Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood

Categories: Nation

A Hunkpapa Lakota chief named Sitting Bull and the history of the Lakota nationhood was the chosen subject of Gary C. Anderson to write a biography on. Although most of the history about Sitting Bull took place back in the eighteen hundreds, Anderson did not come out with his book tell around 1995. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers published the book in 1996. The book follows the history of Sitting Bull and the native Indians fight with the “white man” over land.

The first chapter goes back in history and sets up the story and setting.

It was the eighteenth century and the Americans were beginning to invade the lands west of the Mississippi River. This caused problems because even though Americans saw the lands as an unoccupied region, Sitting Bull and his Lakota or Sioux people knew it as their homeland. While the Indians were living their normal lives by hunting and following the buffalo, the Americans were moving out west and fast. They established a railway and were on the move for gold.

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The buffalo population was rapidly decreasing because they interfered with the railroad and the Americans were killing them. This dramatic decrease of buffalo caused a struggle for the Indians because buffalo was their main supplier for resources like food, clothing, and shelter.

After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills both Indians and American were killing each other in small battles over the land that was sacred to many tribes and the Lakota’s “owned”. The government noticed this and set up The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1968.

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This meant the areas were placed off-limits to white setters. Despite this ban prospectors still rushed to the west. The government efforts in purchasing the Black Hills failed and the commissioner of Indian Affairs later ruled that all Lakota not settled on reservation by January 31, 1876 would be considered hostile. While some moved on to reservation camp easily and started a new life of farming, Sitting Bull and his people held there ground.

With the second chapter, we get a look specifically into Sitting Bulls (Tatanka- Iyotanka) life and his training to become the great leader and chief of the Lakota tribe. Born as Hunkesni meaning slow, around 1831 on the Grand River in present day South Dakota. As a young boy Sitting Bull was already showing promise as a leader. Traditionally, his uncles, Four Horns, and Looks-For-Him-In-A-Tent raised Sitting Bull. They were the most important role models in Sitting Bull’s life. They taught him the arts of hunting and warfare. Sitting Bulls uncles were major Hunkpapa chiefs and assured Sitting Bull of being seriously considered as a potential leader of his people. They gave him status and instruction and saw to it that he was raised properly, and Sitting Bull called them Ate, his fathers.

Intense training of the young boy began after he was able to mount a horse. Young boys received training in tending horse herds by age ten. Not only were the boys being trained themselves but they also trained their horses how to act under the stresses of buffalo hunting. The final skill to learn was how to fire a weapon accurately from a fast-moving horse.

Sitting Bull seemed destined from the beginning. He discovered at an early age that he possessed unique relationship with the Great Spirit and a scared power. He had many visions in his life, and many of them would come true. Many Hunkpapa actually came to Sitting Bull to ask advice even though he was no medicine man. Sitting Bull was also known to be able to speak with animals. With the knowledge of the animal and the capability to carry dialogues, this made Sitting Bull one of the best hunters among the Hunkpapa people. He received his famous name Sitting Bull later in life because of his ability to communicate with the animals.

Sitting Bull took several wives in his lifetime. Sitting Bull had hard luck in marriages, with the unions failing for one reason or another. Sitting Bull was a caring man who cared for his wives and elders. Sitting Bulls first son was named Crowfoot, but sitting Bull also along the years took on others, including “white men”, and adopted them like one of his own children.

One of the most significant religious rituals performed among the Lakota’s was the Sundance. They were performed every June and everyone would come together to form one large village. The men would dance and stare into the sun until they saw visions. Sitting Bull’s first Sundance was somewhere around his twentieth birthday.

Highly respected for his bravery and insight, Sitting Bull became one of the head chiefs of the Lakota nation around 1868. Anderson goes on in the book to talk about the defense of the homeland of the Lakota’s from the government, by Sitting Bull and the other tribes. Sitting Bull had no intention of selling any land and made that clear to the Americans. Land boundaries became a large issue between the Americans and the Lakotas. Americans pushed the Indians to define the territories so that purchases could be made.

Not only was the railroad disturbing to hunting but this also made it much easier and cheaper bring out the military troops, their food and supplies. The troops were hired be the government to search out the Indians and get them to move off and sign over their land. One main land that the government and the Indians feuded over was the Black Hills. They were over run with new settlers because of the rumor of gold. The Indians went to the government to complain about the unwanted guest, but even though the treaty of 1868 had granted the Black Hills as Indian territory, the government could not keep the Americans off and suggested to them (the Indians) to just move away and into reservation camps.

“Sitting Bull could plainly see that the Americans had no respect for anyone, killing women and children when fighting and breaking scared promises”. Sitting Bull would not go to the reservations and he did not want the white man, wasicuns, on their land.

Although the Indians now were starting to acquirer new firearms that had the capability of repeating fire, the Indians were not prepared for the type of warfare that the army intended to start.

The January 31st deadline, that all Indians must be moved onto a reservation camp, was difficult to follow, even if the Indians wanted to relocate to the camps because is was the middle of winter. The military troops were ordered to search the west and when they came upon any Indian camps they would try to arrest them but it almost always broke out into a battle. Some of the time the Indians fled and the troops would capture the village’s horses and burn their lodges. The Indians lost their homes and food rations in the dead of winter. And on rare times the Indians would freely surrender to the troops and go to the reservations. But as for Sitting Bull and his tribe they decided they would rather fight than be herded into reservations and be forced to take on “white man” ways.

The military launched many different troops that moved all over the west. One force was said to have a total of thirteen hundred men in its power. The war chiefs preached caution and patience to the Indians. They truly thought that the soldiers would negotiate before fighting. When it came to fighting the Indians had a huge advantage over the Americans because they were able to fight while still mounted on their horses. This not only gave them speed but also a shield of protection, because the Indians would fire under the necks of the horses. Giving the Americans a small target to shoot at.

The largest battle between the Indians and the Americans was on June 25th 1876. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a civil war veteran, and his 750 men had the element of surprise over the Indians in the early morning. Custer split the group in half and instructed the other half to go west and attack the Indian villages on the southern end. The Sioux village had little suspicion that the troops were coming. Suddenly gunfire had started. Children and mothers went running for each other and for protection. Young men started singing their war songs and went out to the battlefields. Sitting Bull did not accompany the men in fighting. Sitting Bull was almost fifty years old and was somewhat blinded from the Sundances.

The Lakotas and Cheyennes outfought the exhausted troops at every turn. Ten soldiers fell for every Indian. By afternoon the American troops were helpless and huddled together, some started putting pistols to there own heads. When the fight had ended the Indians pillaged the saddlebags of the dead troops and found that some guns had hardly been fired. They also identified Colonel Custer’s body. The combined loss of the Lakotas and Cheyennes was fewer than thirty men. After the glorious triumph and as dusk approached, the huge Indian camp broke into a spontaneous sound of mourning and celebration.

The fourth chapter explains how the Indians were able to escape to Canada. After the huge battle, the Americans pressed more and more for the Indians to surrender and move to the reservations. The Indians were promised food supplies and were told that the hunting bands still could have a reservation anywhere south of Missouri if they surrendered to the camps. But the promises could not be kept. Sitting Bull and his people were still unready to move to the reservations and sensed the army troops were ready for more battle. The Lakotas lacked ammunition and feared the American soldiers. So during the summer of 1877 the Indians crossed the border to Canada because they could find a plentiful supple of buffalo and ammunition was available in the trade stores. Major Walsh of Canada was a humane person and wanted to end the suffering of the Indians.

Walsh assured the Indians of the protection of the Queen’s government. The Canadian government told the Americans that invasion would not be tolerated and pleaded with them to soften their terms for surrender, that the Indians would be able to keep their fire arms and ponies when moving into the reservations. The Indians moved back and forth jumping over the border to dodge the American troops. Occasionally they would get caught and with little ammunition to fight back they would surrender and move to the reservation camps. Some escaped and joined with Sitting Bull’s camp.

Around 1879 Walsh pushed Sitting Bull to let his people go. And finally the relented chief told his people anyone could go if they want and many did leave for the reservation camps. After a summer of unsuccessful hunts and a touch winter the Indians finally reached a point where surrender to the Americans became the only option. When the troops reached them in July, 1881 they arrested the families without a fight. Sitting Bull and his people had little to eat and little clothing to keep the cold from their bodies.

The death to the Lakota Nationhood came to end between 1881 and 1890. When they moved onto the reservation camps the Americans hoped for the Lakotas to become farmers and Christians and give up the Lakota ways. The Catholic and Protestants reached out to the Indians by reading the gospel and testaments in their language they also gave out considerable amounts of food to attract them. Sitting Bull had permission to visit other villages but out of fear of rebellion he was not allowed to join his old comrades. In order to keep track of everyone roll call was taken at ever camp every morning. Being on the reservations did not break Sitting Bull’s spirits and asked many times to be considered the chief but Sitting Bull was treated like any other Indian. The military favored the ones, who attended one of the churches and schools. They also tried to stop dances, feast or any tribal gathering that stopped farm work.

America pressed more and more on the Indians to sell there land. Many of them did sign the treaties in fear that the rations would decrease or they would not receive money. Most of them did not understand what they were signing but signed it anyway.

After a visit to Minneapolis and seeing all the crowds that came to see Sitting Bull, Sitting Bull was a approached about doing a show, and agreed to the deal after being told that he could visit all the major eastern cities and could speak with the president. Nearly six thousand people attended the fifty cent performances. Sitting Bull gave a long speech to the crowd and then was translated with great drama and exaggeration. Sitting Bull then in June 1885 agreed to do another show with Annie Oakley. Sitting Bull sold photographs and autographs and loved to travel to the large American Cities. This daily “circus” wore Sitting Bull down so he returned to the camp in October.

The summer of 1891, the Lakotas started a ghost dance, similar to the sundance in hope that their ancestors would return from the dead and save them. The Lakotas continued to dance and pray. The Americans did not approve of the dancing because it resembled Lakota ways; farming was being done less, and did not go with the Christian beliefs. The dancing went all the way into December.

On December 15th sitting Bull was arrested and freely went until his teenage son yelled out at him as he was being taken away. “You always called yourself a brave chief. Now you are allowing yourself to be taken by the Indian Police.” Sitting Bull stopped walking and would not go. Catch-the-Bear then fired a shot into the policeman and he then turned and shot Sitting Bull in the back. Sitting Bull fell stone dead in front of his cabin. A gun battle erupted and the policeman fired haphazardly into the gathered crowd. This sent the ghost dancers scurrying west.

The ghost dancing did not carry on. Their dead relatives had never returned as promised and during the killing of Sitting Bull killed seven dancers. Sitting Bull’s corpse received no honors like the dead policeman. There found to be seven bullet holes in Sitting Bull’s corpse. After Sitting Bull’s death people started picking on him and saying that he never did possess any support from the Hunkapapa people and that he was actually unintelligent.

In the 1930’s the government launched a “New Deal” for the American Indians that ended the prohibition against dance. The summer of 1936, after fifty-four years, the Indians had their Sundance again.

Anderson does a good job of portraying the history well by staying straight and not favoring on side or the other. This book cover a lot of fields and I am sure took lots of research. From personally not knowing much of the Lakota history, it’s hard to say how adequate it was. I do know that Anderson made sure to separate between the usage of really diary accounts and a story passed down told by ear. We as viewers know the difference of truth when one story was taken from a hear say event and one that was properly documented without biases. It is natural tendency of humans to exaggerate. I also like how Anderson uses the Indian vocabulary for different words throughout the book. It was confusing at first but I got use to it and found it fun to be able to know a couple Lakota words.

I would most definitely recommend this book to some one who wants to learn about the Lakota’s and Sitting Bull but for that reason only. This was not what I would call an easy read although it is on the short side. The history is so large and hard to remember all. It is difficult reading because of the many names for tribes and people. The name are not normal names that are easy to remember and the land they talk about is now all called something different so it is hard to picture the setting of the stories. I did learn a great deal from Anderson but I do not think I would have picked up this book and read this with out be assigned to read it. But I do agree that it is a good history book that should be read in high school and college history classes.

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Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. (2016, Jul 03). Retrieved from

Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood

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