The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> American History >> Indians of North America >> Tribal and Individual Biographies
Sitting Bull

(Tatanka-Iyotanka) Lakota war chief

Sitting Bull

Hunkesni (meaning "Slow") was born into the Hunkpapa Lakota (aka Dakota) tribe on the Grand River in what is now South Dakota sometime around 1834. He was given his name because, when still quite young, he did not display any qualities that would suggest he would amount to much. But, at the age of 14, the young warrior displayed great bravery during a fight against the Crow, and his father changed his name to Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull).

Once renamed, Sitting Bull continued to display the great bravery and stubborness that the Lakota said were traits of the buffalo. As a young man he became a leader of the Strong Heart warrior society, as well as a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters, a group concerned with tribal welfare.

Sitting Bull had his first encounter with American soldiers in 1863, when the U.S. Army mounted a broad campaign in retaliation for the Santee Rebellion in Minnesota, an action in which the Lakota had taken no part. In 1864, he fought U.S. troops at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, and in 1865 he led a siege against the newly estblished Fort Rice in present-day North Dakota. By 1868 he had became the leading war chief of the Lakota Nation.

In 1875, Sitting Bull had a vision in which it was revealed that all of his enemies would be delivered into his hands. That same year, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs decreed that all Lakota not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876, would be considered hostile. The stage was thus set for Sitting Bull's vision to come true.

In March 1876, Sitting Bull called a "meeting" of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs at his camp on Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory. During the meeting he led a sun dance and told the assembled chiefs and warriors that they must change their way of fighting -- instead of showing off to prove their bravery, they should fight to kill, otherwise they would lose all their lands to the whites. Inspired by his words, Crazy Horse, chief of the Oglala Lakota, led his warriors into battle and routed a column of federal troops under General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud (June 17). After that battle Crazy Horse and his troops set up camp on the Little Bighorn River, where, on June 25, they defeated an army led by General George Armstrong Custer (the Battle of the Little Bighorn).

After Custer's death at Little Bighorn, the federal government began a massive campaign against the Lakota. Although many chiefs and warriors ultimately surrendered and allowed themselves to be placed on reservations, Sitting Bull steadfastly refused. Eventually he and his followers made their way into Canada, where they hoped to continue their traditional ways. Unfortunately for Sitting Bull, the bison upon which the Lakota depended for survival had been driven to near extinction in Canada, and there was a real danger of starvation. On July 19, 1881, in an effort to save his people, Sitting Bull and his son surrendered to the commanding officer of Fort Buford, Montana. In return for his surrender, Sitting Bull asked that his people be allowed to cross back and forth into Canada whenever they wished, and for them to have a reservation of their own on the Little Missouri River near the Black Hills. His requests were denied, and Sitting Bull was sent to Fort Randall in South Dakota, where he remained for two years; in 1883 he was allowed to rejoin his people on the Standing Rock Reservation.

In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but he left the show after only four months and returned to the reservation. Even though he was now under federal supervision, Sitting Bull still refused to follow white man's rules; he still lived with two wives and rejected Christianity. He did send his children to a nearby Christian school, but only because he believed that the next generation of Lakota would need to be able to read and write.

In 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. Fearing that the Ghost Dance was the prelude to new Indian uprisings, the federal government had embarked on a campaign to eradicate the ceremony and its participants. And, when it was believed that Sitting Bull would become one of the ceremony's leaders, the government sent 43 Lakota policemen to arrest him. On December 15, 1890, the policemen burst into Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside, where his followers were by now gathering to protect him. A gunfight broke out, during which one of the policemen shot Sitting Bull through the head, killing him instantly.

Sitting Bull was initially buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota; in 1953, his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, and his grave was marked by a granite monument.

New Perspectives on the West

George Armstrong Custer
Battle of the Little Bighorn
Buffalo Bill

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> American History >> Indians of North America >> Tribal and Individual Biographies

This page was last updated on 12/15/2017.