Excerpt: Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood

Gary C. Anderson is a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History and Gabriel Renville: From the Dakota War to the Creation of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation, 1825–1892, among others. His newest book, Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood (Bison Books, 2023), was published this month.

In this newly revised biography, Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood, Gary C. Anderson offers a new interpretation of Sitting Bull’s conflict with General George Custer at Little Big Horn and its aftermath, and details the events and life experiences that ultimately led Sitting Bull into battle. Incorporating the latest scholarship, Anderson profiles this military and spiritual leader of the Lakota people, a man who remained a staunch defender of his nation and way of life until his untimely death.

3. Sitting Bull and the Defense of the Lakota Homeland

There is no question that Sitting Bull enjoyed his new role as wakiconza of the Hunkpapa people since it offered him more of an opportunity to speak up in council. Blotaunkas generally lacked the status to speak, and most of the time they listened. But while Sitting Bull had gained status through his new position, he lacked a thorough un­derstanding of how to proceed. The Americans had much to offer in terms of goods. Even Sitting Bull had found the new repeating rifles marvelous hunting tools, and he had virtually discarded his bows and arrows for firearms. More important, word arrived in the spring of 1868 that the Americans wished to speak with him and his fellow chiefs. They said they wanted peace.

That spring, the Lakota camps that came together for the sun dance on the Powder River heard nothing but talk of peace. Even Sitting Bull’s jealous rivals, Gall and No Neck, wondered what it meant. These younger men had become fine hunters and warriors, and their relatives had been successful in elevating them to positions as blotaunkas. But their families lacked hereditary leaders such as Four Horns and Black Moon, and they had to sit by as the Chiefs’ Society invited Sitting Bull into the their chambers and talked of this new idea, peace with the Americans. After listening to the chiefs speak their mind, Sitting Bull then ate with the Silent Eaters, listening to all views.

This notion of peace seemed quite contradictory to many. It had been General Sully who had attacked the Lakota in 1864 for no reason. Everyone remembered this. Sitting Bull had also spent much time talking with the eastern Dakota Indians who had been forced to flee Min­nesota in 1862. One of their leaders, Inkpaduta, was a friend and had nothing good to say about Americans. Finally, Sitting Bull and other chiefs had listened to the Cheyennes and Arapahos who occasionally visited them. They spoke often of the dreadful 1864 massacre of their people at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Ameri­can soldiers had literally cut up their people, doing horri­ble things to women and children. Sitting Bull wondered how such people could now speak of peace. It had been only four years since Sully’s invasion and the attack at Sand Creek. Even as the talk went on, Sitting Bull helped form raiding parties that attacked the hated American garrisons on the Missouri, killing herders, wood chop­pers, and mailmen near Fort Buford.

But as the parties returned in the spring of 1868 and festivities got under way, good news arrived. The Ameri­can peace delegation sent west would include the trusted friend of the Indian, the Catholic Jesuit Pierre-Jean De Smet, and many of the relatives of the Hunkpapas now attached to the reservation. Everyone, Indian or not, knew De Smet, who had gone to the Rockies three decades before. He traveled freely on the plains, armed only with a Bible. De Smet’s assistance had been requested by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which felt it necessary to acquire the signatures of Hunkpapa leaders on the Treaty of 1868 for the agreement to have any meaning. With Red Cloud seemingly willing to sign and settle on a reser­vation, the only obstacle seemed to be the northern bands.

De Smet arrived at Fort Rice on the Missouri with great fanfare on May 24 and promptly sent tobacco as a present to the Hunkpapas and associated tiospayes on the Powder River. Sitting Bull responded immediately by send­ing a message to De Smet: I will “shake you by the hand,” the chief promised, and “hear your word.” But the newly appointed wakiconza indicated that he would do this from a position of strength. “I am well formed by nature,” he said, “half soldier [blotaunka] and half chief [wakiconza].” He would listen, but he still distrusted the Americans, and though he looked forward to seeing the “loafer” element from the reservations, he questioned their loyalty.

This pleasant exchange made many of the “loafers” from the camp near Fort Rice less apprehensive about ac­companying De Smet. Indeed, the priest put together a large party that included the Indian trader Charles Galpin, his Hunkpapa wife, Matilda, and a host of Hunkpapa men. The list included such dignitaries as Running Ante­lope, still a hair-coat wearer, young Bear’s Rib, whose fa­ther had been gunned down by Hunkpapas for accepting annuities in 1862, and Two Bears, a minor chief of the ac­commodation element. Several dozen other men came along to watch.

This entourage reached the upper Yellowstone River in late June, where an advance of Hunkpapa scouts sent out by Sitting Bull met them. Proceeding, De Smet descended into the Powder River valley, where lodges dotted the bot­tomland. The main camp alone housed nearly five thou­sand Lakota. Hoards of them came forward, almost overwhelming the priest in their efforts to see and touch the Blackrobe. Suddenly Sitting Bull appeared, splendidly dressed, and-according to Galpin, who kept a journal­ ordered his Fox akicita to disperse the people. “He then told the braves to take charge of us,” Galpin noted, “to see that we had plenty to eat and drink, and not under any circumstances to allow either of us [Galpin or De Smet] to go far.” Obviously, Sitting Bull feared that some of his own men might try to sabotage the peace talks that were about to begin. He ordered that the luggage of both men be put in his tent, where the delegates would sleep. Four Horns and Black Moon moved in as well.

The council opened on June 20 inside a huge council house formed from nearly two dozen tepees. De Smet esti­mated that five hundred Lakota men settled onto the soft buffalo robes that covered the bare earth. Four Horns acted as master of ceremonies, opening the session with the peace pipe to ensure that everyone spoke the truth, for the words would ascend to Wakantanka, who knew the truth. Black Moon, another hair-coat wearer, took station next to Four Horns; they were obviously the most senior men in the council. Behind them sat the blotaunkas. De Smet later pointed out that the war chiefs and their sol­diers sat “according to the rank” that they held in their societies and tiospayes. As the affair got under way, men rose to speak based on the same system of rank.

As customary, after the pipe had been passed, Black Moon rose to ask that De Smet present his message. The Jesuit did so with gusto, asking that the Lakota end the bloodshed of the past few years and embrace peace. He offered as a present the banner that he carried into camp, elaborating that its symbol, a depiction of the Virgin Mary, stood for peace. Black Moon responded, being careful not to insult the obvious good intentions of the priest. He had many abuses that he wanted to discuss, however, and little would dissuade him from his object. “We have been forced to hate the whites,” he said; “let them treat us like brothers and the war will cease.” The orts and the soldiers on the Missouri River clearly were the sticking point; Black Moon argued that they took too much timber and scared away the game. The overland wagon trains did the same. And the soldiers, well, Black Moon could not understand how they could kill women and children as they had done at Sand Creek.

Sitting Bull next rose to address the Jesuit. He rambled a bit, obviously nervous in his first address of magnitude. He conceded that a peace council at Fort Rice-De Smet’s ultimate objective-could be a good thing. But he wanted it understood that he had no intention of selling any land. Increasingly, the issue of land boundaries had become a defining element in Lakota nationhood even though it had never been one before. The Americans had helped make it so, pushing the Indians to define their territories so that purchases could be made. This had often caused confusion in Indian councils, and Sitting Bull concluded categorically in 1868 that his people no longer had any land to sell.

As his speech rambled on, Sitting Bull demanded that the American soldiers abandon their forts. The chief would not attend councils within the confines of a military post, and future peace, he felt, depended on the departure of the soldiers. Unfortunately, a delegation led by Gall had already formed to accompany De Smet east. Sitting Bull did not voice disappointment, but he obviously realized that they had been coaxed into doing this by the collabo­rationists whom De Smet had brought with him. These men, Two Bears and Running Antelope, spoke next.

Two Bear’s speech contrasted with Sitting Bull’s. He found nothing to fear from either the forts or the wagon trains, and he said pointedly that he was “troubled” by the hostile nature of his Hunkpapa relatives. For his part, he intended to accept De Smet’s offer of peace. Running Antelope said much the same. “I have been listening to the good words of the whites for many years,” he said matter of factly. Ever the diplomat, Running Antelope then put a new twist on the debate, noting that the Hunkpapas and the Americans were not responsible for the troubles of late, but rather the eastern Sioux were. He blamed Inkpaduta for the fighting in 1863-1864 and some of the raiding, and he too recommended peace.

On such a note, the first major council between the Hunkpapa and a representative of the United States came to an end. It had been informative and even friendly. On his departure, De Smet honored Sitting Bull with a beauti­ful present of a large crucifix that the chief would con­stantly wear around his neck. Sitting Bull, Four Horns, and Black Moon would sign no treaties. But they would stop fighting if the Americans left them alone. Although the council revealed to some extent the divisiveness among the Hunkpapa wicotipis, the senior leadership seemed to speak with one voice.

Yet Galpin and De Smet had convinced a large contin­gent of younger men under Gall to return with them to Fort Rice. In early July, along with many Yanktonais, Black­foot, and Missouri River Lakotas—mostly “loafers”­—Gall signed the 1868 treaty that ostensibly surrendered much of the prime hunting grounds of his people. Gall, thirty years old and a novice in politics, seemed to think that the treaty that he signed would result in the evacua­tion of the military posts and the expulsion from the up­per Missouri of all Americans. There is not much evidence that even collaborators such as Running Antelope and Two Bears understood that the treaty would surrender all lands north of Fort Rice and eventually give up hunting grounds west of the Black Hills when the game gave out. Even the American negotiators could not have been de­ceived into believing that this piece of paper would bring peace to the plains.

Astonishingly, the treaty did seem to lessen the fighting. By 1869, Sitting Bull had moved his people permanently into the Yellowstone River valley and its major tributaries, the Powder and Big Horn rivers. The shift had occurred primarily because the lands adjacent to the central Mis­souri no longer contained buffalo, all the remaining herds now being west of the Badlands. Lakota hunters even ranged as far north as the Milk River in northern Mon­tana and the Musselshell River in central Montana during times of scarcity. Even though a few small raiding parties, probably led by the minor war chiefs from the male soci­eties, returned to attack Forts Buford and Rice thereafter, the threat in the east diminished appreciably. Sitting Bull took no part in any of these minor conflicts, remaining in the west.

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