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Sitting Bull: A New Biography

June 25, 2000, marks the 124th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A new biography of Sitting Bull sheds light on the Lakota chief who won the battle and fought to maintain his people's way of life.

In his prologue to Sitting Bull and His World (Dutton Children's Books), award-winning author Albert Marrin states:


If Sitting Bull's life teaches us anything, it is the danger of judging one society by the ideas of another. In the winning and losing of the West, each side acted according to its own beliefs and customs. Few people deliberately set out to do wrong. By the standards of their own societies, most individuals acted decently and responsibly. In this, both Indians and whites showed their common humanity."

Book Cover Image Throughout this meticulous, yet riveting, biography, Marrin corrects some still-common misconceptions about the true nature of the antagonism between the Plains Indians and the U.S. government during the latter half of the 19th century. He does this without demonizing either side. The result is a fresh look at the life of a fascinating American and the troubled times in which he lived.



In March 1831, in what is now South Dakota, a Lakota woman named Her Holy Door gave birth to her only son. Although originally named Jumping Badger, his name was soon changed to Hunkeshnee, meaning "Slow" or "Thoughtful One." Even as an infant, Slow seemed to take the time to think before he acted.

Few facts are known of Slow's childhood and upbringing, although Marrin fills in details of Lakota (or Sioux, as they were known to the white explorers and settlers) child-rearing practices. Children were born into a world that cherished them. Youngsters had no set timetables but were free to explore, to eat when hungry, and to sleep when tired.

Although adults never struck children, their lives were not without physical danger. They played demanding, often hazardous, games to learn how to endure pain. Experts with horses, Lakota youth mastered riding early. They also learned to steal the horses of enemies, to fight, and to hunt buffalo. At the age of ten, Slow killed his first buffalo. He marked the occasion by making his first vision quest -- a personal exploration, through fasting and meditation, of the spiritual realm. In later years, he would be known as a holy man who often communicated with the spirit world.




If Plains Indians hunted to live, they lived to fight. War was part of Slow's mind-set, his expectations of life, ingrained in him from infancy. The idea that people should prefer peace to war would have struck him as strange. Peace, to him, was merely a time between wars. Fighting was natural. Success in battle brought the greatest rewards. These were not material things but the admiration of his people.
             -- Albert Marrin

When he was just 14, Slow distinguished himself in battle in a raid against a Crow Indian camp. His father, to mark the occasion, gave Slow a most prized possession: his own name. From then on, Slow was known as Sitting Bull. He would earn renown as one of the Lakota's most respected warriors.

Plains tribes traditionally fought amongst themselves over horses and grazing areas. Their battles were very different from those white armies fought, more like skirmishes in which each warrior acted as a free man, guided by his own thoughts and, perhaps, his spirit-helper. A war chief, unlike an Army officer, could inspire by example and reputation but could not issue orders. Sitting Bull's prowess in fighting other Plains Indians did not prepare him for his future dealings with American soldiers.



As white Americans moved west -- whether for gold, land, or adventure -- conflicts with the native people were inevitable. Although there were numerous instances of cooperation -- or at least tolerance -- between the two very different groups, the relationship between whites and Indians was largely one of misunderstanding, distrust, and animosity.

Sitting Bull's first confrontation with the U.S. Army came in 1864. Union General Alfred Sully led an attack against Sitting Bull's band. Sully's objective was to protect prospectors by driving the Lakota away from potential gold mines. Sully killed more than 100 Lakota and burned everything in sight. He lost only two men in the attack.

In subsequent battles, Sitting Bull became more skilled at fighting the white men while becoming angrier and angrier at the U.S. government's intrusion into Lakota territory. In 1868, the government invited Lakota leaders to Fort Laramie to sign a treaty. The terms provided for a Great Sioux Reservation, to be located in what is now South Dakota. The government would provide the Lakota with food and clothing while teaching them to support themselves by farming. The treaty created an adjacent territory. Native Americans who did not wish to settle in one place could continue to hunt as long as there were buffalo.

Many Lakota leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Sitting Bull was not among them. Despite the treaty, attacks against Native Americans, including villagers who adhered to the terms of the treaty, continued.



Native American tribes had always operated independently of one another. By 1869, however, desperate, various hunting peoples met to discuss the election of one supreme leader to help them unite in their fight against the whites. Although not all Native Americans agreed, those who thought that one leader was the answer had no doubt about the best man for the job.


Everyone knew Sitting Bull's name and reputation. At age thirty-eight, he had every qualification. Lakota people said that Sitting Bull 'owned himself'; that is, he knew who he was and had total self-control. A good man to his family and a loyal friend, he possessed sound judgment, a kind heart, generosity, courage, religious devotion, strong spirit-helpers, and an uncanny ability to foretell the future. A brilliant speaker and composer of inspiring songs, he knew how to sway others to his way of thinking. In his day, as in ours, few presidents have had such qualities."
              -- Albert Marrin

By June of 1876, the Lakota were in Montana, near the Little Bighorn River. General George Armstrong Custer, leading the 7th Cavalry, surrounded the tribe on three sides. On June 25, Custer mounted a direct attack. Sitting Bull and his warriors were victorious; none of the U.S. soldiers survived that day.

Over the years, the event has been characterized as a massacre. Custer himself came to be known as a great military leader, the Battle of the Little Bighorn portrayed as his "last stand." That version of events was so engrained in the American psyche, so part of national folklore, that even today, it is often accepted as fact. Marrin argues, however, that the truth is much different from the popular perception. He makes the argument that Custer was a reckless, egotistical officer who had made his military reputation during the Civil War by taking unnecessary risks with the lives of his men. His "last stand" was non-existent. Later studies of the battle site suggest no organized stand took place but rather panic and mass confusion. Finally, the term massacre, which suggests the wholesale slaughter of innocent, unarmed people, is in direct conflict with evidence showing that the Lakota warriors were simply defending themselves, their women, and their children against an armed attack.



After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Lakota fled north to Canada to escape retaliation. There, Sitting Bull met one of the few white men he ever trusted, Major James Morrow Welsh of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Lakota were left alone to hunt as long as they did not steal or fight.

The United States pursued the fugitives, even offering a "full pardon" if the Lakota agreed to settle on a reservation. Sitting Bull had no intention of returning to live on a reservation, but increased hunting of buffalo had drastically reduced their numbers. To avoid starvation, the Lakota returned to the United States in 1881. While his people settled on the Great Sioux Reservation, Sitting Bull served 20 months as a prisoner in a U.S. Army fort. Surrounded by whites day in and day out, he became more convinced of the vast differences between whites and his own people. When he returned to the Lakota, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin, tried his hand at farming, and even worked for one season in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

In a short period, the way of life of the Plains peoples had almost died out. There were no buffalo to hunt, and the Native Americans had to subsist on government handouts of beef and other provisions. Without buffalo skins, even the clothes on their backs were handouts. There were no raids to steal horses, no battles. When the government recruited young Native Americans to act as police officers on the reservation, Sitting Bull approved. That was the only rite of passage the young men had.

In 1889, a new religion called the Ghost Dance spread rapidly among the Plains peoples. Apocalyptic in nature, the Ghost Dancers believed that the white men would disappear, the buffalo would return, and all the Native Americans who had died would return and live forever.

Although Ghost Dancers believed in a type of passive resistance, whites did not understand the strange new religion. They expected that its adherents would try to stage a revolt. Sitting Bull favored the Ghost Dance but derived little comfort from it. He had had a vision that he would die soon, at the hands of his own people.

On December 15, 1890, the government tried to arrest Sitting Bull. They sent a Native American police officer after him. When Sitting Bull refused to go, the officer shot him, killing him. He was indeed killed by one of his own.

Fifteen days after Sitting Bull's death, many Lakota died during the Battle of Wounded Knee, signaling the end of the long struggle between the Plains peoples and the United States for control of the Great Plains.

Although Marrin includes some material, such as a detailed explanation of the practice of scalping, that may be too graphic for younger children, Sitting Bull and His World is a carefully researched, well-written biography that young adults should find useful in understanding an important period in American history.

The book highlighted this week is available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • Sitting Bull and His World, written by Albert Marrin, is published by Dutton Children's Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

Lauren P. Gattilia
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World



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