On the 120th Anniversary of Sitting Bull's Death
One hundred and twenty years ago today, Sitting Bull was killed during a confrontation with Indian police in Grand River, South Dakota.
Excerpt from an essay by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert (Hopi) in NMAI's American Indians/American President: A History:
The campaign to take Indian lands led some Native people to seek answers and hope from spirital sources. In the winter of 1889, shortly after President Benjamin Harrison took office, a Paiute man named Wovoka, from the Walker River Indian Reservatio in Nevada, had a vision of being "taken up into the spirit world." Wovoka later told enthnographer James Mooney that while in the spirit world he saw "God and the dead of his nation, happily alive in a beautiful land abundant with game." When Wovoka returned from his experience, he told the Paiute people to "work hard, and to live in peace with the Whites and that eventually they would be reunited with the dead in a world without death or sickness or old age."
In addition to his prophetic message, Wovoka returned with a ceremonial dance that he said would bring forth this transformation. News of the Ghost Dance spread quickly to other Indian nations throughout the Great Basin and beyond.
When Sioux and Pawnee people received the message and the dance, they adapted Wovoka's prophecy to reflect their own cultural and social situation. The Sioux and Pawnee people, according to historian Stephen Cornell, "gave to the prophecies a hostile content: In their version, the whites were to be annihilated by a massive whirlwind, and the Sioux in particular made much of the expected return of the buffalo—of little concern to the Paiutes—and great herds of horses." Lakota anger stemmed, in part, from the United States' refusal to pay a just price for Sioux lands, as well as a legacy of broken promises to the Lakota and other Native groups.
The expansion of the Ghost Dance Movement, coupled with the Sioux and Pawnee interpretations of Wovoka's message, attracted the attention of officials in Washington, including President Harrison. Daniel Royer, an inexperienced Indian agent at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, feared that Wovoka's prophetic message would ignite an "uprising" among Sioux warriors who had fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn and asked the army to send troops to the reservation.
The leaders of the Ghost Dance movement responded by retreating to the reservation's isolated northern boundary. Nearly three weeks passed without incident, but then James McLaughlin, an Indian agent at the Standing Rock Agency, in North and South Dakota, ordered agency police and troops to arrest Sitting Bull on the pretense that imprisonment would prevent him from joining the Ghost Dance Movement. In the early morning of December 15, 1890, agency police "surprised" Sitting Bull at his house and proceeded to arrest him. In an act of resistance, Sitting Bull chastised the police, who then shot the chief at close range.
FotoWeek's Night Gallery: Portrait of Sitting Bull projected on the museum's facade, Nov. 8, 2010.
Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI
The murder of Sitting Bull angered Indian leaders and exacerbated tensions between the Sioux and the United States soliders. Some of the Ghost Dancers fled and joined Chief Big Foot's band on the Cheyenne River. As the soldier's approached, Chief Big Foot led his people on a 150-mile trek to the Pine Ridge Agency, where they hoped to join Chief Red Cloud of the Lakotas. On the morning of December 29, 1890, soldiers equipped with four Hotchkiss guns positioned themselves on top of a hill overlooking Big Foot's encampment. The soldiers ordered the Lakotas to put down their guns, but one warrior held his rifle over his head and defiantly fired a round into the air.
Thomas H. Tibbles, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, observed that he "heard a single shot from the direction of the troops—then three or four—a few more—and immediately a volley. At once came a general rattle of rifle firing. Then the Hotchkiss guns." During the massacre that followed, soldiers shot unarmed elders, women and children.
When the guns fell silent, 29 soldiers and approximately 146 Lakota lay dead.... The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last time United States soldiers systematically slaughtered Indian people, but it was hardly the last time American Indians and their leaders fought to save their ancestral lands and cultures.