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The Life and Times of an American Patriot
By Robert M. Utley
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Robert M. Utley
All rights reserved.
"I WAS BORN on the Missouri River," said Sitting Bull to the first newspaper reporter to gain an interview with him. "At least I recollect that somebody told me so — I don't know who told me or where I was told of it." Sitting Bull was similarly vague about the year of his birth, reflecting the relative unimportance of such matters in the Sioux scheme of life. The past took on significance only when relevant to the concerns of the present.
Thus the time and place of Sitting Bull's birth remain obscure. He may have been born in 1831, or 1832, or 1834, or 1837. He may have been born at Many Caches, a collection of Indian storage pits on the south side of Grand River almost directly across from where he met his death in 1890. Or he may have been born a hundred miles to the southeast, on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Bad (or Teton) River a few miles west of the Missouri River trading post of Fort Pierre. Many Caches in 1831 seems most likely.
The youth destined for greatness as Sitting Bull was born into a distinguished Hunkpapa family. The Hunkpapas were but one small tribe of the Sioux confederacy. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sioux had divided into three groups of tribes. The location and way of life of each traced a century's history of migration and cultural adaptation as, pressed by Chippewas and drawn by the game-rich plains, the people spread westward from their original homes around the head of the Mississippi River.
Originally the Sioux consisted of seven autonomous but related groups. Although they had never assembled at one time and place, they claimed a unity born of shared culture, history, and language.
Especially language. In the dialect of the eastern tribes, they called themselves Dakota, or ally. In the dialect of the western tribes, the word became Lakota. Any peoples with whom peace had been formally concluded were allies and could come within the meaning of Dakota or Lakota. Any peoples with whom peace had not been formally concluded were automatically enemies. Whites called the Dakotas and Lakotas Sioux, a corruption of a Chippewa word signifying enemies. In time, Dakotas and Lakotas also answered to Sioux.
The four eastern tribes, sometimes collectively labeled Santees, lived along the Minnesota River, the Dakota heartland in the early eighteenth century. They hunted the animals of the prairie and forest, fished the rivers, and harvested wild rice. They moved about mostly on foot and led a semisedentary existence.
The so-called middle tribes of Dakota, the Yankton and Yanktonai, had abandoned the woodlands for the prairies east of the Missouri River. They followed the buffalo on horseback but also retained many customs of their kinsmen to the east. They were a bridge between the Eastern and Western Sioux and shared the traits of both.
Still farther west, the seventh group in turn divided itself into seven tribes. Collectively known as Tetons as well as Lakotas, they spoke the Lakota dialect and by Sitting Bull's time had transformed themselves into true horse-and-buffalo Indians. The seven were Oglala ("Scatters Their Own"), Brule ("Burned Thighs"), Miniconjou ("Planters by Water"), Two Kettle ("Two Boilings"), Sans Arc ("Without Bows"), Hunkpapa ("Campers at the Opening of the Circle"), and Sihasapa ("Blackfeet"). The last were Blackfeet Sioux, not the Blackfeet tribe farther to the northwest.
The Lakota culture was hardly a generation old at the time of Sitting Bull's birth. Only around the beginning of the nineteenth century were the Lakotas fully transformed from pedestrians to mounted nomads. They occupied the high plains between the Missouri River and the Bighorn Mountains while ranging north to the Canadian prairies and south as far as the Platte and Republican rivers. Altogether, the Lakotas numbered between fifteen and twenty thousand people.
Each Lakota tribe claimed its own hunting grounds, although as kindred groups they did not jealously defend them against one another. The largest, the Oglala and Brule, centered on the North Platte River and ranged northward to the upper Powder River and eastward through the Black Hills to the Missouri. To their north, country bisected by the White and Cheyenne rivers, lived the Miniconjous and Two Kettles, overlapping on their north with the Hunkpapas (Sitting Bull's tribe), Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs. The last three, all small, appeared almost as one — often camping and traveling together and intermarrying extensively.
These Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs did not occupy a large homeland. Its heart lay in the grassy plains rolling west from the Missouri River below the mouth of the Yellowstone — Elk River to the Sioux. Relieved by a scattering of buttes and wooded plateaus, the prairies undulated from horizon to horizon, lush and green in spring, scorched and brown in summer. A system of rivers, parallel green troughs in the plains, flowed eastward into the Missouri.
For all its vast emptiness, this land supported bounteous if sometimes precarious life. Herds of buffalo blackened the plains, and elk, deer, antelope, bear, and smaller game afforded variety. Grouse and prairie chickens darted amid the sagebrush, while ducks and geese homed on lakes and river bottoms. Streams yielded trout, bass, and other fish. Edible roots, berries, and fruit rounded out a diet heavy on meat. The rich grasses of the high plains nourished the wild game as well as the domesticated horses that furnished the Hunkpapas their means of transportation. The narrow valleys, traced by groves of cottonwoods and willows, afforded water, firewood, grass, and shelter.
The climate of the northern Plains could be gentle and comforting but also deadly in its extremes. Winter storms dumped huge falls of snow, whipped the land with fierce gales, and dropped temperatures to depths that swiftly froze limbs and brought death. The summer sun blasted the plains with merciless heat, parched the grass, and dried the streams. Often it hid behind thunderheads that towered blackly before loosing sweeping downpours to send floods coursing down the valleys, or that turned suddenly icy and spewed forth storms of hail that stripped trees, shredded grass, and imperiled any creature caught without shelter.
* * *
AT THE TIME of Sitting Bull's birth in 1831, the family was headed by a father of the same name. Tatanka-Iyotanka, Sitting Bull, connoted a stubborn buffalo bull sitting on its haunches. The father did not at first name his son Sitting Bull but rather Jumping Badger, which all understood would be replaced with something more suitable at the appropriate time in his growth. No one called the boy Jumping Badger, however, for his willful and deliberate ways earned him the nickname Hunkesni, or "Slow."
"My father and two uncles were chiefs," the son recalled years later. "My father was a very rich man, and owned a great many ponies in four colors." The oldest of three brothers, his younger brothers, Four Horns and Looks-for-Him-in-a-Tent, were also chiefs, with Four Horns destined to be remembered as one of the most revered in the history of the Hunkpapas.
The family occupying the tipi that formed the boy's first world consisted of Chief Sitting Bull, his wife Her-Holy-Door, and a six- year-old sister, Good Feather. Later another sister was born to the family, named Brown-Shawl-Woman or Twin Woman. A half brother with the name Fool Dog, offspring of an earlier marriage, lived with his mother's people, the Arikaras.
Slow's earliest images were from the perspective of the cradleboard, in which he was tightly laced and released for cleaning only once or twice a day. They were chiefly of the tipi, the conical dwelling of buffalo skins stretched over a framework of lodgepole pines in which the family lived. It stood with other tipis of the band or, on occasion, several bands on the valley of some river or creek. In cold weather a fire burned in the center of the tipi's interior, its smoke drawn off by proper positioning of windflaps at the top attached to two poles, and a dewcloth hung from the inner wall near its base to provide insulation. In warm weather the cookfire burned outside the tipi, while the dewcloth came down and the wall went up a short distance from the pegs to admit cooling breezes. Sleeping robes and storage areas lined the circular base of the tipi. Backrests occupied the place of honor opposite the entrance. Here the father rested or smoked and talked with guests.
Outside, in good weather, the camp bustled with activity. Women scurried at their chores, laboring over smoky cook fires, laughing and gossiping among themselves. Men tended their ponies or sat smoking, making arrows, or mending weapons. Barking dogs darted among the tipis, snarling at one another and fighting over scraps of food.
In front of her tipi, Slow's mother labored at her own tasks. In a buffalo paunch or trade kettle slung from a tripod, she cooked meat and made soup, using stones fired to a white glow and dropped in the pot to keep the mixture boiling. When hunters returned, she cut up the meat. Much of it she sliced into thin sheets and hung from racks made of saplings to dry in the sun. For people on the move, it furnished a nourishing staple, either as simple dried meat or, mixed with tart berries and stored in skin parfleches, as pemmican. Other duties that occupied Her-Holy-Door included the laborious task of scraping and preparing buffalo hides and the skins of other animals; crafting clothing, containers, and utensils; and, when camp moved, dismantling and packing the tipi and all its contents on travois drawn by horses, then reversing the process at the destination. When this occurred — often in summer and autumn, infrequently in winter — Slow bounced along in his cradleboard, strapped to a travois or a horse's flank.
Like all Sioux parents, Sitting Bull and Her-Holy-Door doted on their children. "A child is the greatest gift from Wakantanka," the Great Mystery, a tribesman explained years later, sent "in response to many devout prayers, sacrifices, and promises." As the tribe's future, children enjoyed outpourings of parental affection, indulgence, gentle but persistent instruction, and a complete absence of physical punishment.
That the Lakota mother performed all the hard labor did not imply inferior status in family or society. As one authority expressed it, "The simple fact is that woman had her own place and man his; they were not the same and neither inferior nor superior." Far from a mere drudge, the Lakota mother in fact dominated tipi affairs. She, not the husband, owned the lodge and all the family belongings. She exerted the paramount authority over the children — daughters until wed and sons until their voices began to change.
Her-Holy-Door exercised this influence on her son in his early years and also, as a widowed resident of his lodge, played an important part during most of his adult life. Her grandson remembered her as a very good woman, who taught her son much in his youth and who was a jolly sort who talked a lot and made people laugh.
When finally freed from the cradleboard, however, Slow also came under the intense scrutiny and instruction of his father and, as customary, his uncles. Four Horns in particular, a stalwart warrior wise in the ways of his people, played a significant role in the boy's upbringing. These teachers passed long hours honing his riding and shooting skills. Success in the two basic roles of men in Sioux life — war and the hunt — depended on the ability to maneuver a speeding pony in tight circumstances and the swiftness and accuracy of launching arrows from a bow. Like all fathers, Sitting Bull reared his son to excel in both.
The life of the people was tied to the hunt. The economy depended overwhelmingly on the buffalo. Buffalo meat was the dietary staple. From the hide and fur came clothing, shelter, bedding, furniture, and containers. Sinews provided bowstrings and bindings for every purpose, from lashing together tipi coverings to stitching clothing and moccasins. Bones took shape as all manner of tools, utensils, and implements.
Because the economy centered on the buffalo, social and political organization and religious beliefs and practices also drew heavily on it. The migration of the herds governed the movements of the people and fixed the yearly cycle of life. The habits of the buffalo decisively influenced the form and function of the governing bodies of tribe and bands. Beginning with the wondrous appearance of the White Buffalo Woman, the buffalo inspired a rich spiritual and ceremonial life.
Even more than the hunt, war preoccupied the Hunkpapas. Alone and allied with friendly tribes such as the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho, they fought continually against enemy tribes. Where their range overlapped with that of others, they fought for control of hunting grounds. They fought in defense against the aggressions of others. They fought for plunder, chiefly the horses that comprised the prime measure of wealth. They fought for revenge, in retaliation for injuries real and fancied. They fought for glory and the strictly prescribed war honors that determined prestige and leadership. They fought because they had always fought and knew no other way.
Chief among tribal enemies of the Hunkpapas were the Crows to the west and the Assiniboines to the north. The Crows had conducted a fighting retreat against the westward thrust of the Sioux. By 1850, as Sitting Bull became a warrior of note, the Sioux and Crow hunting grounds merged in a zone of conflict roughly along Powder River, although war parties from each side made incursions deep into the other's territory. To the north, the Assiniboine frontier lay along the Missouri River north and west of the mouth of the Yellowstone. Sioux and Assiniboine — Hohes, as the Sioux called them — also struck far into each other's homeland.
Once a formidable foe, the sedentary Missouri River tribes of Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa (or Gros Ventres) had been so decimated by smallpox that they could no longer stand up to the Sioux. All three occupied earth-lodge villages scattered along the Missouri from the Knife River to the Grand — Hunkpapa-Blackfeet country.
Thus war and the hunt shaped the tribe's social organization and political institutions, which were loose and ever-changing in response to variations in game movement and population, the actions of friends and enemies, and the highly developed individualism of the people.
At the core of tribal society stood the band, or tiyospaye. This was an extended family group in which all were relatives by blood, marriage, or simply a declaration of kinship. Kinship, in fact, forged the unity not only of the band but of the Lakota people as a whole. Kinship ensured that everyone belonged — unless expelled because of some grave offense. Kinship decreed that no one should want so long as anything remained to be shared. Kinship established an intricate system of relationships, forms of address, and modes of behavior. Young Slow, for example, addressed all his father's brothers and cousins as "Father" and enjoyed with each reciprocal obligations and privileges well understood by all. "The ultimate aim of Dakota life," an authority has observed, "was quite simple: One must obey kinship rules; one must be a good relative."
No chief commanded merely by virtue of his station. He led by example, by demonstrated wisdom, and above all with the advice of a council of elders. In the deliberations of the council, every decision represented consensus, not majority vote. When consensus could not be attained, decisions were deferred or simply not made. For important issues, such a failure could produce drift, paralysis, or acute factionalism.
No family felt bound by a council's decision or a chief's instructions. Dissenters could leave at any time, to join another band or wander alone on the plains. In certain circumstances, however, everyone must obey: in wartime, during a formal camp movement, in a communal buffalo hunt involving the entire village, or during some other event affecting the common welfare. In such undertakings, the chiefs relied heavily on men's societies. From these fraternal groups came the akicita, or policemen, who enforced the rules and regulations laid down by the leadership.
Likewise on the tribal level, a council of men experienced in war, the hunt, civil affairs, and spiritual matters discussed broad questions of policy, while four executive officers, "shirt wearers," carried out the policies and decisions of the council with the support of the akicita. For people who rarely came together as a tribe, these tribal officials, especially the shirt wearers, played an important role. They heightened awareness of tribal identity, provided a sense of tribal continuity, and dealt with increasingly difficult problems of relations with neighboring tribes.
Excerpted from Sitting Bull by Robert M. Utley. Copyright © 2008 Robert M. Utley. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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