Sitting Bull (Lakota: Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka or Ta-Tanka I-Yotank, also nicknamed Slon-he or "Slow"; ca. 1831 – December 15, 1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man, born near the Grand River in South Dakota and killed by reservation police on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during an attempt to arrest him and prevent him from supporting the Ghost Dance movement.
He is notable in American and Native American history for his role in the major victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment on June 25, 1876, where Sitting Bull's premonition of defeating the cavalry became reality. In the months after the battle, Sitting Bull fled the United States to Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he remained until 1881, at which time he surrendered to American forces. A small remnant of his band under Chief Wambligi decided to stay at Wood Mountain. After his return to the United States, he briefly toured as a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
After working as a performer, Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. Because of fears that he would use his influence to support the Ghost Dance movement, Indian Affairs authorities ordered his arrest. During an ensuing struggle between Sitting Bull's followers and the police, Sitting Bull was shot in the side and head by American police after they were fired upon by his supporters. His body was taken to nearby Fort Yates for burial, but in 1953, his remains possibly were exhumed and reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota by Sioux who wanted his body to be nearer to his birthplace. However, some Sioux and historians dispute this claim and believe that any remains that were moved were not those of Sitting Bull.
Because of his status as a wichasha wakan, Sitting Bull was a member of the Buffalo Society, a dream society for those who dreamt of buffalo. He also was a member of the Heyoka, a society for those who dreamed of thunderbirds.
Although the Lakota largely were unaffected by the war, some Dakota refugees (some of whom had refused to surrender to United States forces) from Minnesota moved into Lakota territory along the Missouri River, and Minnesota regiments pursued them. In 1863, Hunkpapa warriors joined with Dakota refugee warriors to fight against the military. However, Col. Henry Sibley defeated them at the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, 1863 and at the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863. Sitting Bull likely participated in both of these battles, and also possibly took part among other Hunkpapa warriors in the Battle of Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863. As in the previous battles, the Army prevailed, killing about 100 Sioux and capturing about 160.
The Hunkpapa retreated after this defeat, though the Lakota were aware of the military's intentions to continue the fighting. In June 1864, Gen. Alfred Sully led American forces out from Fort Sully (a few miles south of Fort Pierre, South Dakota). To counter their advance up the Cannonball River, several bands of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux had assembled in camp at the foot of the Killdeer mountains. Among these several thousand warriors were both Sitting Bull and his elder nephew White Bull, who was preparing to fight in his first battle.
At the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, which took place July 28, 1864, the Sioux attacked Sully's assembled forces, but were defeated overwhelmingly by the soldiers' combined artillery and rifles. Sitting Bull's uncle, Four Horns, was wounded though survived, and the Sioux retreated. However, they attacked Sully's forces again from August 7 to August 9, 1864, and were defeated again. Sitting Bull made efforts to persuade the Sioux forces to withdraw, and as a result of his pleas and Sully's second victory, the Sioux pulled back from attacking Sully's column as it continued through the Badlands. The several bands broke up after Killdeer Mountain, and Sitting Bull and a group of Hunkpapas moved southeast.
On September 2, 1864, Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapas attacked a wagon train of emigrants led by Capt. James L. Fisk that was traveling through Sioux lands. Sitting Bull again was wounded, this time through the hip and back. The emigrants forted up and a standoff ensued until the Sioux eventually gave up and retreated to track buffalo. The fighting from 1863 to 1864 caused Sitting Bull to harden his views about the presence of whites in Sioux lands, and he assumed a sense of uncompromising militancy against whites that would characterize him for the rest of his life.
By early 1868, the U.S. government desired a peaceful settlement to Red Cloud's War, and agreed to Red Cloud's demands that Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith be abandoned. Chief Gall of the Hunkpapas (among other representatives of the Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Yankton Sioux) signed a form of the Treaty of Fort Laramie on July 2, 1868 at Fort Rice (near Bismarck, North Dakota). However, Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty and continued his hit-and-run attacks on forts in the upper Missouri area throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s.
However, the Panic of 1873 forced the backers (such as Jay Cooke) of the Northern Pacific Railway's into bankruptcy. This halted the construction of the railroad through Sioux territory, but also encouraged interest in the possibility of gold mining in the Black Hills. A military expedition led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in 1874 left from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, to explore the Black Hills for gold and to determine a suitable location for a military fort in the Hills. Custer's announcement of gold in the Black Hills triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and increased tensions between the Sioux and whites seeking to move into the Black Hills.
Although Sitting Bull did not attack Custer's expedition in 1874, the government was increasingly pressured to open the Black Hills to mining and settlement based on reports of Sioux depredations (encouraged by Sitting Bull). In November 1875, the government accordingly ordered all Sioux bands outside the Great Sioux Reservation to move onto the reservation, with the knowledge that these bands would not comply. These bands living off the reservation were certified by the Interior Department as hostile on February 1, 1876. This certification allowed the military to pursue the Sioux and Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull's influence was growing larger as a result of his militant stance against white intrusions on Sioux lands. By the mid-1870s, Sitting Bull had garnered great respect even among other bands of the Sioux, while his guidance also impacted the Northern Cheyenne and the Northern Arrapahoes.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s 7th Cavalry advance party of General Alfred Howe Terry’s column attacked Indian tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River expecting a similar victory. The U.S. army did not realize that before the battle began, more than 3,000 Native Americans had left their reservations to follow Sitting Bull. The attacking Sioux, inspired by a vision of Sitting Bull’s, in which he saw U.S. soldiers being killed as they entered the tribe’s camp, fought back. Custer's badly outnumbered troops lost ground quickly and were forced to retreat, as they began to realize the true numbers of the Native American force. The tribes then led a counter-attack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, ultimately annihilating the soldiers.
The Native Americans' celebrations were short-lived, however, as public outrage at Custer's death and defeat and the heightened awareness of the remaining Sioux brought thousands more soldiers to the area. Over the next year, the new American military forces pursued the Lakota, forcing many of the Indians to surrender. Sitting Bull refused to surrender and in May 1877 led his band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada where he remained in exile for many years near Wood Mountain, refusing a pardon and the chance to return.
Arriving with 185 people, his band was kept separate from the other Hunkpapa gathered at the agency. Army officials remained concerned that the famed Hunkpapa chief would use his influence to stir up trouble among the recently surrendered northern bands. Consequently, the military decided to transfer him and his band to Fort Randall to be held as prisoners of war. Again loaded on a steamboat, Sitting Bull's band, now totaling 172 people, were sent downriver to Fort Randall where they spent the next 20 months. He was finally allowed to return to the Standing Rock Agency with his band in May 1883.
In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He earned about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Although it is rumored that he often cursed his audiences in his native tongue during the show, some historians argue that he did not, and there have been reports that Sitting Bull in fact gave speeches relaying his desire for education for the young and the normalization of relations between the Sioux and whites. Sitting Bull also was reported to have cursed his audience during an opening address celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1884.
Sitting Bull only stayed with the show for four months before returning home. However, during that time, he had become somewhat of a celebrity and a romanticized freedom fighter. He earned a small fortune by charging for his autograph and picture, although he often gave away his money to the homeless and beggars. During this time, Sitting Bull realized that his enemies were not limited to the small military and settler communities he had encountered in his homelands, but in fact they were numerous and possessed technological advancements. He also realized that the Sioux would be overwhelmed if they continued to fight.
Following his death, his cabin on the Grand River was taken to Chicago to become part of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. The cabin was exhibited along with Native American dances and a sign that said "War Dance Given Daily. Later, Sitting Bull became the subject of or a character in several Hollywood motion pictures, such as Sitting Bull: The Hostile Sioux Indian Chief (1914), Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre (1927), Sitting Bull (1954), Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007).
As time passed, Sitting Bull's legacy became a product of the public's lasting perception of him as an archetype of Native American resistance movements. Legoland Billund, the first Legoland park, contains a Lego sculpture of Sitting Bull, which is the largest sculpture in the park. On September 14, 1989, the United States Postal Service released a postage stamp featuring a likeness of Sitting Bull with a denomination of 28¢. On March 6, 1996, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council voted to rename Standing Rock College (formerly Standing Rock Community College) as Sitting Bull College in honor of Sitting Bull.