On the morning of December 15, 1890, the 59-year-old Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull was shot dead by Indian police during a botched arrest on a reservation in South Dakota. A renowned warrior and holy man, he first rose to prominence for his stubborn resistance to white incursions onto the Great Plains, and later served as the spiritual leader of the tribal confederation that defeated Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer at 1876’s Battle of the Little Bighorn. Get the facts about one of the most legendary Native Americans of the 19th century.
1. He was originally named “Jumping Badger.”
Sitting Bull was born around 1831 into the Hunkpapa people, a Lakota Sioux tribe that roamed the Great Plains in what is now the Dakotas. He was initially called “Jumping Badger” by his family, but earned the boyhood nickname “Slow” for his quiet and deliberate demeanor.
The future chief killed his first buffalo when he was just 10 years old. At 14, he joined a Hunkpapa raiding party and distinguished himself by knocking a Crow warrior from his horse with a tomahawk. In celebration of the boy’s bravery, his father relinquished his own name and transferred it to his son. From then on, Slow became known as Tatanka-Iyotanka, or “Sitting Bull.”
2. Sitting Bull was credited with several legendary acts of bravery.
Sitting Bull was renowned for his skill in close quarters fighting and collected several red feathers representing wounds sustained in battle. As word of his exploits spread, his fellow warriors took to yelling, “Sitting Bull, I am he!” to intimidate their enemies during combat. The most stunning display of his courage came in 1872, when the Sioux clashed with the U.S.
Army during a campaign to block construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. As a symbol of his contempt for the soldiers, the middle-aged chief strolled out into the open and took a seat in front of their lines. Inviting several others to join him, he proceeded to have a long, leisurely smoke from his tobacco pipe, all the while ignoring the hail of bullets whizzing by his head. Upon finishing his pipe, Siting Bull carefully cleaned it and then walked off, still seemingly oblivious to the gunfire around him. His nephew White Bull would later call the act of defiance “the bravest deed possible.”
3. He was the first man to become chief of the entire Lakota Sioux nation.
In the 1860s, Sitting Bull emerged as one of the fiercest opponents of white encroachment on Sioux land. His resistance usually took the form of raids on livestock and hit-and-run attacks against military outposts, including several against Fort Buford in North Dakota. Knowing that the Indians required unity to face down the might of the U.S. Army, Sitting Bull’s uncle Four Horns eventually spearheaded a campaign to make the war chief the supreme leader of all the autonomous bands of Lakota Sioux—a position that had never before existed.
Sitting Bull was elevated to his new rank sometime around 1869. Other hunting bands later flocked to his banner, and by the mid-1870s his group also included several Cheyenne and Arapaho.
4. Sitting Bull had a spiritual premonition of his most famous victory.
Though mainly remembered as a warrior and political leader, Sitting Bull was also a Lakota “Wichasa Wakan,” a type of holy man believed to have the gift of spiritual insight and prophecy. During a Sun Dance ceremony in early June 1876, he made 50 sacrificial cuts into each arm and danced for hours before falling into a trance. When he awoke, he claimed to have witnessed soldiers tumbling into his camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky—a vision he interpreted to mean that the Sioux would soon win a great victory.
Just a few weeks later on June 25, the prophecy was fulfilled when Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked the encampment in what became known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Spurred on by Sitting Bull’s vision, the numerically superior Indians surrounded the bluecoats and completely obliterated Custer’s contingent of over 200 troops.
5. He didn’t lead the Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Following the rout at the Little Bighorn, many people credited Sitting Bull with having masterminded the Indian victory. Some even claimed the 45-year-old had once attended the military academy at West Point. But while Sitting Bull was active in protecting the camp’s women and children during the attack, he seems to have left the fighting to the younger men, most of whom battled in disorganized groups.
The Indians were no doubt energized by Sitting Bull’s prophecy, but the main heroes on the day were his nephew White Bull and the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, who led a charge that supposedly split the soldiers’ lines in two.
6. Sitting Bull spent four years in exile in Canada.
After the embarrassment at the Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army doubled down on its efforts to defeat the Plains Indians and force them onto reservations. Sitting Bull refused to submit, however, and in May 1877 he led his followers across the border to the safety of Canada. He would spend the next four years hiding out in the land of the “Grandmother,” as he called Queen Victoria, but the disappearance of the buffalo eventually drove his people to the brink of starvation.
Prodded along by the Canadian and American governments, many Sioux refugees abandoned the camp and crossed back into the United States. In July 1881, Sitting Bull and the last holdouts followed suit and surrendered to American authorities in North Dakota. The aging chief spent most of the next two years as a prisoner before being assigned to Standing Rock Agency—the reservation that remained his home for the rest of his life.
7. He considered Annie Oakley his adopted daughter.
In the years after his surrender, Sitting Bull was hailed as a minor celebrity by the same country that had once branded him an outlaw. He found people were willing to pay $2 just for his autograph, and in 1884, he was allowed to leave the reservation to tour as the star of his own exhibition show. During a stopover in Minnesota, he took in a performance by the famed lady sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Sitting Bull was hugely impressed by her marksmanship, and the two became fast friends after he requested a photograph of her. The old warrior nicknamed Oakley “Little Sure Shot” and insisted on unofficially adopting her as his daughter. To seal the arrangement, he supposedly gifted her the pair of moccasins he had worn during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
8. Sitting Bull toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
In June 1885, the former army scout and entertainer William “Buffalo Bill” Cody hired Sitting Bull to perform in his famous “Wild West” show. For a fee of $50 a week, the chief donned full war attire and rode on horseback during the show’s opening procession. He considered the job an easy way to earn money and draw attention to his people’s plight on the reservation, but he was occasionally subjected to booing from his audiences and criticism in the press.
One reporter in Michigan even labeled him “as mild mannered a man as ever cut a throat or scalped a helpless woman.” Sitting Bull soon grew tired of traveling and longed to return to his family. He left the tour for good after its final show in October, saying, “the wigwam is a better place for the red man.”
9. He was killed over his supposed involvement in the “Ghost Dance” movement.
Beginning in 1889, many reservation tribes were gripped by the “Ghost Dance,” a spiritual movement that spoke of a messiah who would bury the white man’s world under a layer of soil and allow the Indians to return to their old ways. Sitting Bull had been at the forefront of preserving the Lakota’s traditional culture—he still lived with two wives and stubbornly resisted converting to Christianity—and it wasn’t long before the authorities became convinced he might use the Ghost Dance movement to foment a resistance or lead a breakout from the reservation.
On the morning of December 15, 1890, reservation agent James McLaughlin dispatched a party of Lakota policemen to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him in for questioning. The men succeeded in dragging the 59-year-old from his cabin, but the commotion caused a large group of his followers to converge on the scene. One of the Ghost Dancers fired a shot at the policemen, setting off a brief gun battle. In the confusion that followed, more than a dozen people were killed including Sitting Bull, who was shot in the head and chest.
10. The location of his gravesite is still debated today.
Two days after he was killed, Sitting Bull’s body was unceremoniously buried in the post cemetery at Fort Yates, North Dakota. There it remained for more than 60 years until 1953, when a Sitting Bull descendant named Clarence Grey Eagle led a party that secretly exhumed and relocated it to a new grave in Mobridge, South Dakota.
A monument and a bust of Sitting Bull were later erected on the Mobridge site, but to this day rumors persist that Grey Eagle and his team may have dug up the wrong body. North Dakota officials even put up a plaque at the original Fort Yates site reading, “He was buried here but his grave has been vandalized many times.” Others, meanwhile, claim the great chief’s bones had already been exhumed prior to 1953 and reinterred near Turtle Mountain in the Canadian province of Manitoba.