Modern history



The Dance

By early June, Sitting Bull’s village had traveled about thirty miles up the Rosebud River. On a flat section of grass on the east bank, they prepared for the Lakota’s most sacred of ceremonies, the sun dance. A tree was selected from a cottonwood grove and carried to a hoof-flattened plain. Shorn of branches except for one sprig of green leaves at the top, and painted red, the tree was dropped into a carefully dug hole, where it became the center of the arborlike sun dance lodge.

Eleven years earlier, during a sun dance on the Little Missouri River, Sitting Bull had “pierced the heart.” Two sharp sticks had been thrust through the flesh and muscle wall of his chest. Ropes were attached to the sticks, and with an eagle-bone whistle in his lips, he had hung suspended from the top of the sacred pole at the center of the lodge. There was a downy white feather at the end of the whistle that danced pulselike with each breath. Even though his lifelong training as a warrior helped him endure the searing pain, he did his best to lay bare all his pitiful human frailties before Wakan Tanka and, weeping, prayed “for his people to be healthy and have plenty of food.”

His nephew One Bull had been fifteen years old during that sun dance on the Little Missouri, and he later remembered that as his uncle was “hanging there and crying,” Sitting Bull heard a voice say “God will give you what you ask for.” Eventually, the wooden sticks had torn through Sitting Bull’s flesh, and now, more than a decade later, as he entered the circular lodge beside the Rosebud River, his naked torso bore the scars of that and other sun dances.

For Sitting Bull, this sun dance beside the Rosebud River, with which the northern Lakota appealed to Wakan Tanka to support them in the year to come, marked the culmination of an almost decade-long struggle. Only now, after years of contention and hardship, had the way become clear. Much, however, remained to be revealed.

With the signing of the Treaty of 1868, the U.S. government granted the Lakota most of the modern state of South Dakota, along with hunting rights to more than twenty-two million acres of prime buffalo territory to the west and north in modern North Dakota and Montana. The following year, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, the leaders of two of the largest bands of the Lakota, the Oglala and the Brulé, respectively, decided that it was in their people’s best interests to move to government-created reservations in northern Nebraska.

Around this time, Sitting Bull emerged as leader of the Lakota to the north. In addition to the Oglala and the Brulé, the Lakota, whose name means “alliance of friends,” included five other bands: the Minneconjou, Sans Arcs, Two Kettles, Blackfeet, and Sitting Bull’s people, the Hunkpapa. In the 1860s, the northern Lakota had not yet felt the full brunt of the coming collision with the whites, whom they referred to as the washichus. But as several tribal leaders, including Sitting Bull’s powerful uncle Four Horns, recognized, change was coming. With the washichus becoming an increasing presence, there was a need for a single, all-powerful leader to coordinate the actions of the tribe.

Sitting Bull’s nephew One Bull remembered how in the late 1860s the warriors Gall and Running Antelope presided over a ceremony attended by four thousand Lakota, in which Sitting Bull was named “the leader of the entire Sioux nation.” Instead of being the “head chief,” Sitting Bull’s new authority appears to have applied only to the issue of war. One Bull claimed that Gall was named his “2nd in command as War chief,” while Crazy Horse was named “war chief of the Oglala, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.” “When you tell us to fight,” they told Sitting Bull, “we shall fight. When you tell us to make peace, we shall make peace.”

The concept of having a supreme leader did not come naturally to the Lakota, for whom individuality and independence had always been paramount. Even in the midst of battle, a warrior was not bound by the orders of a commander; he fought for his own personal glory. Decisions were reached in Lakota society by consensus, and if two individuals or groups disagreed, they were free to go their separate ways and find another village to attach themselves to. From the start, Sitting Bull had to strive mightily to balance his own views with those of the majority of the tribe.

There were three possible paths for the Lakota to follow. They could do as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail eventually opted to do and move permanently to a reservation. For both leaders, this was not an act of submissive resignation. Red Cloud had recently led a number of raids (which came to be known as Red Cloud’s War) that had forced the American government to shut down a series of forts along the Bozeman Trail, running from eastern Wyoming all the way to western Montana. Spotted Tail had spent several months as a prisoner of the U.S. government and knew more about the realities of white society than any other Lakota leader. Both chiefs decided that given the inevitability of white expansion into their territory, the time was right to start working with, rather than against, the U.S. government.

A second and more attractive option for many Lakota was to have it both ways: spend the winter months at the agencies, where there was meat, bread, tobacco, and even ammunition for firearms, and depart for the hunting grounds in the summer. Then there was Sitting Bull’s position: complete autonomy, as far as that was possible, from the washichus. It was true that the horse and the gun had come to them from the whites, but all the rest of it—their diseases, their food, their whiskey, their insane love of gold—all of this had a hateful effect on the Lakota.

As the Cheyenne and Lakota to the south had come to recognize, self-imposed isolation from the whites was impossible once the buffalo disappeared. But for now, with the herds to the north still flourishing, Sitting Bull resolved to do everything he could to keep the washichus at bay.

In the late 1860s, Sitting Bull launched his own version of Red Cloud’s War against the growing number of army forts along the upper Missouri River. In 1867, at Fort Union, near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, he took time out from what proved to be a four-year campaign against the washichus to scold some Indians who had made a habit of scrounging food at the outpost. “You are fools to make yourself slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard tack and a little sugar and coffee . . . ,” he said. “[The] whites may get me at last . . . , but I will have good times till then.”

By 1870, however, Sitting Bull had been forced to soften his stance toward the washichus. “Be a little against fighting,” advised his mentor Four Horns, “but when anyone shoots be ready to fight him.” Even Crazy Horse, the foremost warrior of the Oglala, endorsed the policy advocated by Four Horns. “If any soldiers come . . . and don’t start firing, we won’t bother them,” he was heard to say to Sitting Bull. “But if they come firing we will go after them.”

There were other factors contributing to the tempering of Sitting Bull’s warrior spirit. By the late 1860s, he had been seriously injured a total of three times. Being an only son with two sisters, he was responsible for a large extended family. Now that he was approaching forty years old, it was time, his mother insisted, that he become more mindful of his own safety. “You must hang back in warfare,” she said; “you must be careful.” His change in behavior on the warpath was immediately noticeable. Even his adoring nephew White Bull later admitted that his uncle was “sort of a coward from [then] on.” Given his much-heralded reputation for bravery as a young man, this must have been a most difficult adjustment for Sitting Bull.

Adding to his troubles was the rise of a movement within the northern Lakota known as iwashtela, which stood for “living with the washichus gradually.” Instead of shunning the whites, these Lakota felt it was time to begin a conscious effort at accommodation. Increasing numbers of Lakota opted for the reservations (by 1875 more than half of the total Lakota population of approximately eighteen thousand had moved to the agencies), and Sitting Bull’s staunch insistence on isolationism was beginning to seem willfully anachronistic.


In the spring of 1870, Sitting Bull and his followers were encamped on the north side of the Yellowstone River. His warriors had just returned from a raid against the Crows when some Hunkpapa appeared on the south bank of the Yellowstone. The Indians in this group had made the controversial decision to enroll at the newly formed Grand River (eventually known as Standing Rock) Agency to the east. Whether they viewed themselves as possible emissaries or simply wanted to visit with their relatives, they had traveled several hundred miles to find Sitting Bull, a leader whose scorn for reservation life was well known.

The agency Indians constructed bullboats, tiny circular craft made of willow branches and male buffalo skins, and paddled across the Yellowstone. Once they’d arrived on the north bank, they were met by the warrior Crow King. Crow King was unfailingly loyal to Sitting Bull; he was also known for his temper, and he was already angry by the time the agency Hunkpapa approached the encampment. They were armed, and it wasn’t proper etiquette to come into your own people’s camp bristling with hatchets, guns, and bows. Clutching his own weapons, Crow King paced menacingly back and forth and shouted, “What do you pack those guns for? You ought to do everything in a peaceful way.”

One of the agency Indians tried to calm Crow King. “We came over here to bring Sitting Bull an invitation to our camp,” he insisted. He also admitted that they were a “little bit afraid” of their Hunkpapa brethren, who had obviously just returned from the warpath. “We thought you were on the warpath still. That is why we packed our guns along. We meant nothing by that. We came to help ferry you across.”

Still seething with indignation, Crow King stormed into Sitting Bull’s lodge. Eventually, the tepee flap was pulled aside and both Crow King and Sitting Bull emerged. “Friends,” the Hunkpapa leader said, “Crow King means no harm. But the way you came over excited him. . . . That’s why he is getting crazy mad. But your suggestion is welcome to me. I accept your invitation. And so we are going to move across the river to your camp.” In this instance, Sitting Bull had chosen to accept the agency Indians’ overtures, and the visit proceeded peacefully. He would not always prove so amenable.

That same year the Oglala agency chief Red Cloud returned from his first visit to Washington, D.C., with stories of the immensity of the white population and the daunting power of its military arsenal. Sitting Bull was dismissive of the claims. “Red Cloud saw too much,” he was reported to say. “[T]he white people must have put bad medicine over Red Cloud’s eyes to make him see everything and anything that they pleased.”

Making matters even worse for the embattled Hunkpapa leader was his domestic situation. His two wives, Red Woman and Snow on Her, did not get along. The simmering tension between the two was bad enough during the day, but at night it became intolerable as Sitting Bull lay sleepless on his back, bracketed by two wives who refused to allow him to turn on his side and face the other. It was during this difficult, divisive time in his life that Sitting Bull reached out for help in a most unlikely direction.

On a cold, snow-swept afternoon in 1869, somewhere to the west of the Missouri River, Sitting Bull and a small war party lay in ambush, waiting for the rider on the local mail line to enter a narrow gulch. The warriors soon captured the rider—a big nineteen-year-old dressed in a shaggy buffalo coat—and instead of killing him as the others had expected, Sitting Bull decided to let the rider live.

The rider called himself Frank Grouard, but the Lakota chose to call him the Grabber. His furry coat and big, wide-shouldered physique reminded them of a bear, a creature that used its front paws like hands.

The Lakota assumed the Grabber was an Indian half-breed. He certainly looked like an Indian with dark skin, jet-black hair, and high cheekbones. The speed with which he learned the Lakota language and the enthusiasm with which he embraced all aspects of the culture also seemed to corroborate the impression that Grouard was at least part Native American. But as Grouard later insisted to anyone who listened, he was something else entirely: a South Sea Islander, commonly referred to by American sailors as a Kanaka.

Grouard’s father, Benjamin, had been a Mormon missionary who established a church on an island in the South Pacific and married the daughter of the local chief. They had three children, and Frank was born in 1850. In 1852, the Grouards moved to California. Frank’s mother and sister eventually returned to the South Pacific, while Frank was adopted by a Mormon family who relocated to Utah. Frank ran away from home at sixteen and in a few years’ time, after being abducted by Sitting Bull, was living with the Hunkpapa.

Soon after Grouard’s capture, Sitting Bull decided to adopt him as his brother. Ten years before, he’d successfully done the same thing when he adopted a thirteen-year-old Assiniboine boy who’d been captured in a raid. The boy proved so loyal that two years later, when Sitting Bull’s father was killed by the Crows, the boy was given the old man’s name of Jumping Bull. At some point after 1869, the Grabber became the Lakota leader’s second adopted brother.

Frank Grouard was not the only non-Indian to embrace Lakota culture. For decades, what was known as the “squaw man” had been a fixture in the West, and many of the children born from these interracial unions served as scouts for the U.S. Army. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry had two brothers, Billy and Bob Jackson, who were part Pikuni Blackfoot. One of Custer’s own officers, Lieutenant Donald McIntosh, was part Iroquois. According to Cheyenne oral tradition, Custer’s relationship with the Cheyenne captive Monahsetah in 1868–69 produced a son named Yellow Hair.

It was true that Native and white worlds were profoundly different in the 1870s. There were some Lakota and Cheyenne in Sitting Bull’s village on the Rosebud who had not yet even seen a white person. But instead of a hard and fast division, the barrier between cultures was so permeable that men like Frank Grouard could move between the washichus and Lakota as conditions required.

Sitting Bull undoubtedly liked Frank Grouard, but he had other, largely political reasons for bringing him into the fold. Since Sitting Bull refused to deal directly with the whites, he needed an intermediary, someone he could trust who was capable of understanding and communicating with the washichus, and Grouard quickly became a member of his inner circle. In 1872, a government official described him “as a Sandwich Islander, called Frank, who appears to exercise great control in the Indian councils and who excels the Indians in their bitter hatred of the whites.”

Grouard came to have a deep respect for Sitting Bull’s skills as a leader. The Hunkpapa warriors Gall and No Neck often opposed him at the tribal councils, but Sitting Bull was, according to Grouard, “a first class politician [and] could hold his own.” Grouard noticed how he worked indefatigably to garner as much backing as possible, whether it was with his male peers in the various warrior societies or—perhaps even more important—with the women, who far outnumbered the men in a typical Lakota village and who, Grouard recounted, “sang his praises to the exclusion of every one else.” Women usually had no voice at the tribal councils, but since grandmothers were the ones who raised the children, Sitting Bull realized they counted for much in molding the attitudes of the tribe.

Sitting Bull’s strongest source of support, according to Grouard, was among the Lakota youth. For teenagers who had not yet attained their war honors, reservation life, and the cessation of intertribal warfare that went with it, would be a disaster. Their fathers and grandfathers could enjoy the comforts of the reservation without compromising their sense of self-worth, but that was not possible for those whose best fighting years were still in the future. For them, the uncompromising traditionalism of Sitting Bull’s stance was irresistible. “All the young warriors worshipped him,” Grouard remembered.

In the early 1870s, the U.S. government opened the Milk River Agency at Fort Peck on the Missouri River, where rations and clothing were made available to the Lakota in a conscious attempt to undercut hard-liners such as Sitting Bull. In the winter of 1872–73, even some of his strongest supporters, including his uncles Four Horns and Black Moon, succumbed to the lure of the agencies. Only fourteen lodges, composed mostly of the families in his immediate kinship circle, known as a tiyoshpaye, joined him that winter in his obstinate insistence on remaining beyond the reach of the whites. Sitting Bull was in danger of losing his tribe.

To make matters worse, his adopted brother the Grabber betrayed him. In the spring of 1873, Grouard pretended to go on a horse-stealing raid against the Assiniboine when he really intended to visit Fort Peck. Like many cultural go-betweens before and since, Grouard felt the competing pulls of two different ways of life. It would be several years before he completely turned his back on the Lakota, but for now he decided it was time he at least visited the fort. When Sitting Bull learned the truth soon after Grouard’s return, the Hunkpapa leader was so angry that Grouard feared for his life. Sitting Bull’s mother attempted to patch things up between them, but Grouard finally decided it was better to leave Sitting Bull’s family circle and join the Oglala, where, much as he had once done for Sitting Bull, he became the trusted lieutenant of Crazy Horse.

Sitting Bull had at least one consolation. After his divorce from Snow on Her and the death of Red Woman, he was now happily married to two sisters, Four Blankets Woman and Seen by the Nation.

In the summer of 1873, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry ventured for the first time into Lakota territory as escorts for the surveyors of the Northern Pacific Railway. Having seen what had happened to the Cheyenne to the south, the Lakota knew that the railroads had a devastating effect on the buffalo, and they responded to this invasion of their hunting territory with force.

The year before, in 1872, the appearance of the soldiers on the Yellowstone had given Sitting Bull an opportunity to reestablish his once unsurpassed reputation for bravery. A bloody confrontation between about a thousand warriors and several companies of soldiers had reached an unsatisfying stalemate. Armed with only a lance, Crazy Horse rode back and forth in front of the soldiers, challenging them to fire at him. It was a magnificent display of courage that appears to have inspired Sitting Bull to perform his own kind of bravery run.

He laid down his rifle and, with only his pipe in his hand, started to walk toward the enemy line. Once he’d come to within a quarter mile of the soldiers, he sat down and lit his pipe. Since he was well within range and presented such an inviting target, the soldiers immediately began to blast away. With bullets flying all around, Sitting Bull turned to the warriors behind him and called out, “Whoever wishes to smoke with me, come.”

Only four men joined him: two Cheyenne, a Hunkpapa named Gets the Best Of, and Sitting Bull’s nephew White Bull. Despite the near-constant barrage of bullets, the Lakota chief seemed unperturbed. “Sitting Bull was not afraid,” White Bull marveled, “he just sat and looked around and smoked peacefully,” even as the others, their “hearts beating fast,” puffed away at a furious rate. Once the pipe had been smoked out, Sitting Bull paused to clean the bowl with a stick, and even as bullets continued to chop up the ground around his feet, he “walked home slow.” His performance that day “counted more than counting coup,” remembered White Bull, who called it the “most brave deed possible.” Sitting Bull might not be leading the Hunkpapa into battle anymore, but his courage could no longer be questioned.

The following year, in 1873, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry had two brief encounters with the Lakota. What impression Custer, whose flowing locks earned him the Lakota name of Pehin Hanska, meaning Long Hair, made on Sitting Bull is unknown. We do know, however, that the Hunkpapa heard Custer’s brass band. Prior to launching a decisive charge, Custer ordered the band to strike up “Garry Owen.” “The familiar notes of that stirring Irish air acted like magic,” wrote Samuel June Barrows, a reporter traveling with the regiment that summer. “If the commander had had a galvanic battery connecting with the solar plexus of every man on the field, he could hardly have electrified them more thoroughly. What matter if the cornet played a faltering note, and the alto-horn was a little husky? There was no mistaking the tune and its meaning.”

Given Sitting Bull’s renown as a composer and singer of songs, it is tempting to speculate on his reaction to the boisterous strains of Felix Vinatieri’s band. Having once sung of his own bravery and daring as he sprinted toward the Crow chief, he would have known exactly what Custer was attempting to accomplish as the notes of “Garry Owen” echoed up and down the valley of the Yellowstone.

That fall, America was gripped by the Panic of 1873, and the following summer Custer led his expedition into the Black Hills, known as Paha Sapa to the Lakota. Both the Lakota and the Cheyenne revered the Black Hills as a source of game, tepee poles, and immense spiritual power. It had been here, within this oasislike region of stone, pine, and clear lakes, that Sitting Bull had heard the eagle sing to him about his destiny as his people’s leader.

The Black Hills were certainly sacred to the Lakota, but from a practical standpoint the people spent relatively little time in this mountainous and forbidding land. In the summer of 1875, by which time Custer’s discovery of gold had flooded the region with prospectors, government officials were hopeful that the promise of a lucrative financial offer might persuade the Lakota to sell the hills.

For the last few years, Sitting Bull had been plagued by the catchy sloganeering associated with the policy of iwashtela. He now developed a powerful slogan of his own. All Lakota were familiar with the food pack: a container of dried meat, vegetables, and berries that enabled them to get through the lean months of winter. The Black Hills were, Sitting Bull insisted, the food pack of the Lakota. It was an image that quickly began to resonate with many of his followers. “At that time I just wondered about what he had said,” the young Minneconjou warrior Standing Bear later remembered, “and I knew what he meant after thinking it over because I knew the Black Hills were full of fish, animals, and lots of water, and I just felt that we Indians should stick to it.”

After years of losing more and more of his people to the netherworld of reservation life, Sitting Bull now had an issue that finally put into focus where they all stood. Without a food pack, a Lakota would starve in the winter. Without the Black Hills, the Lakota had no future as an independent people. It was as simple as that.

By the spring of 1875, Frank Grouard had left Crazy Horse and moved to the Red Cloud Agency, where he offered his services to government officials seeking to win Lakota support for the sale of the Black Hills. Grouard had found the transition back to white society surprisingly difficult. Several years on an all-meat diet had made it almost impossible for him to digest bread. He also had trouble with the language. “It was two or three months before I could talk English without getting the Indian mixed up with it,” he remembered.

That summer Grouard accompanied a delegation to the camp of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The officials hoped to convince the two leaders to attend negotiations at the Red Cloud Agency. Crazy Horse seemed surprisingly receptive, telling Grouard he would abide by “whatever the headmen of the tribe concluded to do after hearing our plan.” Sitting Bull, on the other hand, responded to both the message and the messenger with unbridled scorn. “He told me to go out and tell the white men at Red Cloud that he declared open war,” Grouard remembered, “and would fight them wherever he met them from that time on. His entire harangue was an open declaration of war.”

Although neither Sitting Bull nor Crazy Horse participated in the negotiations that September, a leading Oglala warrior named Little Big Man did his best to convince the government’s commissioners that the Black Hills were not for sale. On September 23, 1875, there were an estimated seven thousand warriors gathered around the commissioners, who were huddled inside a canvas tent set up on a dusty plain between the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies. Tensions were already high when Little Big Man, resplendent in war paint, with a Winchester rifle in one hand and cartridges in the other, pushed his way through the crowd and rode up to the commissioners. He had come, he announced, “to kill the white men who were trying to take his land.” The day’s negotiations were quickly called to a halt as the commissioners, fearing an outbreak of violence, were packed into wagons and rushed to safety. That fall, they returned to Washington with an unsigned agreement.

A little over a month later, on November 3, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant met in the White House with Secretary of the Interior Zachariah Chandler, Assistant Secretary Benjamin Cowen, and Generals Philip Sheridan and George Crook. Grant had called them together to discuss the Black Hills, where there were now an estimated fifteen thousand miners despite Crook’s halfhearted attempts over the summer to keep them out. Unless the army was willing to take up arms against U.S. citizens, such attempts were doomed to failure. But the Lakota refused to sell. Grant chose what he felt was the lesser of two evils. He decided to wage war on the Indians instead of on the miners.

Less than a week later, newly appointed Indian inspector Erwin C. Watkins, a former Republican Party hack from Michigan who had served under both Sheridan and Crook during the Civil War, filed a report that gave Grant the excuse he needed to take up arms against the Lakota. Sitting Bull and his followers, Watkins claimed, were raising havoc—not only killing innocent American citizens but also terrorizing rival, peace-loving tribes. Without mentioning the Black Hills once, Watkins spelled out a blueprint for action that might as well have been (and perhaps was) written by Sheridan himself.

The true policy in my judgment, is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection. . . . The Government owes it . . . to the frontier settlers who have, with their families, braved the dangers and hardships incident to frontier life. It owes it to civilization and the common cause of humanity.

On December 6, Indian Commissioner E. P. Smith instructed his agents at the various Lakota agencies to deliver an ultimatum to the camps of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and all the other nonreservation Indians. They must surrender themselves to the agencies by January 31, 1876, or be brought in by force.

Up until this point, the Lakota had, despite enormous provocation from the miners in the Black Hills, remained remarkably peaceful. Watkins’s report was false. To expect the Lakota to journey to the reservations in January, when blizzards often made travel impossible, was absurd. Sheridan privately admitted that the order would most likely “be regarded as a good joke by the Indians.”

But on March 17, 1876, on the upper reaches of the Powder River, a village of Cheyenne, Oglala, and Minneconjou learned that the government’s ultimatum was no laughing matter.

The army might have never found that village in March of 1876 without the help of Frank Grouard, who had signed on as a scout with General Crook. After weeks of pointless searching through the heaping snowdrifts of a frigid Montana winter, just when it looked as if Crook’s force might have to return south for provisions, Grouard—the scout no one trusted since he’d been on such intimate terms with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—finally convinced Crook that the Indians were not, as previously reported, on the Tongue River but on the Powder.

Grouard’s years with the Lakota had given him an instinctual familiarity with the land. “I went over the ground so many times,” he remembered, “that I fairly carried a map of the country in my mind, and could close my eyes and travel along and never miss a cut-off or a trail.” By adopting the Grabber as his brother and not, as he had threatened, killing him after his first betrayal, Sitting Bull had unwittingly provided the army with the only person capable of not only finding the village but, just as important, eluding the scouts who were guarding it. As he and several companies of Crook’s regiment approached the village in an icy fog, Grouard even recognized several of the Indians’ horses as belonging to some of his former Oglala friends.

They caught the village by complete surprise. There were about a hundred lodges of northern Cheyenne, Oglala, and Minneconjou, who immediately fled from their tepees and took refuge in the surrounding hills, where they watched the soldiers torch the village and take their horses. While their warriors pursued the retreating soldiers south and eventually retrieved almost all the horses, the old people, mothers, and children returned to the burnt-out ruin of their village and collected what little had not been consumed by fire.

“We were . . . at peace with the whites so far as we knew,” remembered the Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, who was then eighteen. “Why should soldiers come out . . . and fight us?”

In the days ahead, a thaw turned the snow and ice into slush, and on March 23, after four days of slow and messy travel, Wooden Leg’s people found Crazy Horse’s village of just thirty lodges. The village was not large enough to provide the refugees with the food and clothing they desperately needed, so they decided to move together as a group to Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa village about forty miles to the northeast, where they arrived on April 2.

The Hunkpapa were almost strangers to Wooden Leg’s people, the northern Cheyenne. As the Cheyenne straggled into the village, Sitting Bull made sure to provide a positive first impression. Two huge lodges were erected in the middle of the village, one for the women and one for the men. Hunkpapa women fired up their cooking pots and were soon distributing armloads of steaming buffalo meat. The herald shouted out in a booming voice, “The Cheyennes are very poor. All who have blankets or robes or tepees to spare should give to them.”

“Oh, what good hearts they had!” remembered Wooden Leg, who was given a buffalo blanket by a ten-year-old girl. “I never can forget the generosity of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Sioux on that day.”

It was not clear to anyone why the soldiers had attacked. Among the Lakota, young warriors in search of glory often did their best to confound the attempts of their more conservative leaders to rein them in. Crazy Horse theorized that President Grant, whom they called the “grandfather,” had run into similar problems with his army. “These white soldiers would rather shoot than work,” he said. “The grandfather cannot control his young men and you see the result.” The sad truth was that the white soldiers were acting under the explicit, if evasively delivered, orders of the grandfather.

One thing was clear, however. After years of watching his influence decline, Sitting Bull had finally come into his own. “He had come now into admiration by all Indians,” Wooden Leg remembered, “as a man whose medicine was good—that is, as a man having a kind heart and good judgment as to the best course of conduct.”

Sitting Bull, it seemed, had been right all along. The only policy that made any sense was to stay as far away as possible from the whites. If the soldiers were willing to attack a solitary village in winter, who knew what they might do to the thousands of Indians on the reservations. As the Cheyenne had learned back in 1864 at the brutal massacre called the Battle of Sand Creek, soldiers in search of a fight were perfectly capable of attacking a village of peaceful Indians, since they were always the easiest Indians to kill.

—SETTING BULL’S VILLAGE, March 17-June 7, 1876


Sitting Bull determined that the best strategy was strength in numbers. As the village migrated north and west, he sent out runners to the agencies telling the Lakota to meet them on the Rosebud River. “We supposed that the combined camps would frighten off the soldiers,” Wooden Leg remembered. Keeping with the policy of the last few years, this was to be a defensive war. They would fight only if attacked first. To those young warriors, such as Wooden Leg, who longed to revenge themselves on the white soldiers, Sitting Bull and the other chiefs insisted on restraint. “They said that fighting wasted energy that ought to be applied in looking only for food and clothing,” Wooden Leg remembered.

By the end of April, the new spring grass had begun to appear. The buffalo were abundant, and when in early June they camped forty-five miles up the Rosebud from its junction with the Yellowstone, the village had grown to about 430 lodges, or more than three thousand Lakota and Cheyenne.

With hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians headed in their direction from the agencies to the east and south, hopes were high that this already sizable village might soon become one of the largest gatherings of Indians ever known on the northern plains. However, not all of those present were there under their own free will.

Kill Eagle was the fifty-six-year-old chief of the Blackfeet band of the Lakota. He lived at the Standing Rock Agency on the Missouri River, but that spring, the government failed to provide his people with the promised rations. He decided that he had no alternative but to leave the agency to hunt buffalo; otherwise his people would starve. He knew that the soldiers were planning a campaign against Sitting Bull, but he hoped to return to the agency before trouble started.

In May, he and twenty-six lodges were camped near the Tongue River when they were approached by warriors from Sitting Bull’s village. The warriors told him that he should “make haste” to Sitting Bull’s camp, where “they would make my heart glad.” Soon after his arrival at the village, he was presented with a roan horse and some buffalo robes. But when Kill Eagle decided it was time to leave, he and his followers soon discovered that they’d been lured into a trap. Almost instantly they were surrounded by Hunkpapa police, known as the akicita, who escorted them to the next campsite up the Rosebud River. Like it or not, the Blackfeet were about to attend Sitting Bull’s sun dance.

The sacred tree, with two hide cutouts of a man and a buffalo attached to the top, stood at the center of the sun dance lodge. Buffalo robes had been spread out around the tree, and Sitting Bull sat down with his back resting against the pole, his legs sticking straight out and his arms hanging down.

He’d vowed to give Wakan Tanka a “scarlet blanket”—fifty pieces of flesh from each arm. His adopted brother Jumping Bull was at his side, and using a razor-sharp awl, Jumping Bull began cutting Sitting Bull’s left arm, starting just above the wrist and working his way up toward the shoulder. Fifty times, he inserted the awl, pulled up the skin, and cut off a piece of flesh the size of a match head. Soon Sitting Bull’s arm was flowing with bright red blood as he cried to Wakan Tanka about how his people “wanted to be at peace with all, wanted plenty of food, wanted to live undisturbed in their own country.”

A few years before, Frank Grouard had endured a similar ordeal. “The pain became so intense,” he remembered, “it seemed to dart in streaks from the point where the small particles of flesh were cut off to every portion of my body, until at last a stream of untold agony was pouring back and forth from my arms to my heart.” Sitting Bull, however, betrayed no sign of physical discomfort; what consumed him was a tearful and urgent appeal for the welfare of his people.

Jumping Bull moved on to the right arm, and a half hour later, both of Sitting Bull’s punctured arms, as well as his hands and his fingers were covered in blood. He rose to his feet, and beneath a bright and punishing sun, his head encircled by a wreath of sage, he began to dance. For a day and a night, Sitting Bull danced, the blood coagulating into blackened scabs as the white plume of the eagle-bone whistle continued to bob up and down with each weary breath.

Around noon on the second day, after more than twenty-four hours without food and water, he began to stagger. Black Moon, Jumping Bull, and several others rushed to his side and carefully laid him down on the ground and sprinkled water on his face. He revived and whispered to Black Moon. Sitting Bull, it was announced, had seen a vision. Just below the searing disk of the sun, he had seen a large number of soldiers and horses, along with some Indians, falling upside down into a village “like grasshoppers.” He also heard a voice say, “These soldiers do not possess ears,” a traditional Lakota expression meaning that the soldiers refused to listen.

That day on the Rosebud, the Lakota and Cheyenne were joyful when they heard of Sitting Bull’s vision. They now knew they were to win a great victory against the white soldiers, who, as Sitting Bull had earlier predicted, were coming from the east.

On the other side of the Rosebud, on a rise of land about a mile to the west, were the Deer Medicine Rocks, also known as the Rock Writing Bluff. This collection of tall, flat-sided rocks was covered with petroglyphs that were reputed to change over time and foretell “anything important that will happen that year.” That day on the Rosebud, a new picture appeared on one of the stones depicting “a bunch of soldiers with their heads hanging down.”

The people were jubilant, but Sitting Bull’s vision contained a troubling coda. For the last decade, the Hunkpapa leader had urged his people to resist the temptation of reservation life. The promise of easy food and clothing was, he insisted, too good to be true. That day on the Rosebud, the voice in Sitting Bull’s sun dance vision said that even though the Indians would win a great victory, they must not take any of the normal spoils of war.

The defeat of the soldiers had been guaranteed by Wakan Tanka. But the battle was also, it turned out, a test. If the Lakota and Cheyenne were to see Sitting Bull’s sun dance vision to its proper conclusion, they must deny their desires for the material goods of the washichus.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!