Sitting Bull (1931-90) was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man and tribal chief during the years of resistance to US government policies, famous also for helping his people defeat Custer and his cavalry during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, as he saw of vision of Custer and his soldiers dying before the battle, giving his people the motivation for one of their greatest victories (and unfortunately the motivation for the government to retaliate in full, leading to the defeat at Standing Rock and eventually Sitting Bull’s death). Unlike many of the Native American leaders in his time, Sitting Bull refused to compromise his people’s land and agency in the bogus treaties and agreements that the US government tried to have tribes sign to compromise their land for western expansion and manifest destiny. Although born in Dakota territory, Sitting Bull’s people weren’t involved in the Dakota War of 1862, where several bands of eastern Dakota people killed an estimated 300 to 800 settlers and soldiers in south-central Minnesota in response to poor treatment by the government. But in 1863/64 while they were still fighting the Civil War, the United States army retaliated against bands that had not been involved anyway, involving Sitting Bull, who, along with many others, defended his people. In a time of many tribes with different idiosyncratic tendencies and rivalries, Sitting Bull was elected to lead, some say as the “Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation”, however this has also been refuted as the Lakota society was highly decentralized, still, Sitting Bull was seen by many as a great leader. In the Great Sioux War of 1876, leading to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapa continued to battle migrating parties following Custer’s instigation of the Black Hills Gold Rush (Custer had announced that there was gold in government-issued Sioux sacred territory, encouraging and motivating expansion there), successfully compromising the movement. During the period of 1868-76, Sitting Bull developed into the most important of Native American chiefs, refusing to become dependent on government support and having his people living on government enforced reservations, and was joined by many others who didn’t want to fall under subjugation. Sitting Bull welcomed all tribes and people to join with him peacefully, nourishing them and providing support, and his camp continually expanded into a community of over 10,000 people. When Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River (known as the Greasy Grass River to the Lakota) on June 25, 1876, they didn’t realize how large the camp was. More than 2,000 Native American warriors had left their reservations to follow Sitting Bull, and being inspired by his vision where he saw the soldiers being killed upon entering the camp, they fought back, lead by Crazy Horse, and annihilated them.
Sitting Bull and his peoples victory didn’t last long, as Custer was a national hero, and the news of his death inspired the government to bring thousands of more soldiers to the area, forcing many of the Native Americans to surrender, and ultimately leading Sitting Bull and his people to retreat to Canada. Although he made friends with Canadian/British leaders there, they couldn’t sustain themselves for lack of food and resources, and after 4 years, starving and exhausted, eventually gave into surrender to the United States in 1881, with Sitting Bull having his young son Crow Foot his rifle to the commanding officer at Fort Buford, and told them that he wished to regard the soldiers and the white race as friends but he wanted to know who would teach his son the new ways of the world. Prisoners of war, Sitting Bull and his band of now 186 people were kept at different Forts, separated from the rest of the other Hunkpapa. But in 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to participate with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. He had met Annie Oakley, who so impressed him he adopted her as his daughter, and she returned his respect and treasured him as a friend, and he earned $50 a week riding around the area once a show, either cursing the audience under his breath, or by other accounts, giving speeches abut his desire for education for the young, and reconciling relations between the Sioux and Whites. In just four months, before he was forced to return to Standing Rock Agency by the government, he became, along with Annie, the most popular attraction of the show, where people considered him a romanticized warrior and celebrity, and although Sitting Bull earned quite a bit of money charging for his autograph and pictures, he have his money away to the homeless. Back at Standing Rock, a new movement called the “Ghost Dance” had been growing, based on the belief that spirits would one day arise and give back the Native peoples their land, and although Sitting Bull himself didn’t believe in this, allowed his people to chant and dance for hours in ritual practice, as he felt it gave them hope. This created fear amongst the soldiers, however, and they accused Sitting Bull in leading and encouraging the movement, and wanted to forcefully arrest him. Sitting Bull peacefully refused the arrest, but panic ensued as the Sioux in the village were enraged, and ultimately a Sioux police officer ended up shooting Sitting Bull in the head killing him, completing the prophecy Sitting Bull had of being killed by his own people.
I, like so many Americans, grew up knowing of Sitting Bull, but not enough about his life story and plight of Native Americans in detail at this time, as my early education barely scratched this surface of our horrible history of the mass genocide of Native American peoples in the colonization of this country. It was incredible to learn more about him and paint this picture, listening to the excellent book “The Last Stand: Custer, Sittling Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn” by Nathaniel Philbrick (who I’m proud to say saw this painting and enjoyed it!), in addition to traditional Lakota music and songs, in addition to recordings of Pow-wow’s and other Native American music. I really wanted to by homage to this great hero, who we don’t see enough of in museums or galleries (or of course, by extension, any Native American presence, beyond Frederic Remington paintings and statues and questionable representation in Hudson River School Paintings (although I have been inspired by the pro (for his time) Native-American works of George Catlin). Our country recognizes its horrible history of slavery and mistreatment of many peoples of color, Native Americans’ included, but this aspect of American History in the “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans doesn’t see enough representation in our cultural media. I truly wanted to pay homage to this great man, and also recognize what he represents in taking one of the great last stands for the rights of his people. I was really moved in painting this picture—like that of Annie Oakley, he stands in front of a painted backdrop, which seems, like the special effects of films like the Wizard of Oz, to spill out into surreal, unconsciously realized worlds, I thought of all the people that he tried to save, and the sacred lands he tried to keep for his people, and the joy of his life, his compassion, understanding, and leadership, in addition to his bittersweet demise—his memory certainly lives on, in addition to the values he kept to life, the country, and its people, of all races, creeds, colors, and class.