Note: I had the pleasure of unschooling an extremely precocious 7-year old in Chiang Mai and, because of his native curiosity and hunger for knowledge, we touched on some really amazing topics. One of them was the Native Americans of North America, their way of life, and their eventual demise at the hands of European colonists. One of our lessons was focused around the life of Sitting Bull, as his life gives such a great example of the indigenous spiritual tradition as well as the fateful struggle against colonialism. He was a true freedom fighter and his story is incredibly germane to our current situation. I wrote this as a potential “lesson anchor” for young students interested in learning about Native Americans.
The Battle of Little Bighorn, despite its result in Lakota Sioux triumph, marked the beginning of the end for the sovereignty of Plains Indians. The following year, 1877, proved especially disastrous. The valiant Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was captured and killed by U.S. soldiers, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce finally surrendered to the U.S. Army after several days of fighting near the border of Canada. His hope had been to follow the example of Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers, who had already escaped into Canada several months before. The Plains Indian resistance was in shambles.
Sitting Bull was many things to his people—a medicine man, a leader, a spiritual guide—but in the continuum of U.S. history he appears as the central symbol of resistance against American imperialism and westward expansion. As the chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, he was known for taking an obdurate, unrelenting stance in his various meetings with the U.S. government and, further, showed an uncanny skill in negotiations, always careful not to back down on key issues. Colonel Nelson A. Miles, for example, was dismayed to find that Sitting Bull refused to consider relocating the Sioux to a reservation in the wake of their victory at Little Bighorn. The Colonel’s response was to step up his campaign of depriving the Sioux of their main source of food, the buffalo.
When Sitting Bull and the Sioux returned from Canada in 1881, starving from lack of nutrition and their numbers depleted by the defection of several members back to the Dakotas, Sitting Bull had no choice but to reluctantly wave the white flag. The ragged group of survivors, their bodies malnourished and their spirits broken, were promptly assigned to Fort Yates, which straddles the modern-day border of North and South Dakota. The spirit of Sitting Bull, however, would not be quelled. He is quoted as saying, “The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times until then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.” Sitting Bull’s proud and defiant carriage would inspire a resurgence of tribal pride and rebellion—and, eventually, his own demise.
In 1885, Sitting Bull returned to his Standing Rock reservation after having toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West rodeo for only four months, during which time he found white society to be increasingly intolerable. Always prophetic, Sitting Bull had a vision there on the reservation that he would be killed by one of his fellow Lakota people. It was during this period that he allowed his children to attend white schools so they could learn to read and write, though he still reportedly rejected the overtures of Christian missionaries. Some of the Lakota, however, were growing restless under the constant supervision of the U.S. military, and by the end of the 1880s there was a new Lakota resistance movement afoot.
A Northern Paiute religious figure named Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, had begun to regale his people with a prophecy of salvation for all the Plains Indians. According to Wovoka, if every Indian practiced the Ghost Dance, an old ceremonial circle-dance, then the spirits of all the dead Indians would reunite with the living and help them win back their land from the whites. Wovoka’s words sparked a surge of spiritual fervor that swept across the Plains reservations. Sitting Bull, too, was made aware of the Ghost Dance, and while he didn’t participate in the ceremonies, many say that he supported the practice. U.S. military officials sensed this escalation in Lakota revivalism and, fearing an uprising, hastened to squash the activities.
Because of his reputation and the gravity that he still held among his people, Sitting Bull was immediately identified as the culprit responsible for the Ghost Dance. Who else, the U.S. government reasoned, could it be? On the cold morning of December 15, 1890 before sunrise, U.S. officials ambushed Sitting Bull in his teepee and dragged him outside. A scuffle between his followers and the army officials ensued, and amid the confusion Sitting Bull was shot by a Lakota policeman—just as Sitting Bull’s vision had predicted. It was the bloody ending of not only the life of one of America’s greatest native heroes, but of the epoch of an entire people and their way of life. Exactly two weeks later, over 200 Sioux men, women and children were massacred at Wounded Knee, effectively snuffing out the hope for any Lakota resistance.
If you only take away one thing from this episode in U.S. history, it should be that the calculated suppression of Sitting Bull and his Lakota Sioux on the part of the U.S. government not only marked an end to the sovereignty of indigenous nations, but also a conclusion to the expansion of America’s frontier. According to Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, “Now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” As for the Lakota Sioux, their remaining children underwent a U.S. assimilation program that normalized them to Western culture and stripped them of their tribal identity.
That Sitting Bull, the Lakotas’ most influential visionary, was murdered by another Lakota on behalf of the U.S. Army serves as perhaps the greatest symbol of the tribe’s final dissolution and defeat. That he foresaw its occurrence, however, only raises his legend as a spiritual hero for his people and a fearless warrior who resisted American imperialism to the bitter end.