Mrs. Fanny Kelly was taken captive in July 1864 by a war party of Hunkpapa Sioux in Wyoming. During most of the five months she was held prisoner, Mrs. Kelly stayed in the lodgings of Sitting Bull, the famous leader "as a guest," of his family, "and I was treated as a guest," she wrote.
"He was uniformly gentle, and kind to his wife and children and courteous and considerate in his [interactions] with others. During my stay with them food was scarce more than once, and both Sitting Bull and his wife often suffered with hunger to supply me with food. They both have a very warm place in my heart." This surprising warm friendship with a woman who had every reason to hate and fear him, characterized Sitting Bull's interactions with whites. A teacher and missionary among Sitting Bull's people, Catherine Weldon, once described him,
"As a friend...sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree."
"Grandfather was busy and did not want to take the time to dig them, so his daughter Ethel, ten years old, slipped away and dug a half-sack of potatoes and dragged them up to the house for Sitting Bull. He was so pleased that he promised her a pony, and soon a little bay horse was delivered to her. He was named 'Two-John' and she had him until she was married to Jack Jacobs in 1896."1Yet when Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, newspapers throughout the nation echoed the Minneapolis Tribune whose one regret was that he "should have been hung higher than Hamar [Hamar should read Haman. Haman was the villain of the biblical story of Esther who was hung on a specially prepared gallows 50 cubits (a measure of length approximately equal to the length of a forearm) high.] and with less ceremony than is observed by a Texas lynching party towards a horse thief." 2 As the press whipped-up hatred of the Indians, the fact was lost that Sitting Bull had been residing in friendship and peace with his white neighbors, with his only "crime" taking part in a religious worship, the Ghost Dance, labeled the "Messiah craze" by the press.
His greater "crime," of course, was that he was "an obstructionist, a foe to progress." "Progress" was defined as white settlement on Indian land, and the previous year the Dakota (Sioux) Indians had received enormous pressure to approve the sale of one-half of their remaining land. Not all accepted.
According to United States law (as expressed in the Treaty of 1868) the signatures of 3/4 of the adult males of the Sioux nation were required before land could be sold. Sitting Bull resisted. He "never signed a treaty to sell any portion of his people's inheritance, and he refused to acknowledge the right of other Indians to sell his undivided share of the tribal lands," according to his friend, Catherine Weldon, who contended that Sitting Bull was killed in order "to silence exposures which he could have made." There was enormous double-dealing to expose, including the doctoring of census records to reduce the number of Indians required to sign, and the gathering of signatures illegally to reach the necessary number.
Mrs. Weldon was not alone in her belief that Sitting Bull had been silenced. In the New York World on December 21, 1890, Rev. W.H.H. Murray charged, "The land grabbers wanted the Indian lands. The lying, thieving Indian agents wanted silence touching past thefts and immunity to continue their thieving."
The World's editor interjected, "Mr. Murray's characterization of the killing is sustained by the report sent yesterday by Corporal Gunn, of the Eighth Cavalry. The affair is one which should receive a searching inquiry. As it stands now it was organized butchery, and one of the most shameful incidents in our 'century of dishonor' towards the Indians."3
Sitting Bull's death was a political assassination by the United States government, insisted the head of the Nebraska National Guard, General Leonard Colby, who wrote that there was an
"understanding between the officers of the Indian and military departments that it would be impossible to bring Sitting Bull to Standing Rock alive, and even if successfully captured, it would be difficult to tell what to do with him. It is therefore believed that there was a tacit arrangement between the commanding officers and the Indian police, that the death of the famous old Medicine man was much preferred to his capture, and that the slightest attempt to rescue him should be the signal for his destruction." 4To have him killed by Indian police allowed the government to avoid responsibility in the matter.
Sitting Bull, like Martin Luther King, was a man of vision. "The great hope and purpose of his life was to unify the tribes, and bands of the Dakotas, (Sioux) and hold the remaining lands of his people as a sacred inheritance for their children," wrote his friend Catherine Weldon. "This fact," she maintained, "made him unpopular with all who saw in his policy and influence obstruction to their selfish schemes, hence they demanded his removal."
There was never an official investigation into Sitting Bull's murder, nor have the assassination charges been disproved. Reverend Murray believed that a day would come when Sitting Bull would be revered for the visionary man of peace that he was:
"I read that they have buried his body like a dog's," Rev. Murray wrote, "without funeral rites, without tribal wail, with no solemn song or act. This is the deed of to-day. That is the best that this generation has to give to this noble historic character... Very well. So let it stand for the present. But there is a generation coming that shall reverse this judgment of ours. Our children shall build monuments to those whom we stoned and the great aboriginals whom we killed will be counted by the future American as among the historic characters of the Continent." 5
Who knows? Perhaps Reverend Murray was right, and as the world grows more enlightened, we may one day celebrate Sitting Bull Day as we now do Martin Luther King Day.
Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, a Research Affiliate at the University of California, Davis, and Aberdeen native, has just completed the third volume of her Daughters of Dakota series: "Stories of Friendship between Settlers and the Dakota Indians" with guest editor, Vic Runnels. The Ashcroft story is from that book.
1. Sally Roesch Wagner, Daughters of Dakota II: Stories from the Attic. Carmichael, CA: Sky Carrier Press, 1990, p. 166.
2. Minneapolis Tribune. cited in Robert C. Hollow, "The Sioux Ghost Dance of 1890." The Last Years of Sitting Bull. Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1985, p. 43.
3. Bland, p. 27.
4. Colby, "Sioux," p. 151.
5. Bland, p. 27.
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