Article abstract: Sitting Bull led his people from their zenith in the middle of the nineteenth century to the decline of their culture in the face of superior technology and numbers of the whites.
Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) was born in March, 1831, a few miles below the modern town of Bullhead, South Dakota. During his first fourteen years, his Sioux friends called him Slow, a name he earned because of his deliberate manner and the awkward movement of his sturdy body. The youth grew to manhood as a member of the Hunkpapa tribe, one of seven among the Teton Sioux, the westernmost division of the Sioux Confederation. His people thrived as a nomadic hunter-warrior society. As an infant strapped to a baby-board, he was carried by his mother, as the tribe roamed the northern Plains hunting buffalo. At five years, he rode behind his mother on her horse and helped as best he could around the camp. By the age of ten, he rode his own pony, wrapping his legs around the curved belly of the animal (a practice which caused him to be slightly bowlegged for the remainder of his years). He learned to hunt small game with bow and arrows and to gather berries. He reveled in the games and races, swimming and wrestling with the other boys. His was an active and vigorous life, and he loved it.
The warrior dimension of Sioux male life came more into focus as the boy grew. The Tetons concentrated most of their wrath on the Crow and Assiniboin Indians, at first, and the whites, at a later time. The hub of Sioux society centered on gaining prestige through heroic acts in battle. Counting coups by touching an enemy with a highly decorated stick was top priority. The Sioux lad learned his lessons well, and, at age fourteen, he joined a mounted war party. He picked out one of the enemy, and, with a burst of enthusiasm and courage, he charged the rival warrior and struck him with his coup stick. After the battle, word of this heroic deed spread throughout the Hunkpapa village. The boy had reached a milestone in his development; for the remainder of his life, he enjoyed telling the story of his first coup. Around the campfire that night, his proud father, Jumping Bull, gave his son a new name. He called him Sitting Bull after the beast that the Sioux respected so much for its tenacity. A buffalo bull was the essence of strength, and a “sitting bull” was one that held his ground and could not be pushed aside.
In 1857, Sitting Bull became a chief of the Hunkpapa. He had ably demonstrated his abilities as a warrior, and his common sense and his leadership traits showed promise of a bright future for him. While his physical appearance was commonplace, he was convincing in argument, stubborn, and quick to grasp a situation. These traits gained for him the respect of his people as a warrior and as a statesman.
Sitting Bull’s leadership qualities were often put to the test in his dealings with the whites. During the 1860’s, he skirmished with the whites along the Powder River in Wyoming. He learned of their method of fighting, and he was impressed with their weapons. In 1867, white commissioners journeyed to Sioux country to forge a peace treaty. They also hoped to gain Sioux agreement to limit their living area to present-day western South Dakota. While his Jesuit friend Father Pierre De Smet worked to gain peace, Sitting Bull refused to give up his cherished hunting lands to the west and south and declined to sign the Treaty of 1868. Other Sioux, however, made their marks on the “white man’s paper,” and the treaty became official.
Developments in the 1870’s confirmed Sitting Bull’s distrust of the white men’s motives. Railroad officials surveyed the northern Plains in the early 1870’s in preparation for building a transcontinental railroad that would disrupt Sioux hunting lands. In 1874, the army surveyed the Black Hills, part of the Great Sioux Reservation as set up by the treaty, and, in the next year, thousands of miners invaded this sacred part of the Sioux reserve when they learned of the discovery of gold there. The tree-covered hills and sparkling streams and lakes were the home of Sioux gods and a sacred place in their scheme of life. The whites had violated the treaty and disregarded the rights of the Sioux. Sitting Bull refused to remain on the assigned reservation any longer and led his followers west, into Montana, where there were still buffalo to hunt and the opportunity remained to live by the old traditions. As many other Sioux became disgruntled with white treatment, they, too, looked to Sitting Bull’s camp to the west as a haven from the greedy whites. In this sense, he became the symbol of Sioux freedom and resistance to the whites, and his camp grew with increasing numbers of angry Sioux.
The showdown between Sioux and whites came in 1876. The United States government had ordered the Sioux to return to their reservations by February of 1876, but few Indians abided by this order. The government thus turned the “Sioux problem” over to the army with instructions to force the natives back to the...
(The entire section is 2108 words.)