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Sitting Bull

See the source imageSitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka) was born in the early 1830’s, probably in 1831, along the Grand River near the present day western South Dakota town of Bullhead at a place the Lakota called “Many Caches.”  He was from the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota. As a young boy he was called Hunkesni (slow) because of his deliberate demeanor, a lifelong characteristic.  Sitting Bull was born into the old Lakota world and much of early childhood education centered on acquiring practical skills such as running, hunting and horsemanship. The Lakota virtues of fortitude, generosity, respect and wisdom were woven into this training. So, for instance, as a youth Sitting Bull was encouraged to run long distances, a skill that embodied the Lakota virtue fortitude. Sitting Bull killed his first buffalo at about the age of ten, and at fourteen he counted coup on an enemy.  After these deeds he was publicly praised for his courage and in a ceremony his father gave him the name Sitting Bull.  Sitting Bull was considered a young man at this point and, increasingly, his training underscored his obligation to care for his people by acquiring the skills of a warrior.

Sitting Bull was born into a caring extended family where his mother and father, as well as aunts, uncles, and grandparents, assumed a role in raising him and directing his activities. This family system was the typical model among Lakota people.  His father, Jumping Bull, was a noted warrior and hunter.  In addition to training his son for the hunt and warfare, traditional skills necessary for Lakota males, Jumping Bull also made spirituality and prayer a vital component of Sitting Bull’s life.  From a very early age Sitting Bull rose before sunrise with his father and prayers, a custom he maintained his whole life. Sitting Bull’s mother, Her Holy Door, tougher her son compassion and encouraged him to be a good listener and a peacemaker, virtues Sitting Bull carried with him throughout life. Through family, Sitting Bull was nurtured, protected and encouraged to develop his talents for the good of his Hunkpapa people.

Sitting Bull’s skill and courage in warfare were well-known among his own people and eventually in non-Indian world. As a young man Sitting Bull tool part in intertribal warfare-his primary goal was to take horses. Sitting Bull earned his first war honors in a raid against Crows Indians when we was just fourteen. As a result of his bravery Sitting Bull was invited to join the prestigious Strong Heart warrior society whose members were renowned for their boldness in battle. Sitting Bull rose to the rank of a sash wearer in the Strong Hearts. Only the bravest men wore sashes, a strip of scarlet wool cloth that passed over the shoulder and dragged on the ground. In battle sash-wearers would stake themselves to the ground by a lance or picket, and they could not leave their post until a fellow Strong Heart released them. Although Siting Bull joined a number of warrior societies throughout his life his primary affiliation was to the Strong Hearts. As a mature man and respected war leader, Sitting Bull became a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters. Rather than warfare this society was concerned with tribal warfare and decision-making, increasing matters of concern for Sitting Bull who was recognized as a protector of his people.

Sitting Bull was a member of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota nation. The Hunkpapa are a northern Lakota group whose traditional homelands included areas North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The name Hunkpapa means “campers at the end of the horn” and refers to their position in the large summer encampments. Customarily the various Lakota bands came together to hunt buffalo and conduct religious ritual during summer months and each band had a place in the camp circle. The Hunkpapa were the endmost band. In fact, because of their endmost position, the Hunkpapa camp was the first attacked by Reno’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Like the other Lakota bands, the Hunkpapa people’s lives were traditionally tied to the buffalo and the horse. The people were nomadic and lived in tipis year around. During the time of the Sioux Wars (1864-1876) the Hunkpapa increasingly assumed a key leadership role, and Sitting Bull emerged as an important leader. Many of those famous as warriors during this era were Hunkpapa, among them, Gall, Crow King, and Rain In The Face. In the 1868 Treaty the federal government assigned the Hunkpapa to be part of the Standing Rock Agency. This reservation, located in both North and South Dakota, is the present-day homeland of the Hunkpapa people.
The sundance was the center of Lakota spiritual life. And during the course of his life Sitting Bull participated in a number of sundances. When Sitting Bull sundanced he prayed for the strength and well-being of his people, for plentiful herds of buffalo, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of the Great Spirit on his family and people.  In June 1876, as was customary among the Lakota, the various bands came together for a large summer encampment to hunt buffalo, conduct the sundance and socialize. The people were camped in the valley of the Rosebud River (Montana Territory). Sitting Bull took part in the mid-June sundance, and it was during the ceremony he had a vision of many soldiers and their horses, all with the heads down, falling into the Indian camp. This was interpreted as meaning there would be a big Indian victory against the United States military. Two days later the Lakota fought and defeated soldiers under General Crook in the Battle of the Rosebud, however Sitting Bull told them this was not the event he foretold. That came two weeks later on June 25, 1876, at the Battle of Little Bighorn where Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors defeated troops under Reno and Benteen and annihilated Custer’s command.
Sitting Bull distinguished himself early as a hunter and rose to prominence among his own people as a generous man and capable war leader. Sitting Bull gained the attention of the American public in 1866 for his attack on soldiers and settlers at Fort Buford (located at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers).

In response to intensifying outside pressures on the Lakota to give up large areas of land and be confined to a reservation the Hunkpapa, and the other northern Lakota bands, as well as a loose alliance of Oglala under Crazy Hose, attempted to consolidate leadership. So in 1866 or 1867 Sitting Bull was recognized as an important military and political leader of these bands. In some accounts he is labels as a “supreme chief”. Therefore, when negotiations were held with these bands, the United States increasingly dealt with Sitting Bull. In these negotiations Sitting Bull stated his determination to protect his people’s homeland and their life ways, and he adamantly refused to sign any treaty or conceded any territory.

In American history Sitting Bull is most noted for his role as a war leader in clashes against the United States military in the period known as Sioux Wars (1864-1876). Among his own people, he noted most for his belief in the strength of the traditional values and way of life and for his steadfast protection of his people and homeland. Today among the Lakota and many other American Indian tribal groups Sitting Bull is remembered through song and story for embodying the Lakota virtues of fortitude, generosity, respect, and wisdom.