In late May of 1876, as Grant Marsh navigated the Far West from his lofty pilothouse of wood, iron, and glass, Sitting Bull, hundreds of miles to the west, mounted a tower of his own. Near the Rosebud River, just south of the Yellowstone, there is a butte. By defini-tion taller than it is wide, a butte is formed when a surface layer of unyielding rock protects the underlying sedimentary layers from erosion. The result can be weirdly dramatic, creating what appears to be a vigorous upwelling of stone that is really something altogether different: a freestanding core sample of what the wind, rain, and frost have whittled from the surrounding plain.
Not far from this eroded projection of rock-capped earth was a village of more than four hundred tepees spread out for almost a mile along the bright green valley of the north-flowing river. Some of the tepees were a sooty brown; others were an immaculate white, thanks to a fresh set of between fifteen and seventeen female buffalo skins—the flesh and fur stripped away with elk-bone scrapers and the hide made pliable with the buffalo’s mashed brains. A pony herd of several thousand spread out across the valley. Hovering over the village, where dogs lounged expectantly beside the women and their cooking fires and where packs of children played games and where the warriors talked among themselves, was a bluish cloud of dust and smoke.
Sitting Bull was about forty-five years old, his legs bowed from a boyhood of riding ponies, his left foot maimed by an old bullet wound that caused him to amble lopsidedly as he searched the top of the butte for a place to sit, finally settling on a flat, moss-padded rock. He’d been only twenty-five years old when he suffered the injury to his foot as part of a horse-stealing raid against his people’s hated enemies, the Crows. During a tense standoff, he had the temerity to step forward with his gun in one hand and his buffalo-hide shield in the other and challenge the Crow leader to a one-on-one encounter.
Across from him, standing proudly in front of a long line of mounted warriors, with his bangs combed up in the pompadour style of the Crows, was the chief. Almost simultaneously, the Crow leader and the impudent young warrior began to run toward each other.
Sitting Bull was not only a fearless warrior, he was also a singer of uncommon talent. Music played a fundamental part in his people’s daily life. There were songs of war, songs of play, ceremonial songs, story songs, council songs, songs for dances, hunting songs, and dream songs. Sitting Bull had a high, resonant singing voice, and as he charged the Crow chief in 1856, he sang,
Comrades, whoever runs away,
He is a woman, they say;
Therefore, through many trials,
My life is short!
In this haiku-like song, Sitting Bull expressed the credo of a warrior society that had come to stunning fruition amid a tumultuous century of expansion, adaptation, and almost continual conflict. The French traders and missionaries who first encountered Sitting Bull’s ancestors at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in modern Minnesota called them the Sioux—a corruption of the Chippewa word for snakes or enemies. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Chippewa’s French-supplied guns had forced many of the Sioux west toward the Missouri River, where they came to depend on the buffalo as the mainstay of their way of life. When the French explorer Pierre Radisson met the Sioux in 1662 he described them as “The Nation of the Beef.”
By the middle of the eighteenth century, a combination of events had set the stage for the rise of the western, or Teton, Sioux. Being a nomadic people, they were less affected by the diseases that began to devastate their more sedentary rivals along the Missouri River. The gradual acquisition of firearms made the Sioux an increasingly formidable foe, but it was the horse, obtained in trade from tribes to the south, that catapulted them into becoming what one scholar has termed “hyper-Indians.”
By the 1770s, the Teton Sioux had overrun the Arikara, or Ree, on the Missouri River and made it as far west as the Black Hills, where they quickly ousted the Kiowa and the Crows. Over the next hundred years the Sioux continued to expand their territory, eventually forcing the Crows to retreat all the way to the Bighorn River more than two hundred miles to the west, while also carrying on raids to the north and south against the Assiniboine, Shoshone, Pawnee, Gros Ventre, and Omaha. “These lands once belonged to [other tribes],” the Oglala Black Hawk explained, “but we whipped those nations out of them and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of Indians.”
For the Teton Sioux, who called themselves the Lakota, war was an integral part of everyday life. A warrior kept obsessive account of his battle honors, which were best won in hand-to-hand combat. Instead of killing the enemy, a warrior’s highest accolade was achieved by hitting or even just touching an opponent, known as counting coup. Other ways to win honors were to rescue a fallen comrade, suffer a wound, or capture the enemy’s horses. Despite the largely ceremonial nature of plains warfare (which has been called “a gorgeous mounted game of tag”), the life of a Lakota warrior was perilous, and “Hokahe!”—meaning “Come on, let’s go!”—was the traditional cry before battle. On that memorable day in 1856, as Sitting Bull sprinted toward the Crow chief, he celebrated the violence and transience of the Lakota warrior by singing, “Through many trials / My life is short.”
The Crow was the first to drop to one knee, swing his flintlock muzzle-loader into position, and fire. The bullet punctured the hide of Sitting Bull’s shield and slammed into the sole of his left foot, entering at the toe and exiting at the heel. It was now Sitting Bull’s turn to aim his rifle and fire. Amid a cloud of black powder smoke, the Crow chief tumbled to the ground, and taking up his knife, Sitting Bull hobbled toward his fallen opponent and stabbed him in the heart. With the death of their leader, the Crows quickly fled, and Sitting Bull—having not just shot but stabbed the man who’d injured him (and a chief, at that)—was now a Lakota warrior without peer.
The history of the Lakota is found in their winter counts, chronological records in which a pictograph, often accompanied by some commentary, tells of the single event by which a year is remembered. With the help of the winter counts, several of which go back as far as 1700, it is possible to chronicle the gradual creep of Western culture into Lakota life.
It begins indirectly, with the acquisition of significant numbers of guns and iron kettles in 1707–8; references to horses also start to appear about this time, and in 1779–80, smallpox makes its first but by no means last appearance. In 1791–92, the Lakota, who have already seen their first white man, record seeing their first white woman, soon followed by the arrival of French fur traders, and in 1805–6 by the Lewis and Clark expedition. There are references to the first time the Lakota see wagons (1830–31) and to the Laramie Treaty of 1851 (“First issue of goods winter,” the count reads). But what dominates the winter counts in the second half of the nineteenth century are not the increasing number of white incursions into Lakota territory, but the ebb and flow of intertribal warfare. Even in 1864–65, when an uprising of the Santee Sioux in Minnesota triggered American soldiers to attack the Lakota (who were guilty, government officials claimed, of harboring the uprising’s leader, Inkpaduta), most of the winter counts make no mention of these assaults. With one exception, which records “First fight with white men,” the rest of the more than half dozen winter counts at the Smithsonian Institution refer to 1864–65 as the year “Four Crows caught stealing horses and were killed.”
The winter counts eloquently illustrate how completely the day-today world engages a society—particularly a thriving society that has followed success after success in its triumphant surge into a new and fruitful land. Hunting buffalo and fighting tribal enemies was an all-absorbing way of life around which the Lakota had created a beautifully intricate and self-contained culture. But it was a culture with an Achilles’ heel. The buffalo, Sitting Bull’s namesake, was essential to their existence. Their food, their lodges, their clothing, their weapons, even their fuel source (dried buffalo dung) came from the North American bison, and if what had already occurred among their allies to the south, the Cheyenne, was any indication, the buffalo might not be around much longer.
With the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, the once limitless buffalo population to the south had collapsed, and the Cheyenne had been forced to turn to government reservations, where they received annual allotments of food and clothing. The experiences of the Cheyenne were certainly sobering, but as late as the 1870s, the buffalo herds to the north around the Yellowstone River were still sizable. Besides, even in the best of times, the buffalo supply had varied dramatically from year to year. One or even two bad years did not necessarily mean that disaster was imminent, especially since the Lakota’s religious beliefs told them that the true source of the buffalo was not of this world, but beneath it, inside the earth.
From this distance in time, it seems obvious: After more than a century of dramatic, seemingly preordained expansion, the Lakota were about to face inescapable catastrophe when their food source, the buffalo, disappeared. Not so obvious, especially today, is what a society about to confront such changes is supposed to do about it.
The future is never more important than to a people on the verge of a cataclysm. As the officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry—not to mention their families—could attest, fear of the future can imbue even the most trivial event with overwhelming significance. It was no accident that Sitting Bull, renowned for the gift of prophecy, emerged as his people’s leader in the darkest, most desperate time of their history.
Sitting Bull later claimed that even before he was born, when he was still adrift in amniotic fluid, he’d been scrutinizing the world. “I was still in my mother’s insides,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1877, “when I began to study all about my people. . . . I studied about smallpox, that was killing my people—the great sickness that was killing the women and children. I was so interested that I turned over on my side. The God Almighty must have told me at that time . . . that I would be the man to be the judge of all the other Indians—a big man, to decide for them all their ways.” Sitting Bull was much more than a brave warrior. He was a wicasa wakan: a holy man with an unusual relationship with the Great Mystery that the Lakota called Wakan Tanka.
He could see into the ungraspable essence of life—the powerful and incomprehensible forces that most people only dimly perceive but to which all humanity must pay homage. Dreams and visions provided glimpses into this enigmatic world of ultimate meaning; so did nature, and in conversations with animals and birds, Sitting Bull found confirmation of his role as leader of his people.
One of these transformative encounters occurred in the Black Hills beside beautiful Sylvan Lake. He was standing among the huge gray rocks that bound this clear pool of blue water when he heard singing from somewhere up above:
My father has given me this nation;
In protecting them I have a hard time.
He assumed the song came from a man, but when he climbed to the top of the rocks, he watched as an eagle flew into the sky.
A vision could occur at any pivotal moment in a Lakota’s life. After days without food and water, alone, often on a mountaintop or butte, he might receive what the Oglala holy man Sword called “a communication from the Wakan-Tanka . . . to one of mankind.” The vision was not hazy or ill-defined. It was real. “It hits you sharp and clear like an electric shock,” the Lakota John Fire recounted. “You are wide awake and, suddenly, there is a person standing next to you who you know can’t be there at all . . . yet you are not dreaming; your eyes are open.”
When the renowned Oglala warrior Crazy Horse was twenty years old, he received the vision that came to define his life. After fasting for several days, he found himself staggering down a hill toward a small lake. He collapsed in the knee-deep water, and once he’d struggled to his feet and started back to shore he saw a man on horseback rise out of the lake. “He told Crazy Horse,” the interpreter Billy Garnett recalled, “not to wear a war bonnet; not to tie up his horse’s tail.” Traditionally a Lakota warrior tied up his pony’s tail in a knot. The man from the lake insisted that a horse needed his tail for balance when jumping streams and for swatting flies. “So Crazy Horse never tied his horse’s tail,” Garnett continued, “never wore a war bonnet.” The man from the lake also told him not to paint his face like other warriors but to rub himself with dirt from a gopher hole and to knit blades of grass into his hair. He also said that Crazy Horse could not be killed by a bullet. Instead, the man from the lake predicted, “his death would come by being held and stabbed; as it actually was.”
The vision in the shallows of the lake transformed Crazy Horse into his tribe’s greatest warrior. “[W]hen I came out,” he told his cousin Flying Hawk, “I was born by my mother.”
Central to Lakota identity was the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and her gift of the sacred calf pipe. In ancient times, the buffalo had been ferocious creatures at war with the ancestors of the Lakota. With the intercession of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who’d been sent by the Buffalo People, the Lakota came into symbiotic harmony with their former enemies, who provided them with food and the means to grow as a people.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman first appeared to two young hunters, who were on a hill searching for game when they saw a young woman dressed in white buckskins with a bundle on her back. She began to approach them, and as she drew near, they saw that she was very beautiful. Her beauty was as unworldly as it was wonderful (what the Lakota described as wakan), and one of the hunters became consumed with lust. When he told his companion of his desire, his friend chastised him, saying, “[S]urely this is a wakan woman.” Soon the White Buffalo Calf Woman was very near them. She laid down her bundle and invited the hunter with the lustful thoughts to approach. A cloud suddenly enveloped the two of them, and when it lifted, the only thing left of the young hunter was a pile of whitened bones.
“Behold what you see!” admonished the woman. “I am coming to your people and wish to talk with your chief.” She told the hunter how she wanted the villagers to prepare for her arrival. They were to create a large council lodge, where all the people were to assemble. There she would tell them something of “great importance.”
The chief and his people did as she instructed and were waiting when she was seen approaching in the distance. Her movements were strange and magical, and suddenly she was inside the lodge and standing before the chief. She took the bundle from her back and held it in both hands. “Within this bundle there is a sacred pipe,” she said. “With this you will, during the winters to come, send your voices to Wakan Tanka. All the things of the universe are joined to you who smoke the pipe—all send their voices to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything.”
The pipe had a bowl made of red stone and a wooden stem. The White Buffalo Calf Woman turned to leave, then stopped to say, “Always remember how sacred this pipe is, for it will take you to the end. I am leaving now, but I shall look back upon your people in every age, and at the end I shall return.”
She stepped out of the lodge, but after walking just a short distance, she looked back toward the chief and his people and sat down. When she next stood again, she had turned into a red and brown buffalo calf. The calf walked a little ways, lay down, and with her eyes on the villagers, rolled on the ground. When she stood up once again, she was a white buffalo. She walked a little farther, rolled on her back, and this time she was a black buffalo. After bowing four times (the Lakota’s sacred number), she walked over the hill and was gone.
Sitting Bull’s nephew White Bull remembered how important the pipe was to his uncle, how he filled the pipe with tobacco, lit it, and, holding the bowl with his right hand, pointed the stem into the sky as he pleaded with Wakan Tanka to assist his people. After pointing the pipe in the four sacred directions, he peered into the future and spoke. “He could foretell anything,” White Bull remembered.
On that spring day in 1876, when Sitting Bull climbed the butte near the Rosebud River, he knew that there were soldiers on the north bank of the Yellowstone River. His scouts had also reported that soldiers to the south were preparing to march in their direction. But from where would they attack first? Once perched on a mossy rock, Sitting Bull began to pray until he fell asleep and dreamed.
In his dream he saw a huge puffy white cloud drifting so sedately overhead that it seemed almost motionless. The cloud, he noticed, was shaped like a Lakota village nestled under snow-topped mountains. On the horizon to the east, he saw the faint brown smudge of an approaching dust storm. Faster and faster the storm approached until he realized that at the center of the swirling cloud of dust was a regiment of horse-mounted soldiers.
The dust-shrouded troopers continued to pick up speed until they collided with the big white cloud in a crash of lightning and a burst of rain. In an instant, the dust—and the soldiers—had been washed away, and all was quiet and peaceful as the huge cloud continued to drift toward the horizon and finally disappeared.
He now knew from where the attack was going to come—not from the north or from the south, but from the east.