Close your eyes and imagine you are in the middle of a battle in the American wilderness. All around you, American soldiers dressed in stiff blue jackets load their guns and fire at the enemy. Running at them are Native American warriors dressed in loin cloths and leather. They are yelling and charging the soldiers with weapons raised. They clash in battle and fight ferociously. Around you echo the sounds of metal clashing on metal, gunfire, and people crying out. Then as you turn around, your eye catches a peaceful sight. There in the middle of the fight scene sits a Native man with his legs crossed. He peacefully packs a pipe full of tobacco and lights in on fire. He sits silently and smokes while men fight all around him. This man is one of the famous American Indians, Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull was born around 1831. He was one of the Hunkpapa people, a Lakota Sioux tribe that lived in the Great Plains area in what is now known as North and South Dakota. When he was born his family called him “Jumping Badger”.
Later, his parents changed his name. He was quiet and deliberate and they didn’t think “Jumping Badger” fit him. Deliberate means careful and cautious. His parents gave him the nickname “Slow” instead and he was called this as a child.
Slow’s father was the chief, which meant someday he would be the chief of his people. When he turned 10, “Slow” killed his first buffalo. Hunting buffalo was very dangerous, but the tribe depended on buffalo for their meat for survival. They ate their meat and used their skins for clothes and shelter. Slow’s family was proud of his first buffalo kill and celebrated to honor him. When he was 14, “Slow” and others from his tribe snuck into an enemy tribe’s village and stole food and other items. This is called a “raid” and was common for tribes in the Great Plains to fight and steal things from each other for survival. Because of “Slow’s” bravery during the raid, his father gave up his own name and gave it to his son. From then on, “Slow” became known as Tatanka-Iyotanka, or “Sitting Bull.”
Around this time, the government of the United States wanted settlers to move into the western states even though Sitting Bull’s people already lived there. To settle means to make a permanent home. This meant that Sioux Lakota tribes would have to leave and find a new place to live even though they had lived on these lands for man years.
But Sitting Bull and his family refused to leave and fought against the U.S. government and the people who tried to take over their land. The government sent the army to fight Sitting Bull and his people. As a young man, Sitting Bull became famous for his fighting skills and people all over the United States heard about him and became afraid of the stories about him.
In 1872 the Northern Pacific Railroad was trying to build a railroad across the United States. It ran through Sitting Bulls land, so he and the Sioux people were determined to block it. When they did, the U.S. Army was called in to try to remove them and the conflict quickly turned into a battle. During the battle, Sitting Bull, who was now a middle-aged chief, walked out into the middle of the field where they were fighting and sat down in front of the U.S. soldiers. He invited several other tribesmen to join him. Sitting Bull and his friends sat in the field and had a long, slow smoke from his tobacco pipe while watching people battling all around him. Legend says that after finishing his pipe, Sitting Bull carefully cleaned it and then walked off, without showing any fear. He was very brave!
During the 1860s, Sitting Bull continued to fight against settlers encroaching on Sioux land. He and his tribesmen attacked white military outposts and stole livestock, or farm animals, or attacked the soldiers living there. Sitting Bull’s group of men was brave, but he knew that it wouldn’t be enough to keep back the U.S army. So he went and spoke to leaders of other tribes nearby and together, they worked as one group, the Lakota Sioux. They decided to just have one leader and in 1869, Sitting Bull became their new leader. The group continued to grow and by the mid 1870s, the group also included warriors from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
Even though Sitting Bull is mostly remembered as a warrier, he was also a type of holy man. He was believed to have the gift of prophecy, or the ability to see the future. Sitting Bull once had a vision or dream that the Sioux people were soon going to have a great victory in battle. Shortly after that, the prophecy came true.
In 1876, a Lieutenant Colonel by the name of George A. Custer’s and his soldiers rode out against the Sioux to battle. They were known as the Seventh Cavalry. They attacked Sitting Bull and his warriors, but they were inspired by Sitting Bull’s vision and even though they were outnumbered by Custer’s army, the Sioux people won the battle against over 200 soldiers. This became known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Sitting Bull’s nephew, White Bull, and another warrior named Crazy Horse fought bravely at the Battle of Little Bighorn and became famous for their victory against Custer and the Seventh Cavalry.
But of course, the U.S. Army was not happy about losing the battle. Instead of backing down, they sent an army of twice as many soldiers to fight Sitting Bull. They wanted to push the Native (or First Nations) people off of the land and force them onto reservations. Reservations were an area of land set aside for them to live on instead of the land the settlers wanted.
Sitting Bull refused to leave his own land and move to the reservations. Instead, in May 1877, he led a group of his people to Canada where he spent four years hiding out. Sadly though, the buffalo in the area disappeared. Because buffalo are what his people needed to survive they almost starved. Sitting Bull and his people left their camp in Canada and moved back to the United States. A few years later their camp was attacked and Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered to the U.S. army in North Dakota.
By this time, Sitting Bull was now an older man. He spent two years in prison and later was sent to live on a reservation at Standing Rock. He lived on that reservation for the rest of his life.
Sitting Bull was famous when he got out of prison. Many people heard stories about his fighting skills and admired him for his bravery. When they met him they were willing to pay $2 just for his autograph. He got permission to leave the reservation to go on tour as his own exhibition, or entertainment show.
When Sitting Bull was at a stopover in Minnesota, he saw a show starring Annie Oakley, the famous sharp shooter. Sitting Bull was very impressed with her gun shooting skills. He introduced himself and he and Annie Oakley became friends. He gave her the nickname “Little Sure Shot” and called her his daughter. Rumour has it that Sitting Bull gave Annie Oakley the pair of moccasins he had worn during the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a gift.
In June 1885, the showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody hired Sitting Bull to perform in his famous “Wild West” show. Sitting Bull was paid $50 a week to wear his full chief’s war attire and ride a horse during the show’s opening scene. Sitting Bull considered the job an easy way to earn money and help audiences learn about his people and how difficult their lives had become. But some audience members didn’t like Sitting Bull because they knew he had killed white soldiers during battle. Sometimes, audiences cruelly boo-ed Sitting Bull and threw things at him.
Sitting Bull soon got tired of traveling and some of the mean crowds. And he missed his family. So he left the tour for good after its final show in October.
Beginning in 1889, many Native American (or First Nations) people started talking about a religion called the “Ghost Dance”. These people believed that a spirit was going to come to earth and remove white people from the area where they lived, allowing the Indians to return to their old ways. U.S. Authorities started to worry that Sitting Bull was going to use the Ghost Dance movement to lead a group of Indian people to war against the white people. They always knew that Sitting Bull resisted, or refused to follow, white traditions. So they believed he was likely to get involved and lead this movement against white people.
On December 15, 1890, police were sent to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him in for questioning. Sitting Bull, who was 59 at the time, refused to go with them. So the policemen dragged him from his cabin. The noise and commotion caused a large group of Sitting Bull’s followers to come to see what was going on. One of them fired a shot at the policemen, setting off a brief gun battle. In the confusion that followed, more than a dozen people were killed including Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull had many hard experiences in his life and there is a lot that we can learn from him. He showed great bravery from a young age while hunting and in battle. He was also able to stay very calm under stress and pressure. Have you ever practiced trying to stay calm when you feel afraid or angry? What works well for you? I know it helps me to take deep breaths and try and clear my thoughts. Sometimes if I go outside or take a walk that helps, too. Reacting to stress that way is much better than yelling or calling names or other things we later regret. It’s completely normal to feel upset. I do all the time. The question is how we will deal with those feelings. Sitting Bull showed us that even in intense situations, we can be calm.
Sitting Bull also fought for what he believed in and stayed close to his family and his tribe. Even when they were threatened and told to leave their lands, he refused. He put himself in great danger to try and save his people. Sticking up for yourself and your family is a very noble thing to do. Think of what you can do to take care of your family and the community in which you live. Like Sitting Bull, we can all be leaders in our communities and families if we stick up for what we believe and for our loved ones.