Sitting Bull: Facts, History & Timeline

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

The United States government has an extensive history of mistreating Indian tribes and forcing tribal leaders into signing treaties. One of the most recognized cases of mistreatment was the treatment of the Lakota Sioux tribe of the Great Plains. Learn here about Chief Sitting Bull's life and battles with the United States government.

Early Life

Sitting Bull was born in 1831 in the territory that now makes up South Dakota and Montana. His name at birth was Jumping Badger. His father was known to be a great warrior, and Sitting Bull wanted to be just like his father. Sitting Bull did not show great skills for fighting early on, so the Sioux tribe called him 'Slow.' Today, 'slow' would likely be considered a learning or physical disability.

At age 14, he began quickly developing his warrior skills, and that same year, he fought in a battle against a Crow Indian tribe. He fought well enough to earn one of his father's traditional names, Tatanka-Iyotanka, which means a bull sitting on its haunches. The Sitting Bull shows stubbornness and leadership. He was also chosen to lead the Strong Heart, a warrior society group, and to be a council member of the Silent Eaters, who looked out for the tribe's general welfare.

Growing Leadership

Sitting Bull's leadership from his fighting grew as he played key roles in additional battles. In 1863, Sitting Bull fought against the United States military for the first time. He was forced to defend his people against the U.S. military during a retaliation attack for a raid by Dakota Sioux in Southern Minnesota. Sitting Bull's tribe played no part in the Minnesota raids, but his tribe was still attacked and forced to retreat. The next year, Sitting Bull led his Hunkpapa Sioux warriors, and other warrior clans, against the U.S. military's attempt to push the Indians west in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. The U.S. government was trying to open land for gold mining and settlement in Sioux territory. Sitting Bull was defeated, thanks to U.S. artillery, at Killdeer Mountain, and again a few days later in the Battle of the Badlands. He would quickly learn a better way to fight the powerful artillery of the U.S. military.

Red Cloud's War

Sitting Bull led guerrilla attacks on many military forts during Red Cloud's War. Red Cloud was Oglala Sioux, but Sitting Bull and Red Cloud agreed to protect Indian lands. This idea of different tribes uniting against the U.S. military is similar to how the South united for the Civil War.

During Red Cloud's War, Sitting Bull led attacks on three different forts along the Missouri River in modern-day North Dakota. In 1868, the U.S. offered a peace treaty to Red Cloud and most tribes agreed and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, including Chief Gall of the Hunkpapa tribe. Sitting Bull, however, refused to sign and continued his guerrilla attacks. That same year, Sitting Bull was named Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation. This title and an upcoming war would vault him into the history books.

Great Sioux War of 1876

In 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer reported mineable gold in the Black Hills that make up part of modern South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. This report brought more whites wanting to get into Sioux territory, and so the U.S. government ordered all Sioux Indians to move onto the Great Sioux Reservation, in present-day Central South Dakota. Any Sioux not on the reservation were considered hostile and were to be hunted and forced onto the reservation. This began the Great Sioux War.

Sun Dance

During the Great Sioux War, many Sioux tribes gathered together on the Little Bighorn River for a Sun Dance ceremony. This ceremony was about praying to the Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. Sitting Bull danced for 36 straight hours and slashed his arms 100 times to sacrifice pain and blood. At the end of his dance, he revealed a vision he received during the dance to his people. In his vision, he saw soldiers falling like grasshoppers into the Sioux Camp and a great defeat of the U.S. military.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

The most recognized battle of the Great Sioux War is called the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or more prominently Custer's Last Stand. Sitting Bull did not fight in this battle because of healing from the Sun Dance, so he served as religious leader to pray for guidance and victory. Lt. Colonel Custer and his 7th Cavalry, made up of around 600 total soldiers, were sent on a reconnaissance mission. Custer's scouts reported a large gathering of Indians at the Little Bighorn River and, against orders, Custer split his 7th Cavalry into three battalions to attack in broad daylight.

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