Dakota Datebook

Death of Sitting Bull

Thursday, December 18, 2003

On this date in 1890, the government was trying to sort out what had happened three days earlier when Sitting Bull was shot dead at dawn.

Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man whose father, Jumping Bull, named him “Slow.” When 14-year-old Slow fought in his first war, he charged instead of waiting for the enemy to approach, startling the enemy into running away. Jumping Bull then renamed him Tatanka-Iyotanka or Sitting Bull, and he went on to become a leader of the Lakota nation.

In 1868, Sitting Bull negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty, which was broken when gold was found on the tribe’s land. The government was unable to convince the tribe to sell, so an ultimatum was given: resettle by 1876 or pay the price. Sitting Bull and his followers refused.

In 1876, Sitting Bull and his people joined other Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho in Montana. Sitting Bull performed the Sun Dance, praying to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit.

He slashed his arms 100 times and had a vision of soldiers falling into their camp like grasshoppers out of the sky. Shortly after, Custer and the 7th Cavalry came to the Little Big Horn and were wiped out in the Battle of Greasy Grass.

In retaliation for Custer’s loss, tribe after tribe was hunted down, so Sitting Bull moved his people into Canada. But the buffalo were nearly extinct now, and the tribe struggled.

Unable to feed his people, Sitting Bull finally brought them to Fort Buford, about 20 miles southwest of present-day Williston. Sitting Bull said, “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”

Sitting Bull was confined at Fort Randall for the next two years. His people were moved to Standing Rock, where the agent, Major James McLaughlin, tried to undermine the leader’s power and popularity. But the tribe remained loyal to Sitting Bull.

In 1885, Buffalo Bill Cody convinced Sitting Bull to travel with his Wild West Show. For the next few months, Sitting Bull saw how the country was changing. Buffalo Bill paid him $50 a week to circle the field so people could see the notorious man they thought had killed Custer. True to his nature, however, he gave most of the money to people who looked more needy than himself, like hobos and paperboys. After four months, he went back home.

Then, Sitting Bull had another vision. A meadowlark told him that his own people would kill him.

In 1890, the government had decided once again to open up Lakota land to white settlers. Kicking Bear told Sitting Bull about the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that would rid the land of white people and restore their old way of life. Authorities feared Sitting Bull would join the movement and cause an uprising, so on December 15th, 43 police were sent to bring the chief in.

Shortly before dawn, the police broke into Sitting Bull’s cabin. As he was being taken out, a gunfight began, and one of the policemen put a bullet through Sitting Bull’s head.

His vision had come true; the policemen were Lakota, his own people, who had been ordered into action by Indian agent, James McLaughlin.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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