In the pre-dawn hour of December 15, 1890, a squadron of more than twenty Indian Police roughly wakened Sitting Bull. Rudely escorted from his home, not even allowed the dignity to cover his naked body, Sitting Bull protested his unwarranted arrest. Careless, though passionate, shots were fired in defense of Sitting Bull and the fearful tribal police responded by killing the great Sioux Chief with one bullet in his back, one bullet in his head. While he lay in the spreading pool of blood, his home was searched and a young man was found still inside the cabin.
“There’s one in here,” someone shouted. “What should I do with him?”
The death of Sitting Bull was the prelude to the final massacre (some say battle) that would finally end the Great Sioux Wars that had started more than 40 years earlier near Ft. Laramie. In that first fight, an overzealous, young Lieutenant who was eager to ‘kill Indians’ found his opportunity in a peaceful Indian encampment when tempers exploded over a dispute involving the death and consumption of a skinny Mormon cow. The brash Lieutenant Grattan is memorialized in the history of the American west as the commanding officer that lost control of his emotions and his men. The result of which was the unnecessary killings, of both soldiers and Indians, in a fight called The Grattan Massacre.
At the time of the Grattan Massacre, Sitting Bull was a young man in his early twenties. Already heralded among his people as a courageous warrior, Sitting Bull was destined to also become a great leader of the Sioux Nation. Those who knew Sitting Bull spoke often of his courage, his leadership, his wisdom and compassion.
In 1857, a handful of years after the Grattan affair, Sitting Bull was already a member of the Strong Heart Society, an elite group of warriors and hunters among the Hunkpapa Sioux. During the winter of that year Stands-at-the-Mouth-of-the-River proposed that the Strong Hearts should make a raid on the Hohe. The Hohe, or Assiniboin, lived north of the Missouri River and though once a part of the Sioux nation they were then bitter enemies. Stands-at-the-Mouth-of-the-River offered the war pipe to Sitting Bull who took it immediately. Other warriors, including Swift Cloud, High Bear and Bear Ribs also smoked and joined the small war party.
It was bitterly cold and when they reached the Missouri they found it was frozen over and covered with snow. Across the river stood a single tipi, a Hohe family. The warriors stealthily crossed the frozen river and attacked. In those days tribal warfare was as ruthless as Appalachian blood feuds and men, as well as women and children, were subject to swift and merciless execution. The Hohe lodge consisted of a man, his wife, and three children. As the Sioux attacked, the family fled but was soon overtaken. All were killed as they fled except for the oldest child, a young boy of eleven or twelve years, who turned to fight.
The boy faced the Sioux with his small bow and arrows and shot at the advancing warriors until he had only a single arrow remaining. Swift Cloud, Bear Ribs and High Bear had led the raid and each counted coup on the boy as he readied himself for death. Sitting Bull had observed the bravery of the young Hohe and commanded the warriors to spare the boy and adopted him as his brother. The boy remained with his adoptive brother, Sitting Bull, for the rest of his long life. He became an honored warrior and later, a chief of the Strong Hearts. Sitting Bull gave his adopted brother his own father’s name, Jumping Bull. It was Sitting Bull’s compassion for the young boy that brought about a truce between the Hohe and the Sioux.
The fierce and brutal warfare against their rivals was imperative for the survival of the Sioux nation. Such a large population required expansive hunting grounds to supply the numbers of buffalo needed for food, clothing and shelter. Sitting Bull, as chief of the Strong Hearts successfully drove away all would-be encroachers, organized extremely successful hunts and insured that his hunters shared their kills with those who were poor or had no one to hunt for them. The elders said, “He fed the whole nation.”
However, Sitting Bull was not a wanton killer of game and thought that it was cruel to kill more than was needed for his people. He considered the animals to be his brothers and spoke of them, and to them, with great admiration and affection. The wolves were his brothers because they led him to game and he shared with them after the kill. It was the birds that often warned Sitting Bull of danger and he is said to have remarked that the Meadowlark was a fluent speaker of the Sioux language and spoke to him often. The buffalo, the deer, the elk and antelope all gave their lives so that his people might live and so, after each kill he gave thanks to Wakan’ Tanka for the gift given.
It is told that when Sitting Bull would come upon the site of a previous buffalo kill he would stop and position each sun-bleached skull so that it faced the rising sun. He would tell those with him to honor the bones of their four-legged brothers for they had given their lives so that the Sioux might live.
Even in battle Sitting Bull was known to have compassion for his enemies. It is told among the Sioux that it was Sitting Bull who saved the lives of Reno and his remaining troopers at Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull was riding the Sioux battle lines and came upon many warriors who had Reno under attack. “That’s enough,” he shouted, “let them go! Let them live. They are trying to live.”
Although Sitting Bull spent two years in prison for ‘killing Custer’, he was not Custer’s killer. However, it was Sitting Bull who, during a sun dance, had a vision of the enemy falling headlong into camp. The enemy would be defeated because ‘they had no ears’, a sign that they did not listen or could not comprehend the consequences.
Sitting Bull cautioned that although they would be victorious in battle they must not take any spoils of war. No horses, no weapons, no clothing, nothing could be taken from the enemy for if they did, there would be dire consequences in the future. However, in the heat of battle and the jubilation of victory, many spoils were taken and Sitting Bull’s warning unheeded.
Angered by the disregard of his warning Sitting Bull spoke strong words. “Because you have taken the spoils, henceforth you will covet the white man’s goods, you will be at his mercy, you will starve at his hands. The soldiers will crush you.”
In 1876 Sitting Bull and a handful of his followers fled to Canada to escape the continuing warfare. Five years later, in 1881, Sitting Bull returned to U.S. soil in hopes of reclaiming the Sioux lands of the Sacred Black Hills through a true and lasting treaty. On the 19th of July 1881, Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford by giving his weapon to his eight-year-old son, Crow Foot, who in turn handed it over to the commanding officer. “My son,” said Sitting Bull as he handed his son the weapon, “if you live, you will never be a man in this world, because you can never have a gun or pony.”
Nine years later, on December 15, 1890, in the pre-dawn hour, the Indian police rousted Sitting Bull from his bed and informed him that he was under arrest. At first, Sitting Bull agreed to go peacefully but his rough treatment angered him and he began to resist. As the commotion rippled through the village, Sitting Bull’s supporters rallied to his defense. The silver-gray show horse, given to Sitting Bull by Buffalo Bill had been saddled and brought to Sitting Bull’s cabin and pranced impatiently amid the scuffling and confusion.
Finally Sitting Bull, angered and dishonored, struggled mightily to break free of the grappling hands that tried to restrain him. In the struggle, shots were fired. Sitting Bull’s legs buckled beneath him and the spirited silver-gray horse reared above his fallen master. Some say it was at that moment that the warrior spirit of Sitting Bull escaped from his broken body and became one with the horse that stood defiantly over him.
Inside the cabin someone shouted, “There’s one in here. What should I do with him?”
“Kill him,” was the command.
The next shot slammed into the flesh of the young man who stood unarmed, pleading for his life. His pleading fell upon ears that would not hear. His pleading was not heeded by a man with the compassion of a warrior such as Sitting Bull. His pleading was met with a vengeful bullet.
The young man was Crow Foot, Sitting Bull’s son. Perhaps, as he fell to the rough plank floor he heard, once more, the words of his father, the last Sioux chief to surrender.
“My son, if you live…”