133 years ago last week, a great man was assassinated. Tathanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) was a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and spiritual leader who led an important, dignified life, cut short far too soon. Before his spirit left this plane, he would impart great wisdom, help lead our people to notable military victories, become perhaps the first well-known Native crossover entertainer, and leave a legacy that will live on as long as the Lakota People.
It was a great tragedy when, as part of a U.S. government crackdown on the Ghost Dance — which many Lakota People, including Sitting Bull and his followers, embraced as a prophetic solution during a time of great suffering — Sitting Bull was killed by a group of Indian agents sent at the behest of their commander, James McLaughlin. That occurred near to the place I grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation. Weeks later, many miles away and for similar reasons, the U.S. Army would also murder 300 mostly unarmed women, children, and men at the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Before reading further, if you have not yet done so, please write your congressional reps and tell them to reintroduce and pass the Remove the Stain Act. The U.S. should rescind all Medals of Honor granted to the soldiers who carried out the massacre at Wounded Knee. It’s long past time to stop honoring the genocide of the Lakota People, and no medal should ever be granted for the murder of innocents.
Of course, those medals are far from the only remaining marker celebrating our subjugation here in our homeland. For instance, to this day, McLaughlin’s name still shamefully adorns a town on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation (we call it Bear Soldier District), just down the road from Sitting Bull college. What a complicated and sadly intertwined set of landmarks.
Every year, we honor our ancestors killed at Wounded Knee and memorialize their long journey with the annual Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride.
Other than that, all we can do now is pray and work for a better future and take action to correct the record.
Now, I’ll share with you a little more about Sitting Bull’s life, and what his legacy meant as I grew up with his spirit all around me. Kaka (grandfather) Sitting Bull was born in about 1831 near Grand River, Dakota Territory, and he killed his first buffalo at just ten years old. When he turned 14, he attended the raid of a Crow camp under the guidance of his father, Returns-Again, and counted coup for the first time.
Counting coup was a methodology by which to demonstrate bravery and prowess in battle, defined by its lack of physical harm to an enemy. Instead of killing opponents, our warriors would touch them with a coup stick or hand, symbolizing victory. After achieving this accomplishment and to celebrate the deed, Sitting Bull was given his name by his father. He would go on to be well known for counting coup in battles, showcasing his courage and skill. At the time, this practice was deeply ingrained in the cultural and spiritual traditions of Great Plains tribes, emphasizing bravery and honor in combat without needless loss of life.
Sitting Bull’s leadership qualities and spiritual insights were evident even in his youth. He joined the Strong Heart Warrior Society and a group known as the Silent Eaters, committing to the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of the tribe. He became known for his bravery and wisdom, laying the foundation for his later role as a prominent chief and spiritual leader among the Lakota. His deeds in warfare only contributed to his reputation, but — from the perspective of his people then and now — they did not define him.
Sitting Bull battled against the United States Army for the first time in June of 1863. The Army had been retaliating relentlessly against Indians for the Dakota War of 1862, an uprising and resistance of my people in so-called Minnesota — spurred by displacement and starvation — which resulted in the hanging of the Dakota 38 by the Lincoln administration.
Sitting Bull went on to engage in armed combat with the United States until July of 1881 when, with our people once again under duress from lack of food and resources — he surrendered and served two years as a war prisoner at Fort Randall in South Dakota. He was later moved to Fort Yates, in Standing Rock, where he was occasionally permitted to travel and was later killed.
Sitting Bull was in attendance at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain and, of course, at the Battle of Greasy Grass (known to colonizers as Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand). You likely know that story. When General George Armstrong Custer made the mistake of attacking Sitting Bull’s camp, he suffered one of the U.S. Army’s worst defeats and met his death.
You may also know that, for a time, Sitting Bull starred on tour with Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show — which, yes, cast us as villains and romanticized manifest destiny but was also an early example of Native representation in entertainment.
His enduring legacy for me and many others in Lakota Country encompasses many of those things, but it is at the same time larger. To borrow a term from the colonizer culture, Sitting Bull was a Renaissance man. He was a chief, a spiritual leader with powerful medicine, a warrior and a peacemaker, a storyteller (something I can surely relate to), and a man of great strength and dignified determination. I’m thankful to have grown up in a family and a community that ensures this history is understood and all those qualities honored, and I take heart that Sitting Bull’s spirit — and those of all my ancestors — remain alive in me.