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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tatanka Iyotaka, more commonly known as Sitting Bull

His father was a wealthy man, the owner of many horses of four colors. He sent his sons to white schools. He was a medicine man, not a chief. And Tatanka Iyotaka, more commonly known as Sitting Bull, rose to be a great leader by feeding the poor, devoutly adhering to the religion on the people, and exhibiting remarkable leadership on the battlefield. He fought General Custer, but became friends with one of Custer's former scouts, Buffalo Bill Cody.

His father was Jumping Bull, a warrior and by tribal standards, a wealthy man. Originally known as Jumping Badger, Sitting Bull was born a Lakota in South Dakota in 1830, 1831 or 1832, although one account has his birth along the Yellowstone River in Montana. The area was uncharted by white men at the time, although trappers were moving in, frontiersmen who inevitably followed by settlers.

As a young man, he was a skilled and agile hunter, particularly adept at culling bison calves from the herd. Given his family's wealth, he gave the meat away to impoverished members of the tribe. This philanthropy endeared him to the people, Later, when he visited white cities, the poverty he saw horrified him and he gave again to this set of the poor.

At 14, he fought bravely in a battle with the Crow, earning him prestige. He quickly became an elite warrior among his people. His first encounter with white soldiers came when he was 30 or so, in 18262 when Union soldiers put down the Santee Rebellion among the Sioux in Minnesota. The federal government had failed to pay the tribe its annual annuity as winter loomed. Trusting the government for sustenance proved fatal. The attitude among many white people to the starvation the tribe faced was appalling. A supplier said, "So far as I'm concerned, if the Sioux are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."

In the uprising, the Santee killed 350 white settlers in the largest massacre of whites by Indians in American history. Lincoln sent General John Pope, whom the rebels had humiliated at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Pope was a braggart who courted the press and alienated his subordinates. While his people were not part of that action, nevertheless, Sitting Bull was a leader in the defense of villages.

Pope put 1,500 Indians on trial in courts-martial, and recommended the execution of 303 Indians. Lincoln demanded the transcripts. Pope begrudgingly sent them. Upon further review, Lincoln commuted the sentences for all but 35 of the men. This was quite a lesson for Sitting Bull who was wary of the white man for the rest of his life.

After the Civil War ended, came Red Cloud's War. Red Cloud, whose real name was Maȟpíya Lúta,led the Oglala Lakota tribe from 1868 until his death on December 10, 1909, at age 87. Just before becoming chief, Red Cloud proved his military prowess against the American Army in the Powder River basin. This led to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which Sitting Bull did not sign. While Red Cloud and other military heroes resigned themselves to life on the reservation with the federal government feeding them, Sitting Bull continued to fight the Americans throughout the 1870s.

While he would send his own sons to white schools, including sending one son to a school in Chicago, Sitting Bull was very wary of the white ways. His distrust was well placed.

He often used the theatrics of visions to rally his people, often to war. His most famous vision came two weeks before the Battle of Little Bighorn. Ah, Custer's Last Stand, which was in reality the American Indian's Last Stand. The battle was won on June 25, 1876, but the war was lost. Sitting Bull led his people to Canada to escape the onslaught of retaliation from the American army. Five years later, he surrendered to Canadian authorities. He was 50. Those five decades were spent on the plains and in battle. The years had been rough.

Enter Buffalo Bill Cody, an Indian fighter who, after the Battle of Little Bighorn had angrily left the wild west shows and rejoined the U.S. Army briefly. He even scalped a man. But he had a change of heart and hired Sitting Bull to be part of his Wild West Show in 1885.

“The defeat of Custer was not a massacre. The Indians were being pursued by skilled fighters with orders to kill. For centuries they had been hounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. They had their wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence,” Buffalo Bill said.

Sitting Bull was the headliner of the show, although he did little more than ride in the parade and look tough. His notoriety made him a popular villain. The pay was $50 a week, which was very good for the time. On top of that, Sitting Bull sold autographs. Annie Oakley fawned over him. Cody became a friend and gave him a prize circus horse. But the federal agent in charge of Sitting Bull -- he was considered a prisoner of war -- refused to allow Sitting Bull to return to the show in 1886. He went back to the reservation.

Years later, the old medicine man had a vision of ghost dancing to chase the white people away. Fearing an insurrection on the reservation, Indian Police went to arrest him on December 15, 1890. There was a shootout, killing 15 people and Sitting Bull.

The story of the American Indian is disturbing. Certainly, invaders have had their way with indigenous people over the centuries. Indians, too, were cruel in their wars for territory with other tribes. And the Spaniards were far more inhumane than the Americans were. But Americans are held to a higher standard. We know better.

On the other hand, the results were inevitable. When less than 3 million people are scattered across 3 million square miles of largely fertile land, it is inevitable that settlers will eventually force them out.

Perhaps, that was the vision Sitting Bull suffered the most, the end of an idyllic way of life. He showed he could adapt to Western ways by joining the Cody show. But he also showed he did not want to at that final confrontation.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. Indeed, our treatment of the Indians has been disgraceful as we have violated many treaties. We gave them worthless lands only to take them away from them when it was discovered the land wasn't worthless after all. On the other hand, why do Indians choose to live on reservations dependent upon the government rather than assimilating like most indigenous people throughout history have done after being conquered? Look at England where the Celts, Britons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, and the Normans intermarried and gave us the English people and the English language which because of all of this mingling has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. The Indians are finally getting their revenge by fleecing Americans at their casinos.

  2. Got linked by, I see.