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The Man Behind the Legend Who Is Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull (seen left and seated center with his family on right) was a Hunkpapa Lakota warrior and holy man. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

Little Big Horn, Custer's Last Stand, the Wild West Show and the Ghost Dance. These are all events associated with one legendary figure who started life with the nickname "Slow." Of course, we're talking about none other than Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota warrior, holy man, shirt wearer and leader.

His image today is recognizable, but the facts about his life are often muddled by misrepresentations and 19th-century political machinations.

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Sitting Bull's Early Life

Born around 1831 in today's South Dakota, he was named Jumping Badger but was called Slon-ha, which means slow, until he earned the name for which he would become known. At age 14, the young Lakota participated in his first battle, a raid on Crow Indians, and was able to strike an opposing warrior with a coup stick. Following this achievement, he became Tatanka-Iyotanka, a name that refers to a buffalo bull (in the process of) sitting down.

Sitting Bull became a shirt wearer, a type of community leader who counseled higher-ranking tribal council members, had authority over annual gatherings and decided who would become akicita, a Lakota word often translated as "warrior" but at that time meant something more like police. In other words, shirt wearers were important. He also gained recognition as a holy man and even volunteered for the Sun Dance, an important and painful ceremony that left some men traumatized by the experience.

"That's an ordeal," says Gary Clayton Anderson, George Lynn Cross Professor at University of Oklahoma and author of "Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood." The Sun Dance required sacrifice to the Great Spirit. It was brutal and painful, and included the dancer being pierced with a skewer in the upper chest or back. The skewers were attached to a heavy object or pole the participant would dance around until his skin ripped free or he succumbed to exhaustion. "All young men didn't do that," Anderson says. But Sitting Bull participated many times to the point where his visions were said to usually come true.

His early clashes were with other Indians, as Sitting Bull worked to expand the territory of his tribe. However, in 1863, he faced the U.S. Army on behalf of the Santee Sioux and again the following year at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. These experiences solidified his belief against signing treaties that would force his people onto a reservation, according to History.

By the 1870s, most Lakota bands had, however, settled on reservations, but the Hunkpapa were not one of those groups, explains Anderson. They remained independent of the U.S. government. Sitting Bull had become a war leader early on and was involved in at least 30 engagements. He rose through the ranks to become a major chief by the early 1870s, and his demeanor was legendary. One story tells that he calmly smoked a pipe while bullets flew around him during an 1872 battle on the Yellowstone River.

Sun Dance
This illustration depicts a Sun Dance, which was the most important ceremony practiced by the Lakota. Sitting Bull is said to have performed it many times.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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The Gold Rush and the Black Hills

Despite being most known for the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn against the army of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull was not at the fight in which Custer died, according to Anderson. He was associated with the battle and many would say he played a role in its results.

A rush for gold had led prospectors to move into the Dakota Territory's Black Hills despite the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which held that the sacred land was off limits to white settlement. The U.S. government attempted to purchase the Black Hills, an offer rejected by the Lakota. In response, the government invalidated the treaty and decreed all Lakota must leave the area for reservations by Jan. 31, 1876. The Lakota refused to leave.

"In the end, you have several things colliding at once," says Anderson. Army officers were conspiring to start wars with the Sioux, of which the Lakota are a confederated tribe. There was a push to get the gold rush moving, which would necessitate U.S. government protection of miners. Furthermore, the Northern Pacific Railway was planned to be constructed through the Dakota territory.

"It's a complicated story, but Sitting Bull is at the heart of it," says Anderson. While three columns of federal troops converged on the area, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes joined Sitting Bull's resistance.

It was the Oglala Lakota war chief Crazy Horse who led an initial battle against the army column under Gen. George Crook. At the Battle of the Rosebud, Crazy Horse forced the U.S. troops to retreat. The Lakota moved camp to the Little Big Horn River, where they were joined by 3,000 additional Indians.

Sitting Bull led the Sun Dance ritual and offered prayers to the Great Sprit Wakan Tanka and slashed his arms between 50 and 100 times in sacrifice. He is said to have danced for 36 hours. It was during this ceremony that Sitting Bull had a vision of U.S. soldiers "falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky," which he interpreted as a portent of U.S. Army defeat.

The Seventh Cavalry under Custer attacked the Indians at Little Big Horn with just a few hundred men June 25, 1876. Crazy Horse led the Indians to victory, killing Custer and all of the U.S. soldiers on-site. Contrary to popular belief, Sitting Bull was not there. He was in recovery from the taxing Sun Dance, according to Anderson.

After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Lakota dispersed even as the U.S. Army hunted them down in retaliation for Custer's defeat. As some chiefs were forced to surrender, Sitting Bull took his people to Canada in 1877. However, the buffalo population had all but disappeared, and the Hunkpapa were starving. By 1881, Sitting Bull had no other choice but to surrender, too. For two years, he was held prisoner at Fort Randall before being allowed to return to his people, who were at Standing Rock Reservation in what is now North Dakota.

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On the Road With Buffalo Bill

Sitting Bull had a brief second life after his days of warfare ended, even though he never changed in his beliefs about white settlement and encroachment on Indian lands.

After meeting sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull joined her in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in 1884. If it seems like an odd mix, the "circus-like spectacle" at that time generally tried to portray Native Americans and in a positive light. In fact, Sitting Bull was the last act of the show, riding out on a horse, then standing and staring down the white audience, according to Anderson.

His time with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was short-lived, and Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock after just a few months.

Wounded Knee
Nearly 200 Sioux were killed by the U.S. Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek, Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in response to Sitting Bull's death and the Ghost Dance.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

By 1890, the Ghost Dance movement had begun, founded by Miniconjou Lakota Kicking Bear. Already performed in nearby reservations, including Pine Ridge, the Ghost Dance movement promised the expulsion of the white people, a restoration of the Indian way of life and a return of the buffalo. The people believed that their ancestors would return to Earth if they prepared by dancing.

Indian Agents grew concerned about the spread of the ceremony and worried that Sitting Bull would or had adopted it for his people. Dozens of Lakota police officers working for the U.S. government went to arrest Sitting Bull Dec. 15, 1890, and as his people moved to protect him, a gunfight began. One of the officers shot Sitting Bull during the clash.

"It's just an absolute tragedy," says Anderson. "It didn't have to happen."

Sitting Bull's death set off a chain reaction that led about two weeks later to the Wounded Knee massacre, he says. The holy man was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, then was moved to Morbridge, South Dakota, in 1953.

Many years later, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. began tracing Sitting Bull's living descendants in an effort to repatriate a lock of hair and a pair of wool leggings collected by an army doctor at Fort Yates after Sitting Bull's death. The museum determined that Ernie LaPointe and his three sisters are the only living relatives of the leader. LaPointe has posited yet another belief about Sitting Bull, claiming that he was not born in South Dakota but on the Yellowstone River in Montana.

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