Death of Sitting Bull


Sitting Bull. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these days of primaries and tawdry rhetoric by presidential candidates, it would be good to evoke the memory of the great orator and medicine man of the Lakota Sioux.

This is how Arthur Kopit, in his play Indians, painted the portrait of Sitting Bull:

I am here by the will of the Great Spirits, and by their will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, for whatever I pass near tries to touch me with its tongue, as the bear tastes honey and the green leaves seek the sky. If the Great Spirits have chosen anyone to be leader of their country, know that it is not the Great Father, it is myself.

As we have chronicled in our book Hunt the Devil (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), Sitting Bull’s fiery rhetoric, the Plains Indians victory at Little Big Horn, and the Ghost Dance Movement of the late 19th century turned Sitting Bull into the devil we seek to destroy in every war—the evil leader of whichever people we target as our enemy. The death of Sitting Bull would be repeated, at the dawn of the 21st century, in the termination of an Islamic spiritual leader who had inspired — just like Sitting Bull — heinous crimes against the United States.[i]

In the early morning hours of December 15, 1890, an armed contingent of Indian policemen gathered at the cabin of Lieutenant Bull Head, three miles west of Sitting Bull’s camp in Grand River Valley. They did not board stealth Black Hawk helicopters, or carry Special Forces ordinance — this was the nineteenth century, and the territory was well known to them. Besides, they had been entrusted with the detention of a relative and admired leader, rather than with the eradication of a foreign terrorist. [ii]

At dawn, Bull Head’s police command — a biblical forty plus four strong — galloped into Sitting Bull’s camp. They entered Sitting Bull’s lodgings, roused the old medicine man from his sleep, and told him that he was being arrested. Sitting Bull offered no resistance. His older wife, one of his young daughters, and his son Crow Foot were in his quarters that night. His wife began to wail. Sitting Bull took his time to dress ceremonially. Crow Foot — his young son who had surrendered Sitting Bull’s rifle years before — berated his father: “You always called yourself a brave chief. Now you are allowing yourself to be taken by the ceska maza [metal breasts].” Hearing the words of Crow Foot, Sitting Bull refused to go with the soldiers.

He was taken out of his cabin by Lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Shave Head, with Sergeant Red Tomahawk following behind. A crowd of 150 Ghost Dancers and neighbors, awakened by the dogs, horses, and the lament of Sitting Bull’s wife, had gathered around the cabin — some of them armed with rifles, knives and clubs. “You shall not take our chief!” shouted the crowd. Then Catch-the-Bear — a loyal follower of Sitting Bull — shot Bull Head, who in turn shot Sitting Bull. Shots and a furious struggle ensued between the crowd and the police, lasting for about an hour. The wounded Indian policemen were carried into Sitting Bull’s cabin, where Crow Foot was hiding. Three policemen clubbed him, and shot him dead.

When Navy SEALs successfully completed their mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, they radioed Admiral William McRaven, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command:   “For God and country, I pass Geronimo. Geronimo E.K.I.A” [Enemy Killed in Action]. One Indian Chief is as much an enemy as another.

It was said that at the moment of Sitting Bull’s death, his spirit possessed the horse given to him by Buffalo Bill — the same one Bull had ridden in the Wild West — and the horse danced.[iii] Thus the demise of the most renowned Native American leader of his generation.

The massacre at Wounded Knee would occur two weeks later, but as Robert Utley concludes, “it was the end of Sitting Bull that symbolized the end of the Indian wars.”[iv]


[i] The following account of Sitting Bull’s death follows the versions found in Utley, Last Days, 155-164 and The Lance and the Shield, ch. 24, 293-305; Mooney, 217-223; and James McLaughlin, “An Account of Sitting Bull’s Death, 1891,”, accessed May 3, 2013.

[ii] Mooney, 217.

[iii] Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer, No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal (New York: Dutton, Penguin Group, 2012), 247.

[iv] Utley, Last Days of the Sioux Nation, 166; McLaughlin, “An Account of Sitting Bull’s Death, 1891.”

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