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  • Writer's pictureRachel Red-Horse

Native Legends: Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull was born in 1831 near Grand River, South Dakota, land which was later included in the Dakota Territory. He was named Ȟoká Psíče (Jumping Badger) at birth, and nicknamed Húŋkešni or "Slow" said to describe his careful and unhurried nature. When he was fourteen he accompanied a group of Lakota warriors in a raiding party to take horses from a camp of Crow warriors. He displayed bravery and upon returning to camp his father gave a celebratory feast at which he conferred his own name upon his son. Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, in the Lakota language roughly translates to "Buffalo Who Sits Down", Americans turned this into "Sitting Bull".

Throughout Sitting Bull’s life he remained a warrior and someone known for strong medicine. After his beginning as a warrior with his people he went on to lead uprisings and counter attacks on United States military troops. Between 1868–1876, Sitting Bull became one of the most important Indigenous political leaders. After the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, many traditional Sioux warriors moved to the reservations. Sitting Bull refused to move and become dependent on the government. This insistence on resisting the government and standing for his people is what made him who he has become to Indian Country today.

From 1866-1868 and Sitting Bull led numerous war parties in support of Red Cloud and his war. In 1868 the government agreed to Red Cloud's demands, signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie on July 2. Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty. He said, "I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country."

In 1874, when the government was pressured to open the Black Hills, they failed to purchase or lease them and instead found a way around the Treaty of Fort Laramie. In November 1875, President Grant ordered all Sioux bands outside the Great Sioux Reservation to move onto the reservation and named all bands who continued to live off the reservation “hostile”. This allowed the military to pursue Sitting Bull and other Lakota bands as "hostiles".

Sitting Bull fought with the Northern Cheyenne, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Sans Arc, and Minneconjou in 1876 and he decided he would refuse to adopt any dependence on the U.S. government. At times he and his small band of warriors lived isolated on the Plains because of this

In June 1876, Custer's scouts discovered Sitting Bull's camp along the Little Big Horn River.

After attacking, Custer's troops lost ground and were forced to retreat. Sitting Bull's followers counter-attacked and defeated Custer. The military pursued the Lakota for the next year, many surrendered but Sitting Bull refused. In May 1877 Sitting Bull led his band across the border into Canada. He lived there for four years, refusing a pardon and the chance to return. Hunger and desperation eventually forced Sitting Bull, his family, and followers to return and surrender in July 1881. Two weeks later Sitting Bull and his band were transferred to Fort Yates.

Sitting Bull and his band were kept separate from the other Hunkpapa, officials were concerned that he would stir up trouble among the others. The military transferred Sitting Bull and his band to Fort Randall to be held as prisoners of war. They spent 20 months there and were then allowed to return to Standing Rock Agency in May 1883. In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to go with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Sitting Bull stayed with the show for four months before returning home.

Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock. In 1889, a Paiute named Wovoka spread the “Ghost Dance” from Nevada to the Plains. When the movement reached Standing Rock, Sitting Bull allowed the dancers to gather at his camp. James McLaughlin feared that Sitting Bull was about to flee the reservation with the Ghost Dancers and ordered the police to arrest him. On December 14, 1890, McLaughlin drafted a letter to Lieutenant Henry Bullhead and a close-quarters fight erupted. The Lakota killed six policemen immediately, while two more died shortly after the fight, including Bullhead. The police killed Sitting Bull and seven of his supporters.

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