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Sitting Bull: The Soul Of The Sioux

The annihilation of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the seventh cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 was not only one of the most famous battles in American history, but it was also the starting point for one of the most famous chapters in the history of the Canadian West.

Bruised by the defeat of Custer just before their centennial celebrations, the United States wanted retribution. The focus of their attention became the Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull who was being vilified in the American press. The American military was deployed to bring down Sitting Bull and the renegade Sioux.

Even before the Little Bighorn, the NWMP in Canada were expecting fallout from the escalating conflict between the Sioux and the United States. At Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, Inspector Crozier was ordered to maintain strict watch along the international border and report any sightings of Sioux. By August of 1876, NWMP informants reported that the Sioux and Sitting Bull were en route to Canada.

This was quite a serious situation as the presence of Sitting Bull in Canada represented a spilling over of hostilities from the United States, a situation that threatened Canada’s efforts at a peaceful and orderly opening of its western territories. The American Indian Wars of this period were costing the United States approximately 20 million dollars annually, a total nearly equivalent to Canada’s national budget. Therefore, a peaceful and orderly opening of the Canadian West was critical if the new country was to be successful in the realization of its “national dream.” The Dominion Government was also concerned that should it not settle its western territories, those territories were susceptible to annexation by their expansionist minded neighbour to the south. Settlers would not be attracted to a wartorn west.

The Dominion Government and the NWMP were not certain where problems would erupt. Would it be with Sitting Bull himself, with the United States who was stalking along the international border, or would it be with the Canadian bands that were not happy to see the Sioux competing for the remaining buffalo herds?

The NWMP at Fort Walsh took action to ensure peace. Superintendent James Morrow Walsh rode out to the Sioux camps to outline Canadian law. The Sioux were shocked by Walsh’s apparent lack of concern as he entered Sitting Bull’s camp and set up his tent. Sitting Bull is supposed to have stated, “Yesterday I was fleeing the white men, cursing them as I went. Today they erect their lodges by the side of mine and defy me.”

In council, Walsh told Sitting Bull and the other Sioux leaders that they would not be harassed in Canada as long as they obeyed the Queen’s law and did not harass the Americans to the south. War-weary Sitting Bull was happy to agree.

At the invitation of the Dominion Government, the United States sent a peace delegation to Fort Walsh in October of 1877 to negotiate the return of Sitting Bull to the United States. General Alfred Terry offered the Sioux amnesty in exchange for a peaceful return to their reservations. However, the credibility of the peace delegation was undermined by the continuance of war in the United States and the arrival of wartorn Nez Perce refugees in Sitting Bull’s camp just days before the meeting. At Fort Walsh, Sitting Bull told General Terry, “You come here to tell us lies, but we don’t want to hear them. Go back home where you came from. This country is mine, and I intend to stay here.”

As the refugee crisis dragged on after 1877, international diplomatic relationships became strained, and the NWMP at Fort Walsh were tasked with the maintenance of a delicate peace. Fort Walsh was reinforced and made headquarters of the NWMP in 1878 in order to keep a closer eye on the situation with Sitting Bull.

Ultimately, it was not force or diplomacy that ended the situation but rather it was the disappearance of the buffalo from Canada starting in 1879. Little by little, the starving Sioux started to return to the United States. Finally, by July of 1881, with no means by which to remain in Canada, Sitting Bull and the last of his supporters relented and returned to the U.S.

At Fort Buford in North Dakota, Sitting Bull passed his rifle to Major Brotherton by way of his son Crow Foot. Sitting Bull told Brotherton, “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”

Back in the United States, aside from touring a season with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Sitting Bull continued his role as a spiritual leader for his people. He endorsed the Ghost Dance religion that was becoming increasingly popular among Native American groups at the time. The American government banned the practice of this religion, and orders were issued for Sitting Bull’s arrest.

In December of 1890, the Indian Police were dispatched to arrest Sitting Bull. During the arrest attempt, a skirmish took place and both Sitting Bull and his son Crow Foot were shot and killed.

Today, no one knows for sure the location of Sitting Bull’s grave. While he was originally buried at Fort Yates, ND, in 1953, a group from South Dakota stole the bones and reburied them near Mobridge, SD to help promote the Sitting Bull Stampede Rodeo. Most Lakota maintain that the stolen bones aren’t Sitting Bull’s. In fact, North Dakota sued South Dakota and tested one of the bones – and it was female. It is believed that the Lakota exhumed and reburied his body in a sacred site in an unmarked grave, making neither “official site” the true resting place of the great warrior, Sitting Bull.

Royce Pettyjohn grew up on a ranch in the Cypress Hills area of southwestern Saskatchewan. He now makes his home in Maple Creek, SK where much of his free time is dedicated to the S.W. Sask. Oldtimers’ Assoc. Museum & Archives and to the commemoration of the history of the Cypress Hills area.

“God made me an Indian. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man, he would have made me so in the first place. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.” Sitting Bull

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