Sitting Bull Chief of the Lakota: Íyotake

During the period 1868–1876, I developed into one of the most important of Native American chiefs. After the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 and the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, many traditional Sioux warriors, such as Red Cloud of the Oglala and Spotted Tail of the Brulé, moved to reside permanently on the reservations. They were largely dependent for subsistence on the US Indian agencies. Many other chiefs, including members of my Hunkpapa band such as Gall, at times lived temporarily at the agencies. They needed the supplies at a time when white encroachment and the depletion of buffalo herds reduced their resources and challenged Native American independence.

In 1875, the Northern Cheyenne, Hunkpapa, Oglala, Sans Arc, and Minneconjou camped together for a Sun Dance, with both the Cheyenne medicine man White Bull or Ice and me in association. This ceremonial alliance preceded their fighting together in 1876. I had a major revelation.

At the climactic moment,'The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us. We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers.' Ice too observed, 'No one then knew who the enemy were – of what tribe.'...We were soon to find out.

My refusal to adopt any dependence on the white man meant that at times me and my small band of warriors lived isolated on the Plains. When Native Americans were threatened by the United States, numerous members from various Sioux bands and other tribes, such as the North Cheyenne, came to my camp. My reputation for "strong medicine" developed as I continued to evade the European Americans.

After the January 1st ultimatum of 1876, when the US Army began to track down Sioux and others living off the reservation as hostiles, Native Americans gathered at my camp. I took an active role in encouraging this "unity camp". I sent scouts to the reservations to recruit warriors, and told the Hunkpapa to share supplies with those Native Americans who joined them. An example of my generosity was taking care of Wooden Leg's Northern Cheyenne tribe. They had been impoverished by Captain Reynold's March 17, 1876 attack and fled to my camp for safety.

I provided resources to sustain the new recruits. Over the course of the first half of 1876, my camp continually expanded, as natives joined me for safety in numbers. My leadership had attracted the warriors and families of an extensive village, estimated at more than 10,000 people. General Custer came across this large camp on June 25, 1876. I did not take a direct military role in the ensuing battle; instead I acted as a spiritual chief and performed the Sun Dance, in which I fasted and sacrificed over 100 pieces of flesh from my arms.

Custer’s 7th Cavalry advance party of General Alfred Howe Terry’s column attacked Cheyenne and Lakota tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River on June 25, 1876. The U.S. Army did not realize how large the camp was. More than 2,000 Native Americans had left their reservations to follow me. Inspired by a vision of mine, in which he saw U.S. soldiers being killed as they entered the tribe’s camp, the Cheyenne and Lakota fought back. Custer's badly outnumbered troops lost ground quickly and were forced to retreat. The tribes led a counter-attack against the soldiers on a nearby ridge, ultimately annihilating most of them.

The Native Americans' victory celebrations were short-lived. Public shock and outrage at Custer's death and defeat, and the government's knowledge about the remaining Sioux, led them to assign thousands more soldiers to the area. Over the next year, the new American military forces pursued the Lakota, forcing many of the Native Americans to surrender. I refused to surrender and in May 1877 led my band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada. I remained in exile for many years near Wood Mountain, refusing a pardon and the chance to return. While in Canada I met with chief Crowfoot, who was a chief of the Blackfeet, long-time powerful enemies of the Lakota and Cheyenne. I wished to make peace with the Blackfeet Nation and Crowfoot. Being a renowned advocate for peace himself, Crowfoot eagerly accepted the tobacco peace offering. I was so impressed by the Blackfeet chief that I named one of his sons after him.

Hunger and cold eventually forced me, and my family, and nearly 200 other Sioux in my band to return to the United States and surrender on July 19, 1881. I had my young son Crow Foot surrender my rifle to the commanding officer of Fort Buford. I told the soldiers that I wished to regard them and the white race as friends. Two weeks later, the Army transferred me and my band to Fort Yates, the military post located adjacent to the Standing Rock Agency, which straddles the present-day boundary of North and South Dakota.

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