The Death of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

Today we mark the death of Sitting Bull (Tatanka lyotake), the famed Sioux Indian chief and holy man best known for his victory over George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.   

Fourteen years after the battle, Sitting Bull and his people found themselves confined to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota; a once proud band of Plains Indians now being forced to subsist on meagre government food rations while shivering against the cold of impending winter. Amidst this climate of great despair, a spiritual movement known as the Ghost Dance had spread among the many reservation-bound tribes of the American west. Taught by a Northern Paiute mystic named Wovoka, this circle dance (if properly practiced) prophesied an end to white expansion and the restoration of prosperity for native peoples. Unsurprisingly, authorities sought to suppress the seditious dance and detain those who would foster its growth.  

Convinced that he was an active Ghost Dance supporter, James McLaughlin (the man in charge of the Standing Rock agency) ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull.  At roughly 6AM on the morning of December 15th, 1890, 38 agency policemen (themselves members of the Sioux who were dubbed 'Metal Breasts' because of the badges they wore) burst into Sitting Bull's cabin and hauled the great chief away from his wives and children into the outside air of a chill pre-dawn.

Two of Sitting Bull's wives and two of his daughters are pictured outside the cabin where he was killed. 

The commotion had drawn the attention of Sitting Bull's supporters and many began to gather at the scene in protest, some of them armed. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, Sitting Bull initially consented to go with the officers, but his 14-year-old son, Crowfoot, disgustedly called out, "You always called yourself a brave chief - now you are allowing yourself to be taken by the Metal Breasts!" The stinging rebuke changed Sitting Bull's mind and he suddenly refused to be led away. As the chief was then manhandled toward a waiting horse, one of his furious supporters raised a rifle and fired at the officers. Reflexively, a policeman named Bull Head discharged his pistol into Sitting Bull's chest at point blank range which, in turn, prompted another Metal Breast named Red Tomahawk to shoot the Sioux chief in the head, killing the 59-year-old instantly. A fierce gun battle erupted between the police and Sitting Bull's people, ultimately resulting in the deaths of twelve indians. Among the slain were Lt. Bull Head, Sitting Bull's brother Jumping Bull and his son, Crowfoot who would vainly cry out, "My uncles, do not kill me. I do not wish to die," before being bludgeoned over the head and shot.   

The incident would later become known as "The Battle in the Dark" and exists today as another tragic waypoint along the troubled pathway of Plains Indian history in 19th century America. 

Sitting Bull's body would be buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota only to be disinterred in 1953 upon the wishes of his family and reburied beside his birthplace in Mobridge, South Dakota.

Sitting Bull's modern day burial site in Mobridge, South Dakota.