The Return of Sitting Bull
The Legendary Chief’s Great Grandchildren Want Him Laid to Rest at the Little Bighorn Battlefield
By Pat Hill
Sitting Bull's great-grandson hopes that moving the legendary Lakota Sioux leader's remains from the Dakotas to the scene of one of his people's greatest victories, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, will finally bring his ancestor some well-deserved graveside respect.
The move isn't a done deal yet, but great-grandson Ernie LaPointe and his three sisters, Marlene Little Spotted Horse Andersen, Ethel Little Spotted Horse Bates and Lydia Little Spotted Horse Red Paint, the only living survivors of Sitting Bull, sent a letter to tribal, state and federal government entities (and the media) in Montana and North and South Dakota on Feb. 21 announcing their plans to have their great-grandfather's remains moved from the present gravesite near Mobridge, S.D., to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
“This is to notify you and other interested parties of family right and authority to re-inter our Great-Grandfather Sitting Bull to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana,” the letter says. “We do this because North Dakota, South Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have not honored their promise for proper care and maintenance of our Grandfather's burial site.”
Ernie Lapointe, who is acting as spokesperson for the family, told the Pioneer in a telephone interview from his home in Lead, South Dakota, that he anticipates no real problems with the move. Darrell Cook, superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said the battlefield is backing the Lapointe family's plan to move Sitting Bull's grave, telling the Billings Gazette that “We recognize Sitting Bull's legacy and that it is at the Little Bighorn.” The battlefield comes under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which Cook said will probably order an environmental assessment of the move before a final decision is reached.
“The only obstacle might be if the National Park Service changes its mind, but I don't see that happening,” LaPointe told the Pioneer. “The Standing Rock Reservation might try to take me to court, but they have no leg to stand on.” According to the Gazette, Standing Rock Tourism Director LaDonna Brave Bull Allard's first statement upon hearing of LaPointe's plans to move Sitting Bull's remains were “I don't think he can do that.”
Sitting Bull's present burial site was recently purchased from a private owner by the Sitting Bull Monument Foundation, a non-profit organization which plans to develop the Lakota leader's burial site into a larger cultural and educational center that includes riverfront recreational development, an amphitheater, snack bar, restaurant, and gift shops. The family's decision to move their ancestor was prompted by the foundation’s plan, which the family claims will violate an agreement entered into by the family and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the 1950s, when Sitting Bull's remains were moved from Fort Yates in North Dakota to the Mobridge site. That agreement included promises to properly maintain the grave and never commercialize the site. LaPointe said the grave has never been properly taken care of, and that the proposed development, with a restaurant and gift shops, will violate the no-commercialization promise. He added that he and his sisters were never consulted about the development plans.
LaPointe said that the struggle between Sitting Bull's blood relatives and the Standing Rock Sioux encompasses a part of Lakota history that's been simmering since Sitting Bull's death at Standing Rock in 1890. Now it all comes down to Sitting Bull's bones.
Born in the early 1830s, Sitting Bull was a well-acknowledged Lakota medicine man and warrior by the time his Hunkpapa band joined together with other Sioux, as well as Cheyenne, Arapaho and other Plains Indians, in Montana in the spring of 1876. Federal troops were on their trail, and Sitting Bull foresaw the alliance of tribes as the Plains Indians’ last big hurrah before the bad times—before the last free bands were forced to succumb to life on the reservation. Sitting Bull also foresaw violence: during a sun dance ritual, he saw upside-down soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky into the Indian camp. The vision was taken as a sign of victory, and war chiefs like Crazy Horse rallied to the call. Crazy Horse led 500 warriors in a win over federal troops led by General Crook at Rosebud Creek on June 17, forcing them into retreat, and setting the stage for a date with destiny. On June 25, after an ill-advised attack on a large Indian encampment in a valley along the Little Big Horn River, George Armstrong Custer and most of the Seventh Cavalry were killed by warriors at that now famous battle.
The Bozeman Avant-Courier was the first newspaper in the country to publish accounts of the battle, which soon became front-page news across the world. The death of the popular Custer and the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry was a slap in the face to an ambitious young country pursuing a vision of manifest destiny, which the golden-haired general himself seemed to have embodied, and cast a pall on the nation's celebration of its first 100 years.
The public outcry over Custer's defeat seemed to stiffen the resolve of the military regarding the “hostile” Indian population, and within a year most of those free-roaming Indians had been confined to reservations. But Sitting Bull led his band north to Canada in May of 1877, and lived peacefully among his old Blackfeet enemies until he finally returned to the states in the summer of 1881.
On July 19, Sitting Bull's rifle was presented to the commanding officer at Fort Buford, Montana Territory, by the Indian leader's son, in an effort that Sitting Bull said was intended to teach the lad “that he has become a friend of the Americans.” But Sitting Bull added that “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
Sitting Bull desired a reservation for his people near the beloved Black Hills, and wanted the right to travel freely back and forth to Canada, but neither wish came to fruition. Instead, Sitting Bull was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation, northeast of the Black Hills on the Missouri River, and then sent even further downstream to Fort Randall, where he remained for two years, essentially held as a prisoner of war.
In May, 1883, Sitting Bull was returned to Standing Rock, where James McLaughlin, the Indian agent in charge of the reservation, had decided to give the legendary Hunkpapa leader no special privileges. That was all right with Sitting Bull, who had never even enrolled at the reservation, according to La Pointe. He said his great-grand-father just wanted to exist in quiet peace, living in the old ways as much as possible. He only left once, to travel with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885; four months of that spectacle cele-brating the end of the Plains Indians' way of life was enough for Sitting Bull, who returned to a quiet life at Standing Rock, living in a small cabin near his birthplace on the Grand River. But in the end, it was McLaughlin's fear of Sitting Bull's ability to inspire his people that brought about the legendary Lakota's death.
By 1890, the Ghost Dance—the peyote-induced ritual promising the return of the bison, the old way of life, and the withdrawal of whites from Indian ancestral lands—had made its way from the Southwest to the Northern Plains. The ritual, revealed to a Shoshone medicine man named Wovoka, appealed to all Plains tribes, and when it reached the Sioux, the white authorities were alarmed. LaPointe told the Pioneer that although his great-grandfather didn't believe in the promises of the Ghost Dance, he wanted to give his people hope.
“He didn't know what to do,” said LaPointe. “He had heard that Red Cloud was having the same problem at Pine Ridge, and wanted to talk with him about it.” But that conversation would never come. Troops had already been requested by authorities at both the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, and McLaughlin, fearing that the ghost dancers and the rest of the Sioux population at Standing Rock would rally around Sitting Bull and rebel, decided to have Sitting Bull arrested. LaPointe said by that time McLaughlin had already turned some family members against Sitting Bull, like the medicine man's nephew, One Bull, who listened in on Sitting Bull's councils and reported back to the Indian agent. LaPointe said those deceptions not only led to his great-grandfather's murder, but also planted seeds for the bad relationship that exists to this day between the blood relatives of Sitting Bull and the Standing Rock Sioux.
“McLaughlin feared my great-grandfather, but he needed to negotiate with him, not arrest him” said LaPointe. “But the bottom line really was to kill him, and McLaughlin didn't want to do that with the U.S. military, but with Indian police, to avoid an uprising.”
During a vision five years before his death, the medicine man learned that he would die at the hands of his fellow Lakota, and before dawn on Dec. 15, 1890, Lakota policemen dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin, clashing with Sitting Bull's followers during the arrest. In the ensuing battle, 14 people were killed, including Sitting Bull, his son Crowfoot (whom Ernie LaPointe was named after by his mother), and six Indian policemen. After his death, Sitting Bull was hurriedly buried at Fort Yates, on the North Dakota end of the Standing Rock Reservation. LaPointe said that Sitting Bull's immediate family members, joined by about 300 other Lakota, then fled southwest from Standing Rock after a warning vision came to his great-grandmother.
“A meadowlark showed my great-grandmother the way…they never got caught,” LaPointe said. “They knew the badlands, and they stayed there.” Life was undoubtedly tough, but Sitting Bull's family and followers remained free for three years, until the Indian agent at Pine Ridge convinced them to come in and enroll there.
“Because of the betrayals, my great-grandmother never went back to Standing Rock,” said LaPointe. “No one at Standing Rock is related to Sitting Bull. And no one at Standing Rock has ever respected us.”
The disrespect of Sitting Bull's grave began early. When Fort Yates was finally abandoned in 1903, Sitting Bull's grave was the only one to remain. It was hard to find and rarely visited; in a fairly recent photo, only a nondescript, bent-over sign marks the spot of Sitting Bull's hasty burial, although the Standing Rock Sioux told Indian Country Today in mid-January that they plan to revamp the North Dakota site.
In 1953, Lapointe's mother, together with two sisters, agreed to have Sitting Bull's remains moved to the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation near Mobridge. In that written agreement, which LaPointe's mother signed and the family still possesses, those promises that the grave would be cared for in perpetuity and never be commercialized were made between the family and the Standing Rock Sioux. But LaPointe said the new gravesite was dishonored from the start. Recall-ing a 1957 visit to his great-grand-father's debris-littered gravesite, LaPointe said “My mother started crying, and told me to never tell anyone I was related to Sitting Bull.”
By the 1970s, LaPointe said that Sitting Bull's gravesite, littered with broken beer bottles and other garbage, smelled terrible, and he was already looking for a way to move his revered ancestor to a resting place where he would be shown the respect he deser-ved. In 1992, LaPointe said he “came out proudly as a relative” of Sitting Bull in his quest to relocate his ancestor, and in 2003, at rededication ceremonies at the Little Big Horn Battlefield, which Native Americans took full part in, LaPointe spoke on behalf of the Sitting Bull family survivors. LaPointe said that during those 2003 ceremonies, he truly realized where his great-grand-father should rest, at that site where his people achieved their final glory.
“The suggestion to move him to the battlefield was made as early as '53,” LaPointe said, “but it was only a conversation until last year, when the land was sold…now [the move] is a done deal with us.”
Rumors persist that the remains taken from Fort Yates to Mobridge may not even be those of Sitting Bull. The Billings Gazette reported a claim that shortly after his burial at Fort Yates, Sitting Bull's remains were secretly moved by Blackfeet friends to Canada, near Turtle Mountain, where the Lakota leader had lived after fleeing north with his people, and where he once envisioned he would be buried. North Dakota, which objected to the removal of the Lakota leader's remains in the '50s, also questioned whether the bones moved to South Dakota were Sitting Bull's, pointing out that the remains were hurriedly dug up and taken away in the middle of the night. The Gazette reported that North Dakota officials also claimed that Sitting Bull “had already become part of the Fort Yates soil, where he had been buried and would remain forever.” LaPointe dismisses any rumors that the bones he wants to move to the battlefield may not be his great-grandfather's remains.
“My mother was there when the bones were moved [from Fort Yates to Mobridge] in 1953,” he said. LaPointe said she saw remains of the canvas her dead grandfather had been sewn up in before his burial, and the smashed-in skull that resulted when an Indian policeman hit an already-dead Sitting Bull in the face with his rifle butt on that early December morning in 1890.
“A division happened in 1890…that division is there to this day. We're not treated with respect at Standing Rock, and for 116 years now there's been no respect shown for my great-grand-father's grave,” LaPointe said. “His re-internment [is] not only to tell his story but to heal. We need to do a healing with all. Non-natives even agree we can't hold a grudge. I'm doing this for our ancestor. I think his final resting place should be at the Little Big Horn.”