A Revolutionary: Every generation has a unequivocal leader, a messiah if you will. There was Moses to the Hebrews, Winston Churchill to Great Britain, and Nelson Mandela to South Africa. Sitting Bull's life was defined by challenges that he needed to overcome and as much as he tried, road blocks arose to prevent further progress. The challenge was always borne at the hands of the white settlers, whether it was the settlers themselves or the supportive government behind them. Nevertheless, Sitting Bull dedicated his life for the better of the Native American folk.
Early Life: Sitting Bull was born in 1831, near the Ground River in what is now known as South Dakota (PBS). He started his military service at fourteen years old and was a renown warrior amongst the Sioux. While military challenges with the United States government is a difficult task, his real obstacles came in the years following 1868. In 1868 Sitting Bull became the chief of the nation of the Lakota Sioux (PBS). Now his campaign against unjust rule has begun and he faced challenges until the day he died.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in 1876, where Gen. Custer led his men against Crazy Horse and the Lakota Sioux. (US History in Context, 2007)
Battle of the Little Bighorn and its Aftermath: In the quest to improve the situation that his people were in, sometimes war is the only option. Oppression from the whites came in many forms: broken treaties, senseless violence, and exploitation. General George Armstrong Custer claimed to have found gold in the Black Hills in the year 1874 (Wilson). The Black Hills was the home of the Sioux and had been since the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In fact, the Treaty was to have the United States military fend off white settlers who wished to use the Black Hills. One settler said, "What shall be done with these Indian dogs in our manger? They will not dig gold or let others do it." In November of 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered all aid to the Sioux to be cut off. War with the Sioux was unlawfully declared in February of 1876. The Custer's plan of attack proved to be over-confidant as he and his entire attacking force were killed. "Custer's Last Stand" reached the homes of many American's oblivious to the righteous side. Immediately, Sitting Bull became a notorious name amongst the Americans. He was not at the forefront of the attack but the blame for the massacre was still put on him. The aftermath was a brutal military campaign that was thought to be a just retaliation from the United States government (Brown). The Black Hills, what was thought to be the lasting home of the Sioux was now no longer safe. Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, stated, "...the United States Army, thirsting for revenge, was prowling the country north and west of the Black Hills, killing Indians wherever they could be found" (Brown 302). Sitting Bull led his tribe out of the Black Hills as he sought refuge in Yellowstone which was also home to buffalo (Brown 303). After Little Bighorn thousands of refugees moved north into Canada and eventually the Black Hills were controlled by the United States (Wilson).
This is a map of the northwest of the USA and the border area with Canada. The Blacks Hills are shown at the bottom, in the middle in the image and Little Bighorn is shown to the left of the Hills. (Wilson)
"We have been running up and down this country, but they follow us from one place to another" -Sitting Bull (Brown 303)
Realizing his Situation: Sitting Bull's possessed the leadership and the intelligence needed lead his people to victory. He knew that one tribe couldn't take down an entire military force. It wasn't going to be the Sioux versus the american government, it would be the Native Americans of the north versus the government. However, this time it wouldn't be warfare anymore as it seemed that Sitting Bull was smart enough to know the powerful opponent he was facing. This is evident by a letter penned by Sitting Bull in September of 1877 to the leader of the Nez Perces, Chief Joseph (Sitting Bull). Sitting Bull starts the letter by saying, "Fortune appears to have imposed upon you, my friend, and upon myself, the burden of undertaking the cause of all the red men of the north" (Sitting Bull). At the time the letter was sent, Sitting Bull was taking refuge in Canada, but now was under the impression that he may be turned over to the Americans (Sitting Bull). In the same letter Sitting Bull stated, "That mean government (British), on whose protection I so confidently relied, is already prepared to deliver me to my enemies (America). I think, therefore, that further fighting would only occasion the loss of our people" (Sitting Bull). Sitting Bull feels as though he is trapped by stronger forces and that fighting those forces would not be worth the amount of lives. The Sitting Bull Commission, designed to discuss the conditions of his surrender, was a failure (Wilson). The conditions were that Sitting Bull would be allowed to go back across the border if he and his people got rid of their guns and ammo. They would also have to get rid of their horses once they arrived at the reservation. However, if all was completed, Sitting Bull and his people would be freed from past offenses. Sitting Bull rejected the offer and his surrender would be with worse terms (Wilson).
"The time for warlike arms is past: Our savage valor finds its goal at last. To the long wanderings of our wearied feet No place is open for a safe retreat; For now upon me, pressed, with sullen frown, The British Lion sits unjustly down." - Sitting Bull (poem within a letter to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces (Sitting Bull))
Cheyenne Indians are depicted killing buffalo as they relied on them. (Plains Indians)
Buffalo and Resource Crisis: Danger to the Indians did not just come in the form of violence. White settlers were destructive to the environment around them and the buffalo that roamed those very plains. The Native Americans used almost every part of the buffalo for food, clothing and weapons (Plains Indians). The Plains Indians were respectful of the beasts as they did not over hunt the species. However, the white settlers decimated the buffalo to the brink of extinction (Plains Indians). The settlers herds ate the buffalos and horses grass and the settlers hunted as well. Alexander Adams, the author of Sitting Bull, stated, "Soon the area on either side of the trail became, from the Indians' point of view, almost a desert in which they could not live" (Adams 40). The white settlers destroyed the land that was once home to an abundant ecosystem. The Sioux had to go after the buffalo in order to keep his tribe alive. Sitting Bull stated, "...game is daily diminishing, and our wives and children are in very great want of food and clothing" (Sitting Bull's letter to Chief Joseph).
Sitting Bull and his family arrested at Fort Randall (Dawes Severalty Act)
The End of Resistance: The life of Sitting Bull changed as he came to a understanding of the opposition he faced. Those who were in his group previously were there in opposition to a life on a reservation. Those who were supporters of Sitting Bull and his resistance began to have a change of heart as the elderly were starving. Unlike a reservation, the Indians were not provided timely rations and the reliance on buffalo was not a stable bet. In 1881, Sitting Bull pleaded to the Canadian government for a reservation north of the border but were told that the only reservation for them was south of the border. What was once thousands of reservation resisters were now less than two-hundred during Sitting Bull's march back to Wood Mountain. Sitting Bull was defeated by the American government after a struggle lasting many years. His 1881 surrender resulted in Sitting Bull and his people to be captives at Fort Randall. The South Dakota fort was his "home" until 1883 when he was relocated to Standing Rock (Adams).
A New Life for Better or for Worse: Sitting Bull's adjustment to his new life was smooth. He knew his own value and how to improve life for everyone in his tribe. Sitting Bull had a new agenda and set forth in his new direction. James McLaughlin was the Indian agent for Standing Rock and hand his hands full with governing Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull proposed a set of orders of how he and his men would be ruled. The rules consisted of Sitting Bull himself taking supplies in bulk as opposed to rations, submitted a paper arguing for the appointment of twenty-four chiefs out of the thirty-four adults in his following, and other favoritism for him and his followers. Sitting Bull delusional demands were rejected by McLaughlin. McLaughlin was one of the few agents with a passionate character and was matched with Sitting Bull who arguably had an even more forceful character. McLaughlin stated, "...it was better for me to put him on the right path in the beginning than to allow him to labor under such erroneous ideas as he had just expressed" (Adams 350). The white settlers greed could not be appeased knowing that the Sioux had a twenty-two million acre reservation. An agreement was proposed that would split the reservation into five different ones and give ten million acres to the white settlers for resale. The Indians were exploited as many were confused on the details of the accord and the offer for the land was considerably less than its appraised worth. A friend of the Indians, Henry L. Dawes, devised a second commission which would probe into the running of the first commission and renegotiate the accord. Dawes, a Massachusetts Senator, permitted Sitting Bull to speak at the conference. Sitting Bull seeked to better his standing with the agency Indians and re-enter the spotlight. Sitting Bull's speech to the committee was a debacle. Adams stated, "...he recited the wrongs he had suffered, made demands on behalf of his band of Hunkpapas, insisted on being recognized as a chief on the agency, and committed the blunder of accusing the commissioners of being drunk" (Adams 353). Sitting Bull's demise was tragic, but the worst had yet to come (Adams).
"Sitting Bull is an Indian of very mediocre ability, rather dull...I cannot understand how he held such sway over or controlled men so eminently his superiors in every respect, unless it was by sheer obstinacy and stubborn tenacity. He is pompous, vain, and boastful, and wonders himself a very important personage..." - James McLaughlin (Adams 353).
Wounded Knee Massacre: The Ghost Dance movement scared some of the white men as its popularity increased (Adams). McLaughlin, who at first didn't deem the movement dangerous, was wary about Sitting Bull as he was an advocate of the movement. He considered Sitting Bull and a few others "leaders of disaffection." As time went on, McLaughlin grew more nervous about Sitting Bull's role in the Ghost Dance movement. McLaughlin stated, "'Sitting Bull' is a high priest and leading apostle of this latest Indian absurdity. In a word, he is the chief mischief maker at this agency, and if he were not here this craze so general among the Indians would never have gotten a foothold at this agency" (Adams 360). Enough was enough and the plot to arrest Sitting Bull was devised. The plan was well thought out as the Indian police would make the arrest (Welsh). The arrest would also be made when most of the other Indians would be obtaining rations at the agency. On December 14th of 1890, the plan was set in motion. Sitting Bull was going to surrender without a fight until he heard his son taking part in an altercation with the Indian police. Sitting Bull made his final mistake, listening to his son, whose message was to resist the imminent arrest. Soon, bullets flew and many people, including his son, dropped dead. Sitting Bull himself took a bullet to the head in the fight, ending his once revolutionary life (Welsh). The great Lakota Chief died resisting the oppression he faced from his birth, which might have been the righteous death he wanted.