Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Sitting Bull

Jul 27, 2015 by

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Sitting Bull

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, we have to acknowledge that there were many American Indians who, one way or another contributed to this country and its history. Sitting Bull is one name that stands out. Obviously, exact records of this individual’s early life are not available, but what is the consensus about his early life?

Because Sitting Bull’s tribe, the Hunkpapa Lakota (who were called the Sioux by whites who came into contact with them) kept no written records at the time of his birth, we rely on oral traditions for information about his birth. According to most accounts, Sitting Bull was born in 1831 in an area of the country that was known as The Unorganized Territory. Comprising all or part of the present-day states of Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, this area was known as The Unorganized Territory because no territorial government had yet been established there. It is assumed that he was born near the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, but a different oral tradition asserts that his birth place was along the Yellowstone River in what is now Montana. He was originally known a Jumping Badger, a name that he would bear until he was around the age of 14.

  1. His early years- how were they spent? What were his early endeavors like?

At the time of Sitting Bull’s birth, the Lakota were a nomadic tribe. They followed the vast herds of bison as they roamed the Northern Great Plains when the weather allowed it, and went into camp during the winter months. There were other tribes of American Indians that also followed this lifestyle, and occasionally Sitting Bull’s people would have what we call today a turf war. When he was 14, Sitting Bull was allowed to accompany a Lakota raiding party, and he impressed his comrades by riding up to a Crow warrior and striking him (an act that was known as counting coup).

When he returned to camp, his father gave his name to his son. The father’s name was Buffalo Bull Sits Down, which was later shortened to simply Sitting Bull. After this incident, Sitting Bull’s influence within his tribe grew steadily. Indeed, by the time of his famous encounter at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull was regarded as the most influential of the region’s chiefs.

  1. The Great Sioux War of 1876- what was his role in this event?

Relations between the United States and the Lakota had been tense ever since white settlers began to move into the present-day state of Minnesota before the Civil War. In an attempt to regain lands lost to the whites, in 1862 a large band of Lakotas attacked settlements in that state, an act that was met by a concerted military effort on the part of the Federal government. As part of this campaign, two columns under the command of Generals Henry Sibley and Alfred Sully drove the majority of the American Indians out of Minnesota, and then pursued them into the Dakota Territory.

In an attempt to reverse this trend, a large group of American Indians made up of a number of tribes attacked General Sully at Killdeer Mountain in present-day North Dakota in 1864. The soldiers under Sully’s command routed their foes, killing over 100 American Indian warriors while losing only two men. Killdeer Mountain was clearly a tactical victory for the U.S. Army, but it turned out to be beneficial to the American Indians as well. Sitting Bull had been a combatant in the battle, and had learned an important lesson during the engagement: he would never again try to have his warriors fight the U.S. Army in a stationary pitched battle. Instead, he would use hit-and-run tactics, and would never begin a battle where he did not enjoy a numerical advantage.

This strategy was first employed when the Federal government built a number of forts along the Bozeman Trail, a route leading from Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming to Virginia City in present-day Montana. Attacking the isolated military outposts and bands of travelers, the American Indians inflicted numerous casualties on the white Americans who had come into their territory. In 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant decided that the human and monetary costs of keeping the Bozeman Trail open had become prohibitively high, and he appointed a commission to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Accordingly, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed later that year. In this treaty, the Federal government agreed to demolish two of the forts that had guarded the trail, and guaranteed that a large tract of land in the Dakota Territory would be irrevocably guaranteed to the Lakota. This is therefore one of the very few instances in history where American Indians essentially won a war with the whites. For the next eight years, Sitting Bull continued to stymy efforts by whites to move into the area that his people inhabited. Unfortunately for him, gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, and this had prompted an influx of settlers to that region. When American Indians attacked the whites, they turned to the government for protection. In what appears to have been a calculated move, the government then ordered all Lakotas to move to the land reserved for them, or risk being designated as “hostile.”

As the government had probably surmised, not all Lakota complied, and this gave the government the justification in early 1876 to mount a campaign to bring the American Indians to terms. The conflict that occurred as a result of this action is known as The Great Sioux War.

  1. The Battle of the Little Big Horn- what was his role in this and his impact?

Unknown to federal authorities, Sitting Bull had cultivated close relations with other American Indian tribes, most notably the Cheyenne. These American Indians had come together in 1875 for a ceremony known as the Sun Dance. During this spiritual observance, Sitting Bull (who was regarded as a shaman by many American Indians) had a vision. When the vision passed, Sitting Bull told the gathering that they would be accosted by their enemies, but would triumph over them. The arrival of the U.S. Army in 1876 seemed to confirm what Sitting Bull had told the gathering, and so they decided to stay together to confront the enemy. At another Ghost Dance ceremony, Sitting Bull envisioned American soldiers “dropping like locusts” into the camp of the American Indians gathered there. This could have proved disastrous to these American Indians, as the military had a well-conceived plan of attack.

Utilizing a standard tactic employed throughout our history, the U.S. Army planned to strike the American Indian force simultaneously from three different directions, crushing them in the process. But on this occasion the plan did not succeed. On June 17, a large group of American Indians forced one of the U.S. Army columns to retreat, a development that allowed them to concentrate their entire force against the two other detachments.

To make matters worse, on June 25 Lieutenant Colonel George Custer decided to attack the American Indians without the support of the other remaining column. Custer then made his situation even worse when he divided his numerically inferior force into three groups to attack the American Indians along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana. This virtually guaranteed that the American Indians, who heavily outnumbered Custer, would be able to defeat their foes. Indeed, the Battle of the Little Bighorn proved to be one of the worst losses suffered by an American force at the hands of American Indians. Custer and well over 200 of his men perished that day, and only the timely arrival of the third column two days later allowed any of Custer’s unit to avoid annihilation.

Sitting Bull had taken no part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn itself, as previous wounds had left him with limited mobility, but his indomitable will and spiritual guidance had undoubtedly proved more valuable to the American Indians than his presence on the battlefield would have.

  1. Apparently in his later years, Sitting Bull met Annie Oakley and several other famous American legends. What do we know about this?

Although the American Indians had won a tactical victory, in the long run it may have actually done more harm than good. Celebrating its centennial as the Battle of the Little Bighorn took place, the nation was infuriated to learn of the defeat that its military had suffered. Demands for revenge prompted the Federal government to send even larger forces west to subdue the American Indians, and soon the U.S. Army had succeeded in that task. Many American Indians were killed, and those who weren’t faced two choices: they could either surrender and be sent to the reservation, or they could flee to Canada.

Choosing the latter course of action, Sitting Bull and a group of his followers fled the country in 1877. Canada offered him sanctuary, but Sitting Bull found that there were not enough bison there to support his group, so in 1881 he chose to return to the United States. After being held prisoner at Fort Randall in present-day South Dakota, he was allowed to establish residence at the nearby Standing Rock Reservation. In 1884, an impresario gained permission to include Sitting Bull in his traveling show, and one of the states included in the tour was Minnesota.

There, Sitting Bull was introduced to the renowned sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Impressed mightily with her marksmanship, Sitting Bull gave her the nickname “Little Sure Shot.” When this tour ended, Sitting Bull was hired by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody to be part of his traveling show. Sitting Bull could have remained a part of this show, but chose instead to return after four months to the Standing Rock Reservation. It was there that he was killed during an altercation in 1890—ironically, by an American Indian police agent on the reservation.

  1. His legacy today? I know there have been books and movies about his life and times.

Since his death, Sitting Bull has truly become a cultural icon. Books and movies have focused on his life, and he is memorialized by everything from a display at Legoland to a college is South Dakota named for him. When President Barack Obama wrote a children’s book about significant figures from our history, Sitting Bull was one of the 13 people he chose to include. It seems apparent that as long as we remember that many American Indians tried their hardest to preserve their way of life in the face of daunting odds, the legacy of Sitting Bull will live on.

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