Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890) was the Native American chief under whom the Sioux tribes united in their struggle for survival on the North American Great Plains. Following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, the Sioux came into increased conflict with U.S. authorities. The Great Sioux wars of the 1870s would culminate in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and a confederation of tribes would defeat federal troops under George Armstrong Custer. After several years in Canada, Sitting Bull finally surrendered to U.S. forces with his people on the brink of starvation, and was finally forced to settle on a reservation. In 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed while being arrested by U.S. and Indian agents, fearful that he would help lead the growing Ghost Dance movement aimed at restoring the Sioux way of life. Sitting Bull is remembered for his great courage and his stubborn determination to resist white domination.
Born in the Grand River Valley in what is now South Dakota, Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Yotanka, received early recognition from his tribe as a warrior and man of vision. During his youth he joined in the usual tribal raids for horses against traditional enemies such as the Crow and Assiniboin.
Because the Hunkpapa lived and hunted north of the early routes of western travel, Sitting Bull had little contact with whites until the Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862. When the defeated Indians were driven west to the plains, he heard from them what life was like on a reservation. In July 1864, he was one of the defenders when Gen. Alfred Sully used artillery against a Teton encampment at Killdeer Mountain. It was during this period that Sitting Bull formed his resolve to keep his people away from the white man’s world and never to sign a treaty that would force them to live on a reservation.
With other Sioux leaders he soon took his followers to the pristine valleys of the Powder and Yellowstone rivers where buffalo and other game were abundant. He continually warned his followers that their survival as free Indians depended upon the buffalo. During this time, Red Cloud of the Oglala subtribe was the leader of the Tetons, but Sitting Bull’s influence as a holy man was steadily growing.
Beginning in the summer of 1865 columns of U.S. soldiers repeatedly invaded the Powder River country. Sitting Bull had occasional encounters with them, learning their ways of fighting, their strengths and weaknesses.
After Red Cloud signed the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, and then agreed to live on a reservation, his influence waned. Sitting Bull’s disdain for treaties and reservation life soon attracted a large following not only from the Sioux but from the Cheyenne and Arapaho. In 1873, he and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer skirmished briefly while Custer was guarding surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad in Montana Territory.
Three years later they met again on the Little Bighorn in the battle that made both men famous. Sitting Bull was not a war leader in that fight, but he had predicted that many soldiers would fall, and his followers believed that his magical powers had brought the victory. Although Sitting Bull survived, an aroused and vengeful army forced him to flee to Canada.
In 1881 he returned to the United States, surrendered, and was held as a prisoner of war at Fort Randall, South Dakota Territory. After two years he was permitted to live on Standing Rock Reservation where he continued to use his influence to keep Sioux lands from being taken by the government. In 1885 he traveled for a season with Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show. The rise of the Ghost Dance, a tribal religion that proclaimed that all whites would disappear and dead Indians and buffalo would return, brought him into disfavor with government officials in 1890 because he made no effort to stop the dancing at Standing Rock. When Indian police were sent to arrest him on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed in a melee outside his cabin.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.