Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance Movement / The Standing Rock Agency

There are many fascinating stories regarding the great Indian chiefs of the 1800's. On the macro level the stories are different. In some ways, however all of the stories are interconnected in as much as the Indian Wars, and the chiefs who participated in it, encompassed almost all of the western tribes. Some of the years were different... the lengths of the conflicts varied as did the location of the battles, but all in all the cultural clashes were a result of western expansion from the east and the ensuing battles over land. One story stands out as quite different from the others and that is the story of Sitting Bull.

The Great Lakota Sioux Chief

sitting bull
Sitting Bull, circa 1881
The Lakota Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, was one of the most influential leaders on the great plains. He was very instrumental in guiding what would be the Battle of  Little Bighorn but apparently wasn't directly involved in the actual fighting. The Sioux warrior who led much of that battle was thought to be Crazy Horse although the action was certainly inspired by Chief Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull's Premonition


The story is that Sitting Bull had a premonition of the cavalry soldiers being defeated during this great 1876 battle which involved George Armstrong Custer and took his life. In that regard he rallied the warriors the battle which as it turned out proved his premonition to be correct.

 Although Custer was defeated in that June 1876 battle, the war wasn't. Due to Custer's defeat, which was the largest military defeat to that date, public pressure to defeat the Sioux and Cheyenne once and for all heated up. As a direct result, thousands of troops under the leadership of famous officers such as Nelson Miles and Ranald MacKenzie, and George Crook directed by General Philip Sheridan entered the fray and over the next year did defeat the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.

As the Indians were eventually returned to the reservations, Sitting Bull and a group of warriors, women and children fled north into Canada. There the group stayed for several years. During this time there were offers of a pardon for the Sioux chief but they were refused.

Sitting Bull Returns


Eventually, due to the hardships of living in exile in Canada, Sitting Bull did make the decision to return with close to 200 others to the U.S. and did so on July 19, 1881. Sitting Bull explained that he wanted to return in peace and become friends with the white men. He was then sent to Fort Yates which was adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Agency which was composed of many Sioux tribes. The military did keep Sitting Bull separated from the others at the agency for fear that he might somehow incite the Sioux and others to rebel once again.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody


During his stay at the Standing Rock Agency Sitting Bull was made an offer which a few years prior would have been unthinkable. The famous Buffalo Bill Cody offered Sitting Bull a job touring with his new and highly popular Wild West.

The show was immediately popular with the eastern public who had an insatiable appetite for anything western and in particular the story of settlers, Indians and the clashes that ensued. Sitting Bull was granted permission to leave the Standing Rock Agency to join Buffalo Bill.

Sitting Bull's participation in the Wild West Show was essentially to ride around the arena and for that he was paid a reported $50 per week. This was not bad money at all in the late 1800's. The Sitting Bull performance was quite popular.  In addition to that he was thought to have made a small fortune selling autographs. After only about four months Sitting Bull returned to the reservation where he reportedly worked to improve relations between the Indians and their white neighbors. He was known to have given many speeches in this effort.

Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance Movement


sitting bull and buffalo bill cody
Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, 1885
Chief Sitting Bull was living in peace for several years after he returned from his short engagement with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. What was building up among the western Native Americans and what would eventually engulf Sitting Bull was a movement among the Indians referred to as the "Ghost Dance". There are some conflicting accounts as to what exactly occurred during the Ghost Dance movement and in what the movement actually represented.


The Ghost Dance movement was something that was very popular and well accepted by people who felt oppressed. It began in 1889 and was a type of religion which was celebrated with what was described as the "Ghost Dance".

It included a ritual where the participants worked themselves up into a trance where they experienced the afterlife and communicated with deceased relatives. The part of the Ghost Dance movement which aroused concern among the neighboring whites was that it "envisioned" the disappearance of the white race from Native American lands. The movement envisioned the whites being swept away by a divine force. While the movement didn't specifically make a call to arms, it's philosophy alone was enough to create great concern among white settlers.

The Paiute Wavoka

The Lakota's learned of this "religion" from neighboring tribes to the west. The founder of the Ghost Dance movement was a man named Wovoka, also known to some as Jack Wilson. Wovoka was a highly respected Paiute Indian from Nevada whose father was also a spiritual leader.

The movement which was growing rapidly distressed the Indian Agents, the military and nearby white settlers. In 1889 just when it seemed that most Indians were on reservations and relatively peaceful, yet they were not really happy. The Ghost Dance movement threatened to renew hostilities. The movement itself was outlawed by the authorities but to little effect since several hard line Sioux leaders continued to practice it and incited others to join.


It was at this time, after the movement gained notoriety with the Indian Agents, that Sitting Bull was caught up in the, until now, bloodless conflict. What happened next, and to many historians who have explored the subject, was probably best described as an overreaction. The Indian Agents and some in the military thought that perhaps Sitting Bull would escape the reservation with Ghost Dance followers and form some type of armed resistance.

The End Occurs in December 1890


Sitting Bull met his death on December 15, 1890. The exact actions that led to his killing, like many other tales of the troubles of 1890, had a few differing versions.

There are native Americans and some historians who contend that Sitting Bull's death was a political assassination by the United States government. One reason cited would have been Sitting Bull's refusal to sign a treaty that gave away land from Native reservations. Law at the time was that  the signatures of 3/4 of the adult males of the Sioux Nation were mandated before land could be sold.

Sitting Bull was a big resister in the U.S. effort to acquire land. Sitting Bull had again formally rejected the selling of Indian land as late as 1888. Add to this the sensational newspaper stories portraying Sitting Bull as a participant in the Ghost Dance movement and therefore a potential threat to peace, and you can see some type of a climax was building.

When you look back however and research the events of 1890, it's plain that Sitting Bull was actually living among his white neighbors in peace while participating in the Ghost Dance movement. In other words, his only wrongdoing in the eyes of the authorities was his practicing of the Ghost Dance. I could not find any evidence that he called on his people to take up arms.

The Most Accepted Version of Events


The most accepted story of Sitting Bull's death in December of 1890 is that about 40 reservation policemen (mostly Indians) went to Sitting Bull's residence to arrest him. The arrest had to do with his Ghost Dance involvement and his refusal to disavow it.

The policemen took Sitting Bull into custody at first without incident and when leaving the home with the old chief were confronted by many of his followers bearing arms. This is the point where events happened quickly. The most publicized story is that Chief Sitting Bull called on his followers to rescue him. Two of his followers allegedly fired shots at the police and the police returned fire. The amount of people involved in this now violent encounter were a bit over forty Indian police and volunteers against over 100 of Sitting Bull's followers. This included women attacking the police with knives and clubs. During this 30 minute close encounter battle Sitting Bull was shot and killed. The shooting occurred during a large scuffle and, while a few names were mentioned, it's unclear exactly who fired the fatal shot.

The Aftermath of Sitting Bull's Death


In the aftermath of this, knowing of the possible repercussions to come, many of the Ghost Dance followers fled the area with their families. This is what eventually led to the Wounded Knee Massacre which took place on December 29, 1890.

his massacre occurred while troops were in the process of rounding up the fleeing Sioux and while trying to return them to their homes. The massacre at Wounded Knee the morning of December 29th was another seemingly nonviolent police action that simply got out of hand in a horrible way. Another interesting article on Western Trips is the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War of 1877.

sitting bull grave
Sitting Bull grave and monument
After the death of sitting Bull, his body was transported to Fort Yates and he was buried.

In the year 1953 several of his Lakota relatives had his body exhumed and moved to his birthplace of Mobridge South Dakota. It is today at Mobridge where Sitting Bull's grave and memorial can be visited. Mobridge South Dakota is in the north central part of the state on the east side of the Missouri River and about 30 miles south of the North Dakota border.

The grave and monument is on a bluff across the Missouri River from the town. From US 12 take the road just west of the river south about three miles to the grave.

(Article copyright Western Trips)



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