- Historic Sites
“There Are No Indians Left Now But Me”
So spoke Sitting Bull, greatest of Sioux chiefs, as he bitterly watched his people bargain away their Dakota homeland
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
Thus for a while it seemed that diplomacy might bring the Sioux peace from the white man. The government gave up trying to force a way into the Sioux homeland, and agreed to reserve thousands of square miles, from Wyoming east to the Missouri, for Indian hunting grounds and communal life. On paper, the Sioux could hunt freely even beyond this majestic territory; and no white man might enter their lands without their permission. It seemed that Sitting Bull could now once more lead his braves against the circle of Indian tribes who were traditionally their mortal enemies, while his people followed the old life of hunters and lovers of the natural scene.
Actually, only a few years of the old way were left. Before long, white gold-seekers were filtering through the screen of U.S. troops set up to keep out treaty-breakers. Many of the soldiers themselves deserted as new reports of gold in the Dakotas fired the imagination of westering emigrants. The Sioux took to the warpath, the whites raised cries for help from Washington, and, in violation of the 1868 agreement, large bodies of troops took the trail up through the Black Hills into Montana, intent on eliminating the Sioux war power.
One ironic result was Cluster’s historic defeat on the Little Bighorn in June of 1876—a defeat Sitting Bull, in his role as medicine man, had foretold. But if it was a famous victory for the Sioux, it was a last one. Sitting Bull knew, even as Indian braves counted the spoils of the battle, that they did not have the fighting force to resist the aroused whites for long: and he knew now that there was no meaning in negotiation, for the white man broke treaties as fast as he made them. So, unlike many other Sioux leaders, who were willing to surrender to a life on the reservation, the chief now tried flight.
In May 1877, Sitting Bull led some two thousand of his people to shelter under the power of Grandmother (Queen Victoria) in her vast territory across the Canadian border. They could roam the land, with the privilege of hunting: but game was scarce. The hungry, discontented braves soon began to raid down into the Dakotas: a large group of them deserted. In the meantime, the United States government issued invitations to the Sioux in Canada to return. Sitting Bull was puzzled at these offers: he had not been welcome in the United States before. Why now—when Custer had been killed? But because it seemed to be the best thing for his people, even though his sense of logic went against it, he agreed. In July of 1881, the famous chief put himself and his band in the hands of U.S. troops at Fort Buford, Montana.
Sitting Bull was promised pardon. Instead, he soon found himself loaded onto a steamer and taken as a prisoner to Fort Randall, South Dakota. In the next two years the aging chief learned much about captivity, while his people learned about reservation life. Despite their sadness, many of them accepted government rations with satisfaction. Some allowed their children to go to agency schools. Sitting Bull pondered the changes, and mentally resisted most of them. He was suspicious of the white man’s education, sensing that this struck at the very root of the traditional way of life.
In 1884 there came a new kind of experience for Sitting Bull. With the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, and hoping to discuss the plight of the Sioux with the President, the chief agreed to go on a travelling exhibition in the East. He was paid nothing by Colonel Alvaren Allen, the entrepreneur who organized the tour, but was allowed to sell his autograph, which was eagerly sought wherever he went. The irony of his situation was never clearer than in a Philadelphia theatre, where there happened to be an “educated” Sioux boy in the audience to appreciate it.
The boy (who was to grow up to be Chief Standing Bear) had been surprised to see Sitting Bull billed as “the murderer of Custer”—something he knew to be false, for Sitting Bull did not fight at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Moreover, the chief’s willingness to go on the tour at all implied a conciliatory mood. So the boy paid his fifty cents’ admission and went in to see the show. Sitting Bull, who at that time knew scarcely any English, came out on the stage and said in Sioux:
My friends, white people, we Indians are on our way to Washington to see the Grandfather, or President of the United States. I see so many white people and what they are doing, that it makes me glad to know that some day my children will be educated also. There is no use fighting any longer. The buffalo are all gone, as well as the rest of the game. Now I am going to shake the hand of the Great Father at Washington, and I am going to tell him all these things.
Standing Bear then heard a vicious mistranslation. Sitting Bull, Colonel Allen explained, had been describing his bloody triumph over Custer and his party; and the audience hissed the red villain. As for seeing the Great White Father, the exhibition’s itinerary had never actually included Washington. More broken promises. Yet, if Sitting Bull was made into the epitome of Indian savagery by American hucksters, he did at least change the stereotype for some Americans who observed his quiet dignity, or saw him give pennies to ragged white children. Buffalo Bill Cody, who signed up Sitting Bull for his Wild West show the following year, found that in dealing with the chief a white man must keep his word—absolutely.