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.
are conflicting stories among those who write about Sitting Bull,
but this is the most common and is my edited version.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
our enemies are subtle. They are diseases such as diabetes, cancer
and alcoholism and social ills such as racism.