, he told of his vision of soldiers falling from the sky.Inspired by Sitting Bull's vision, the Oglala Lakota war chief, Chief Crazy Horse, set out for battle with a band of 500 warriors, and on June 17, 1876, he surprised Crook's troops and forced them to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud. Following the battle, they set up camp at Little Bighorn, where they were joined by 3,000 more Indians who had left the reservations to follow Sitting Bull.Battle of the Little Big HornAlthough Sitting Bull was the principal chief among the Lakota Sioux, he did not personally participate in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Colonel George A. Custer and the soldiers under his command first rushed the encampment along the Little Big Horn River, as if in fulfillment of Sitting Bull's vision. That military defeat brought thousands more cavalrymen to the area, and over the next year, they ruthlessly persecuted the Lakota — who had split up following the Custer fight — forcing chief after chief to surrender.As the battles continued, many of Sitting Bull's followers surrendered. When General Terry traveled north to offer him a pardon in exchange for settling on a reservation, Sitting Bull angrily sent him away.Four years later, however, finding it impossible to feed his people in a world where the buffalo was almost extinct, Sitting Bull finally came south to surrender. On July 19, 1881, he had his young son, Crow Foot, hand over his rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford in Montana, explaining that in this way he hoped to teach the boy that he had become a friend of the whites.Latter daysFor his people, Sitting Bull asked for the right to cross back and forth into Canada whenever he wished, and for a reservation of his own on the Little Missouri River near the Black Hills. Instead, he was sent to Standing Rock Reservation.When his presence there raised fears that he might inspire a fresh uprising, Sitting Bull was sent farther down the Missouri River to Fort Randall. Senators came to discuss opening part of the reservation to white settlers, he spoke forcefully, though futilely, against their plan.In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. He stayed with the show only four months, unable to tolerate white society any longer.During his adventures in the white man's world, he witnessed numerous things. In that time, he shook hands with President Grover Cleveland, which he took as evidence that he was still regarded as a great chief.Back to Standing RockReturning to Standing Rock, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin on the Grand River, near where he had been born. He refused to give up his old ways as the reservation's rules required, still living with two wives and rejecting Christianity. He sent his children to a nearby Christian school in the belief that the next generation of Lakota would need to be able to read and write.Soon after his return, Sitting Bull experienced another mystical vision. This time he saw a meadowlark alight on a hillock beside him, and heard it say, "Your own people, Lakotas, will kill you."Sitting Bull remained an influential force among his people. He saw some things that might benefit his people, but cautioned them to accept only those things that were useful, and leave everything else alone.Sitting Bull's last years found him in the familiar stance of opposing government aims. They persuaded several "government-appointed chiefs" to sign an agreement, whereby the reservation was to be divided up and subsequently distributed among the tribal members. Missing from the list of recipients was Sitting Bull's name.The death of a great warriorIn 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. Although he himself was not a follower, his people's involvement was perceived as a threat by the American government that the movement was becoming more militaristic and might erupt into rebellion. The federal agencies sent extra troops to the reservations.At Standing Rock, the authorities feared that Sitting Bull, still revered as a spiritual leader, would join the Ghost dancers. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agent in charge of the Lakotas sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, to force him to stop the dance. Before dawn on December 15, 1890, the policemen burst into Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside. Crow Foot also was slain.Sitting Bull was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and in 1953, his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota.Sitting Bull's legacyToday Sitting Bull is remembered as one of the greatest of all Indian leaders, a man of power and renown among his own people, an uncompromising foe of white encroachments on his land and his way of life. His rocklike dedication to the principles that ordered his life ensured failure in the great purpose he set for himself, but also awarded him stature as one of American history's greatest patriots. He is remembered among the Lakota not only as an inspirational leader and fearless warrior but as a loving father, a gifted singer, a man always affable and friendly toward others, whose deep religious faith gave him prophetic insight and lent special power to his prayers.

Standing Rock and Sitting Bull: Where is the history?

As I&rsquove watched the groundswell of protest at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota over the building of a new pipeline carrying &ldquofracked&rdquo oil from the massive Bakken oilfield, I&rsquove been surprised by the lack of mention of what seems to me to be one of the most striking things about this action: the fact that it&rsquos taking place on the same reservation where Sitting Bull was killed in December 1890 by federal Indian agency police who came to arrest him as part of an attempt to suppress a wave of Indian resistance.

The story of the day after Sitting Bull&rsquos death is better-known. At another reservation to the south, as many as 300 people, including some who had fled from Standing Rock, were killed by federal soldiers near Wounded Knee Creek. Sometimes referred to as a battle but more often as a massacre, the event has been a touchstone for indigenous resistance ever since, including in a 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee by activists from the American Indian Movement.

There&rsquos an incredible resonance here with today&rsquos civil disobedience actions at Standing Rock. A very broad alliance of indigenous groups and non-indigenous allies and environmentalists has taken a stand against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but also against the expansion of extractive processes and infrastructure on indigenous lands more generally. As with other pipeline and anti-fracking protests, they&rsquore warning about specific problems like potential spills and pollution of water sources. But they&rsquore also talking about the overall moral relationship of humans to our environments as well as making very broad statements about sovereignty and stewardship. It&rsquos this broader message that seems to be sparking such wide solidarity and support.

It is not, however, garnering as much media attention as you might expect at this point. In fact, journalists are being very actively discouraged from covering the story, including through arrest and threats of arrest (a warrant was recently issued for independent broadcaster Amy Goodman on the charge of trespass and &ldquoriot,&rdquo based on the argument that she was sympathetic to the protesters and was therefore a protester herself).

An Oct, 22,2016 Google search turned up few sources that show the links between today&rsquos Standing Rock actions and the history of Sitting Bull&rsquos life and death. Screenshot by the author

But even in the limited coverage that&rsquos finding its way into the press, I&rsquove been struck by how absent any discussion of history is. Maybe the historical connections with Sitting Bull&rsquos death and Wounded Knee are so completely obvious to indigenous people that they feel no need to mention them except in passing or between the lines. That&rsquos the approach taken by Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II in an op ed piece for the New York Times and by Winona LaDuke in an article for Yes!Magazine ( although this piece on White Wolf Pack blog states the connection more directly).

In general, there&rsquos virtually nothing in the press about Sitting Bull, let alone explanations that might suggest how inspiring&ndashand also how alarming&ndashthe knowledge of the past must be for the activists who are now preparing to dig in to this deeply resonant place for the winter. If you do a Google search for &ldquoSitting Bull&rdquo and &ldquoStanding Rock,&rdquo you have to click through several pages of hits before you get to sources that could help you piece together anything like the fuller story of broken treaties, violent repression, determined resistance, and forced relocations that underlie today&rsquos protests.

When I polled the students in one of my classes at Tufts University about this last week, only a few were vaguely aware of the Standing Rock actions, something that surprised me given their general attentiveness to questions of social, racial, and environmental justice. Most had heard of Sitting Bull and a couple knew about Wounded Knee. I&rsquom glad that some faculty and students at my institution are holding a teach-in about Standing Rock that&rsquos connecting some of these dots. But there&rsquos clearly much more that could be done&ndashperhaps including by public historians&ndashto get the message out not only about what&rsquos going on in the present but about how it emerges from a long, painful, and very specific history of contestation in this part of what is now the United States.

Cathy Stanton is a senior lecturer in anthropology at Tufts University and an active public historian. She serves as digital media editor for the National Council on Public History.

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Thank you for this article. I would say that there is a strong connection between the history of environmental justice struggles in Indian Country across the U.S. I focus much of my research on water struggles on the Klamath Basin and the methods of activism found between the two cases: DAPL and the Klamath are similar. In short, these movements aren&rsquot new in Indian Country, the story of Sitting Bull is one of many histories connecting indigenous struggles to DAPL. I do not speak for Standing Rock but speaking as an Indian person there is no doubt in my mind that the Standing Rock Sioux understand their history, as an Indian person it is impossible not to. As scholarship on DAPL progresses, there will likely be discussion on broken treaties, connection to Sitting Bull as well as connections to other environmental justice and social justice movements. As it stands now, however, I think the struggle to survive takes precedence over explaining history to those who choose not to understand it.

This is indeed a living historical learning period for all of us. Thanks. Maybe classes should tour this take see first hand accounts of history unfokd.

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Sitting Bull: Soothsayer

A studio portrait of Sitting Bull. Though popular with White Americans through Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, Sitting Bull was no sell-out, and remained an honest and spiritual Lakota leader until his death.

Sitting Bull’s ability to embrace the Great Mystery and commune with meadowlarks made him one of America’s greatest spiritual leaders.

At the end of a hot summer day in 1876, Sitting Bull and his nephew, One Bull, left their lodges in a large encampment of Cheyennes and Lakota Sioux, crossed a bordering stream and climbed a hill on the ridge beyond. The Lakota leader sensed that a momentous battle was about to unfold, and in a vision a few weeks earlier he had foreseen a great victory, but he still felt a need to plead for divine protection over his people.

Atop the hill the two men smoked a ceremonial pipe and lay down as offerings a bison robe and tobacco wrapped in buckskin. Then Sitting Bull prayed. It was a “Dreamy Cry,” a call for special favor. “Pity me….Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there you are always,” he called out to the Great Mystery (Wakantanka). “Father, save the tribe, I beg you….Guard us against all misfortunes or calamities. Pity me.”

The next day, June 25, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors turned an attack by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry into a rout, killing 268 and laying siege to the battered survivors. Among the dead was Custer. He had ordered part of his force to attack from the south, then he had led more than 200 men along high ground to the east to assault the camp from the other end. But as he descended to the river, called the Greasy Grass by the Sioux and the Little Bighorn by whites, hundreds of warriors met him and his troopers, drove them back up the ridge and slew them all.

The end came on an elevation where the dismounted cavalrymen, panicked and choking on dust and rifle smoke, probably never noticed at their feet a bison robe and tiny bundles of tobacco tethered to sticks of cherry wood. Today hundreds of thousands of people walk up that hill each year to visit what is arguably the most famous piece of ground in the long history of America’s Indian Wars. They know it, however, not as the place where Sitting Bull prayed for favor from the Great Mystery but rather as the site of the seeming answer to his prayer—Custer’s last stand.

In a way it is fitting that Sitting Bull’s prayer on Custer Hill is so little known. Sitting Bull is one of the most familiar American Indians in our history. He is typically remembered as a great warrior, but among his people he is more renowned as an extraordinarily gifted wichasha wakan, or holy man. Such a person is recognized for unusual abilities to pierce the veil between the seen and unseen, to receive visions of insight and prophecy from the divine, to interpret the dreams of others, to commune with other creatures and the forces at work around him, and generally to gain an intimate relation with Wakantanka, the spirit said to sustain the world and all that is in it, down to the tiniest mote of dust.

Sitting Bull’s leadership arose more from those abilities than from any battlefield exploits, for his people believed that anything of real importance—the outcome of a hunt or battle, turns of the weather, illness or health, the overall quality of life—depended on how well aligned they were with spirits that were everywhere, in all animals and plants as well as in stones, clouds, stars, storms and things whites considered inanimate. All of these spirits in turn were part of Wakantanka. A wichasha wakan’s ability to reach into that spirit world made him a medium to ultimate sources of good and ill, and thus a man more valuable than any warrior.

Sitting Bull was probably born in 1831 along the Grand River in the western part of present-day South Dakota. His father and two uncles were prominent figures among the Hunkpapas, one of seven subgroups of the Lakotas, the westernmost of three Sioux nations. He earned the high regard of his people early, killing his first bison when he was only 10 and mastering the hunt in a few years more. He was a powerful singer and an imitator of birdcalls and was respected for his character. He was nicknamed “Slow” (Hunkesni), which described not his abilities—in fact in his prime he was regarded as the Hunkpapas’ fastest footracer—but his quiet, deliberate and thoughtful approach to dealing with problems. And even before his birth, he said later, the Great Mystery allowed him to see from his mother’s womb. There he began his study of the world, including the smallpox that was chewing at his people: “I was so interested that I turned over on my side.”

He shone most in warfare and spirituality, as revealed in two alternative stories of how he got his more famous name. In one, the 14-year-old Slow pursued one of the Lakotas’ archenemies, a Crow, and unhorsed him with a terrific blow from a tomahawk. Striking an enemy, “counting coup,” brought more honor than killing, and in the ensuing celebration, after Slow received a white eagle feather to signify him as a warrior, his proud father gave his son his own name, Sitting Bull (Tatanka iyotanka), and took a new one for himself, Jumping Bull (Tatanka yotanka).

By the other story, Slow, then only 6, encountered a large bison bull one early morning while tending horses. The bull was leaning back on his haunches. Slow was frightened, but the animal showed no aggression and only looked with a gaze the boy could not break. When the bull finally lowered to a stance and walked away, the boy thanked him for his pity and said, “I respect you.” The incident was taken as an omen both of success in the hunt and a rare bond with other creatures. Slow was renamed Sitting Bull.

Both aspects of his reputation were soon burnished bright. At 15, Sitting Bull counted a second coup and over the next several years fought bravely and often against rival Assiniboins and Crows. In his 20s, he joined the prestigious Kit Fox and Strong Heart warrior societies, and in the latter rose to the high honor of a sash bearer. At 26, he was chosen a war chief of all the Hunkpapas.

Several months earlier, his calling as a wichasha wakan had been confirmed in the Lakotas’ most important ceremony, the sun dance. Held every June, the ritual was less a worship of the sun than a renewal of the people’s bond with Wakantanka and a supplication for favor, protection and support, especially access to the bison that were the mainstay of their economy. Eight days of preparation were followed by four days of dancing and chanting around a tall cottonwood pole that had been carefully chosen and erected just so. Some dancers had slivers of cherry wood inserted under the skin of their chests or backs and tied to bison skulls or to the pole. The terrible pain as they danced, staring into the sun, hour after hour, was an offering and sacrifice made in hopes of a vision, a moment of clarity about their lives and that of the Lakotas.

In the 1856 sun dance along the Little Missouri River, Sitting Bull made the ultimate commitment, pierced front and back and bound to the center pole. After days of pulling against the bonds, staring sunward as he danced and calling out with pleas for bountiful hunts and good health for all Lakotas, a voice finally came to him: “Wakantanka will grant your wish.” A holy man was expected to have such a vision, and so about the time he was recognized as a war chief his spiritual status was affirmed as well.

A sun dance touched on the essence of what it meant to be a wichasha wakan—and of the meaning of power itself. Power was alive everywhere in the world—in animals and plants, the weather and the earth and all else. Power was understood less in white terms, as imposing one’s will on others, than in aligning oneself with the many sources of power all around. As in a sun dance, those powers were to be approached humbly and generously, with gifts and personal sacrifice, and the natural prayerful response was to offer respect and to ask for compassion. “Pity me,” Sitting Bull began his appeal on the hill above the Greasy Grass. And hunters on the Columbia River would sing to their prey: “Pity us, and be driven easily down to the place where we shall shoot you.”

A wichasha wakan was often equated, a bit misleadingly, with a medicine man. The more common designation applied most accurately to someone who could cure, and cause harm, through his conjuring abilities and his understanding of plants and herbs. That was not Sitting Bull’s forte. “Medicine,” however, could also mean “having the power to do things… ordinary men cannot do,” wrote Robert Higheagle, a fellow Lakota, and by that definition, Sitting Bull was “a man medicine seemed to surround someway.”

Cultivating that medicine was a lifetime’s work. Because the Great Spirit took an infinite number of forms, a holy man should study its manifestations, which meant learning from each its essential nature and power, benevolent and otherwise. An otter had to be treated carefully, for instance, never killed from horseback and its meat never eaten. Sitting Bull studied early under his parents and uncle, Four Horns, and discovered an ability to converse with animals. At 15, the year he counted a second coup, he came across a wolf with two arrows in its body. Help me, the animal promised him, and your name will be great. The teenager removed the arrows and washed and dressed the wounds, and from then on a connection to the wolf tribe was secured.

Because animals shared the world’s power with people, reciprocal relations, like Sitting Bull’s with the wolves, made for valuable alliances. He was especially close to birds. While sleeping under a tree as a youth, he dreamed a beautiful bird saved him by warning of an approaching bear, and on waking he saw a woodpecker “looking at him and knocking away.” Spontaneously he made up a song and sang it, ending: “Ye Bird Tribes, from henceforth/always my relation shall be.” As a man he found meadowlarks to be close kin to Lakotas, offering helpful observations and practical advice. Calves’ liver is nutritious, one told him. Teach the young to treat meadowlarks well, he urged friends, so those special allies would always speak our language.

In the 1860s, Sitting Bull’s military star continued its ascent. As the War Between the States raged in the East he led assaults on white troops who were starting to challenge the Sioux on the Upper Missouri River and in the central Dakotas. Then in his 30s, Sitting Bull rode bareback into a fight, his powerful arms, back and legs brightly painted and his hair pulled back. By about 1866, his reputation was such that other warriors entered a scrap shouting, “TatankaIyotanka he miye!” (“Sitting Bull, I am he!”)

It was not a literal claim. Given his melding of military and spiritual prowess, the belief was that a “mystic or mysterious power” would come into a warrior invoking Sitting Bull’s name. His standing as a wichasha wakan was expressed in other ways. A gifted singer with a powerful voice, he composed many songs. Some were personal, like a tribute to his mother and an encouragement to his favorite horse, the sorrel Bloated Jaw, but the majority honored the sacred, the Lakota equivalent of psalms. One sung at sweat baths was of Wakantanka’s call to his people:

This earth the Creator I am,
Ye Tribes, may you live.
This earth the Creator I am,
Ye Tribes, may you behold it.

And this, meant to be the voice of the sun assuring fair weather during the annual dance honoring him:

With visible countenance I come forth,
Buffalo I have given you [for food].
With visible countenance behold me.

Sitting Bull’s devotions as a wichasha wakan cultivated virtues that ranked above those of the battlefield—generosity, kindness and humility. He often gave the bison he killed to the elderly and to unsuccessful hunters, and he was especially adept at smoothing over disputes with the calm deliberation that had given him the nickname of Slow. Relatives remembered his great fondness for children. At the Little Bighorn, he did not fight but organized protection for them and the women. He composed a lullaby he sang to his children and grandchildren while patting their backs:

Alone, alone, my baby is loved by everyone.
Alone, sweet words my child speaks to everyone
The little owls, little owls even [to] them
Alone, alone, loved by everyone.

He was not good looking, Robert Higheagle remembered, and sometimes was clumsy and awkward, but “there was something in [him] everybody liked.”

Sitting Bull’s piety, cultivated medicine and military prowess steadily fed his stature among the Lakotas, and by the 1870s, as he entered his 40s, it was unsurpassed. He played prominently in several men’s societies, including the Silent Eaters, a secret elite group, never more than 20, that met deep into the night to consider how best to promote the people’s good. As the subgroups of the Lakotas joined increasingly in common cause against whites (wasichus), he emerged as the leading figure of uncompromising resistance by whatever means to any surrender of Lakota independence.

In that role he turned his considerable powers to his people’s good, most obviously, as on the night before Custer’s attack, in prayers of intercession. The previous summer the Lakotas had faced another, equally formidable challenge to their independence—drought. Sitting Bull had received one of the rarest gifts, a dream of a Thunder Bird, the being that rode through the sky and brought lightning and rain, and as a member of Heyoka, the small society of those so blessed, he ascended a hill and, all through the night, chanted a song he had written as words of a Thunder Bird:

Against the wind I’m coming
Peace Pipe I’m seeking, hence
Rain I’m bringing as I’m coming.

During those years he turned to the people’s good a wichasha wakan’s most dramatic use of spirit power—visions. Visions were by no means exclusive to holy men. As among many western Indians, a vision quest was a pivotal event in the life of a young Sioux male. With the help of a spiritual guide he would retire alone to some distant spot and through fasting, chanting and sleep deprivation seek the pity of some spirit. If a spirit appeared—it could be an animal or natural force such as thunder—it would be a protector and helper for the rest of his life. Sitting Bull doubtless had his vision quest, although its result, an intensely personal revelation, is unknown.

A wichasha wakan had a fuller and more frequent access to visions and, most impressively, to occasional views of the future. Sitting Bull’s nephew, One Bull, recalled that as a boy his favorite horse, a pinto Sitting Bull had given him, inexplicably vanished. In a sweat lodge with other holy men, Sitting Bull sought help from a special sacred stone. He learned that a jealous man had stolen the pony and pushed it over the edge of a deep ravine—which is where the dying animal was found.

His most famous vision came not long before the battle on the Greasy Grass. In early June 1876, Sitting Bull called for a sun dance along Rosebud Creek, not far to the east of the Little Bighorn. After purifying himself in a sweat lodge, he sat leaning against the cottonwood pole as others danced around him. Above him hung bison robes as gifts to Wakantanka, but his primary offering was of his own body. Jumping Bull, an Assiniboin he had adopted as a brother and had given his father’s name, worked first on his left arm, then his right, raising the flesh with an awl before slicing off a piece the size of a wheat grain. He took 50 bits of flesh from each arm. Then, as the blood streamed down, Sitting Bull danced for many hours. Finally he fell unconscious.

When roused with cold water, he told his uncle, Black Moon, what he had seen. In the sky, just below the sun, soldiers rode down on an Indian camp, thick as locusts. But these soldiers were upside down, some losing their hats, as if tumbling and falling into the camp. As in his sun dance 20 years before, he heard a voice. Now it said: “I give you these because they have no ears.” The meaning was clear. Horseback bluecoats, heedless of danger, were coming to attack, but Sitting Bull’s people would prevail, and to a man the soldiers would die.

In fact, as Sitting Bull danced, the army was launching a three-pronged assault on the Lakotas. Soon afterward Sioux scouts spotted one column, led by General George Crook, coming from the south, and on June 17, they attacked and fought ferociously, forcing Crook to disengage from the campaign. Barely a week later came Custer’s attack, the one foreseen in the vision. His command, scouting for the second prong under General Alfred Terry, did indeed fall into the Lakota village. Its shattered remnant was found on June 26 by the third column under Colonel John Gibbon.

By some accounts, Sitting Bull’s vision included an instruction that his people should not plunder the bodies of the slain horseback bluecoats—a command they ignored. Perhaps it was retribution, then, that the crushing victory in June was followed by disaster. A humiliated U.S. Army hounded the dispersing Sioux and Cheyenne over the fall and winter. Some of the starving bands, including that of Crazy Horse, surrendered in the spring, but Sitting Bull and several hundred others fled across the border into Canada. The first winter was bitterly cold, with deep snow, and the Lakotas’ deplorable condition worsened even more. Sitting Bull took his last bit of dried venison as an offering, retired to a high place and chanted to the Great Mystery: “Father, pity me….Children with their mothers cry for food….The tribe and myself wish to live. Father, send the buffaloes back to us so we can live and not die.” Soon the weather broke and game returned.

In July 1881, however, official pressure and dwindling bison forced Sitting Bull and his followers to recross the border and turn themselves in. Eventually they were placed on South Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation. The goal of reservations was to transform Indians into mainstream Americans, an effort that ran to the spiritual—the suppression of native religion and conversion to Christianity. How Sitting Bull responded to Christianity is not clear. Like many Indians, he likely looked to it for sources of power to add to the Lakotas’. By one account he recognized Mary as a human incarnation of a supreme Mother the Sioux venerated. Nothing, however, suggests that he budged on his fundamental beliefs, or that he faltered in using his gifts for his people’s needs.

His beliefs were tested again in 1890 with the arrival of the ghost dance, a religious movement inspired by a Paiute prophet in Nevada. It invoked the old appeals, as in this song from the Arapahos:

Father, have pity on me
I am crying for thirst
All is gone, I have nothing to eat.

Ghost dance practitioners promised that faithful adherence to the new teachings and rituals would prompt the Great Mystery to reverse the terrible losses that had come with Europeans. Many Sioux responded enthusiastically, including those around Sitting Bull near his birthplace along the Grand River. He never took part in the dances, nor apparently gave them his blessing, but neither did he discourage them. Perhaps he saw a chance to shore up his standing, which had sagged among the Hunkpapas since his return from Canada. Probably he probed the ghost dance, as he did Christianity, for possible powers.

The rattled government agent at Standing Rock, however, believed that Sitting Bull was plotting trouble, and in December 1890, he sent Sioux police to arrest him. When he resisted, they shot and killed him. Thus Sitting Bull died, at age 58, at the hands of some of those whose good he had pursued with his considerable gifts, singing to woodpeckers, calling upon lightning and rain, glimpsing what was to come and speaking to sacred stones, calling out in his “Dreamy Cry” to “guard us against all misfortunes or calamities.” The irony was not wholly unexpected. Not long before, Sitting Bull had been walking to his horses in the early morning, as in that naming story when as a young boy he had met the sitting bull and had given him his respect. He heard a voice nearby say, “Dakotas [Sioux] will kill you.” Looking around, he saw who had spoken. It was a meadowlark.

Elliott West, author of several books on Western and American Indian history, is Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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This book appears to be a scanned copy or facsimile of the original book published in 1891. The facsimile also appears to have been made from a library book owned by the University of Toronto Library, because it has a Toronto Library mark on one of the very last pages.

But, all the other pages of text, page numbers, and photos appear exactly the same and in the same order as the original printed edition which I had the privilege of reading. My next door neighbor loaned me his original edition.

Sitting Bull - History

I am looking for any family of my grandmother: Alice Ruth Ann Schrieve.Her parents are John and Alicia Schrieve. She is half Sioux Indian and believed to be a grand daughter of Sitting Bull. She has an older brother named John Schrieve. I am finding out Sitting Bull had at least 9 wives. My grandmother was orphaned at 5 years old in Pierre, South Dakota and lived on the reservation, which was probably the Standing Rock Reseveration. I would really like to know how her parents died. She was taken into the Tate family at 5 years old to do laundry. She later married Warren Hedges Smith.

smitty911 , from Utah, USA, has been a Family Tree Circles member since Sep 2006. is researching the following names: SITTINGBULL, SCHRIEVE, TATANKAIYOTANKA and 3 other(s).


Dear Smitty911, Hi there. If you do a search for sitting bull in the top right-hand corner of familytreecircles, you will be taken to at least 7 other journals on Sitting Bull.

There have been a few queries on him of late, and I sourced a few websites, including details on his grave.

Hi! i also was told i am related to sitting bull.
My parents sayed that he is my great grandfather. I've been doing alot of reserch lately and i cant seem to find anyone else that knows any of his family tree. If you have any information than you think can help me please share it with me.

So it seems you are having the same problems researching Sitting Bull. There is alot of info on sitting bull on the interenet. I know of 5 wives and many children. The best thing to do is to start reading about him and get to know more about the Sioux tribe. He was also my grandsmothers. grand father. My grandmother had a brother name John Schrieve. You wouln't be a realated to the Schrieve family?

Anyway check out the Standing Rock Reseveration at This is the reservation where sitting bull and some of his wives and children lived. I'm going to contact them as well to see if they have any tribal info.

Let me know what you find out.

wow thats very interesting.

Wow 9 wives. I heard he had 4 wives. He must have an army of descendents. I recently spoke to Ernie LaPointe who claims to be the only remaining great grandson of Sitting Bull. Teyet Ramar also known as Chief White feather amongst his friends was a close family friend. He performed song before the king of England once. He once showed my grandfater Rev. Kenneth Royal Bliss papers that proved he was a grandson of Sitting Bull. Teyet has a son named Sonny who I hear has been somewhat reclusive. Sonny would then also be a great grandson of Sitting Bull. I have heard that they wrangle so much about who is related the some don't want to argue anymore.

I was told I was realted to him, and am looking for a way to obtain an Idian Card. My name is Breanna Schrader, and my father is Daniel Schrader, If u happen to run across our names on any records much help would be appreciated. Thanks Breanna

Before you jump into trying to get an indian card or such you have to know the criteria. I am Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation and i have relatives from Standing Rock. There are requirements that you must have. You must be at least 1/4 Lakota blood and with many of your Lakota tribes you have to have an Enrolled Parent and ties to the reservation.

Thanks for your comments. My task of finding my realatives has been very difficult. My great grand father is supposed to be sitting bull. I'm seeking to find documation to see if there is any truth to this. I've talked to others who also claim some realationship. Do you have any ideas?

I am from Standing Rock. The Grey Eagle family. All direct blood descendents are known, as are many who are claiming descendency -- some of whom are indeed related, but not descended.

From what I've read here, none of you are descended -- at least not from this (Hunkpapa) Sitting Bull. Ernie ISN'T the ONLY one descended from this bloodline, though he is indeed descended. He comes from the GreyEagle/SittingBull line though.

To assist you, though, you would have to know which wife you are descended from. And no, he did NOT have 9 wives! LOL He had 4, possibly 5, wives and all are accounted for, as are the children from these unions.

So, it shouldn't be too hard. Stories abound though. He supposedly had children when he went to Germany as well. (He NEVER went to Germany). Maybe some other Indian gave his name as Sitting Bull to help get a woman into the sack!

To start out, I really appreciate your reply. I happy you find this amusing.I'm sure all this fuss is funny to you. I find it very frustrating. I have been researching for many years to find answers. I don't understand why there is so much confusion with this linage. I would of thought someone as important as Sitting Bull would have more documentation to prove his who his ansestores are. I have read many books, and each have a different accounting.

I have talked with Ernie too and he claims to be the only one as you have said. The problem I am having is I don't know which wife it could be. Especially since know one knows the true names and the number of wifes.

IS there a way I could see if my grandmother was born on Standing Rock? She was born on Feb. 1st 1900. She was orphaned at 4 or 5. So far I can find any birth records for her.

The names I have for wives are:Are they correct?

Travoriet Seen By the Nation
Light Hair
Red Woman
Snow on her
Her Four Robes

Any more help I would appreciate. I even thought about comming to standing rock to do some hands on reasearch. Would this be helpful?

Hi, I'm also one of the many of Sitting Bull's descendants. At the time of his death, he had two wives, "Four Robes" and "Pretty Plume". I also know of one wife named "Seen-by-the-Nation". I know of nine legitimate children. His eldest son was named Louis (Americanized). His two favorite children were Crow Foot and Standing Holy (son and daughter, respectively). I've heard that these two were twins (he did indeed have twins), but I am not sure if these two were twins or not. I hope this helps in any way, I'm researching as well and finding it very frustrating!

So how are you related to Sitting Bull? It's funny you say you know of nine legitimate children. I wonder how many wives and childre he may have that arn't accounted for. This is very frustrating. I do know infact my great grandmother was a daughter, legitimate od not!
I'll keep you posted on my findings too.

My husband's aunt has traced their family tree back to the Bull family. Could you tell me if Sitting Bull had any brothers and if so what were their names?

i too have tried searching over the years for my family history, but gave up.
My grandmother was full sioux, my grandfather was 3/4 cherrokee. they both died when my mother was very young and my family doesn't like to talk about anything relating to our family history, they only say that our ancestor's were powerful and proud people, and not to look for strength in the past, but to build your own self worth. they do say though that our family blood runs deep in me, for thing's that sound strange to people for vision's and dreams i have for loved one's that come true (yes, sounds weird and freaks people out), the elder's of my family still will not tell me of my family in detail, but that they see in me of what they have heard of our ancestor's and that for the way i look over people with my action's and with my looks.
i didn't think much of it until i recently came across a supossitly picture of Sitting Bull and i have his his eye's and nose, even with the indention on the top of his nose and his chin.
with what great aunt's i have left that are now speaking up to me about the old stories, and with the picture i have found they are starting to tell me more and now i am finally able to start researching my past, to find out more.
if i am a decendant or come across the Schrieve name i'll up date you.
nice to see you started this page, it helps people work towards figureing out where they are from.

I understand and empathize with your fustration. For the last 3 years we have been researching our lineage around Sitting Bull collectively. Due to the nature and popularity of Sitting Bull, it is difficult and therefore we have decided to go about another route by referring back to the documents given to us by my grandfather Jack J. McKarson.

His mother is Little Flower May Wilson-Sharp She is the daughter of Silver Leaf Running Horse and David Wilson. She was married 3 times and it resulted in carrying the following names:

My goal is to obtain an accurate research and determination of our lineage.

I am sure many of you will agree that there are characteristics that have been inherited and have little knowledge or questions that could be answered just by knowing your truth.

Just to add a little more information and to be as accurate as my documents, here is what I have.

Born Little Flower May Virginia Wilson - Sharp

add: (McKarson, Wood - she was married 3x)

Father: Charles David Wilson

Grandfather: Running Horse from Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Mother: Silver Leaf Running Horse
(born of

really appreciate this trail. I'm keen to learn more about the decendants or rather where I can find any documentation on line about the decendants and relations of both Sitting Bull as well as Red Cloud.
Any pointers would be much appreciated!

Please understand that none of these names are related to Sitting Bull. Alice Ruth Ann Schrieve, Teyet Ramar also known as Chief White feather, Travoriet,Singing ,Pretty Plume,Bull family,Little Flower May Wilson-Sharp,Silver Leaf Running Horse,David Wilson,Running Horse from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, are not related to Sitting Bull in anyway.

The tribe know by their people and we keep our own records which are not for pulic viewing.
We also know that ythere was seven Sitting Bull's living at the time of our Hunkpapa Sitting Bull who were from different reservation, there is even a cherokee Sitting Bull who is NOT RELATED to us.

The complete Sitting Bull descendant was completed by in the early ninties by tokaouspa who is a REAL in-law to Sitting Bull.

"Louis" was not the son of Sitting Bull and his father was Bear Louse who was married to a Grey Eagle sister it was his step-son.

"Crow Foot and Standing Holy I've heard that these two were twins (he did indeed have twins)",
These two had different mothers so could not be twin and plus they are five years apart. Crowfoot died with his Father and Standing Holy is Ernoie LaPoints great great grandma.

We have all his wives account for and their deaths none left the area except for the Grey Eagle sister and they moved to Pine Ridge.
conatct me at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
[email protected]

I am told that my fathers great grandpa is Chief Sitting Bull, Its been told to each generation. My fathers father is supose to be one of Chief Sitting Bulls daughters child. My father couldn't remember her name because she killed herself when her son was little. My father never met his grandmother and even forgot her name. Everyone else to ask more information is deseased. What we do know is that she married my dads grandfather whos name is Richard Leory. He was born in 1865.
He was from Ireland. He died in San Fransico. We were told they were married on the Rose Bud reservation.HELLP.

Stc taylor
all of Sitting bull family have been identify and none of his family killed themselves. None of Sitting bull's daughter marred a white man
one daughter died 1881 and the other died in 1887
one who lived is Ernie Lapoint's great grandmother

I have been told this as well. I am trying to put some relavance on this subject for myself. I have some family members who have some information that I am trying to get my hands on that suppossedly have documentation of this. I will update with this information as soon as I get it.

I also think this was a direct descendant of his bloodline. My grandmothers ashes were spread on a reservation in 1985 when she had passed away. My uncles took her there and had met with several members of the tribe not sure of the details but he had gotten some of the information there. I will keep posting as well as sharing my info as I obtain it.

My father told me that I am a great great great grandaughter of Sitting bull I am trying to find out anything I can as well. He didnt know alot. unfortunately.

except that we are from south dakota.

Hey what do you know we are all related to Sitting Bull. I have been trying to do some research but it is really hard. It would help if i knew your names then i could go from there. I am the great great grand daughter. My name is Christina Little Spotted Horse.

in sixth grade ( three years ago ) we done reserch on native americans , i choose sitten bull ,even though at the time i had no idea whom he was. i came home to my mommy and daddy and told them about my project. they were so suprised i picked him . they told me i am related to him from my mom's side we done two months of reserch and sure enough i'm one of the many great great grandaughters of him.

sitting bull is my great great great grandfather

Kriza. tell me about yoour research. What exactually did you do to substanciate your findings?

We also have a family history of being related to Sitting Bull. again, a story handed down.

We have the Indian Census Roll stating that we are part of the mdewakanton sioux.

Decendants names are:
Catherine Christina Scholastica Moran
Marie|Louisa Angelique Skaya

In April of 2007 I found a tombstone located in the Tombstone Cemtery, Tombstone, Cochise Co., AZ which says: Alice Brees
M. Sitting Bull

I have a photo of this tombstone.

I found sorta a family tree of Sitting Bull on the internet and i found my family name on there. So now I proof. I saw a lot of other names too.

Shortie would you please share your research? Where did you find this family tree? Was it on roots web? What is your family name? There are many of us here who need some clues and direction. Please help.

my great great great grandmother was one of sitting bulls wives, suposedly thats what my grandfather told me. My last name is Baird

oh and my grandfathers name is Milton Baird

I have decided to do some DNA testing on this line. I have some hair samples from my father who is Sitting Bull's great grandson, as his mother was Sitting Bull's grand daughter. I am told DNA can trace the linage right down to the tribe. Does anyone have any other info on DNA testing?

I found out that it was NOT Siting Bull, it was Little Cow.

I can't find the tree but it is somewhere on the internet. My family name is LITTLE SPOTTED HORSE but in the tree it just has SPOTTED HORSE but i know it is my family because it has my grandpa's name and my uncle's name. I think that my grandpa was one of Four Robe's grandsons. And somehow Angelique Little Spotted Horse has something to do with it. Oh yeah I got his hair. It is really thick and dark. My aunties are the Little Spotted Horse's that were posted over the internet. I guess I am kinda famous. It feels wierd.

oh yeah i am related to Ernie Lapointe. He is my uncle and Marlene and Ethel Little SPotted Horse are my aunties. My name is Christina Little Spotted Horse. My parents are Chris Martin and Helene Little Spotted Horse and my grandpa is Allison Little Spotted HOrse Sr.

oh Yeah and I am from the Oglala Sioux Tribe and I live in Oglala. That is where the Little Spotted Horse's lived at least since my mom was a little girl

It is really great to hear from you. You are difinatelly one of the lucky ones on this site. Most of us here only have stories and very few clues. I really appreciate your information. Who knows, somehow we may be connected some how. I have talked with Earnie a while back. In my faith we take family history seriously. It has been very frustrating to keep running into dead ends,but I am going to keep researching till I find the connection. I believe Sitting Bull was my great great grandfather. Oh and I did find athe family tree you were talking about. Thanks

Your welcome. I we are sitting Bull's descendant then we got to be related.

For a time I was involved with a native girl from Standing Buffalo Indian reserve in Fort Que'pelle Sask. Her name was Colleen George but her family name was Goodwill. While with her I was shown a solid family genology that traces the family directly to both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. I have also found that Sitting Bull was one of the founders of the town of Willow Bunch, Saskatchawan and was also the chief negotiator for the Standing Buffalo Indian Reserve at Fort Que'pelle Saskatchawan.

I myself am actually a Mohawk Indian displaced from Ontario to the west but I take a keen interest in native history outside of non native documentation. Traditional history is more important to me as it lends a differnt outlook from the traditional view.

For those of you who are told you are decendants of Sitting Bull it would be well to discuss the matter with the Goodwill family in Fort Que'pelle.

A good start to this would be to inquire at the Band office itself as the present chief there is a Goodwill as well as some of the staff. The Goodwill name is one of the principal names on the reserve.

Iwas told WE were also related to Sitting Bull. my grandma (deceased) is a spitting image of him. My Dad said we had a huge old family album that had several pictures of Sitting Bull. I have a great picture of Grandma but how can I share it here?

I am new here but i dont know who I am related to but my great great grandma on my dads side is cherokee,,is there anyway that i can find out anything,,her name that they said it was is Una V , I dont know if that is the way that it is spelled. they spelled it that way in our language,,and my great great grandpa's name was Sairs (this may be spelled many different ways no one really knows how it is spelled)I would appreciate any information or help in this area,,I dont have anything else on her and dont know what her maiden name was either. but I would sure like to find out and my moms dad was Indian also but no one know what tribe,,so I am stuck both ways. thank you for your kindness and your time in this matter, you all take care God bless you and your loved ones,,if you want to respond my email is cassie_brewer [email protected],,I will answer anyone that responds

I too, am trying to do research on this matter. My daughter is told to be of kin to sitting bull. I am having a hard time finding family on this matter. I have a few names and would appreciate any and all help. There was a lady by the name of Mossie Emealine Bull and her husbands name was Robert Hunter. A few other names I have are Joe, Charlie and Ven Bull. The family of my daughter has pics of sitting bull. If you have any info please help.

Hello all. I almost cried seeing all the people trying to find their roots.I was a ward of the state most of my childhood and started to try and find my roots to spread my wings.By the time I started folks were passed away.But after 5 years and alot of strangers who did not even know I exsisted I did get a few copys of pics,some of the pics where of huge beautiful baskets my great grandfather Taylor wove and a small old diary type note book. only for the trunk of my collection to be destroyed in florida(4 hurricans in 6 weeks) and I have no way to start over.I am so deeply saddened by this.I do remember the stories,remember some of the writing and last names. What I do remember written in the note book said that" Taylor women stolen by Iyotaka(sometimes the spelling changed) bore many children and names the children.Written were. where the other native american lines came in after Iyotaka. that I do not recall except a marriage of Indian maiden from cumberland county,N.J. later down the line.The Taylor woman also had in her bunch of children ones belonging to other women he had been with. There were twins down the line.These are some of the last names I could remember If anyone comes across them or any info please email me.The few copys of pics I had briefly of (Jacco)(Jacob)William Henry Taylor and a few of the females looked like twins to Sitting Bull himself lol that big wide chin does not look very becoming on some women.Supposed this Taylor women was blood of Zachery Taylor which gave cause for this man to have great shame and hate natives so sad is this.I was told that none of them could ever tell who they were or even pass their roots on to their children for fear of loosing them and had to hide it at all cost even when they were all split up or they would be killed not just by whites but from supposed thier own people.My Gr. Gr.Gr,Grandfather Taylor was a bound boy on the ships going up and down the Delaware and had a bad bow leg.One of the Greats was sent to a Bob Whitaker.Chrisopher Taylor was one of the last pioneers of glass blowers in Cape May County ,N.J.. There is no one left alive to to get pics or info again.Taylor,Williams,Garton,Clark,Law,Garrison,Madden,Lafferty,Berryman.I had brief encounter with a distant cousin who told me about a shoe box full of old pictures and newspaper clippings my Granfather Maurice Taylor had kept and he showed her when she was very young but she did not pay attention.She did remember though a pic with a man with huge hat of feathers flowing down his shoulders.She said when he passed she tried to locate the box but it had vanished probrably thrown out because no one knew how important or who it was.I suppose since everyone mostly had red hair by now they could not believe it was there own blood and history thrown away.If there is anyone who knows of a dna project for Sitting Bull lines please let me know.Thanks Alot,Juanita Taylor

i have been trying to do a family tree my greatgrandmother is mary bull(mary sally or sally mary) i have been told she is out of standing holy. my greatgrandmother died in 1906 or 1907 from tb, she was married to my great grand father shad miller a choctaw native american in anadarco oklahoma.they had together 3 sons arthur,cecil,joeseph and somewhere a half sister. my father is arthur jack miller. Is there any information that anyone has on this.

I am related to sitting bull and snows-on-her he was my greatgrandfather and I am trying to find out more about sitting bull and my family tree if anybody has anything that might be usefull please e-mail me at [email protected] thank you I am very anxious to trace my family tree.

Hellboy, If anyone has any information on Sitting Bulls daughter, Mary Jane Arnold Starr I would appreciate if they could share their info with me. We have an original picture of her, and if they are the same person it will prove that my wife is related to Sitting Bull. Waiting to hear.

Hellboy, I asked for yall to share any information with me if you found it but i forgot to put me e-mail address well here it is [email protected] plese e-mail me if you have any info would really appreaciate

Smitty 911, I have actaul photos of my great great great grandfather chief sitting bull. Im On the cardinal side of that family Im also related to Joe cardinal, Im intrested in hearing what u know and sharing what I know.
My email is [email protected]
thanks Jessica

I would love to share information. Are you able to send your photo to my web site?
[email protected]

I have done alot of research, and haven't been able to locate a photo of sitting bull. I do have a photo of my grandmother on the reservation. It is interesting that all these comments are from people trying to document their family tree. There is much confusion. Let's get our minds together and see what we can come up with. I do have the help of a professionl native american researcher.

Have any of you researched National Archives for land allotments, pay outs, native rolls? Typically those will list realtionships. If you're ancestors were living in the "white world" you can use conventional research to track them, and then turn to more native type research. Also the tribe may have archives you can use to research a specific person. Try locating a book by a local biographer on your spefic tribe or person you are researching. Pow Wows in the area may have some books pertaing to tribes. Also if anyone is trying to gain tribal memebership, contact that spefic tribe to see exactly what you need. They also may be able to put you in contact with a researcher. The National Archives may have a photos or a state specific archive collection. There were also census on the reservations for certain years and tribes. See if they provide any more info.

Hi i just found out that sitting bull is my great great grandfather one of his daughter is my grandmothers grandmother i am trying to find out what one i have a picture of her to match with another but i need to find one

Robert Utley: Revisting Sitting Bull

Utley, 91, has earned his reputation as the dean of Western historians.

Courtesy Bob Utley and Melody Webb

Johnny D. Boggs
February 2021

Robert M. Utley turned 91 last Halloween, but the man many consider the dean of Western historians has no plans to retire. His latest book, The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas, was published to rave reviews in 2020 by the University of Nebraska Press, which has reissued five of Utley’s books—Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865 Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 After Lewis & Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific and Custer and the Great Controversy: The Origin and Development of a Legend. Utley, who lives with wife Melody Webb in Scottsdale, Ariz., is already at work on his next book. He took time to speak with Wild West about writing and his long career.

Which is the favorite of the books you’ve written?
By all odds my biography of Sitting Bull, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull [1993]. It is my favorite because I think it is a very good book, both for the scholar and the general reader. Other factors: It made a great deal of money and still does it was my first handled by a literary agent, Carl Brandt, who died in 2013 and it spawned The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas.

What more have you learned about Sitting Bull?
I did not examine many new sources because of my inability to travel to libraries and archives. But I retained all my notes in my computer. Calling them up and printing them chronologically, I gave them fresh study based on 30 years of professional maturity.

What draws you to Sitting Bull and his people?
I believe Sitting Bull resonates with the reading public now more than ever before. A host of excellent studies of the Little Bighorn have been published in the past 30 years, giving Sitting Bull’s stature even greater public recognition. This is inherent throughout Pekka Hämäläinen’s groundbreaking Lakota America. Moreover, I have always been enamored by the North-West Mounted Police, and their relationship with Sitting Bull was crucial. After 24 books, searching for what to work on next, I settled on Sitting Bull, as truly, of all the great chiefs, he was indeed “The Last Sovereign.”

Will you continue writing books?
Yes, I am going to continue. Like The Last Sovereigns, however, they have to flow out of work I have done in the past, since I am confined at home in a wheelchair. The next one, in progress, is about selected Indian battles and how the Army performed. Emphasis will be on controversy they inspired, especially the women and children killed and whether that could have been prevented.

When did you know you wanted to be a historian?
I didn’t think of it as being a historian, but when I was a seasonal ranger-historian at Custer Battlefield National Monument, during my college summers (1947–52), I wanted to write history and did, although it was completely amateurish. A visitor to the battlefield loaned me $500. I wrote a pamphlet about Custer’s Last Stand, designed it myself and had it printed. In a brazen conflict of interest the woman who ran the souvenir shop near the battlefield sold it for 75 cents a copy and informed all customers it was written by the “battlefield boy” at the top of the hill. All 600 copies sold out, and the loan paid. Find one now and it will cost you several hundred dollars.

‘My research and recommendations played a crucial role in bringing into the [National Park Service] system Fort Bowie, Fort Davis, Hubbell Trading Post, Golden Spike and Chamizal. As chief historian in Washington, D.C., of course, I was concerned with all units of the system’

How did your work with the National Park Service affect your career path?
I became wedded to the Park Service at Custer Battlefield. After four years in the Army I returned in permanent status as historian of the Southwest Region, Santa Fe. During my six years there I did historical work on proposed units of the [National Park Service] system. My research and recommendations played a crucial role in bringing into the system Fort Bowie, Fort Davis, Hubbell Trading Post, Golden Spike and Chamizal. As chief historian in Washington, D.C., of course, I was concerned with all units of the system.

To backtrack, my master’s thesis at Indiana University was what is now Custer and the Great Controversy. After the Army I intended to return to Indiana University for a doctorate, and the dissertation topic was what later became Yale’s Last Days of the Sioux Nation. Most of the research for that was done while I was a historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon in the evenings, still in uniform, I worked in the National Archives. I chose to return to the Park Service rather than get a doctorate. As my work broadened out into the whole West, I worked on books in the evenings and on weekends, but never on taxpayers’ time.

How did you choose the topics for your books?
Some of the topics picked me. The frontier Army was part of Macmillan’s Wars of the United States series. Lou Morton was general editor. He picked me to do the frontier Army, which turned into two volumes. After those, Ray Billington asked me to do The Indian Frontier for his Histories of the American Frontier series. After retirement in 1980 I sought something to make money. After a visit to Lincoln I thought the Lincoln County War would make money. It didn’t, but the outgrowth, Billy the Kid, did. [The University of Oklahoma Press] was launching a series of brief biographies and asked me to do Custer as a guide for the series. The most successful book, the biography of Sitting Bull, was my own idea, and its success was partly because literary agent, Brandt, called me and suggested we get together he sold Sitting Bull to Henry Holt. When Melody became superintendent of the LBJ National Historical Park in Texas, the proximity of sources for the Texas Rangers prompted that subject. The mountain men blended nicely with Melody’s assignment to Grand Teton National Park. Sitting Bull suggested Geronimo. And so it went.

How does your writing approach vary between scholarly and commercial projects?
Scholarly projects are usually done by doctoral students hoping to become a university professor. Therefore, the doctoral dissertation requires deep and wide research and learned interpretation along with extensive documentation. At meetings of professional associations authors mingle with publishers, usually university presses, and seek to have their dissertation accepted.

For a commercial press, an author may write on nearly any subject, so long as it is well researched and written for a wide, nonprofessional audience. Such projects are almost always handled by a literary agent, who polls a number of publishers to ascertain which is interested and will offer the best royalty arrangement.

What is the future of Western nonfiction publishing?
It is excellent, so long as the book deals with a topic of general interest, is well grounded in research and is well written. Good examples are the works of Jerome Greene, especially American Carnage, about Wounded Knee. WW

This interview was published in the February 2021 issue of Wild West.

Tooting his own Little Bighorn

Many of history's greatest leaders were visionaries, but Sitting Bull also had one of history's greatest visions. In 1876, he entered a trance during a Sun Dance ceremony. A History describes, he saw soldiers dropping from the sky "like grasshoppers." He interpreted that scene to mean his people would score a huge victory over U.S. forces. In hindsight, his vision was 20/20. Weeks after the premonition, General George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troops were "wiped out to the last man" at the Battle of Little Bighorn, according to History. However, the embarrassed American military regrouped and descended on Sitting Bull's people like a plague of locusts.

Chief Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, a Sioux, was born in 1831 in The Grand River of the Indian territory (now South Dakota). As a boy, he was already showing promise as a leader. Therefore, believing the spirit was driving him, Sitting Bull became chief of the Sioux tribe. Little did he know that he would later guide this troupe through one of its most well-known confrontations with the American army. The Battle of the Little Big Horn.

On August 23, 1932, Mr. Hamilton, a journalist for the “Leader Post” newspaper of Regina, Saskatchewan, referred to the Battle of Little Big Horn as “a massacre”. This term was very incorrect. The Sioux were defending their territory, liberty, homes, and their own lives. Had they not been of Indian descent, we would have most likely called them heroes.

Their land was given to them in a treaty made with the American Government. They located near the frontiers of South Dakota and Wyoming. In the early 1870’s, gold was discovered there and, thus, the Indian territory was invaded by prospectors searching for treasures. These gold-diggers established many villages around their mines and some defied the laws of the land, stealing and killing both Indians and white people in their crusade for wealth. The affairs of the Sioux rested in the hands of a few Washington politicians, one of whom described the tribe as “A band of the worst criminals ever”. Sitting Bull, the Sioux doctor, and his followers argued with the Government. Ulysses S. Grant was President then. He was a great soldiers, but one of the worst politicians ever. He didn’t do anything. The influence of the “Indian Circle” never reached him. Thus, the Sioux were forced to exchange the Indian reserve, and fertile land of their forefathers, for very poor and dry land further west. The Sioux refused and were considered law breakers.

Pursued by the American army for having defied the Government, the Sioux tribe occupied the important areas of the hills of Montana. During the summer of 1876, the army surrounded them on three sides. In June, General Custer, leading the 7th Cavalry, met a large Indian camp. Ordering many of his soldiers to place themselves near the Indians, he and his 300 men began a direct attack. To their surprise, Sitting Bull and his tribe retaliated with great force and not one of Custer’s soldiers survived the battle.

Knowing that they would be punished severely for their victory if they went south to the United States, Sitting Bull reassembled his people and began the long trip to Canada for protection.

The first of the Sioux tribe arrived in Canada in November of 1876. A dozen scouts from “Little Knife” followed them until they arrived at Jean-Louis Légaré’s fur trading post in Wood Mountain. They wanted to be able to sleep in peace. Légaré, realizing the tribe’s poverty, invited the Sioux to trade with him. After accepting the merchandise and the thirty dollars that Légaré offered to them to keep them in good spirits, they left. The roads were free, they reported. The next day, seventy Indian groups surrounded Légaré’s store.

Following the arrival of the Sioux in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police learned of Custer’s bloody defeat. Major Walsh apprehended Sitting Bull and his tribe with a detachment of 25 men on November 24, 1876. With the help of an interpretator, Walsh explained that Canada was not to be used as a departing point for raids on the United States. A new team of Mounted Police was deployed to Wood Mountain to “maintain the right” amidst the presence of the Sioux.

Sitting Bull and most of his tribe explored the Canadian frontier in May of 1877. They followed the Frenchman river between Val Marie and where Mankota is today. Zachary and Marie Hamilton, in their book, “These are the Prairies”, wrote that Sitting Bull “was a man full of good sense, a man of rules.” Before establishing himself, he warned the Cypress Hills Mounted Police, which was 200 miles away, about his arrival in Canada and requested a meeting with them. Irvine, two officers, and a few agents went to Wood Mountain where they talked with the Sioux chief.

Sitting Bull produced a gold medal and said: “My Grandfather received this medal in recognition of his battle for George III during the revolution. Now in this odd time, I direct my people here to reclaim a sanctuary of my Grandfather.” Irvine advised him that he and his tribe were welcome in Canada, but, like other citizens, if they did not obey the laws of her Majesty, the Mounted Police would deal with them.

In “These are the Prairies”, the Hamiltons explain that “since his first day in Canada, Sitting Bull was attracted to Légaré and trusted him. The Sioux chief desired apparently to obey the Canadian law, but he never compromised without first consulting the Canadian merchant.”

During the weeks and months that followed, the state of the Sioux as well as that of the Canadian Indian and Métis people was deteriorating due to declining bison populations and food shortages. Missionaries and officers of the American army offered Sitting Bull, in the name of the American Government, forgiveness if they returned to the United States. Persistent, Sitting Bull refused, although many of his people left for the United States in 1879. According to Zachary and Marie Hamilton, “Sitting Bull did all he could do until his people could be recognized as Canadians and thus be allowed reserves.” He firmly noted that they had never bowed to the American Government and that their fidelity and love was still with England, who had given them a sanctuary.

In the early fall of 1881, Sitting Bull, accompanied by a few followers, went to the post of Hudson’s Bay at Fort Qu’Appelle and visited the agent of the Indians, Colonel Allen MacDonald, in search of food. The company told the Sioux that it needed all merchandise on hand, as it was already having difficulty meeting the demands of its local Indian population.

While returning to Wood Mountain, the Sioux learned that during the preceding fall, Father Hugonard had ordered a load of flour, which had been transported on the Assiniboine river to Fort Ellice.

The Sioux, under the order of Sitting Bull, found Father Hugonard to claim themselves some of that flour. After a few tender moments, Father Hugonard persuaded Sitting Bull and his followers to exchange some tools for the flour. Sitting Bull, the first to trade, offered him a beautiful Navajo cover and said, “How much will this buy?”

Colonel MacLeod of the Mounted Police was sent on behalf of the Canadian Government to find a means of making the American proposition more attractive and acceptable to Sitting Bull. He invited the chief to a meeting, where he asked Sitting Bull to name a man whom he trusted to negotiate his current situation with the Canadian and American governments. Sitting Bull unhesitatingly nominated his merchant friend, Légaré.

Colonel MacLeod recounted the events of the Battle of Little Big Horn to Légaré. Légaré distorted this information while negotiating with government officials at Fort Buford to satisfy the sincerity of the American offer. On his return, he invited Sitting Bull to a banquet where he suggested that the chief return to the United States.

The Hamiltons state that “Sitting Bull kept his word, and during the summer of 1881, him and his people, accompanied by Légaré and a few bison hunters, went to Fort Buford where Sitting Bull handed himself over to the officer in charge.”

Sitting Bull and his tribe settled on the reserve that had been set aside for them at Fort Buford. The Sioux lived there until the end of the decade, when a messenger reported that, as medicine man, Sitting Bull was trying to raise his people. Concerned, the American Government sent an Indian police officer to stop Sitting Bull. When the Sioux chief refused, the officer shot him on December 15, 1890. A few days later, on December 28, many Sioux men, women and children died at the hands of American soldiers during the Battle of Wounded Knee. The American army had finally avenged the death of General Custer and his regiment.

The Photographs and Images of Sitting Bull

In the late 19th Century, Sitting Bull, became one of the most photographed people of the age. Some of these photographs are iconic and readily recognizable to people around the world. While most are less well-known and have received little attention. These photographs, combined with his historic leadership role, have made Sitting Bull one of the most recognizable American Indian leaders of all time. The collection at Sitting Bull College Library comprises the largest permanent display of Sitting Bull photographs anywhere in the world. The collection continues to grow and will eventually feature each of the known unique photographs of Sitting Bull. Gathered together from archives, libraries and private individuals, the collection seeks to honor the memory of the great American Indian leader by creating a permanent display that will continue to inspire future generations. Funding to assemble this collection was provided by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Institute of Museum and Library Services

Funding for this collection was provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. You can access more information about IMLS and its ongoing mission below at:

Sitting Bull Photographs

You can access public domain photographs of Sitting Bull that have been made available from the Library of Congress at the links below. Library of Congress has additional images in its collection that can be ordered for nominal fees. Many other archives also protect and care for Sitting Bull photographs as well and are as follows: The State Historical Society of North Dakota, South Dakota State Historical Society, Minnesota Historical Society, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives, North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies, McCord Museum and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Copies of Sitting Bull photographs can be purchased from each of these various institutions for nominal fees. For more information about the photographs of Sitting Bull, please contact Sitting Bull College Library at 701-854-8024 or [email protected]

One the first photographs of Sitting Bull by Orlando Scott Goff in Bismarck, ND, 1881 (courtesy Library of Congress)

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill by William Notman & Son of Montreal

Sitting Bull wearing long feather headress by D.F. Barry

Sitting Bull wearing protective goggles by Orlando Scott Goff

Sitting Bull: The Photographs

This photo of unknown origin, shows what may be Sitting Bull (third from left) with unidentified others. (Sitting Bull College Archive)

Mr. Gregor Lutz has created a series of documents which combine what is known about the various Sitting Bull photographs with the images themselves. In addition his own research, these documents are based on the pioneering work of Dr. Markus Lindner, who’s 2005 article in North Dakota History lists each of the known photographs. Click on each of the links below to learn more about the broad array of Sitting Bull photographs.

“Part 2: Family, Wives and Children” details the photographs taken of Sitting Bull’s immediate family members.

“Part 3: Classification & Need for Clarification” details photographs that have questions associated with them.

“Part 4: Paintings and Drawings” details some of the many works that have featured Sitting Bull’s image from the first in 1877 to the present day.

“The Celebrity Part A” details the early photographs of Sitting Bull from the earliest in 1878 to the early 1880’s

“The Celebrity Part B” details some of the most famous photographs from the mid-1880’s to 1890.

The Historic Role of Siting Bull

Sitting Bull’s home was on Standing Rock. Standing Rock Tribal Historian and Tourism Coordinator Ladonna Brave Bull Allard has created web pages that detail the life and death of Sitting Bull as well as a page with an extensive list of Sitting Bull’s family and relations. You can access these pages by clicking the link below.

Sitting Bull College Library has a large format copy of this photograph that brings together many of the key Lakota leaders of the day. Sitting Bull illustrates his feelings through body language above. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

This Day In History: Sitting Bull Surrenders

Five years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and the defeat of the US Cavalry under the command of George Custer. The Sioux leader Sitting Bull surrenders to units of the U.S. Army. He and his followers surrender after a promise of amnesty from the US government. Sitting Bull had been one of the leaders of the Sioux rebellion of 1876. This uprising was one of the most serious ever by the Plains Indians. After they defeated George Custer the Sioux were later defeated and had to retreat into Canada.

Sitting Bull was and bred South Dakota, the ancestral home of the tribe and their heartland. From an early age, he was a brave warrior and he was also something of a holy man. Sitting Bull became a major figure among the Sioux. In 1864 he fought at the Killdeer Mountain against the US cavalry. Sitting Bull gained early recognition in his Sioux tribe as a capable warrior and a man of vision. In 1864, he fought against the U.S. Army under General Alfred Sully at Killdeer Mountain. He was determined to save the lands and the culture of the Sioux and he forged an alliance with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. By 1867 he was undisputed chief and leader of the Sioux. He had built up a powerful confederation of tribes on the Northern Plains.

capture and death of Sitting Bull

In 1873 he led the Indians in a brief battle with the American army under Custer. Three years later at Little Big Horn Sitting Bull was not one of the military leaders but he strongly influenced the Indians with his spiritual visions. He subsequently fled to Canada, under intense American pressure but in 1881, with his people starving, he returned to America and surrendered, on the condition that he and his people would be safe from reprisals.

Sitting Bull was held a prisoner at Fort Randall and then was permitted with his people, who were now few in number, to live on a reservation. This was the Standing Rock Reservation straddling North and South Dakota. He remained a religious leader of the Sioux and other tribes. In 1889, Sitting Bull&rsquos prophecies influenced the rise of the &ldquoGhost Dance,&rdquo an Indian religious movement that proclaimed t the dead Indians and buffalo would return and life would return to what it had once been for the Indian tribes on the Northern Plains. This led the US authorities to treat him with suspicion. In 1890 there was an attempt to arrest him as the authorities feared that he and others were planning another uprising.

In some accounts, Sitting Bull&rsquos warriors wounded the leader of the police, who then in self-defence killed Sitting Bull. However, others state that there was a deliberate effort to target Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was fatally shot and died and he was buried in secret. In 1953, his remains were moved into Mobridge, South Dakota.

Everything We Know About Sitting Bull’s Crucifix is Wrong Does a historical society or a biographer’s family have the authentic Sitting Bull crucifix?

Sitting Bull biographer Stanley Vestal claimed the crucifix he owned was the one the Sioux chief got from Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. This 1885 photo of Sitting Bull taken by D.F. Barry may solve the argument.
— Courtesy Bonhams, October 16, 2013 —

One picture of the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull wearing a crucifix is as iconic as it is enigmatic. History claims missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet gave Sitting Bull the crucifix.

In late January 1885, Sitting Bull arrived in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, with his brother-in-law Gray Eagle. During their stay, D.F. Barry took their pictures. Both men wear a crucifix around their necks.

New research reveals that everything we know about the crucifixes they wore is wrong.

Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull’s first biographer, linked the crucifix to De Smet. The Catholic Belgian missionary had tried to establish an “Indian State” in the Rocky Mountains area during the 1840s and 1850s. When he failed, the American government hired him to convince “hostile” Hunkpapa to sign the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

De Smet traveled to the camp without a military escort, a move deemed suicidal. Sitting Bull’s reputation at that time can be compared to that of Osama bin Laden after the attacks of 9/11.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota claims it owns Sitting Bull’s crucifix. But a close examination of the crucifix worn by Sitting Bull’s brother-in-law Gray Eagle—when he sat for this 1885 photograph in D.F. Barry’s studio in Bismarck, Dakota Territory—proves otherwise.
— Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions, March 31, 2007 —

The missionary succeeded in convincing some Lakota Sioux to sign the 1868 treaty, which ended Red Cloud’s War, a bloody conflict that forced the U.S. Army to abandon all forts in Montana Territory. A treaty negotiation is how De Smet and Sitting Bull first met, on June 19, 1868, along the Powder River. They never saw each other again.

After these peace talks, De Smet gave Sitting Bull a crucifix, Vestal claimed. He wrote that the crucifix was shown in a “well-known photograph of the chief by D.F. Barry.”

Neither De Smet nor any other eyewitness of the talks wrote that the missionary had given Sitting Bull a crucifix. Vestal got his information about De Smet’s gift from two others.

Vestal recorded the testimony of Sitting Bull’s nephew One Bull in 1929: “He [One Bull] has in his possession a crucifix, which Father De Smet had presented to Sitting Bull in 1848 [sic] at Powder River Country and another crucifix he was presented by Bishop Marty, when Sitting Bull was in Canada.”

Father Martin Marty had visited Sitting Bull when he was exiled in Canada. The bishop tried to convince Sitting Bull to surrender and join his people at Standing Rock. He also wanted to convert Sitting Bull to Catholicism.

His first attempt was successful Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881. Yet the chief refused, to his dying day, to convert to Catholicism because he did not want to become monogamous.

Eugene Little Soldier corroborated One Bull’s testimony. He was a member of the detachment of Indian Police that arrived at Sitting Bull’s cabin on December 15, 1890, to arrest him.
During the debacle, Sitting Bull was fatally shot twice.

Vestal recorded Little Soldier’s words in shorthand: “SB [Sitting Bull] not in church. SB got crucifix from miss. [missionaries] twice. 2 catholic miss. Went out. Bishop Marty came to SB in Canada.”

Both claimed Sitting Bull owned two crucifixes. One named Father De Smet as the giver both named Father Marty. One Bull mentioned the wrong date (1848), but the correct place (Powder River).

So where are the crucifixes?

Vestal wrote about the crucifix in One Bull’s possession. In 1935, Vestal unsuccessfully tried to sell it to Albert G. Heath’s Museum of Amerind Arts in Chicago, Illinois. In a March 1957 letter, he wrote that he still owned the crucifix “which father Pierre Jean DeSmet gave him [Sitting Bull] at the treaty on Powder River. He is shown wearing this in one of the old photographs.”

One Bull’s crucifix stayed with Vestal’s family. Hayden Ausland, one of Vestal’s grandchildren, says the crucifix is now on display in the visitor’s center at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Vestal “claimed some members of Sitting Bull’s family had given him [the crucifix], telling him it was the very one that De Smet gave Sitting Bull,” Ausland says. “I myself doubt at least the identification, since some details compare only approximately with the one hanging around the chief’s neck in the well-known photo.”

This painting of Sitting Bull created by Caroline Weldon, signed C.S. Weldon 1890, was among the artifacts stolen after the chief was killed. Turn to Western Movies for a discussion on Weldon.
— Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg Collection —

Another crucifix attributed to Sitting Bull is on display at the State Historical Society of North Dakota museum in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was acquired by the museum in 1930 from Frank Zahn, who acted as an agent for Philip Bullhead.

On Sitting Bull’s last day of life, Philip’s father, Lt. Henry Bullhead, headed the detachment of Indian Police sent to arrest the chief. Bullhead was mortally wounded during the incident. One of his subordinates was Eugene Little Soldier.

Testimonies bolster the claim that Sitting Bull’s cabin was plundered and his body was mutilated. During the autopsy, U.S. Army Dr. Horace M. Deeble cut off a piece of Sitting Bull’s hair to save and stole his leggings.

The Philip Bullhead crucifix owned by the North Dakota historical society and the One Bull crucifix owned by the Ausland family (photo below) differ in one obvious detail: the distance between Jesus Christ’s feet and the skull and bones is much bigger on the crucifix owned by One Bull.
— Bullhead crucifix courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota One Bull crucifix courtesy Hayden Ausland —

Another soldier stole the painting of Sitting Bull made by Caroline Weldon, a New York activist helping Sitting Bull in his struggle against the cutting up of the Hunkpapa reservation.

Several museums in the Midwest, including the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, and the museum in Bismarck, North Dakota, own artifacts that once belonged to Sitting Bull and that were in the chief’s cabin at the time of his death.

Bullhead’s family may have owned objects stolen that day. On the other hand, no known record states Sitting Bull was wearing a crucifix when he was shot or that one was found in his cabin after his death.

The Bullhead crucifix is strikingly different than the crucifix Sitting Bull wears in the Barry photograph. “Note especially the extent of the ebony inlay beneath the memento mori,” wrote R.C. Hollow, in the article “Sitting Bull: Artifact and Artifake.”

The distance between Jesus Christ’s feet and the skull and bones is much bigger in the Sitting Bull photograph than it is on the Bullhead crucifix.

“This does not establish that our crucifix was not owned by Sitting Bull Sitting Bull, after all, may have had a whole parflesche full of crucifixes, but the non-identity of the Zahn [Bullhead] crucifix with the one positively associated with Sitting Bull certainly does nothing to relieve healthy skepticism,” Hollow concluded.

The Sitting Bull Link

Sonja LaPointe, Sitting Bull’s great-great-granddaughter, sheds new light on the discussion. “As for the crucifix, even if Father De Smet gave him one, we do not have it. There is no proof that Sitting Bull ever owned one. Sitting Bull did not believe in Christianity, that’s why he was killed. The crucifix he was wearing in a picture belonged to his brother-in-law Gray Eagle. Gray Eagle was a Catholic and always tried to convince Sitting Bull to convert.”

Gray Eagle did indeed convert to Catholicism. He also plotted against Sitting Bull in the days before his arrest and killing.

Father Francis M. Craft, who worked at Standing Rock during the 1880s, also tried to convert Sitting Bull to Catholicism. He was asked to do so by Bishop Marty. The conversion of one of the best-known American Indians would have been a huge propaganda move for the Catholic Church. The competition between Catholic and Protestant missionaries was strong.

Marty requested as many pictures of Indians wearing a crucifix as possible. He wanted to show them to Pope Leo XIII during an official visit in April 1885, a few weeks after Sitting Bull’s and Gray Eagle’s photo shoot with Barry in Bismarck.

Barry took several pictures of Indians wearing a crucifix. Gray Eagle wears one that appears identical to the one Sitting Bull is wearing in his photo.

This corroborates LaPointe’s account: the crucifix around Sitting Bull’s neck was not one Father De Smet gave him, but one Gray Eagle hung around his neck to please Bishop Marty.

Eye Infection or Trendsetter? Photographed on July 31, 1881, only 12 days after the Canadian exile surrendered to the U.S. Army, Sitting Bull looked tired and weary from lack of food, and he shielded his infected eyes with a pair of green wire goggles. But perhaps Sitting Bull was not suffering from an eye infection, as claimed by James Welch and Paul Stekler in 1994’s Killing Custer. A contemporaneous account suggests wearing goggles may have been a trend among Lakotas. When Laura Winthrop Johnson met a group of Lakotas in 1875, six years before O.S. Goff took this photograph of Sitting Bull, she reported, “Several wore blue goggles—we knew not whether for use or beauty.”
— Courtesy Library of Congress —

The Biographer’s Crucifix

Was Vestal wrong about the Sitting Bull crucifix his descendants have been preserving? Is the crucifix worn by Sitting Bull not a gift from De Smet, but one Gray Eagle gave him to wear for a photo shoot?

An examination of the crucifix worn by Gray Eagle in the Barry photo shoot reveals that his crucifix is different, not the same, as the one worn by Sitting Bull. He didn’t just loan his crucifix for his brother-in-law to wear after all. Sitting Bull had his own crucifix to wear.

The biographer’s crucifix offers a clear chain of ownership: De Smet, Sitting Bull, One Bull, Stanley Vestal and Hayden Ausland. One Bull, who lived with Sitting Bull for decades, had more opportunities to obtain the crucifix from his uncle than Bullhead or his family did. One Bull was also close to Gray Eagle.

The Bullhead crucifix provenance is more problematic. The raiding of Sitting Bull’s cabin and body is well-documented in official reports, but not one mentioned a crucifix.

Astonishing how specialists failed to compare the two crucifixes and ended up calling the “real” De Smet crucifix a “fake.”

Belgian journalist and writer Karl van den Broeck based this article on research for his 2016 historical novel, Why I Want to Save the Indians: In Search of the Cross of Sitting Bull.

Sioux, Catholics and federal government (1863-1896)

863: U.S. Army establishes Standing Rock Cantonment in Dakota Territory to oversee various Sioux bands.

July 28-29, 1864: Lakota leader Sitting Bull and trusted lieutenant Gall fight Army at Battle of Killdeer Mountain.

July 2, 1868: At the behest of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet (right), Gall and others at Fort Rice ratify Treaty of Fort Laramie, forming the Great Sioux Reservation.

1869: Grand River Agency is established. President U.S. Grant appoints Ely S. Parker as first American Indian commissioner of Indian Affairs, helping divide Indian agencies among religious denominations.

October 1871: Grand River Agency reports 7,966 Indians on reserve, based on tipis multiplied by seven.

1873: Grand River Agency moves to Standing Rock.

1874: Agency is renamed Standing Rock Agency. Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions is created to expand schools.

January 31, 1876: Fort Laramie Treaty deadline for Lakotas to move to Great Sioux reserve.

June 25-26, 1876: Sitting Bull and Gall annihilate Army Lt. Col. George Custer and 7th Cavalry at Battle of the Little Big Horn.

August 1876: Standing Rock Agency reports 1,525 on reserve, based on tipis now multiplied by five. Inconsistent data methods, as well as ignoring Indians off the reserve on hunts or trips, result in unreliable early Indian census figures.

August 15, 1876: U.S. violates Fort Laramie treaty by ceding Black Hills to the government without three-fourths of Sioux adult males agreeing.

September-December 1, 1876: Military handles oversight of Standing Rock Agency.

May 1877-1881: Sitting Bull is exiled with Gall in Canada.

1878: Great Dakota Boom begins. Up to 1887, Americans of Dakota Territory land.

Summer of 1878: Indian Affairs Commissioner Ezra Hayt removes agent William T. Hughes due to corruption charges.

October 16, 1878: Catholic Rev. Joseph A. Stephan replaces Hughes at Standing Rock, serving as both Catholic priest and civilian Indian agent.

December 30, 1878: Standing Rock Cantonment is renamed Fort Yates to honor Capt. George Yates who was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

1880: A special Indian census is authorized for Washington and Dakota Territories, and California. Standing Rock is the only Dakota reserve counted.

J anuary 2, 1881: Gall (right) surrenders to Army at Fort Buford in Dakota Territory David F. Barry takes the first photograph of Gall, calling it the only one he ever took of an Indian as a hostile.

March 31, 1881: Stephan gives notice of resigning as agent.

May 29, 1881: Gall arrives at Standing Rock Agency.

July 19, 1881: Sitting Bull surrenders at Fort Buford.

August 1, 1881: Sitting Bull arrives at Fort Yates at Standing Rock Agency. Gall greets him.

August 26, 1881: Dakota Indian William Selwyn takes census of Sitting Bull, Gall and others. He counts 4,293, in the first and earliest known complete census from any Lakota reservation.

September 17, 1881: After being forced to leave Standing Rock on September 10, Sitting Bull and band arrive at Fort Randall.

Fall 1881: James McLaughlin arrives as Standing Rock agent.

November 1882: Former Dakota Territory Gov. Newton Edmunds arrives at Standing Rock to negotiate a land agreement. His commission fails to secure three-fourths of adult male Sioux as 1868 treaty requires.

November 30, 1882: Gall agrees to divide Great Sioux Reservation into separate reserves, unaware Edmunds plan also opens to settlement lands not allotted to Indians. Sioux travel to Fort Randall to seek counsel from Sitting Bull, who says he doesn’t trust plan.

December 1882: Indian Rights Association is organized one of the founders, Herbert Walsh, toured Great Sioux Reservation in summer of 1882.

May 1883: Reformers, including Massachusetts Sen. Henry L. Dawes, help defeat Edmunds plan by revealing how it concealed land cession, despite Bishop Martin Marty assuring no abuses took place at Standing Rock. Lakota John Grass testifies about abuses.

May 10, 1883: Sitting Bull returns to Standing Rock.

May 15, 1883: Under Standing Rock Agent James McLaughlin, Gall becomes assistant farmer. By September, he becomes district farmer, which he serves until 1892.

August 15, 1883: McLaughlin writes how Sitting Bull is much inferior to Gall.

September 5, 1883: Sitting Bull leads a parade to celebrate Bismarck becoming capital of Dakota Territory. McLaughlin recommended Sitting Bull for the parade, setting off a nearly two-year celebrity tour that takes Sitting Bull to New York, Washington and Canada. This includes a four-month stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (see pair in photo).

July 4, 1884: Indian agents are told they must include an Indian census in annual reports.

Winter 1884-85: In 1885, D.F. Barry takes photo of Sitting Bull when he is in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, with Gray Eagle.

July 1, 1885: Census taken at Standing Rock Agency.

1887: Standing Rock census reports 4,545 Indians.

February 8, 1887: President Grover Cleveland signs Dawes General Allotment, replacing tribal land ownership with individual land ownership. Lakota population calculations claim more than half the reserve—nine to 11 million acres—will be up for grabs as surplus.

August 21, 1888: Gall gives a speech in Washington, D.C. to respond to Pratt Commission’s attempt to convince Sioux to agree to the Dawes Act.

March 2, 1889: Congress passes general allotment act to partition Great Sioux Reservation into five reserves.

July 1889: At Standing Rock, Crook Commission convinces Gall and others to sign the Sioux bill. Sitting Bull refuses to sign. The separate reservations mean Lakotas must get permission to cross land claimed by settlers to travel to kin and friends.

November 2, 1889: Dakota Territory splits, with North Dakota and South Dakota entering the Union as states.

February 10, 1890: President Benjamin Harrison signs Sioux Act into law and opens surplus land to settlers. Shortly after, the beef ration is halved. Incorrect census data from the previous two years allowed Congress to slash annual funding by roughly $1 million.

November 28, 1890: “Buffalo Bill” Cody arrives at Fort Yates to arrest Sitting Bull under Gen. Nelson Miles’s orders. Since he’s drunk, officers help him sober up and hit the road.

December 15, 1890: Sitting Bull is killed while being arrested by Indian Police under McLaughlin’s orders.

December 29, 1890: 7th Cavalry attacks Big Foot and his Lakota band at Wounded Knee Creek.

December 5, 1894: Gall dies by drinking too much of an unsafe medicine, reports his friend and photographer D.F. Barry (left).

1896: Congress decides to phase out Catholic contract schools on Indian reserves appropriations end in 1900.

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