Sitting-Bull, The Great Dakota Leader

Two of our States, as boys and girls know from their geography, are called Dakota, one North Dakota, the other South Dakota, and this was also the name of Indian people of different tribes speaking the same language, who lived in the country north of the great Platte River, and between and along our two greatest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. The word Dakota means united by compact, and there were several united tribes who called themselves the Dakotas.

Sitting-Bull was a Dakota Indian. He was born near an old army station, Fort George, on Willow Creek, and his father was Jumping-Bull. The Indian chiefs are very fond of giving boys new names when they begin to do something which their friends notice. If a boy runs fast with his head up, they call him “The Elk,” “The Deer,” “The Wild Horse,” or some such name. Or perhaps if he has quick or sly ways, they name him “The Fox,” “The Wolf,” or “The Coyote.”

In North Dakota, at this time, there were great herds of buffalo, and the largest of them were the bulls. These were the leaders when a herd was running, swimming a river, or jumping across a gully. Even when a lad, Sitting-Bull’s father could hunt for buffaloes, and quickly jump the deep gullies so frequent in that country, always with his bow in his hand, so his uncle, an Indian chief, named him Jumping-Bull.

His son was a strange boy. His hair was straight like an Indian, but of a reddish-brown color. His head was very large and his features were more regular in form than that of the Indian. He was so odd in his looks and his ways, keeping much by himself, thinking and planning how best to have his own way, that his father named him when quite young, “Sacred Stand.”

Once, at ten years of age, he went with some hunters on a wild chase for buffaloes and came back to his father’s wigwam very happy and proud, for he had succeeded in killing a buffalo-calf; but he did not have a new name till four years later. Then he waylaid an Indian, an enemy of his people, and shot him with an arrow. As soon as he saw that his foe could never rise again, he crept up to his head and cut off the top portion of the skin with the hair belonging to it.

This “scalp,” about as large as a silver dollar, he tied to his belt and carried to his home, full of joy and triumph, for he was now a Brave among braves. After this he frequently made drawings of his totem, what we might call his family coat-of-arms. This was a buffalo-bull settled back on his haunches in a sitting posture, and from it the boy was named “Sitting-Bull.”

His second great feat was when he met a Crow Indian traveling along a trail claimed by the Dakotas. The Crow Indian was riding a horse, and had by his side, on another horse, his wife, with a baby strapped to her back. Sitting-Bull, on an Indian pony, charged this little cavalcade, succeeded in killing all three without getting a scratch, and made a rough picture of the exploit which he showed to his young companions.

Chief Red Cloud had led the Indians in 1868 at the time when a large number of our men fell in battle near Fort Phil Kearny, and after that trouble a scout picked up an old roster-book which had once belonged to a company of our soldiers. On its blank pages Sitting-Bull had made skeleton pictures, and each picture showed some wicked deed. The pictures were ridiculous enough, but they made a fairly good diary, and the meaning could not be mistaken. Nearly every record in the book was a sketch of Sitting-Bull and his victims. Sometimes he was killing white men, sometimes Indians, sometimes stealing and driving off herds of horses. A man’s figure with a tall hat was enough to mean a white citizen, an uncouth bonnet showed a woman, stiff outlines gave Indian war feathers or a soldier’s costume, and the book was a curious record of years when Sitting Bull was a famous brave and a cruel, bad Indian.

Uncle Sam was greatly disturbed about “The Black Hills” of South Dakota at this time. Some white men, roaming through the hills, found signs of gold. They began to dig up the surface of the ground in many spots and to make deep holes and were sure there were large mines of gold there. The Dakotas insisted that these Hills all belonged to them. But the white men said that the Indians did not own “the whole earth,” and tried hard to have the Indians sent away. This made Sitting-Bull very angry. He hated the white men more and more. He brought together thousands of Indians who were full of discontent and wanted to drive all white men from their country. A new band of Indians
he formed and named “Strong-hearts.” These he brought from eight or ten tribes of the Dakotas to a queer place in Montana, called “The Bad Lands.” There were such deep gullies in clayey soil all around that neither horses nor buffaloes could leap over them, and this was Sitting-Bull’s stronghold. He, himself, did not often go out to battle, for he was a medicine-man, not a warrior. He would shut the flaps of his wigwam and stay hours, and sometimes days, inside, doing what he called “making medicine.” He told the Indians that a powerful Spirit came to him at such times and gave him knowledge and orders.

He had influence with the wildest Indian chiefs because they had a strange fear of medicine-men. They thought him a great prophet and teacher; with their bravest soldiers they went out from the Bad Lands as from a great fort, when he told them to, and fought many successful battles with our men.

At last in 1876 General Terry, General Crook, and General Gibbon, with forces, from three different directions marched against Sitting-Bull and his “hostiles,” who, about that time, came down from the Bad Lands and camped in four or five large villages with men, women, and children. His own village of wigwams. He declared that he had had a dream-vision, and that he had seen in the vision soldiers coming. This soon came true and first came General Crook’s troops from the south, but the Indians were so many the general stopped and waited for more soldiers. Next came some of Terry’s and Custer’s men from the east. The Indians were now much excited, the women and children were hurried off westward to safer grounds, and the warriors rushed pell-mell to meet the soldiers. The Indians wounded many, killed many, and drove the rest to the bluffs above the Little Big Horn River.

After this Sitting-Bull in his wigwam, “making his medicine” and talking to the Spirit, heard the news of General Custer’s rapid charge up the slopes toward the villages, and all Indian warriors say he was dreadfully afraid. He had his “Strong-hearts” all around him, but his own heart did not remain strong. They say as soon as he heard that “Long-Hair” Custer was coming fast and furious, in great haste he took his family, mounted them on ponies, and, jumping upon his own horse, galloped to the west, till he had reached a place of safety. Now he sent out many Indian warriors, ten to one, against Custer’s brave men, and the Indians got around them and fought till not one soldier was left alive after the great battle called “Custer’s Massacre.” But Sitting-Bull was miles away. After a time he returned to his village because he had missed one of his twin-children, and when he reached his wigwam he found the child that he so much loved. The sounds of battle grew less and less and the conflict was over, but Sitting-Bull lost the good-will of his big chiefs because he was not there to share the danger and direct them when the storm was fiercest. His followers named the twins in fun “The-One-Taken,” and “The-One-Left,” and they long lived to remind the Indians of their father speeding away from his greatest battlefield.

After the battle the whole United States Army was sent to break up the Indian strongholds in and near the Bad Lands. The ablest warrior chiefs, Gall, Spotted Eagle, Lone Wolf, Lame Deer, and Crazy Horse were at last killed or conquered. And it was not long before Sitting-Bull and his “Stronghearts,” full of hatred and discontent, fled across the Canada line, where they were safe from attack. The other Indians who had fought and been beaten now went to the nearest Indian reservation, and for a time there was peace among the Dakotas.

At last Sitting-Bull succeeded in getting back to the Grand River in North Dakota, where he had a rough, but comfortable, house with some of his family. But it was not long before the wide-awake Indian Agents and officers of the army found that Sitting-Bull was sending messages from camp to camp and getting ready for another defiance of Uncle Sam’s great army. They heard of ghost dances, but the real danger was from the plans of Sitting-Bull, plotting and mapping out another fearful outbreak of savage Indians.

In December, 1890, General Ruger was commanding the department of Dakota. He was living at St. Paul, Minnesota, where were his headquarters. Here he heard that Sitting-Bull was fretful, sullen, and secretly reorganizing the “Strong-hearts.” Then General Ruger telegraphed the commander at Fort Yates, near Standing Rock, to have Sitting-Bull arrested. The Indian Agent asked it as a favor that his forty Indian policemen might make the arrest. They proceeded to his lodge, found him asleep, awakened him, and forced him to come out. He came out wild with anger and called for his warriors to join him; one of the Indian policemen took his gun and ran toward Sitting-Bull. Then firing began. Bull-Head, the chief of the policemen, was shot in the leg. He turned and fired at Sitting-Bull and other policemen did the same. Sitting-Bull did not live to speak another word, but the warriors kept fighting till the soldiers, near at hand, rode up and put an end to the affair.

To look at Sitting-Bull one would say that he was always quiet and self-contained. In fact he did usually keep himself under control; but he was cruel and almost heartless. He had practiced cruelty to animals and men from his childhood, and as long as he lived; he was full of passion, and often very angry. He was always imperious and insolent toward our generals, the Indian Agent, and other friends of the Great Father at Washington, whom he claimed to hate. He had great talent and ability to plan campaigns and battles, wonderful influence in bringing them together, and mostly the discontented and criminals of every tribe of his nation flocked to his standard. Notwithstanding all this, as if conscious of a wicked heart and fearing some punishment, he was afraid of death, and always terrified when defeat stared him in the face. Though he planned the greatest victory which the Indians ever gained over white men, Sitting-Bull himself was a coward, and disgraced himself even before his own people by running away in the very face of success.

Howard, Oliver Otis Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known. University of Nebraska Press. 1908.

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