LINDSAY: This re-released episode of History Daily originally aired on December 15, 2021.
It’s just before dawn on December 15th, 1890, in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Sitting Bull, a legendary Sioux chief, is fast asleep in bed until a loud knock jolts him awake. Sitting Bull lives with his wives and children in a small log cabin. As his family stirs themselves from bed, through the window, in the half-light of the early morning, Sitting Bull can see dozens of mounted officers of the Indian Agency Police.
Sitting Bull lets several of the officers inside. They tell him to get dressed because they’re taking him in.
These officers are Native American but on the Reservation, they are dismissively called “Metal Breasts”, on account of the US Government badges they wear. Indian Agency Police enforce the laws of the Federal Government on Indian land. Today, they have been ordered to arrest Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull is 59 years old, and has been at Standing Rock for seven years. The Indian Reservation is one of the last enclaves of Sioux territory in the United States. Decades of war and broken promises have whittled away their lands. Once a proud nomadic people of horse-riders and buffalo-hunters, the Sioux have been corralled into these small pockets, dependent on the US government to survive.
Sitting Bull once led his people’s resistance against the White Man, but even a proud chief like him could not stand against the might of the US Government forever. He has lived on the Reservation since 1883. But the authorities have never trusted him to keep the peace and now they fear he is encouraging renewed violence against the US Government. So, these Indian Agency policemen have been sent to Sitting Bull’s cabin to take him into custody.
As the policemen wait, Sitting Bull pulls on his clothes. He moves slowly, an old man stiff with cold. The officers tell him to hurry up. They know that their presence here will not go unnoticed, and the longer Sitting Bull takes, the harder it will be for them to get out without incident.
And sure enough, by the time they haul Sitting Bull outside, dozens of his fellow tribesmen are waiting, watching in the cold early morning dawn. The police level their weapons at them, but this only enrages the growing crowd who push forward toward their chief. The police are outnumbered and surrounded. As they try to manhandle Sitting Bull onto a horse, one of the tribesmen lifts his rifle and fires.
A policeman falls to the ground, shot in the arm. and then more gunfire.
By the time the gunfight is over, 12 men will be dead, among them the great Sioux leader Sitting Bull. But this will not be the end of the violence. Fanned by fears that a mysterious cult is driving a new Indian uprising, within weeks, US soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Regiment will commit one of the worst atrocities in American history.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 15th, 1890: The Death of Sitting Bull.
Act One: The Black Hills War
It’s early August 1874, sixteen years before the death of Sioux chief Sitting Bull.
In the Black Hills of South Dakota, a miner named William McKay hikes through a thick forest. William carries a bag slung over his shoulder with a pick and shovel inside; the tools of his trade. McKay is part of a military expedition into the hills, but there’s only one reason he joined up; McKay is here in these uncharted lands to find gold.
McKay hauls himself up onto a rocky outcrop and sits a moment, listening to the sounds of the forest. He smiles. Under the distant bird cry and the brush of wind sifting through the treetops, he can hear running water. He stands up, hoists his bag high on his shoulder, and marches in direction of what must be a creek.
McKay is part of an expedition that entered the Black Hills ten days ago. Its leader, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, has a thousand men under his command. The expedition is mostly made up of soldiers – members of the 7th Cavalry – but there are also a dozen journalists, scientists, and miners like William McKay.
There has never been an expedition like this before. The Black Hills are sacred to the Sioux people. And in 1868, United States Government signed a treaty which promised the lands would be protected. But that was six years ago – ancient history as far as men like McKay are concerned.
The sky grows pink and orange in the west when McKay reaches the creek. He sets his bag of tools down on the bank, digs out his pan, and splashes into the water. The sudden cold is welcome after his long hike. He crouches down and thrusts the pan into the streambed.
He pulls out a scoop of dark sand and gravel. Next, McKay breaks the larger clods up with his fingers; he washes the sediment with water over and over. When he finally rinses away the worthless dirt, the pan is flecked with looks like shards of pure light.
McKay smiles again.
When word of his discovery gets out, it will trigger a gold rush. Thousands will descend on the Black Hills, seeking their fortune, carving new roads through the forest, and building new towns from the dirt.
The promises made in the past to the Native Americans will not be kept. And yet another piece of the Sioux’s land and traditions will be threatened. But the Sioux will not give them up without a fight.
It’s June 25th, 1876.
In a long valley in the Montana Territory, Major Marcus Reno of the US Army 7th Cavalry Regiment orders his command of 140 mounted men forward.
Reno has been given orders to attack an Indian encampment whose fires and pony herds have been spotted at the north end of the valley. According to Federal law, this is forbidden territory; the Indian are not allowed to camp there.
After conflict erupted between Native Americans and white settlers over the Black Hills, the US Government ordered all Sioux to move to Indian Reservations. They were given a deadline of January 1876, almost five months ago. But the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, has refused to comply. He and his band of followers have been roaming the valleys and plains of the Montana Territory all year. Now they have made camp in this valley on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. For Major Reno, their presence here is a hostile act.
Reno’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, has created a plan of attack. As Reno advances from the South, Custer and his troops will attack from further east, while a third company of reserve troops waits at a safe distance, to be called upon if needed.
Reno’s horse is skittish today, but he urges him on as he leads his men across the shallow waters of the Little Bighorn River and up into the valley. As they clear a line of trees, the cavalrymen get their first proper look at the Indian camp. Reno’s stomach turns. Countless teepees stud the valley ahead. It’s bigger than any camp Reno has seen before, and one of this size will surely have thousands of warriors. He was expecting to just meet a few hundred. A charge forward would be hopeless. So reining in his horse, Reno calls out to his men to halt.
But they’ve already been spotted. From among the teepees, scores of Indian warriors stream out toward their position. Some are armed only with clubs, lances, or bows and arrows. But others Reno can see are brandishing Winchester rifles.
Reno swings down from his saddle and yells “prepare to fight on foot!”. As Reno starts to get his men in formation, he spots Sioux horsemen, moving to outflank his detachment. If they get behind his men, it will be a massacre.
Reno knows he can't win this fight. So he shouts, “fall back!” and his men start a ragged retreat towards the river as bullets cut through the air around them. Many are hit, and soldiers scream out in pain, but worse are the terrified squeals of the horses as they too are hit and fall, legs thrashing, to the earth.
Reno splashes into the river, desperately lunging for the opposite bank. A steep bluff rises ahead of him. He scrambles up the slope, beckoning his dwindling forces to follow him as arrows and bullets continue to fly.
Sitting Bull and his warriors wipe out five whole companies of the 7th Cavalry. By the end of the Battle of Little Bighorn, as this conflict came to be known, 268 US soldiers will be dead, including Custer himself. But victory for Sitting Bull and the Sioux will come at a cost. The US government will send even more troops against them and this time, even Sitting Bull won’t be able to fight them off.
Act Two: The Ghost Dance
It’s 1885, five years before the death of Sitting Bull.
John Burke, the head of a traveling circus, tightens the grip on the reins as his carriage bounces along the track through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Tribesmen line the pathway. Their wary faces stare at him - a white man on the Reservation rarely brings good news, but Burke is polite. He smiles and tips his hat as he passes.
Arizona John is what people call him – although Burke has never actually been to Arizona. Still, the 43-year-old likes the nickname. It gives him a rugged air which suits his job - he is the manager and chief publicist of the famous cowboy showman Buffalo Bill Cody and his touring Wild West spectacular.
Today, Burke has come to recruit a new attraction for the show. With a yank on his reins, he pulls up his carriage outside the cabin of Sitting Bull.
It’s been nine years since Sitting Bull’s warriors won the Battle of Little Bighorn. And in the wake of the victory, thousands more US troops were sent to the Great Plains to put down the Sioux resistance. But Sitting Bull chose exile over surrender. He and his closest companions spent four years in Canada until hunger and desperation forced them back across the border. Then in July 1881, after years of resistance, Sitting Bull finally surrendered to the American government bringing an end to the Black Hill Wars. The government gave the Sioux an ultimatum: give up claims to their sacred Black Hills, or the government would no longer provide them with the rations they depended on to survive. Sitting Bull and the rest of the Sioux had no choice.
But Arizona John Burke has come to the Standing Rock Reservation with what he hopes will be a more tempting offer for the chief.
Soon enough, Burke is sitting across from Sitting Bull – he offers a cigar, but the chief wordlessly declines so Burke launches into his pitch. He is a good talker, it’s his job, but his usual charms seem to bounce off Sitting Bull. And then after 15 minutes of non-stop chatter from Burke, the Sioux leader finally speaks.
He wants $50 a week, plus an advance, with all his expenses paid by the company. In addition, Sitting Bull will keep the proceeds of any photographs or autographs. Burke grins ruefully. It’s a costly arrangement. But Sitting Bull is going to be his star, so Burke agrees.
Within weeks, Sitting Bull joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And in arenas across the country, the great spiritual leader of the Sioux will perform as the chief attraction in a traveling circus in front of packed audiences.
He will parade on horseback in his finest regalia while the paying public jeer, boo, and spit at him. But if Sitting Bull finds it humiliating, he doesn't let it show. But he won't forget either.
It’s October 1890 and the Sioux of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation are starving.
It's not rained for what feels like weeks. The land of the reservation is arid, and nothing is growing. The Sioux people barely survived last winter, the Buffalo they once hunted are long gone and now the US Government, accusing the Indians of laziness, have cut their rations to ‘motivate’ them.
But as he sits in his log cabin, Sitting Bull has hope for the future once again – because the Ghost Dance has come to Standing Rock.
The Ghost Dance is a mysterious religious movement, began further west, among the tribes of Nevada and California. At a time when Indians were being forced either to integrate into white society or live on Reservations and abandon their traditional way of life, the Ghost Dance has become a way of reasserting their identity.
Each tribe has interpreted the dance in a different way, but for Sitting Bull its meaning is clear. In the spirit of the Ghost Dance, he and his fellow tribesmen will dance a new world into being. The dead will be resurrected, and the buffalo will return to the plains. These white settlers – those men and women who mocked Sitting Bull in the arena - they will be washed away, and the old ways will be restored.
As part of the Ghost Dance ceremony, Sitting Bull’s men fell a young cottonwood tree and place it at the center of the dancing ground. From its branches, they hang ribbons and flags, offerings to the spirits. They sit in circles around the tree as holy men chant prayers and a sacred medicine is passed from lip to lip. Then with a keening cry, they rise to their feet as one and the circles begin to turn. Sitting Bull’s followers will dance for hours in an exhausted trance.
But they will be watched by agents from the government. And soon, reports will be written and alarm spread as the dance is interpreted as a prelude to war.
The US Army will launch an investigation - and Sitting Bull will be identified as the man to blame.
Act Three: The Massacre
It’s December 29th, 1890. The great Sioux leader Sitting Bull has been dead for two weeks, having been shot in the head and chest by police as they tried to arrest him.
Now, almost 200 miles south of the Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull died, his followers are camped in the snow, surrounded by soldiers.
In the aftermath of Sitting Bull’s killing, many of his people fled Standing Rock and joined a group of Sioux who were traveling south towards another Indian Reservation - Pine Ridge. But when they neared the end of their journey, the 400 men, women, and children were intercepted by soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Regiment - the same unit that had first gone into the Black Hills with Custer in 1874 and had been so completely defeated at the Battle of Little Bighorn two years later.
With the US Army fearing a Ghost Dance-inspired uprising, the soldiers had orders to confiscate the Sioux’s weapons. The 7th Cavalry regiment forced the Indians to make camp at Wounded Knee Creek, then set a perimeter so they couldn’t escape.
At daybreak on December 29th, the soldiers move in to take their weapons. But as they search the teepees, violence breaks out. Shots are fired. The outnumbered Sioux are massacred in the snow. The 7th Cavalry cut down hundreds of men, women, and children. The atrocity will be the last armed confrontation between Sitting Bull’s people and the US Army.
But the cruelty and hardships faced by Native Americans all across the country will continue. Their languages and traditions will be suppressed by the government, as more of their land is taken from them. But Sitting Bull, who died on this day, December 15th, 1890 continues to inspire generations to fight against this injustice.
Next on History Daily. December 16th, 1905. The Rugby Union’s so-called "Match of the Century" is played between Wales and undefeated New Zealand.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.