“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”

Sitting Bull, Chief of the Lakota Sioux

Sitting Bull, Chief of the Lakota Sioux

If Sitting Bull had not put his faith in a miracle, in the fateful winter of 1890, the American struggle with the Dakota Sioux—the last big Indian “war”—might have faded into a peaceful if pathetic accommodation between conqueror and conquered. But a miracle seemed the only refuge for the great old chief in that bitter season of a bitter year; and he thought he saw one coming.

Those of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Sioux tribesmen who clung to him and his dream of preserving the old, free Indian life were in painful distress. Within easy memory they had coursed a domain larger than half a dozen of the white man’s states. Now, restless at the pinch of reservation life near the prescribed Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota, they had followed Sitting Bull to a shabby camp on the Grand River—still on the reservation, but forty miles from white supervision. There, sick with cold, starvation, and white man’s diseases, they watched their lands being snatched away, and sensed the humiliation and perhaps disaster that lay ahead—all under the “protection” of the United States government. In their struggle to preserve their identity as a tribe of hunters, warriors, and nomads, no power on earth seemed to offer any help. Sitting Bull, their extraordinary chief and medicine man, looked for a miracle; and at last one was offered. It was the new Indian religion of the Ghost Dance, which promised a supernatural messiah to sweep the white invader from the western Plains and restore them to the happy custody of the red man.

By the time that grim winter of 1890 settled in, the chief, now in his mid-fifties, had tried all natural, earthly powers. First, of course, war: the native instrument, almost the vocation of his people—a people bred to war as to the hunt, whose art brilliantly adorned their armament, their battle dress, their horses. Their boys started with the bow and arrow at the age of five; their men sang ritually of war and pridefully kept count of each time they struck an enemy. Sitting Bull, himself an eager fighter against unfriendly tribes since the boyhood day when he counted his first “coup,” was renowned for physical courage that was remarkable even among a tribe of fearless braves. A white prisoner of the Sioux told how the chief once led an attack on a war party of Crows: Sitting Bull rode so far ahead that he had leaped from his horse into the midst of the enemy and killed several before the other Sioux even caught up. One of his war songs, chanted as he went into single combat against a Crow chief, goes:

Friends, whoever runs away He is a woman, they say. Therefore Through many trials My life is short.

But Sitting Bull was wise as well as brave, and when in the 1860’s the white men came hunting gold in the Sioux hills, although he did not give up fighting, he was willing to try the power of law and diplomacy. The U.S. government was the more ready to talk terms because repeated efforts to clear the trail up to Montana for white settlers had been repulsed with bloody losses. One hopeful embassy to Sitting Bull was carried in 1868 by a frail old priest, Father de Smet, a veteran missionary who was determined to penetrate the troubled heartland of the hostile Sioux and arrange a peace before he died. Long marches brought the priest and his company across the northern Dakota Territory west to the Yellowstone, where the mission was met by five hundred mounted Sioux warriors. There, with pomp and grandeur, they were conducted to Sitting Bull’s lodge. The chief offered peace:

When I first saw you coming my heart beat wildly, and I had evil thoughts caused by the remembrance of the past. I bade it be quiet … it was so. [My people] have been troubled and confused by the past; they look upon their troubles as coming from the whites and become crazy, and push me forward. … I will now say in their presence, welcome father—the messenger of peace. I hope quiet will again be restored to our country. …

But it had to be peace with honor. Sitting Bull would not sell any Sioux lands: nor did he want to see the cutting of any timber—particularly not the oak. He said he loved to look at the oak, which, like the Indian, seemed to flourish in winter storms and summer heat. But an honorable peace the Sioux would respect: and as a token of faith they sang and danced until “the earth shook.”