Published on February 15, 2011 by Carol
Sitting Bull was born in a tipi located near the Grand River passing through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakota Territory. His father, Jumping Bull, was killed by Crow warriors around 1859 while moving his village. He was named Slon-He at birth, translated as “Slow” in standard Lakota language. In traditional Lakota fashion, he was given one of his father’s names, Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka, translated as “Sitting Bull”, due to a leadership role in a battle between the Lakota and Crow people. The event occurred when he was 14 years old, and led a charge and struck before the opposing Crow forces could, resulting in victory for the Lakota people without any fatalities.
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Sitting Bull led numerous war parties against Fort Berthold, Fort Stevenson, and Fort Buford and their environs from 1865 through 1868. Although Red Cloud was a leader of the Oglala Sioux, his leadership and attacks against forts in the Powder River Country of Montana were supported by Sitting Bull’s guerrilla attacks on emigrant parties and smaller forts throughout the upper Missouri River region.
By early 1868, the U.S. government desired a peaceful settlement to Red Cloud’s War. It agreed to Red Cloud’s demands that Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith be abandoned. Chief Gall of the Hunkpapas (among other representatives of the Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Yankton Sioux) signed a form of the Treaty of Fort Laramie on July 2, 1868 at Fort Rice (near Bismarck, North Dakota). Sitting Bull did not agree to the treaty. He continued his hit-and-run attacks on forts in the upper Missouri area throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s. The events of 1867–1868 mark a historically debated period of Sitting Bull’s life. According to historian Stanley Vestal, who conducted interviews with surviving Hunkpapa in 1930, Sitting Bull was made “Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation” at this time. Later historians and ethnologists have refuted this concept of authority, as the Lakota society was decentralised. Lakota bands and their chiefs made individual decisions.
Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapas continued to attack migrating parties and forts in the late 1860s. When in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railway conducted a survey for a route across the northern plains directly through Hunkpapa lands, it encountered stiff Sioux resistance. The same railway people returned the following year accompanied by federal troops. The survey party was again attacked by Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa and was forced to turn back. In 1873, the military accompaniment for the surveyors was considerably larger, but Sitting Bull’s forces resisted this survey “most vigorously.”
The Panic of 1873 forced the Northern Pacific Railway’s backers (such as Jay Cooke) into bankruptcy. This financial condition halted construction of the railroad through Sioux territory. At the same time, other men became interested in the possibility of gold mining in the Black Hills. In 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a military expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, to explore the Black Hills for gold and to determine a suitable location for a military fort in the Hills. Custer’s announcement of gold in the Black Hills triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Tensions increased between the Sioux and European Americans’ seeking to move into the Black Hills.
Although Sitting Bull did not attack Custer’s expedition in 1874, the US government was increasingly pressured to open the Black Hills to mining and settlement. It was alarmed at reports of Sioux depredations (encouraged by Sitting Bull). In November 1875, the government ordered all Sioux bands outside the Great Sioux Reservation to move onto the reservation, knowing full well that not all would comply. As of February 1, 1876, the Interior Department certified as “hostile” those bands who continued to live off the reservation. This certification allowed the military to pursue Sitting Bull and Lakota bands.
According to one recent historical commentary, many Lakota bands allied with the Cheyenne during the Plains Wars because they thought the other nation was under attack by the US. According to this theory, the major war should have been called “The Great Cheyenne War”. Since 1860, the Northern Cheyenne had led several battles among the Plains Indians. Before 1876, the US Army had destroyed seven Cheyenne camps, more than those of any other nation.
However, other historians like Robert Utley and Jerome Greene also using Lakota oral testimony aver that the Lakota coalition of which Sitting Bull was the ostensible head was the primary target of the federal government’s pacification campaign.