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Sitting Bull was the Native American chief that the Sioux tribes united in their struggle for survival on the North American Great Plains. Following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, the Sioux came into increased conflict with U.S. authorities. The Great Sioux wars of the 1870s would culminate in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and a confederation of tribes would defeat federal troops under George Armstrong Custer. After several years in Canada, Sitting Bull finally surrendered to U.S. forces with his people on the brink of starvation, and was finally forced to settle on a reservation. In 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed while being arrested by U.S. and Indian agents, fearful that he would help lead the growing Ghost Dance movement aimed at restoring the Sioux way of life. Sitting Bull is remembered for his great courage and his stubborn determination to resist white domination.
Born in the Grand River Valley in what is now South Dakota, Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Yotanka, received early recognition from his tribe as a warrior and man of vision. During his youth he joined in the usual tribal raids for horses against traditional enemies such as the Crow and Assiniboin. Because the Hunkpapa lived and hunted north of the early routes of western travel, Sitting Bull had little contact with whites until the Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862. When the defeated Indians were driven west to the plains, he heard from them what life was like on a reservation. In July 1864, he was one of the defenders when Gen. Alfred Sully used artillery against a Teton encampment at Killdeer Mountain. It was during this period that Sitting Bull formed his resolve to keep his people away from the white man’s world and never to sign a treaty that would force them to live on a reservation.
Confrontation with American soldiers escalated in the mid-1870s after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, a sacred area to Native Americans that the American government had recognized as their land following the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.As white prospectors rushed into the Sioux lands, the American government tabled the treaty and declared war on any native tribes that prevented it from taking over the land. When Sitting Bull refused to abide by these new conditions, the stage was set for confrontation.Sitting Bull’s defense of his land was rooted both in the history of his culture and in the fate he believed awaited his people. At a Sun Dance ceremony on the Little Bighorn River, where a large community of Native Americans had established a village, Sitting Bull danced for 36 consecutive hours, slashed his arms as a sign of sacrifice, and deprived himself of drinking water.
At the end of this spiritual ceremony he informed villagers that he had received a vision in which the American army was defeated.
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