“As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but all together we make a mighty fist.”
The Black Hills region of South Dakota spreads for 125 miles from north to south and for 65 miles from east to west. Ponderosa pines and aspens grow clinging to the steep limestone cliffs. Creeks and rivers flow through the valleys and ravines. White tail deer and wild turkey inhabit this paradise on Earth.
The Sioux tribe had lived here long before prospectors and miners invaded the region. The Sioux believed that the Great Spirit inhabited this land. The Sioux, with the help of the Cheyenne, fought fiercely for their homeland, but they lost. Their Great Spirit led them into bloody battles and helped them to survive starvation, limitation of their freedom and the humiliation of been forced to live on reservations.
Chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Dull Knife, and Little Wolf were real heroes and each of them had outstanding traits of character. But they all have common traits such as courage, wisdom and the desire and the will to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people.
Crazy Horse was brave and generous, courteous and modest, handsome and full of grace. His father trained him in horsemanship and hunting skills since his early childhood. Crazy Horse loved horses and after he came of age and became a warrior, he won every battle he fought. By the age of 21 he became a leader of his band of warriors and was respected for his courage. He was not a man of words, but a man of deeds.
When he was sixteen, he participated in his first battle against the Gros Ventres. He followed a brave Lakota warrior, Hump, into battle. When a horse under Hump was killed, Crazy Horse, in spite of a hail of arrows, helped Hump to get onto his own horse and carried him into safety. Hump praised Crazy Horse for saving his life and thus established his reputation as a fearless warrior. They became close friends in spite of a difference in age and were called “the grizzly and his cub.”
When Crazy Horse was 21 he was chosen to lead an attack on woodchoppers in order to lure soldiers from Fort Phil Kearny. Meanwhile, 600 Sioux were waiting in ambush. The strategic maneuver was a success and many older chiefs, including Sitting Bull, recognized him as a war leader, who is able to face danger with courage and composure. When pursuing his enemies he rarely killed them, but more often just struck them with a stick.
On June 25, 1876 Colonel Custer made a surprise attack on a Lakota village. At that time, the villagers were participating in games and festivities. Teepees were spread for three miles along the bank of the Little Bighorn River. The Indians were caught by surprise when they suddenly saw soldiers across the river to the south of the village. There was panic among the villagers. Women snatched their children, older folks sang prayers, and horses ran around.
Crazy Horse headed to confront the troops on the southern end of the village. But then he saw more soldiers across the river to the north of the village. It looked like a dangerous situation. The village was doomed to be surrounded. Crazy Horse reckoned the situation in a moment and led his warriors to intercept Custer’s troops on the northern side. He cutoff Custer and his soldiers from a ford in the river.
Lakota warriors were followed by Cheyenne braves. They surrounded Custer and his soldiers from three sides and killed them all. Sitting Bull with his band and Cheyenne attacked the U.S. troops on the southern side. The Indians did not know how many soldiers were surrounding their village, but Crazy Horse made the right decision and won the battle. He outsmarted one of the most talented and brave military leaders of the Civil War.
During the winter, with less and less buffalo to be hunted on the plains, the Lakota and the Cheyenne were starving. Finally, after the continued urging of friendly Indians, sent to Crazy Horse by the U.S. authorities, he and several thousand Indians, most of them Sioux, surrendered at Fort Robinson, in Nebraska in July 1877. They still hoped that the U.S. government would address their complaints.
Meanwhile, Spotted Tail was appointed by General Crook as a Sioux tribal chief. But the valor of Crazy Horse and his respect among Indians made Spotted Tail jealous. Spotted Tail told General Crook that Crazy Horse was plotting to murder him during a council meeting and to start a new war. General Crook did not show up for the meeting and sent an officer instead. Friends of Crazy Horse learned about the vile rumors and warned him about the conspiracy against him. But Crazy Horse ignored the danger as he usually did. In fact, he could easily start a new rebellion but since he surrendered he kept his word and remained peaceful.
One day he took his sick wife to her parents’ home and a party of scouts was sent after him. He was riding back with his friends and his supporters surrounded him and were shouting and singing. They made it impossible to apprehend and arrest Crazy Horse. However, he told them to stay calm because in his mind “it was cowardice to show bravery among his own tribesmen.” He believed that his surrender, peaceful conduct, and honest intentions would guarantee him protection.
Captain Lea, urged him to come to headquarters, explain his intentions and disperse false rumors but it was too late. When Crazy Horse approached the military camp and dismounted he was guarded by two men. They walked towards a guardhouse. His cousin, Touch-the-Cloud, who walked ahead, realized that they wanted to take him prisoner. He exclaimed: “Brother, they want to put you in prison.”
Crazy Horse tried to break free but was mortally stabbed in the back with a bayonet by a soldier. He died that night, mourned by his father and buried somewhere in the Badlands, so that the “pale faced” could not anymore defile him. He was only 33 years old.
Sitting Bull was born and raised before the conflicts with white people started and when Sioux were on friendly terms with them. In fact, only a few French Canadian fur traders, such as Picotte, Choteau, Larpeneur, and Primeau reached the Unkpapa Sioux tribe which resided on the banks of Missouri River. The fur traders established friendly relationships with the Sioux and Sitting Bull personally knew them. The fur trade thrived and both parties benefited from it.
Sitting Bull’s father, Jumping Buffalo, was a brave and prominent leader. During a battle with a hostile band of Crow, he mortally wounded the Crow’s chief. He was very seriously wounded too and died shortly after the battle. Jumping Buffalo owned a herd of ponies and Sitting Bull liked to ride them a lot.
Sitting Bull got his name, when he was a boy. Boys usually had a hunt for buffalo calves after their fathers’ buffalo hunt was over. Sitting Bull and his friends were pursuing calves on their pretend hunt, when one big calf charged toward Sitting Bull. His pony threw him to the ground but Sitting Bull did not get scared even though the calf was about to stomp on him. He grabbed the calf by the ears and managed to subdue him into a sitting position. All his friends cheered him and gave him the name “Sitting Bull.”
Sitting Bull was fearless, stubborn, sarcastic and quick witted. Once he made up his mind it was almost impossible to make him to change it.
“Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”
During a battle with Assiniboine Indians he took a boy captive, saving his life. He adopted him and treated him like a brother. Later in his life Sitting Bull became a patriotic speaker, who was able to unite, to inspire, and lead his people. His adopted brother proudly fought in his place during battles.
In 1863 Sitting Bull supported Sioux, who were considered outlaws and who fled from Minnesota. They killed many white settlers after enduring lots of injustice and were seeking refuge and help with the Unkpapa people. Subsequently, many fugitives and outlaws, including two half-breed instigators of rebellions in Canada, found shelter with Sitting Bull’s tribe. After listening to their stories of mistreatment and discrimination, Sitting Bull became very wary towards Americans.
Over the years Sitting Bull became more and more resentful and distrustful towards the white people, as more land had been taken away from Indians. After the treaty was signed in 1868, which granted the Sioux indisputable rights for their land, his attitudes changed. Together with other chiefs, such as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail he went to Washington D.C. and met with President Grant in the White House.
When this treaty was broken he was deeply disappointed and spoke with his tribe about white people’s greed for gold, broken promises, and their hypocrisy. The Sioux, as a nation, had completely different values, such as appreciation for the land they lived on. The way, which white people lived and his values could not be reconciled. When the last treaty was broken Sitting Bull took up arms to protect his homeland, the Black Hills, the Bighorn Mountains and the hunting grounds, which Lakota shared with Cheyenne. He made patriotic speeches to his tribesmen and led them into battle.
“Hear me people: We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”
After the battle on the Little Bighorn River, Sitting Bull led his people to Canada, where they got refuge, but not food. Buffalo were almost all hunted out and his people were starving. Finally Sitting Bull with the rest of his band surrendered at the Fort Buford agency in North Dakota in 1881.
“For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who can not provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”
He hoped for freedom and justice for his people. An invitation to Washington D.C. on behalf of President Grant was still open to him. Instead he was arrested and put in prison. Later, authorities gave him to “Buffalo Bill” Cody to perform in Bill’s “Wild West Show.” After a few years with the Buffalo Bill show Sitting Bull settled in the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota where the rest of his band lived.
In 1890 a religious movement called “Ghost Dance” was started by a half-breed Indian in Nevada, who considered himself a prophet. This movement became popular among different Indian tribes in many reservations, including Standing Rock. When asked by authorities, ghost dancers did not want to give away the name of the prophet. The authorities suspected Siting Bull as an instigator because he had never been obedient.
On December 15, 1890, early in the morning, a group of local police, backed by U.S. troops came to his home. Not suspecting anything, Sitting Bull went out and saw that his home was surrounded by the police. His adopted brother shot a lieutenant, who apprehended Sitting Bull, and the shot started a fight. As a result, six policemen and six Sioux were killed, including Sitting Bull, his adopted brother and his young son Crow Foot.
“I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
Two great Cheyenne chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, led the Cheyenne into battles to support the Sioux in their fight for their common hunting grounds, the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains. The Sioux decided to fight for their land to death. In 1876 the Cheyenne were forced to move to Oklahoma where malaria and malnutrition killed many of them.
Both chiefs led the Cheyenne on a great escape from Oklahoma to Dakota. The army pursued them during their march and they fought back while keeping their pace. But the Cheyenne tried to be ahead of the troops to avoid fights and bloodshed as much as possible. A band led by Little Wolf settled in Sand Hills and enjoyed an undisturbed peaceful life and an abundance of game for hunting for a while. Later they moved to Montana and then to Pine Ridge. Finally, they were forced to move to Lane Deer, Montana.
Dull Knife, after he and his band split with Little Wolf at Running Water, headed towards the Red Cloud agency. He and his people were captured near Fort Robinson, Nebraska and all men were imprisoned. The women managed to smuggle guns, ammunition and knifes into prison, hidden in clothing and moccasins. When the men broke from prison, women with children joined them. They decided to die together. They fought till the last bullet was shot and then stood up in the open. Most of them were killed.
Dull Knife escaped with his family and made a run to the Sioux Pine Ridge agency in South Dakota. Eventually, he settled in the Cheyenne Reservation in Rosebud Valley and died in 1883.
The ownership of the Black Hills region is still in dispute. There are no valid records of purchase of this region by the U.S. government from the Sioux tribe. There is only an Act as of February, 1877 according to which the land was taken away from Indians.
The Sioux started a legal battle in 1920. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux Nation would receive $ 106 million from the U.S. Government. The Sioux, however, refused to take money and stated that the decision of the Supreme Court is invalid on the basis of misrepresentation. They never signed a contract with a lawyer, who represented them in the Supreme Court. The money, designated to pay the Sioux for their land, is in a fund, collecting interest. But the Sioux don’t want to touch this money. They want their land back.
In 2009 Barak Obama supported their decision to take back their land. The Sioux Nation and other tribes met with representatives of the United Nations. In 2012 the U.N. recommended that the U.S. government give back some of the land to the Native Americans. This includes the Black Hills region.
What do you think? Will the Sioux get the Black Hills back?
How would Deadwood look like if the land changes ownership?
Legends of America. Kathy Weiser. 2017
Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. Charles A. Eastman 1939. Edited by Kathy Weiser in 1918
The author Charles Eastman worked as a doctor at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. He was half Sioux and knew many of the chiefs personally. He graduated with a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890 and began working in the Pine Ridge Reservation.