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Sitting Bull: Tatanka-Iyotanka


One of the pieces from my 2010 show, Portraits of Honor

"Sitting Bull: Tatanka-Iyotanka," Hunkpapa Lakota Chief, (1831-1890),

"Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull," Hunkpapa Lakota Chief by James Ayers

"What white man has ever seen me drunk? Who has ever come to me hungry and left me unfed? Who has seen me beat my wives or abuse my children? What law have I broken?" Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Sioux? Because I was born where my father lived? Because I would die for my people and my country?

-Sitting Bull

A Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man, Sitting Bull remained defiant of American military power and contemptuous of American promises to the end of his life.

Born around 1831 on the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, Sitting Bull was given the name Tatanka-Iyotanka, which describes a buffalo bull sitting immovably on its haunches. It was a name he would honor throughout his lifetime.

As a young man, Sitting Bull became a leader of the Strong Heart warrior society and, later, a distinguished member of the Silent Eaters, a group concerned with tribal welfare. Respected for his bravery and insight, he became head chief of the Lakota nation about 1868.

Sitting Bull displayed courage and honor in battle, as well as in his politics. There is a story told about Sitting Bull, in a fight against the Crow:

"Sitting Bull yelled, ‘Follow Me!’ and raced his horse to the brim of the ditch [where the enemy was positioned] where he struck at him with his coup-staff, thus compelling him to expose himself to the fire of the others while shooting his assailant. But the Crow merely poked his empty gun into his face and dodged back under cover. Then Sitting Bull stopped; he saw that no one had followed him, and he also perceived that the enemy had no more ammunition left. He rode deliberately up to the barrier and threw his loaded gun over it; then he went back to his party and told them what he thought of them.

"Now," said he, "I have armed him, for I will not see a brave man killed unarmed. I will strike him again with my coup-staff to count the first feather; who will count the second?"

Again he led the charge, and this time they all followed him. Sitting Bull was severely wounded by his own gun in the hands of the enemy, who was killed by those that came after him. This is a record that so far as I know was never made by any other warrior.”

-as told by Ohiyesa (Charles A. Eastman)

Custer and Little Bighorn

In 1874, an expedition led by General Custer confirmed that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, an area sacred to many tribes and placed off-limits to American settlement by the Treaty of Fort Laramie, in 1868. In clear violation of this treaty, prospectors began a rush to the Black Hills, provoking the Lakota to rise and defend their land.

When government efforts to purchase the Black Hills failed, the Fort Laramie Treaty was declared invalid and the commissioner of Indian Affairs announced that all Lakota not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876 would be considered hostile. Sitting Bull and his people refused to move.

“Hear me, friends! We have now to deal with another people, small and feeble when our forefathers first met with them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough, they have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease in them.

These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not! They have a religion in which the poor worship, but the rich will not! They even take tithes of the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

"This nation is like a spring freshet; it overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path. We cannot dwell side by side. Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now they threaten to take that from us also. My brothers, shall we submit? Or shall we say to them: 'First kill me, before you can take possession of my fatherland!'"

-Sitting Bull, 1874

In March, as federal troops moved into the area, Sitting Bull summoned the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho to his camp on Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory. There he led them in the sun dance ritual. During this ceremony, Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw soldiers falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky.

Inspired by this vision, the Oglala Lakota war chief, Crazy Horse, set out for battle with a band of 500 warriors, and on June 17 he surprised General Crook's troops and forced them to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud.

To celebrate this victory, the Lakota moved their camp to the valley of the Little Bighorn River, where 3,000 more Indians who had left the reservations to follow Sitting Bull joined them.

On June 25 they were attacked at Little Bighorn by the Seventh Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer, whose badly outnumbered troops first rushed the encampment, as if in fulfillment of Sitting Bull's vision, and then made a stand on a nearby ridge, where they were destroyed.

Public outrage over “Custer’s last stand,” an image still familiar today, brought thousands more cavalrymen to the area, and over the next year the US Calvary pursued the Lakota, forcing many chiefs to surrender.

Sitting Bull, however, remained defiant. There is a record of a letter Sitting Bull sent to one Colonel Otis, after an attack on a military wagon train, which reads:

"I want to know what you are doing, traveling on this road. You scare all the buffalo away. I want to hunt in this place. I want you to turn back from here. If you don't, I will fight you again. I want you to leave what you have got here and turn back from here.

I am your friend.

Sitting Bull.”

Eventually, Sitting Bull was forced to retreat. In May of 1877 he led his band across the border into Canada, beyond the reach of the U.S. Army.

Four years later, however, finding it impossible to feed his people in a world where the buffalo was almost extinct, Sitting Bull finally came south to surrender.

Sitting Bull said, "I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle."

The reservation years

After the surrender, Sitting Bull was sent to Standing Rock Reservation. The government, fearing that he might inspire a fresh uprising, then sent him further down the Missouri River to Fort Randall, where he and his followers were held for nearly two years as prisoners of war.

Finally, on May 10, 1883, Sitting Bull rejoined his tribe at Standing Rock.

Returning to Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull lived in a cabin on the Grand River, near where he had been born. He refused to give up the old ways, still living with two wives and rejecting Christianity, though he sent his children to a nearby Christian school as he believed it would be important for the next generation of Lakota to read and write.

"If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, and in my heart he put other and different desires. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows."

-Sitting Bull

Soon after his return, Sitting Bull had another mystical vision. This time it told him, “Your own people, Lakota, will kill you." Five years later, this vision also proved true.

In the fall of 1890, a Miniconjou Lakota named Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull to take part in the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that promised to rid the land of white people and restore the Indians' way of life.

At Standing Rock, the authorities feared that Sitting Bull, still an influential spiritual leader, would join the Ghost Dancers, and cause another uprising, so they sent forty-three Lakota policemen to arrest him.

Before dawn on December 15, 1890, the policemen burst into Sitting Bull's cabin and dragged him outside. In the gunfight that followed, one of the Lakota policemen put a bullet through Sitting Bull's head. He was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and in 1953 his remains were moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, where a granite shaft marks his grave.

Sitting Bull’s Legacy

Sitting Bull is remembered among the Lakota not only as a remarkable leader and fearless warrior but also as a loving father, a gifted singer, a man always amiable and friendly toward others, a deeply spiritual man who had the power of visions and who made strong medicine for the tribe he loved.

Prints now available

You can purchase high-quality prints of this image here: Sitting Bull by James Ayers.

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