1831 - 1890
Bull, whose Indian name was Tatanka Iyotake, was born in the
Grand River region of present-day South Dakota in approximately
1831. His nickname was Hunkesi, meaning "Slow" because he never
hurried and did everything with care. Sitting Bull was a member
of the Sioux tribe, and he joined his first war party against
the Crow at age 14. The Sioux fought against hostile tribes and
white intruders. Soon, Sitting Bull became known for his
fearlessness in battle. He was also generous and wise, virtues
admired by his tribe.
Sitting Bull became a leader of the Strong Heart warrior
society, and he successfully increased Sioux hunting grounds.
However, the U.S. army continually invaded this territory,
creating problems within the native economy. From 1863 to 1868,
the Sioux fought the army's encroachment. In approximately 1867,
Sitting Bull became the first principal chief of the entire
Sioux nation. Shortly thereafter peace was made with the U.S.
government, although Sitting Bull refused to attend the peace
conference or sign the treaty. The Fort Laramie treaty promised
the Black Hills would remain in Sioux possession forever.
However, in the mid-1870s, gold was discovered, and press
reports brought a rush of prospectors. By 1875, more than a
thousand prospectors were camping in the Black Hills. The
government ordered the Sioux to their reservations. They were
given a deadline of January 31, 1876, and anyone who did not
comply was considered hostile. The demand was ignored by the
Sioux and in March, General George Crook set up a camp in order
to attack the natives.
Sitting Bull and the Sioux realized they could not defeat the
army alone, and they must stand with other tribes. They were
joined by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and on June 17, they forced
a retreat of U.S. troops at the Battle of the Rosebud, then set
up camp at Little Bighorn. After the battle, Sitting Bull
performed an important religious ritual called a Sun Dance. The
Sun Dance was a type of self-torture which included a loss of
consciousness. When Sitting Bull emerged from his trance, he
told of his vision of soldiers falling from the sky.
Sitting Bull's prediction came true on June 25 when Lieutenant
Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his soldiers into the
village along the Little Big Horn River. By the end of the day,
Custer and his army of more than 200 soldiers were dead. Sitting
Bull thought by winning this battle, the U.S. government would
leave him alone, but the fight had just begun. As the battles
continued, many of Sitting Bull's followers surrendered.
However, Sitting Bull would not give up. Soldiers chasing him
found a note that read "You scare all the buffalo away. I want
to hunt in this place. I want you to turn back from here. If you
don't, I will fight you again."
In 1877, Sitting Bull and his followers escaped into Canada.
However within four years, famine forced them to surrender.
Sitting Bull was held as a prisoner of war for two years, before
he was sent to join other Sioux at Standing Rock Agency in North
Dakota. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West
Show and travelled throughout the United States and Canada. Some
believe he was allowed to join the show to keep him away from
When Sitting Bull returned to the reservation in 1889, many
natives had joined a new religion called the Ghost Dance. They
believed an Indian messiah would return their lands and remove
the whites. Because of this new religion, Indian police arrested
Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890 as a precaution. They planned
to send him to prison, but when his warriors attempted to rescue
him, Sitting Bull was killed. He was buried at Fort Yates. In
1953, his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota.
The American Indian Sitting Bull (ca. 1834-1890), a Hunkpapa
Sioux medicine man and chief, was the political leader of his
tribe at the time of the Custer massacre and during the Sioux
War of 1875-1876.
Sitting Bull was born on the Grand River in South Dakota. He
gained some fame as a warrior while in his 20s, but he chose to
become a medicine man and a political leader rather than a war
chief. He hated the white men and their encroachment on Indian
lands. Therefore he stayed off the reservation as much as
possible. By the mid-1870s his influence had been extended
through several Sioux subtribes and to the Cheyenne and Arapaho
Indians. He headed the combined war council of these nations
although he was not a war chief.
After miners encroached on Sioux territory during the Black
Hills gold rush in 1875, Sitting Bull led his people from the
reservation and chose to fight. Warned by Gen. Alfred Terry to
return to the reservation, Sitting Bull replied, "You won't need
any guides; you can find me easily; I won't run away."
Gen. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry found Sitting Bull and
several thousand warriors at the Little Bighorn River on June
25, 1876. Sitting Bull did not take part in the fighting that
day but made medicine while Gall and Crazy Horse annihilated
Custer and 264 men. Custer's death, however, changed nothing.
Gen. Terry and Gen. George Crook pressured the Sioux, and
Sitting Bull was forced to lead his people to Canada. Conditions
there were no better, and Sitting Bull's following dwindled,
especially after 1879, when the U.S. government offered amnesty
to those Indians who would surrender. In July 1881 Sitting Bull,
with 187 followers, arrived at Ft. Buford to accept the
Placed on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakota Territory,
Sitting Bull found himself famous. During his residence in
Canada, stories had circulated in the United States that the
Sioux leader was white, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy
at West Point, and a Catholic. In 1878 a book, The Works of
Sitting Bull, was published ascribing Latin and French poems to
When the "ghost dance craze" swept the Indian reservations in
1890, Sitting Bull took no part in it. But soldiers arrested him
that December for fear he would lead the Sioux on the warpath.
In the fight that followed, Sitting Bull was fatally shot,
possibly by accident, possibly by design. He was buried at Ft.
Yates, N. Dakota., but in 1953 his body was reinterred near
Mobridge, S. Dakota.
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This web page was last updated on:
16 December, 2008