TWT logo

Together We Teach
Reading Room

Take time to read.
Reading is the
fountain of wisdom.

| Home | Reading Room Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains

Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains
By Charles A. Eastman

< BACK    NEXT >




IT is not easy to characterize Sitting Bull, of all Sioux chiefs
most generally known to the American people. There are few to whom
his name is not familiar, and still fewer who have learned to
connect it with anything more than the conventional notion of a
bloodthirsty savage. The man was an enigma at best. He was not
impulsive, nor was he phlegmatic. He was most serious when he
seemed to be jocose. He was gifted with the power of sarcasm, and
few have used it more artfully than he.

His father was one of the best-known members of the Unkpapa
band of Sioux. The manner of this man's death was characteristic.
One day, when the Unkpapas were attacked by a large war party of
Crows, he fell upon the enemy's war leader with his knife. In a
hand-to-hand combat of this sort, we count the victor as entitled
to a war bonnet of trailing plumes. It means certain death to one
or both. In this case, both men dealt a mortal stroke, and Jumping
Buffalo, the father of Sitting Bull, fell from his saddle and died
in a few minutes. The other died later from the effects of the wound.

Sitting Bull's boyhood must have been a happy one. It was
long after the day of the dog-travaux, and his father owned many
ponies of variegated colors. It was said of him in a joking way
that his legs were bowed like the ribs of the ponies that he rode
constantly from childhood. He had also a common nickname that was
much to the point. It was "Hunkeshnee", which means "Slow",
referring to his inability to run fast, or more probably to the
fact that he seldom appeared on foot. In their boyish games he was
wont to take the part of the "old man", but this does not mean that
he was not active and brave. It is told that after a buffalo hunt
the boys were enjoying a mimic hunt with the calves that had been
left behind. A large calf turned viciously on Sitting Bull, whose
pony had thrown him, but the alert youth got hold of both ears and
struggled until the calf was pushed back into a buffalo wallow in
a sitting posture. The boys shouted: "He has subdued the buffalo
calf! He made it sit down!" And from this incident was derived
his familiar name of Sitting Bull.

It is a mistake to suppose that Sitting Bull, or any other
Indian warrior, was of a murderous disposition. It is true that
savage warfare had grown more and more harsh and cruel since the
coming of white traders among them, bringing guns, knives, and
whisky. Yet it was still regarded largely as a sort of game,
undertaken in order to develop the manly qualities of their youth.
It was the degree of risk which brought honor, rather than the
number slain, and a brave must mourn thirty days, with blackened
face and loosened hair, for the enemy whose life he had taken.
While the spoils of war were allowed, this did not extend to
territorial aggrandizement, nor was there any wish to overthrow
another nation and enslave its people. It was a point of honor
in the old days to treat a captive with kindness. The common
impression that the Indian is naturally cruel and revengeful is
entirely opposed to his philosophy and training. The revengeful
tendency of the Indian was aroused by the white man. It is not the
natural Indian who is mean and tricky; not Massasoit but King
Philip; not Attackullakulla but Weatherford; not Wabashaw but
Little Crow; not Jumping Buffalo but Sitting Bull! These men
lifted their hands against the white man, while their fathers held
theirs out to him with gifts.

Remember that there were councils which gave their decisions
in accordance with the highest ideal of human justice before there
were any cities on this continent; before there were bridges to
span the Mississippi; before this network of railroads was dreamed
of! There were primitive communities upon the very spot where
Chicago or New York City now stands, where men were as children,
innocent of all the crimes now committed there daily and nightly.
True morality is more easily maintained in connection with the
simple life. You must accept the truth that you demoralize any
race whom you have subjugated.

From this point of view we shall consider Sitting Bull's
career. We say he is an untutored man: that is true so far as
learning of a literary type is concerned; but he was not an
untutored man when you view him from the standpoint of his nation.
To be sure, he did not learn his lessons from books. This is
second-hand information at best. All that he learned he verified
for himself and put into daily practice. In personal appearance he
was rather commonplace and made no immediate impression, but as he
talked he seemed to take hold of his hearers more and more. He was
bull-headed; quick to grasp a situation, and not readily induced to
change his mind. He was not suspicious until he was forced to be
so. All his meaner traits were inevitably developed by the events
of his later career.

Sitting Bull's history has been written many times by
newspaper men and army officers, but I find no account of him which
is entirely correct. I met him personally in 1884, and since his
death I have gone thoroughly into the details of his life with his
relatives and contemporaries. It has often been said that he was
a physical coward and not a warrior. Judge of this for yourselves
from the deed which first gave him fame in his own tribe, when he
was about twenty-eight years old.

In an attack upon a band of Crow Indians, one of the enemy
took his stand, after the rest had fled, in a deep ditch from
which it seemed impossible to dislodge him. The situation had
already cost the lives of several warriors, but they could not let
him go to repeat such a boast over the Sioux!

"Follow me!" said Sitting Bull, and charged. He raced his
horse to the brim of the ditch and struck at the enemy with his
coup-staff, thus compelling him to expose himself to the fire of
the others while shooting his assailant. But the Crow merely poked
his empty gun into his face and dodged back under cover. Then
Sitting Bull stopped; he saw that no one had followed him, and he
also perceived that the enemy had no more ammunition left. He rode
deliberately up to the barrier and threw his loaded gun over it;
then he went back to his party and told them what he thought of them.

"Now," said he, "I have armed him, for I will not see a brave
man killed unarmed. I will strike him again with my coup-staff to
count the first feather; who will count the second?"

Again he led the charge, and this time they all followed him.
Sitting Bull was severely wounded by his own gun in the hands of
the enemy, who was killed by those that came after him. This is a
record that so far as I know was never made by any other warrior.

The second incident that made him well known was his taking of
a boy captive in battle with the Assiniboines. He saved this boy's
life and adopted him as his brother. Hohay, as he was called, was
devoted to Sitting Bull and helped much in later years to spread
his fame. Sitting Bull was a born diplomat, a ready speaker, and
in middle life he ceased to go upon the warpath, to become the
councilor of his people. From this time on, this man represented
him in all important battles, and upon every brave deed done was
wont to exclaim aloud:

"I, Sitting Bull's boy, do this in his name!"

He had a nephew, now living, who resembles him strongly, and
who also represented him personally upon the field; and so far as
there is any remnant left of his immediate band, they look upon
this man One Bull as their chief.

When Sitting Bull was a boy, there was no thought of trouble
with the whites. He was acquainted with many of the early traders,
Picotte, Choteau, Primeau, Larpenteur, and others, and liked them,
as did most of his people in those days. All the early records
show this friendly attitude of the Sioux, and the great fur
companies for a century and a half depended upon them for the bulk
of their trade. It was not until the middle of the last century
that they woke up all of a sudden to the danger threatening their
very existence. Yet at that time many of the old chiefs had been
already depraved by the whisky and other vices of the whites, and
in the vicinity of the forts and trading posts at Sioux City, Saint
Paul, and Cheyenne, there was general demoralization. The
drunkards and hangers-on were ready to sell almost anything they
had for the favor of the trader. The better and stronger element
held aloof. They would not have anything of the white man except
his hatchet, gun, and knife. They utterly refused to cede their
lands; and as for the rest, they were willing to let him alone as
long as he did not interfere with their life and customs, which was
not long.

It was not, however, the Unkpapa band of Sioux, Sitting Bull's
band, which first took up arms against the whites; and this was not
because they had come less in contact with them, for they dwelt on
the Missouri River, the natural highway of trade. As early as
1854, the Ogallalas and Brules had trouble with the soldiers near
Fort Laramie; and again in 1857 Inkpaduta massacred several
families of settlers at Spirit Lake, Iowa. Finally, in 1869, the
Minnesota Sioux, goaded by many wrongs, arose and murdered many of
the settlers, afterward fleeing into the country of the Unkpapas
and appealing to them for help, urging that all Indians should make
common cause against the invader. This brought Sitting Bull face
to face with a question which was not yet fully matured in his own
mind; but having satisfied himself of the justice of their cause,
he joined forces with the renegades during the summer of 1863, and
from this time on he was an acknowledged leader.

In 1865 and 1866 he met the Canadian half-breed, Louis Riel,
instigator of two rebellions, who had come across the line for
safety; and in fact at this time he harbored a number of outlaws
and fugitives from justice. His conversations with these,
especially with the French mixed-bloods, who inflamed his
prejudices against the Americans, all had their influence in making
of the wily Sioux a determined enemy to the white man. While among
his own people he was always affable and genial, he became boastful
and domineering in his dealings with the hated race. He once
remarked that "if we wish to make any impression upon the pale-face,
it is necessary to put on his mask."

Sitting Bull joined in the attack on Fort Phil Kearny and in
the subsequent hostilities; but he accepted in good faith the
treaty of 1868, and soon after it was signed he visited Washington
with Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, on which occasion the three
distinguished chiefs attracted much attention and were entertained
at dinner by President Grant and other notables. He considered
that the life of the white man as he saw it was no life for his
people, but hoped by close adherence to the terms of this treaty to
preserve the Big Horn and Black Hills country for a permanent
hunting ground. When gold was discovered and the irrepressible
gold seekers made their historic dash across the plains into this
forbidden paradise, then his faith in the white man's honor was
gone forever, and he took his final and most persistent stand in
defense of his nation and home. His bitter and at the same time
well-grounded and philosophical dislike of the conquering race is
well expressed in a speech made before the purely Indian council
before referred to, upon the Powder River. I will give it in brief
as it has been several times repeated to me by men who were present.

"Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly
received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results
of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is
through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we
therefore yield to our neighbors, even to our animal neighbors, the
same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land.

"Yet hear me, friends! we have now to deal with another
people, small and feeble when our forefathers first met with them,
but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough, they have a mind
to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease in them.
These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the
poor may not! They have a religion in which the poor worship, but
the rich will not! They even take tithes of the poor and weak to
support the rich and those who rule. They claim this mother of
ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence their neighbors away
from her, and deface her with their buildings and their refuse.
They compel her to produce out of season, and when sterile she is
made to take medicine in order to produce again. All this is sacrilege.

"This nation is like a spring freshet; it overruns its banks
and destroys all who are in its path. We cannot dwell side by
side. Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were
assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now
they threaten to take that from us also. My brothers, shall we
submit? or shall we say to them: 'First kill me, before you can
take possession of my fatherland!'"

As Sitting Bull spoke, so he felt, and he had the courage to
stand by his words. Crazy Horse led his forces in the field; as
for him, he applied his energies to state affairs, and by his
strong and aggressive personality contributed much to holding the
hostiles together.

It may be said without fear of contradiction that Sitting Bull
never killed any women or children. He was a fair fighter, and
while not prominent in battle after his young manhood, he was the
brains of the Sioux resistance. He has been called a "medicine
man" and a "dreamer." Strictly speaking, he was neither of these,
and the white historians are prone to confuse the two. A medicine
man is a doctor or healer; a dreamer is an active war prophet who
leads his war party according to his dream or prophecy. What is
called by whites "making medicine" in war time is again a wrong
conception. Every warrior carries a bag of sacred or lucky charms,
supposed to protect the wearer alone, but it has nothing to do with
the success or safety of the party as a whole. No one can make any
"medicine" to affect the result of a battle, although it has been
said that Sitting Bull did this at the battle of the Little Big Horn.

When Custer and Reno attacked the camp at both ends, the chief
was caught napping. The village was in danger of surprise, and the
women and children must be placed in safety. Like other men of his
age, Sitting Bull got his family together for flight, and then
joined the warriors on the Reno side of the attack. Thus he was
not in the famous charge against Custer; nevertheless, his voice
was heard exhorting the warriors throughout that day.

During the autumn of 1876, after the fall of Custer, Sitting
Bull was hunted all through the Yellowstone region by the military.
The following characteristic letter, doubtless written at his
dictation by a half-breed interpreter, was sent to Colonel Otis
immediately after a daring attack upon his wagon train.

"I want to know what you are doing, traveling on this road.
You scare all the buffalo away. I want to hunt in this place. I
want you to turn back from here. If you don't, I will fight you
again. I want you to leave what you have got here and turn back
from here.

I am your friend

Sitting Bull.
I mean all the rations you have got and some powder. Wish you
would write me as soon as you can."

Otis, however, kept on and joined Colonel Miles, who followed
Sitting Bull with about four hundred soldiers. He overtook him at
last on Cedar Creek, near the Yellowstone, and the two met midway
between the lines for a parley. 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 Bull had 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 about 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

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.



Top of Page

< BACK    NEXT >

| Home | Reading Room Indian Heroes And Great Chieftains




Why not spread the word about Together We Teach?
Simply copy & paste our home page link below into your emails... 

Want the Together We Teach link to place on your website?
Copy & paste either home page link on your webpage...
Together We Teach 





Use these free website tools below for a more powerful experience at Together We Teach!

****Google™ search****

For a more specific search, try using quotation marks around phrases (ex. "You are what you read")


*** Google Translate™ translation service ***

 Translate text:


  Translate a web page:

****What's the Definition?****
(Simply insert the word you want to lookup)

 Search:   for   

S D Glass Enterprises

Privacy Policy

Warner Robins, GA, USA