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Tatanka Iyotanke: The Hunkpapa Leader known as Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanke, was born at a place the Dakotas called Many Caches in 1831. Today, that location is near Grand River in South Dakota. His father, Jumping Buffalo, was well-known as a warrior of great courage. His family was part of the Hunkpapa band of the Western or Teton Dakotas.
While still a young man, Sitting Bull demonstrated his intelligence, courage, and leadership. One of his biographers called him a “natural strategist of no mean courage and ability.” This courage served him well, especially after 1862 when soldiers and gold seekers entered their hunting and treaty lands. The emigrant and Army wagon trains disturbed the bison and destroyed the grass. Soldiers came to fight, but Sitting Bull believed that his band had no quarrel with the United States.
After battles with the Army in 1863, 1864, and 1865, Sitting Bull was recognized for his leadership in battle. By 1868, he was considered to be one of the most important leaders of the Teton Dakotas. Even though Sitting Bull was respected, he did not have authority over his tribe. Decisions were usually made by a group of men, not an individual.
The U.S. Army saw Sitting Bull as a fierce and powerful opponent. As the Northern Pacific Railroad prepared to build through his country, he demonstrated his fearlessness by sitting with four other warriors on the prairie in front of the soldiers protecting the railroad workers. They smoked their pipes as the soldiers fired their guns at him. When they were done, they got up and walked away.
In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted to the western Dakotas “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of an area in southwestern Dakota Territory that included the Black Hills. These forested hills were important to the Dakotas as a sacred place and as their homeland. However, in 1874, Colonel George Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills to map the area and to see if rumors of gold were true. The result was a rush to the gold mines of the Black Hills. The federal government tried to resolve the conflict with the Dakotas by buying the Black Hills from the tribes, but the tribes refused to sell. The government then abandoned the treaty and demanded that the Dakotas go to reservations set aside for them. Those Dakotas who refused this order would be considered hostile and would be subject to military action. Sitting Bull and many other tribes refused to accept this violation of their treaty and traditions. The conflict led to the battle at the Little Big Horn River in Montana in 1876.
The battle was devastating for the Army. All of Custer’s command was killed. The other regiments failed in their effort to subdue, capture, or kill the Dakotas and Cheyennes in that battle. Sitting Bull remained free and with his band crossed the border into Canada in May 1877. They stayed there until July 1881. By then, nearly all the bison had been killed, and the Hunkpapas could not find enough to eat. Starving, they surrendered at Fort Buford and accepted a new home at Standing Rock Reservation.
Sitting Bull was soon sent to a military prison at Fort Randall for two years. When he returned, he was treated as though he had never been a leader. He was sent to work in the farm fields, which he did with dignity. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He spent four months traveling with Cody’s show, earning $50 per week and earning a little more signing autographs. In his later years, he painted his autobiography in a series of pictographs which described the important events of his life.
In December 1890, when the Ghost Dance reached the reservations, the agent at Standing Rock still feared Sitting Bull’s power as a leader and had him arrested. His followers came to his aid and the confusion led to a gunfight. Sitting Bull was killed in the fight.
Sitting Bull’s death did not put an end to his reputation as a man of courage who protected his people. For years, people talked of his actions and repeated his words. He understood, even after surrendering, that “No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die, we die defending our rights.”