The Life and Death of Great Lakota Warrior Sitting Bull
by William “Doc” Halliday
Do you remember the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves starring Kevin Costner? I certainly do. I also remember the Sioux word for buffalo, tatanka. I enjoyed the movie, even though it was revisionist history.
In about 1831 a boy named Jumping Badger was born. His birth took place along the Yellowstone River, south of present day Miles City, Mont. He was given the nickname “Slow,” because of his cautious, leisurely movements. He would later be quoted as saying “In my early days, I was eager to learn and to do things, and therefore I learned quickly.” He learned the Lakota tradition of bravery quickly and comprehensively.
When Jumping Badger was 14 years old, he demonstrated the effectiveness of his studies. During this same year – 1855 – he joined a raiding party to take horses from an encampment of Crow warriors. Risk of injury or death was required to count coup, and the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior with the hand, bow, or coup stick and escaping uninjured. Jumping Badger was witnessed by other members of the Lakota raiding party as he counted coup against the Crow.
On Dec. 15, 1890 – 126 years ago today – Lakota tribe leader Sitting Bull was killed at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where he lived. He was shot while being arrested by U.S. and Indian agents who were fearful that he would help lead the growing Ghost Dance movement.
When the raiding party returned to their camp, Jumping Badger’s father gave a congratulatory feast during which he conferred a new name upon his son. That name was Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka (Tatanka Iyotanka), which in the language of the Lakota Sioux means “Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.” Notice the word tatanka. This name would later be shortened to Sitting Bull.
After this ceremony, Sitting Bull’s father was called Jumping Bull. During the ceremony, Sitting Bull’s father presented his son with an eagle feather to wear in his hair. Sitting Bull also received a warrior’s horse, and a hardened buffalo hide shield to mark his passage into an adult Lakota warrior. All of this took place before the entire band of Lakota. Over the next two decades he rose in the ranks of the Lakota and became revered by his tribal members.
With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, the Sioux came into increased clashes with U.S. authorities. Prior to the Battle at the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw many soldiers “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down into the Lakota camp. At this time there were about 10,000 Native Americans encamped along the Greasy Grass River with Sitting Bull. His people acknowledged this vision as prophesy of a major victory in which a large number of enemy soldiers would be killed by the Lakota. In June of 1876, the Lakota did deliver a stunning defeat to the U. S. 7th Calvary commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
An outraged United States spearheaded by the Army forced Sitting Bull and his followers to flee to Canada. In 1881, he returned to this country, where he surrendered and was held as a prisoner at Fort Randall in the South Dakota Territory. After two years he was permitted to live on Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull continued to use his influence to keep Sioux lands from being taken by the United States government.
In 1885, Sitting Bull toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West for a period of four months. He gave the money he earned from the shows and his autographs, to destitute Native Americans. The ascendency of the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that avowed that all whites would disappear and dead Indians and buffalo would return to life, brought him into disfavor with government officials. They felt he made no effort to stop the dancing on the Standing Rock Reservation.
On Dec. 15, 1890 – 126 years ago today, Lakota tribe leader Sitting Bull was killed at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where he lived. He was shot while being arrested by U.S. and Indian agents who were fearful that he would help lead the growing Ghost Dance movement.
is body was taken to nearby Fort Yates for burial. The death of Sitting Bull led directly to the massacre at Wounded Knee.
“I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,” the great Native American leader is remembered as saying.
William “Doc” Halliday, historian and writer, can be contacted at email@example.com .