The army report says: “Sitting Bull wanted peace in his own way.” The truth was that he wanted nothing more than had been guaranteed to them by the treaty of 1868 — the exclusive possession of their last hunting ground. This the government was not now prepared to grant, as it had been decided to place all the Indians under military control upon the various reservations.
Since it was impossible to reconcile two such conflicting demands, the hostiles were driven about from pillar to post for several more years, and finally took refuge across the line in Canada, where Sitting Bullhad placed his last hope of justice and freedom for his race.
Here he was joined from time to time by parties of malcontents from the reservation, driven largely by starvation and ill-treatment to seek another home. Here, too, they were followed by United States commissioners, headed by General Terry, who endeavored to persuade him to return, promising abundance of food and fair treatment, despite the fact that the exiles were well aware of the miserable condition of the “good Indians” upon the reservations. He first refused to meet them at all, and only did so when advised to that effect by Major Walsh of the Canadian mounted police. This was his characteristic remark: “If you have one honest man in Washington, send him here and I will talk to him.”
Sitting Bull was not moved by fair words; but when he found that if they had liberty on that side, they had little else, that the Canadian government would give them protection but no food; that the buffalo had been all but exterminated and his starving people were already beginning to desert him, he was compelled at last, in 1881, to report at Fort Buford, North Dakota, with his band of hungry, homeless, and discouraged refugees. It was, after all, to hunger and not to the strong arm of the military that he surrendered in the end.
In spite of the invitation that had been extended to him in the name of the “Great Father” at Washington, he was immediately thrown into a military prison, and afterward handed over to Colonel Cody (“Buffalo Bill”) as an advertisement for his “Wild West Show.”
After traveling for several years with the famous showman, thus increasing his knowledge of the weaknesses as well as the strength of the white man, the deposed and humiliated chief settled down quietly with his people upon the Standing Rock agency in North Dakota, where his immediate band occupied the Grand River district and set to raising cattle and horses.
They made good progress; much better, in fact, than that of the “coffee-coolers” or “loafer” Indians, received the missionaries kindly and were soon a church-going people.
When the Commissions of 1888 and 1889 came to treat with the Sioux for a further cession of land and a reduction of their reservations, nearly all were opposed to consent on any terms. Nevertheless, by hook or by crook, enough signatures were finally obtained to carry the measure through, although it is said that many were those of women and the so-called “squaw-men”, who had no rights in the land. At the same time, rations were cut down, and there was general hardship and dissatisfaction. Crazy Horse was long since dead; Spotted Tail had fallen at the hands of one of his own tribe; Red Cloud had become a feeble old man, and the disaffected among the Sioux began once more to look to Sitting Bull for leadership.
At this crisis a strange thing happened. A half-breed Indian in Nevada promulgated the news that the Messiah had appeared to him upon a peak in the Rockies, dressed in rabbit skins, and bringing a message to the red race. The message was to the effect that since his first coming had been in vain, since the white people had doubted and reviled him, had nailed him to the cross, and trampled upon his doctrines, he had come again in pity to save the Indian. He declared that he would cause the earth to shake and to overthrow the cities of the whites and destroy them, that the buffalo would return, and the land belong to the red race forever! These events were to come to pass within two years; and meanwhile they were to prepare for his coming by the ceremonies and dances which he commanded.
This curious story spread like wildfire and met with eager acceptance among the suffering and discontented people. The teachings of Christian missionaries had prepared them to believe in a Messiah, and the prescribed ceremonial was much more in accord with their traditions than the conventional worship of the churches. Chiefs of many tribes sent delegations to the Indian prophet; Short Bull, Kicking Bear, and others went from among the Sioux, and on their return all inaugurated the dances at once.
There was an attempt at first to keep the matter secret, but it soon became generally known and seriously disconcerted the Indian agents and others, who were quick to suspect a hostile conspiracy under all this religious enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, there was no thought of an uprising; the dancing was innocent enough, and pathetic enough their despairing hope in a pitiful Saviour who should overwhelm their oppressors and bring back their golden age.
When the Indians refused to give up the “Ghost Dance” at the bidding of the authorities, the growing suspicion and alarm focused upon Sitting Bull, who in spirit had never been any too submissive, and it was determined to order his arrest. At the special request of Major McLaughlin, agent at Standing Rock, forty of his Indian police were sent out to Sitting Bull’s home on Grand River to secure his person (followed at some little distance by a body of United States troops for reinforcement, in case of trouble).
These police are enlisted from among the tribesmen at each agency, and have proved uniformly brave and faithful. They entered the cabin at daybreak, aroused the chief from a sound slumber, helped him to dress, and led him unresisting from the house; but when he came out in the gray dawn of that December morning in 1890, to find his cabin surrounded by armed men and himself led away to he knew not what fate, he cried out loudly: “They have taken me: what say you to it?”
Men poured out of the neighboring houses, and in a few minutes the police were themselves surrounded with an excited and rapidly increasing throng. They harangued the crowd in vain; Sitting Bull’s blood was up, and he again appealed to his men. His adopted brother, the Assiniboine captive whose life he had saved so many years before, was the first to fire. His shot killed Lieutenant Bull Head, who held Sitting Bull by the arm. Then there was a short but sharp conflict, in which Sitting Bull and six of his defenders and six of the Indian police were slain, with many more wounded. The chief’s young son, Crow Foot, and his devoted “brother” died with him. When all was over, and the terrified people had fled precipitately across the river, the soldiers appeared upon the brow of the long hill and fired their Hotchkiss guns into the deserted camp.
Thus ended the life of a natural strategist of no mean courage and ability. The great chief was buried without honors outside the cemetery at the post, and for some years the grave was marked by a mere board at its head. Recently some women have built a cairn of rocks there in token of respect and remembrance.
Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890 and his body taken to Fort Yates, where he was buried. However, in 1953, Sitting Bull’s remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota where he is honored with an appropriate monument. Overlooking the Missouri River near his home, he is remembered among the Lakota not only as an inspirational leader and fearless warrior, but also as a loving father, a spiritual man, and always a person that was friendly to others.
About the Author: Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, by Charles A. Eastman, 1918. Note, the text is not verbatim as editing has occurred.
Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890, and then began working for the Office of Indian Affairs later that year. He worked at the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890. Himself part-Sioux, he knew many of the people about whom he wrote.