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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 13, 2003 - Issue 102


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December Brings Thoughts of Sitting Bull's Death

by Dorreen Yellow Bird - Grand Forks Herald
credits: Sitting Bull (Library of Congress [USZ62-12281)

It might have been snowing, like it is today, when tribal police set out to arrest Sitting Bull on Dec. 15, 1890, at the Grand River in South Dakota. He was one of the chiefs and holy men of the Hunkpapa Lakota people. He was killed at a place where I've spent a week every summer for the last 11 years.

There are conflicting stories among those who write about Sitting Bull, but this is the most common and is my edited version.

Most reports of that fateful day say James McLaughlin, who was superintendent of the Standing Rock agency, sent about 43 Lakota police officers to arrest Sitting Bull at his cabin near the Grand River. He was dragged from his cabin and in the fray, shot and killed.

His crime? Fear among the whites that he would instigate another uprising like the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, where the Lakota fought and defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Most experts will tell you Sitting Bull may have been at the battle, but he was not the war chief. It was, however, his vision of soldiers falling from the sky, foretelling the Lakota victory, that provided the warriors with inspiration.

After the battle, Sitting Bull and a small band of his people moved to Canada out of the way of the gathering U.S. military forces. When he returned from Canada, he was ordered to stay on the reservation. In 1885, he was allowed to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where he earned $50 a week for riding once around the arena. He was billed as "the slayer of Gen. Custer."

Ironically, William F. Cody, "Buffalo Bill," the owner of the show, was an Army scout after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He also bragged that he killed 4,280 buffalo in seventeen months. The wanton killing of the buffalo on the Plains caused famine among the Native people. That slaughter was one of the reasons the Lakota went to war.

Sitting Bull only stayed with the show for four months. He couldn't tolerate white society, reports said, but he did shake hands with President Grover Cleveland. He took that as evidence that he still was regarded as a great chief.

It is said Sitting Bull's only wish was to be left alone and to be able to live peacefully with his two wives and children. His cabin near the Grand River seemed to provide that solace.

Even though he chose not to learn the white man's ways or be a part of their Christian religion, he did send his children to a nearby Christian school to be educated because he wanted them to learn to read and write. I travel to that place where he was killed every year for a Lakota ceremony called Sundance. It isn't an easy pilgrimage. The journey begins on interstates 29 and 94, then onto a road that turns into two lanes. Eventually the two lanes turn into gravel and then graded dirt. Finally, you take a winding prairie dirt road that weaves sideways and up and down through the bench lands above the Grand River.

I image Sitting Bull must have been most impressed with that first view of the place where he was born. You are standing hundreds of feet above the valley. When it rains, that steep downhill road of clay and gumbo turns into a muddy slide. There are plum, buffalo berry and chokecherry trees on each side. The pungent smell of brush sage tickles your nose as does the dust that the car kicks up.

Sitting Bull's cabin sits several feet from the river. When we're there in the summer, the river is small and girlish. It giggles and runs a winding path south. The log cabin sits among the trees. Some trees are tall and reach far above the cabin. There are good stands of willow, too. These trees surely witnessed the killing of Sitting Bull - the time when his blood turned the earth red beneath their trunks.

The Sundance leader is one of Sitting Bull's relatives. He had a vision that would turn Sitting Bull's old homestead a site of a Sundance. That was many years ago. The ceremony is sustained by the prayers of those faithful to the Sundance.

That was a time in history for Native people that is painful - though I do wonder sometimes if the enemies of Sitting Bull's time were easier than they are today. Native people knew the enemy by name back then and how to deal with them.

Today, our enemies are subtle. They are diseases such as diabetes, cancer and alcoholism and social ills such as racism.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

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