image: Wikimedia commons (link).
On this day, December 15th, in the year 1890, the Lakota holy man Tatanka Iyotanke -- Sitting Bull -- was killed.
He was killed during a surprise pre-dawn arrest at the Standing Rock Agency, where he had been allowed to live after two years of imprisonment following his surrender.
Sitting Bull had been one of the last leaders to hold out against being forced to abandon the traditional ways of his people and consent to being forced to live on an agency by the representatives of the government of the US, after the shameful and deceptive violation of treaty after treaty by the same government of the US.
The most important of the treaties which the US government blatantly reneged upon was the treaty of 1868, described in this previous post, which was inked before a military expedition led by George Custer in 1874 confirmed the reports of gold in the sacred Black Hills region -- after which the US government completely changed its tune and basically sought to remove any opposition to their seizure of the lands that had been granted in the treaty of 1868.
That objective led to the ultimatum signed by President Grant ordering all Indians onto agencies prior to a stated deadline of January 31, 1876. When runners carrying this message came to Sitting Bull's camp, he politely said he didn't feel like it just then, perhaps he would consider the idea sometime in the future. He also returned the similar demands sent to him by General Custer, along with the message that he did not want to fight but to be left alone.
During the spring and early summer of 1876, more and more Lakota and members of allied nations left the reservations to join Sitting Bull and the other leaders who had not come in. In the big Sun Dance held along the Rosebud in early June of 1876, Sitting Bull danced for eighteen hours straight -- into the night and all through the next morning -- and ultimately went into a trance or unconscious state in which he was granted a vision of US army soldiers falling into his camp "like grasshoppers," with their heads down and their hats falling off, and a voice declaring "I give you these because they have no ears."
This vision electrified the gathered warriors, who subsequently defeated Custer's attack in late June and annihilated most of his forces, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
After that battle, Sitting Bull continued to lead a band who refused to go in to the agencies for five years, through bitter winters and diminishing access to buffalo and the means of survival, and finally hunger and cold forced him to give up his dream of continuing the old way of life and surrender to agents of the US.
In Crazy Horse and Custer (1975), Stephen A. Ambrose describes the shameful treatment that he received after his surrender in 1881:
He was held prisoner at Fort Randall, South Dakota, for two years; in 1883 he was allowed to join the Hunkpapas at Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota. There he and his people began to starve because of government neglect. Sitting Bull rose to address one set of stuffed-shirt commissioners from Washington and said, "It is your own doing that I am here; you sent me here and advised me to live as you do, and it is not right for me to live in poverty." Senator John A. Logan of Illinois told him to sit down, that he had no right to speak, because he had "no following, no power, no control, and no right to control." 480.
In October of 1890, Sitting Bull joined the Ghost Dance movement, which was spreading through the western Sioux and which taught that by performing a five-day ritual dance which involved inducing trance-conditions, spirits of the departed would be moved to return from the west, driving the whites from the Native American lands, and initiating a time of peace and plenty and a return to the old ways. The dancing and the fervor that the Ghost Dance religion incited greatly worried the government agents in charge of the agencies, who generally opposed it and in some cases tried to limit it or suppress it as much as they could.
As James Mooney (1861 - 1921) explains in his detailed contemporary examination of the Ghost Dance religion and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 (which was connected to the US government's suppression of the Ghost Dance), the Ghost Dance leader Mato Wanatake -- Kicking Bear -- came to the Standing Rock agency on October 09, 1890 at the invitation of Sitting Bull to inaugurate the dance there.
Mooney states that although the agents in charge of the various reservations were against the Ghost Dance itself, they did not see it as a precursor to violence. In fact, in May of 1890, a settler living in Pierre, South Daktoa had sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior John Willock Noble saying that he had information that the Sioux were secretly planning a violent outbreak, but when this letter was forwarded to the agents on the various agencies, "They promptly and unanimously replied that there was no ground for apprehension, that the Indians were peaceably disposed, and that there was no undue excitement beyond that occasioned by the rumors of a messiah in the west" (813).
Describing Agent James McCloughlin of the Standing Rock agency, where Sitting Bull was living in 1890, Mooney says:
McLaughlin, the veteran agent of Standing Rock, who probably knew the Sioux better than any other white man having official relations with them, states that among his people there was nothing in word or action to justify such a suspicion, and that he did not believe such an imprudent step was seriously contemplated by any of the tribe, and concludes by saying that he has every confidence in the good intentions of the Sioux as a people, that they would not be the aggressors in any hostile act, and that if justice were only done them no uneasiness need be entertained. He complains, however, of the evil influence exercised by Sitting Bull and a few other malcontents attached to his agency and advises their removal from among the Indians. 843 - 844.
However, in the same year (1890), official records indicate that the beef ration issued to the American Indians on the reservation, who were now dependent on the US government for their food having been denied their previous way of life, was cut by more than 50% of the levels that were stipulated in the treaties and that had been issued in the previous years (Mooney 845). At the Pine Ridge agency, Mooney reports that after repeated requests brought no change, "at last in the summer of 1890 the Indians at Pine Ridge made the first actual demonstration by refusing to accept the deficient issue and making threats against the agent" (845).
At the same time, the Ghost Dance was spreading amidst these conditions of hopelessness and frustration, first among the agencies located to the south of the Standing Rock agency where Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa were located, and the agents began to become alarmed and order it to stop. While they obeyed at first, one of the Lakota Ghost Dance leaders, Tatanka Ptecela (Short Bull) of the Sicangu or Brule said that, due to the interference with what they saw as their proper affairs, the time of the arrival of the spirit host would be moved forward, that the dancers from the various agencies should meet at a single location to assist the process by dancing all together, and that the dancing should continue even if soldiers were brought in to stop it (849).
The arrival in October of the Ghost Dance leader Kicking Bear at the Standing Rock agency where he joined with Sitting Bull in initiating the dance there alarmed some of the agents still further. In response, Agent McCloughlin went in person to Sitting Bull, and in the words of Mooney "attempted to reason with the Indians on the absurdity of their beliefs. In reply, Sitting Bull proposed that they should both go with competent attendants to the country of the messiah and see and question him for themselves" (849). Mooney tersely explains, "The proposition was not accepted" (849).
Feeling that the situation was getting out of control, some of the less experienced agents began petitioning the War Department for federal troops, and in November of 1890 troops were dispatched from western forts to each of the agencies. Alarmed and in fear of an impending massacre, Kicking Bear, Short Bull, and others departed at the first appearance of the troops for the Badlands region located between the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud agencies and the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock agencies:
Mooney states that: "From the concurrent testimony of all the witnesses, including Indian Commissioner Morgan and the Indians themselves, this flight to the Bad Lands was not properly a hostile movement, but was a stampede caused by panic at the appearance of troops" (851 - 852). Commissioner Morgan notes that they took with them their women and children, and that during the flight to the Badlands, "no warlike demonstrations were made, no violence was done to any white settlers, nor was there any cohesion or organization among the Indians themselves" (cited in Mooney, 852).
Sitting Bull was still at his cabin home within the bounds of the Standing Rock agency. Mooney reports that Agent McLaughlin of the Standing Rock agency, "within whose jurisdiction he was," stated in writing as of November 22 that Sitting Bull did not need to be arrested at that time, but that they could afford to wait to see what would happen and arrest him later if necessary (852), but the federal military authorities had now preempted his authority and on December 12 the military order was given to Colonel William Drum to personally supervise the arrest, and to act in coordination with Agent McLaughlin (855).
Mooney relates what happened next:
On consultation between the commandant and the agent, who were in full accord, it was decided to make the arrest on the 20th, when most of the Indians would be down at the agency for rations, and there would consequently be less danger of a conflict at the camp. On the 14th, however, late Sunday afternoon, a courier came from Grand river with a message from Mr. Carignan, the teacher of the Indian school, sating, on information given by the police, that an invitation had just come from Pine Ridge to Sitting Bull asking him to go there, as God was about to appear. Sitting Bull was determined to go, and sent a request to the agent for permission, but in the meantime had completed preparations to go anyhow in case permission was refused. With this intention it was further stated that he had his horses already selected for a long and hard ride, and the police urgently asked to be allowed to arrest him at once, as it would be a difficult matter to overtake him after he had once started.
It was necessary to act immediately, and arrangements were made between Colonel Drum and Agent McLaughlin to attempt the arrest at daylight the next morning, December 15. The arrest was to be made by the Indian police, assisted, if necessary, by a detachment of troops, who were to follow within supporting distance. 855.
Forty-three agency policemen (Native Americans) and about 100 troops of the 8th Cavalry along with a Hotchkiss gun arrived at Sitting Bull's camp just before daybreak. Mooney narrates:
At daybreak on Monday morning, December 15, 1890, the police and volunteers, 43 in number, under command of Lieutenant Bull Head, a cool and reliable man, surrounded Sitting Bull's house. He had two log cabins, a few rods apart, and to make sure of their man, eight of the police entered one house and ten went into the other, while the rest remained on guard outside. They found him asleep on the floor in the larger house. He was aroused and told he was a prisoner and must go to the agency. He made no objection, but said "All right; I will dress and go with you." He then sent one of his wives to the other house for some clothes he desired to wear, and asked to have his favorite horse saddled for him to ride, which was done by one of the police. On looking about the room two rifles and several knives were found and taken by the police. While dressing, he apparently changed his mind and began abusing the police for disturbing him, to which they made no reply. While this was going on inside, his followers, to the number of perhaps 150, were congregating about the house outside and by the time he was dressed an excited crowd of Indians had the police entirely surrounded and were pressing them to the wall. On being brought out, Sitting Bull became greatly excited and refused to go, and called on his followers to rescue him. Lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Shave Head were standing on each side of him, with Second Sergeant Red Tomahawk guarding behind, while the rest of the police were trying to clear the way in front, when one of Sitting Bull's followers, Catch-the-Bear, fired and shot Lieutenant Bull Head in the side. Bull Head at once turned and sent a bullet into the body of Sitting Bull, who was also shot through the head at the same moment by Red Tomahawk. 857.
Thus ended the earthly sojourn of Tatanka Iyotanke.
He was shot during an arrest made to prevent him from making a visit to the Pine Ridge agency, a visit he had asked official permission through proper channels to be allowed to make, ostensibly for religious purposes.
Mooney reflects upon the significance of his life:
Thus died Tata'nke I'yota'nke, Sitting Bull, the great medicine-man of the Sioux, on the morning of December 15, 1890, aged about 56 years. He belonged to the Uncpapa division of the Teton Sioux. Although a priest rather than a chief, he had gained a reputation in his early years by organizing and leading war parties, and became prominent by his participation in the battle of the Little Bighorn, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, by which Custer's command was wiped out of existence. Being pursued by General Terry, Sitting Bull and his band made their escape northward into Canada, where they remained until 1881, when he surrendered, through the mediation of the Canadian authorities, on a promise of pardon. To obtain subsistence while in Canada, his people had been obliged to sell almost all they possessed, including their firearms, so that they returned to their old homes in an impoverished condition. After confinement as a prisoner of war until 1883, Sitting Bull took up his residence on Grand river, where he remained until he met his death. Here he continued to be the leader of the opposition to civilization and the white man, and his camp became the rallying point for the dissatisfied conservative element that clung to the old order of things, and felt that innovation meant the destruction of their race. For seven years he had steadily opposed the treaty by which the great Sioux reservation was at last broken up in 1889. After the treaty had been signed by the requisite number to make it a law, he was asked by a white man what the Indians thought about it. With a burst of passionate indignation he replied, "Indians! There are no Indians left now but me." However misguided he may have been in thus continuing a losing fight against the inevitable, it is possible that from the Indian point of view he may have been their patriot as he was their high priest. He has been mercilessly denounced as a bad man and a liar; but there can be no doubt that he was honest in his hatred of the withes, and his breaking of the peace pipe, saying that he "wanted to fight and wanted to die," showed that he was no coward. But he represented the past. His influence was incompatible with progress, and his death marks an era in the civilization of the Sioux. In the language of General Miles, "His tragic fate was but the ending of a tragic life. Since the days of Pontiac, Tecumseh, and Red Jacket no Indian has had the power of drawing to him so large a following of his race and molding and wielding it against the authority of the United States, or of inspiring it with greater animosity against the white race and civilization." 860 - 861.
Mooney's defense of Sitting Bull was, as he says in the passage above, unusual at the time that he was writing (1895 or 1896 -- it was published in 1896), at a time when Sitting Bull was often being "mercilessly denounced."
Nevertheless, while seeing very clearly the tragedy of Sitting Bull's life and its mirroring of the tragedy of the destruction of his people's way of life, the above passage does indicate some of the ways that Mooney himself may have rationalized to himself the clearly criminal actions that were employed against the Lakota and the other American Indians whom Mooney himself clearly respected and whose way of life Mooney shows clear appreciation for throughout his writings. Mooney explicitly states that the destruction of the Native American way of life was "inevitable" and that their way of life was basically "incompatible with progress."
Both of these excuses can be seen as a way of attempting to rationalize or soften or veil the raw injustice of the genocide that was inflicted upon the Native American culture during this period of history. An atrocity cannot be excused by an appeal to fictional fabrications such as "inevitability" or "progress." This is a revealing example of what I believe can be broadly labeled "mind control," using an ideology to mask violation of what would normally be recognized as criminal violations or atrocities, and even getting people to condone these violations and atrocities and say that they are actually excusable or even commendable.
General Miles reveals another example which he apparently used himself, to help him to rationalize these crimes: "civilization." According to this concept, the rights of the Native Americans apparently had to be trampled upon because their rights were getting in the way of "civilization."
While Agent McLaughlin, who comes across in Mooney's account as a fairly sympathetic individual, one who did not believe in the need for federal troops to be deployed nor for the arrest of Sitting Bull during the time that others were fleeing to the Badlands, described Sitting Bull as a "malcontent" who had an "evil influence" over "other malcontents," it is not apparent that Sitting Bull actually violated natural universal law in any of the main outlines of his life. The actual resistance by the Lakota and other nations to the incursions of the army which culminated in the annihilation of Custer and his forces at the Little Bighorn can and should be seen as a justifiable resistance to an armed invasion, by troops who had perpetrated numerous massacres of women and children in surprise attacks on villages throughout their campaigns to drive the Native Americans onto reservations. What is more, the invasions were in clear violation of actual treaties and promises made by the US government to the Sioux.
His refusal to be forced onto a reservation after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and his flight with others who felt the same way (including large numbers of women and children, who suffered terribly in the severe winters as they fled north to Canada to escape the pursuing US forces), was also not in violation of natural law: those who were trying to basically imprison him on an agency and reduce his status to that of a dependent were actually the ones in violation of natural law. His imprisonment for two years after his surrender, in which part of the terms of his surrender included a "pardon," can also be seen as a violation of his natural law rights.
Finally, his surprise arrest in the predawn hours on the morning of December 15th, to prevent him from leaving on a journey for which he had already submitted a permission request, on suspicion that he would "go anyhow in case permission was refused" and on the grounds that "it would be a difficult matter to overtake him after he had once started" can also be seen as fairly questionable.
And, while the tenets of the Ghost Dance movement did include the arrival of supernatural events which would remove the invading settlers and government forces from the lands they had taken from the American Indian, and to restore the conditions they had enjoyed before that invasion and all its horrible consequences, there is no indication that the Ghost Dance practitioners were preparing to assist the spirits by their own use of force -- and in fact every indication that they were not in any way preparing to do so, including the written account of contemporary observers at the time.
The sending in of the federal troops which so alarmed the Lakota who had been forcibly confined to the reservations (and who had every reason to be very uncomfortable at such a development and to fear for their lives when the troops arrived) can be seen as a "solution" to a problem caused by unjust actions by the US government itself: their ordering of the dancing to stop, and, even more of a problem, the government's sudden and severe reduction of the rations they were issuing to the Indians whom they had turned into their dependents -- all clear violations of natural law.
The bigger picture is clear: the tragic end of the life of Tatanke Iyotanke reflected the tragic fate of his people, a tragedy he declared to be wrong, and which he faced with dignified resistance.
Long before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, when the Oregon Trail which ran through Lakota territory began to be more heavily traveled in the years following the discovery of gold in California in 1848-1849 and some of the Sioux began to crave whiskey, coffee, sugar, baked goods, metal implements, and guns and to settle along the Oregon Trail in order to trade pelts or other items for these products of western civilization, Sitting Bull already saw the danger. In Crazy Horse and Custer, Stephen Ambrose relates:
When Crazy Horse was still a small boy, the not-yet-famous Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Sioux, urged his people to leave the Oregon Trail and withdraw to the ways of their ancestors. "I don't want to have anything to do with people who make one carry water on the shoulders and haul manure," Sitting Bull declared. "The whites may get me at last, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hardtack, and a little sugar and coffee." 17.