Sitting Bull

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 government's offer.

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 his authorship.

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. Dak., but in 1953 his body was reinterred near Mobridge, S. Dak.

Further Reading on Sitting Bull

Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux: A Biography (1932), draws upon both Indian and white sources to present a very sympathetic picture of the chief. Robert M. Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (1963), contains a scholarly assessment, and James McLaughlin, My Friend the Indian (1910), provides a contemporary assessment.