Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.
Sitting Bull's father was a mystic and warrior called Returns-Again, also known as Sitting Bull/Four Horns. Sitting Bull was born sometime near 1831 into the Hunkpapa Sioux tribe, along the Grand River in South Dakota at the place called Many Caches. He was devoutly religious, and was thought of as a prophet, as well as a warrior. The Hunkpapa Sioux were a part of the Teton division and they were known for their fighting. Sitting Bull spent his youth engaged in warfare against the Crow, Assinibon, and Shoshoni Indians. These three tribes were enemies of the Sioux and many of their numbers were used to hunt the Sioux later, as both scouts and informants. At age 14, Sitting Bull (then called "Slow" or "Jumping Badger") got his first coup on a Crow warrior. At this time he was renamed Sitting Bull, after his father. Sitting Bull was a member of the tribal warrior society, called the Strong Hearts. During an 1856 battle with the Crows, Sitting Bull was shot in the left foot. AStill in pain, he felled the Crow leader with a shot from his muzzleloader and limped up to his body and killed him with a knife. Sitting Bull had a limp, from this wound, for the rest of his life.
Sitting Bull was against the white man taking Indian land and food. In 1863, he fought against Gen. H.H. Sibley's soldiers. Sibley's men had attacked their hunting party. Sitting Bull fought many more battles against the whites and was a war chief. He directed the Sioux at the Battle of Killdear Mountain on July 28, 1864. At this battle 100 or more Indians died as compared to Sully's five men killed and ten wounded. However, Gen. Alfred Sully's army was 2,000 strong and they held the braves at bay. Crazy Horse (1841-1877) was another War Chief of the Ogala Sioux, another band like the Sioux. He fought at Feitermann's massacred in 1866.
Later on Sitting Bull was shot in the left hip, while he met 600 of Gen. Sully's men. He resisted Sully's talk of peace, and more confrontations occured. The Teton Tribes then united under Sitting Bull. They first harrassed Fort Buford, North Dakota. They stole their cattle, horses, and killed a few soldiers. These activities continued at various locations.
Sitting Bull underwent a Sun Dance ceremony which entailed his arms each being sliced 50 times from wrist to shoulder. Blood dripped from both arms and he hung in the sun all day. During the second day he collapsed from blood loss, but received a vision about his victory over the whites in a coming battle. The Sun Dance was one of the Seven Sacred Rites foretold by the White Buffalo Calf Woman. The Sun Dance was condemned by missionaries and Indian agents. It was a punishable offense of the Courts of Indian Offenses in the 19th century.
On June 16, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer came to the Black Hills area, with 1,300 men. This was only three days after Sitting Bull's blood-letting ceremony. Sitting Bull was too weak to fight. Crazy Horse had to go in his place as leader. On June 25, 1876, the army of Gen. George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry again. This time there were 3,000 braves against Custer's 250 troopers, all of Custer's men were dead in an hour's time. Sitting Bull moved his camp down the river away from the bloating corpses.
Gall (1840-1894), the Sioux Chief of the Hunkpapa, became Sitting Bull's enemy after the defeat of Custer's command, even though he was thought to have fled with him to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse led his warriors to defeat General Crook in the Battle of the Rosebud, after his village was attacked by the soldiers. General Crook's army was augmented by nearly 300 Crows and Shoshone warriors. This addition made Crook's army at more than 1,300 men. Only ten of Crook's men were killed and 23 wounded at the Battle of the Rosebud. The Native American Indian casualties were unknown. Crazy Horse's men withdrew from the battlesite after a few hours. However, the biggest rift between Sitting Bull and Gall most likely came about when Gall became a farmer and advocated the federal government's plan for Indian education. Gall died at Oak Creek, South Dakota, in 1874.
After this battle more whites came wishing to avenge those deaths and they killed off the Sioux's main food supply of buffalo meat. In 1877, Crazy Horse was arrested for leaving Fort Robinson's reservation. He left with his wife to join her family. Since Crazy Horse resisted arrest, he was killed. In May 1877, Sitting Bull took 400 of his men and crossed the border into Canada after 2,000 of his warriors were forced to surrender to Col. Nelson A. Miles and his men. Sitting Bull was in Canada for four years. Canada did not want the Sioux and asked the U.S. troops to force them back. Sitting Bull refused to be sent back. However, on July 19, 1881, he finally surrendered at Fort Buford and was there in prison for two years. At this time, his men were only 150 strong.
Sitting Bull then took part in William F. Cody's Wild West Shows for a brief time. He signed at the urging of Reverand Joseph A. Stephan, a former Indian agent at Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull toured in 1885. His contract was signed with his signature. The signature used for his autographs earned him a bit of money. He got $1.50 per autograph. It was said he was shown how to make his signature by a member of the troupe. His contract showed that he was paid $50.00 a week for four months and was provided with a $125.00 signing bonus. They also gave him all he could eat of his favorite food - oyster stew. Sitting Bull retained exclusive rights to sell his autograph and photographs. The show toured all over the United States and Europe.
This contract was to be displayed in the Custer Battlefield National Monument when it first opened in 1995. It was thought that Sitting Bull liked both Annie Oakley and William Cody (in spite of his hatred for most whites). Many report that he was mesmerized by Annie Oakley's performance at the Olympic Theatre. He nicknamed her "Little Sure Shot." Some say he thought of her as his daughter. He liked Cody because he treated him fairly. The troupe of nine American Indians, counting Sitting Bull, had two interpreters. Their group traveled together from September 2, 1884 until October 25th. They visited twenty-five (25) cities, from Minneapolis to New York. Sitting Bull met President Grover Cleveland in 1885.
An Indian agent, named Major James McLaughlin, was not happy with the fact that Sitting Bull earned so much money and then spent it "foolishly." The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent tried to influence Bill Cody to pay him less, but Cody had made a deal and he refused to pay Sitting Bull less, since he needed the money to provide for his family. Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Reservation in 1889. After this Sitting Bull was incarcerated a second time because he would not abandon the native traditions such as the Ghost Dance.
The Ghost Dance was begun by the Paiute people of Nevada, in the later 1800's. The Ghost Dance was a circle dance. The Lakota/Sioux and Arapaho went into a trance-like state and wore ghost shirts, which they believed made them bullet-proof. The dancers also thought the dance allowed then to visit their departed frinds and relatives and thus learn sacred knowledge.
On December 15, 1890, Sioux policemen surrounded his cabin. A riot broke out, when Sitting Bull resisted arrest, and Sitting Bull was shot through the torso and head by Sioux policemen called Red Tomahawk and Bullhead. Other victims of this disruption were six policeman and seven of the chief's men. He is buried in the miltary cemetary at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and his coffin was filled with quick lime. Sitting Bull's son, "Crow Foot," and seven others were killed at the same time as their chief. In 1953, Sitting Bull's body was re-buried in Mobridge, South Dakota. At the time of his death, Sitting Bull had two wives. One wife was called "Pretty Plume." He fathered nine (9) children.
Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit
It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.
Now we are poor but we are free.
No white man controls our footsteps...
If we must die, we die defending our rights.
Cruthfield, James A., Bill O'Neil, and David L. Walker. Legends of the Wild West. Lincolnwood, IL.: Publications International, Ltd., 1995.
Hirchfelder, Arlen and Paulette Moon. An Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Keenan, Jerry. Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars: 1492-1890. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Nerburn, PhD., Kent and Louise Menglekoch, M.A. (editors). Native American Wisdom. San Rafael, CA.: The Classic Wisdom Collection, 1991.
Newman (editor), Marc. Indian Chiefs of the Old West Card Game. Stamford, Connecticut: U.S. Games System, Inc.
"Sitting Bull's 1885 Wild West Contract Found." October 19, 1995. Indian Country Today newspaper. Rapid City, South Dakota.
Time-Life Books. The Wild West. New York: Warner Books, 1993
This page was last updated on July 22, 2005