Manataka American Indian Council







By Christiane Whiteswan Sterne




This book honors Unci Tatanka Iyotanka as a true Grandfather of Turtle Island.  May this writing be used to declare December 15th (date of assassination) a national holiday, restoring dignity to the Lakota youth!  


ONGWHEHONWHE -- The People of Reality!  


"Our future, our children’s future, the very quality of life on earth now depends upon an expanded understanding of the world around us. Certain of the angelic tribes rarely interact with the Earth or her inhabitants. Others have been intimately involved with this planet from her inception, being, in fact, the agents and overseers of her organic development.  


Within this second category of angels long associated with biological life is a highly specialized circle of beings who are responsible for the education of humankind. Each of them views the whole from a different point along the different circumference of the Great Medicine Wheel of eternal being."

From - Return of the Bird Tribes by Ken Carey




In the early 1800’s life on the Great Plains was good for the Lakota; the land provided everything. There were bison which provided meat to eat, skins for shelter and clothing, and bones for utensils; even the sinew served the buffalo hunter as bow strings.  There were respected enemies against whom to provide one’s valor:  Absaroke, Flatheads, Assiniboine, Omaha, Chippewa, and Pawnee.  If life was good for the Lakota people, it was especially good for the youth. There were ponies to ride and creeks in which to swim; no boy could have asked for more.   


In the year of 1831, in the Dakota, Hunkpapa division of the Teton Sioux Tribe, a son was born to (some claim Chief Jumping Bull; some claim Hunkpapa warrior Returns-Again).  In time, the world would come to know the child as Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull); which describes a buffalo bull sitting intractably on its haunches.  It was a name he would live up to throughout his life.  Some say he was born on the headwaters of Elk Creek; others say he was born in a place called “Many Catches” by the Lakota, for the number of food storage pits they had dug there, (present name “The Grand River Valley Region); nevertheless, both places are in the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota.


The night he was born the heavens were dark. His first wail was loud and strong, piercing the air, as befitted a future leader. The full moon sailed from behind the clouds and an owl hooted; so it was predicted he would become a great man.  His first name was "Jumping Badger". (According to Lakota tradition, it is quite common for an individual to receive several namings and titles during the course of a lifetime; added in accordance with accomplishments, characteristics, responsibilities, etc.)


Returns-Again was a mystic, as his son would be.  On occasion he could communicate with animals.  It was a gift of particular significance when it involved the revered buffalos, considered by the Sioux to be spiritual beings as well as the principal source of food, clothing and most things useful to man.  


One night, while on a hunt, Returns-Again and three warriors were squatting over a campfire when they heard strange sounds—a muttering vaguely like speech.  As the noise came nearer they saw that it emanated from a lone buffalo bull which had approached their fire.  After brief puzzlement, Returns-Again understood that the bull was repeating, in a snuffling sort of litany, four names: Sitting Bull, Jumping Bull, Bull Standing with Cow, and Lone Bull.  As the only man present who grasped the message of the beast-god, he concluded that he was being offered a choice of new names to take for himself or give to others; he promptly adopted the first, Sitting Bull.


As an infant, Jumping Badger, from habit of always being deliberate, careful and well calculated in his speech and actions in seizing food or objects; was re-named "Hunkeshnee" or “Slow”; and kept this name into the first years of adolescence.  The fact that he was born displaying extreme fearlessness, gained him early recognition from his tribe, the Hunkpapas.  His uncle, “Four Horns” agreed as well, that his brother’s only son, Hunkeshnee, was destined for greatness as a warrior and a man of vision.


“Pretty Feather” was the name of his oldest sister.  His first memories were as a papoose, hanging in his cradleboard from his mother “Her Holy Door’s” back, or fastened to the side of her horse as they jogged over the prairie at camp-changing times. She sang to him songs of bravery.


The Sioux moved their belongings on the trail by means of the travois, an indigenous device made by attaching two lodge poles to the withers of a pony or the sides of a dog.  A basket was then formed by fastening a robe of hide between the poles.  Young children were then placed to ride inside them.  On one occasion, at the early age of three summers, Hunkeshnee rode in a travois attached to a dog.  Suddenly, the dog became in hot pursuit of a jack rabbit, which sent the travois bouncing wildly, hurtling the boy across the prairie.  The runaway dog was finally stopped.  Hunkeshnee was not frightened, but instead laughed and said “Fun! Fun!  Hunkeshnee want more fast ride.”


At the big campfire in the center of the circle of tipis, chiefs, councilors and warriors were nearest the fire; and women and children formed the outermost circle.  Buffalo meat was stewed in a hide pot.  “Wasna” is ground meat mixed with berries and marrow.  A meal was chunks of buffalo meat mixed with wild onions, roots and water placed in pouches made from buffalo stomachs and heated with hot stones.  Cups and bowls were made of the shell of a small turtle; and spoons of horn.  Meat was speared out with an arrow.  They ate cross-legged in a circle around the central fire.  Dried buffalo meat was usually stored on a rack.  


After eating, the young sat hugging their knees while the hunters and warriors stood up in turn to tell of their deeds of bravery; stories of valor and heroism of the great men among the tribe.  The children were then required to retell the stories.  In this way, the history of the Sioux was preserved—by handing down from father to son.  In time, sons grew up in the warrior tradition  of the Sioux, feasting on battle tales of older men. 


Telling stories of their achievements was not considered boasting; it was their method of keeping record.  The main purpose of tribes activities was the promotion of manly qualities in boys.  Each phase in a man-child’s development; first word; first step; first animal brought down in a hunt, were celebrated by feasts and speech making.  In this manner, the achievements of braves made a matter of public record.  


Native Americans did not lie; they acquired this from white man.  They rose to leadership or chieftainship by qualities of bravery, quick thinking and daring. The boys had ponies. His friend “Flying Hawk” owned a white pony; Hunkeshee’s pony was spotted.  He had captured it and broke it himself; and rode it bareback with bridle and rawhide hobbles.  They ran races and hunted small game in the forests with bows and arrows.  They were required from an early age to develop a sense of smell of each animals distinctive scent.  They learned to observe and read signs of turned blades of grass, broken twigs, nervous birds, a bit of hair, overturned stones, footprints, and told stories to alert the Sioux.


In training his son to be ready for emergencies, Jumping Bull would periodically test Hunkeshnee in the night, by letting out a wild war whoop; each time the boy springing to his feet, seized his bow and arrows displaying readiness to battle any enemy.  One night when Hunkeshnee was eight snows old, Jumping Bull sent him after water, and asked Four Horns to give a wolf howl and rustle the bushes.  Again, he showed no fear. Jumping Bull considered wealthy among the Sioux because he owned many horses, had a feast in honor of his boy, and thanked his tribesmen for attending; moved among the Hunkpapas as they stood in preparation to dance, quietly designating this one and that one to whom he was giving a pony, as was customary for Sioux to give presents on every occasion. To Hunkeshnee, he gave a strong bow and quiver of pointed arrows.


In the winter sleds were made of buffalo ribs tied together with rawhide thongs—bone discs were shot across the ice to see who could send his the farthest—the snowball game had teams of equal numbers; anyone who was hit was dead and out of the game.  The young boys then counted coup on those they hit.  “Che-hoo-hoo” was the free-for-all wrestling game. “Hu-ta-na-cu-te”, one end of a buffalo rib was whittled to a round point. The other end was squared off, the marrow cleaned out and two feathers inserted in the groove.  The object was to throw the stick as far as possible over the ice. In the summer there were foot or pony races. Tug-of-war using a rawhide rope was also popular.  His father taught him to make a good bow--cedar cracked; willow was strong enough for boys; but warrior bows were made of ash.  It was smoothed on rough rock and bent into shape over a small fire.  It was then polished until it was glossy and smooth.  The back was then covered with strips of wet sinew for extra strength.  When the sinews were dried, Tatanka Iyotanka himself decorated it with tassels of dyed horsehair and wavy red and black painted lines.  He then made arrows of twigs of wild currant bushes.  Each arrow had three feathers in the end. His father had a war shield, a parfleche holding a war bonnet of eagle feathers; pictographs on the tipi depicted his father’s deeds.  


He practiced leaping on his pony’s back and sliding to one side, clinging only with one heel to a braided loop on the pony’s neck.  The ceremonial hunt was during the moon when the buffalo bulls were fat.  Hides were gathered, for at this time the hair was thin and easier to remove when the skins were cured. Black Moon, Brave Bear, Running Bull and Many Horses were scouts. “Co-o-o” was called to awaken and move camp. “Hoppo”, here they come. Tipi poles were tied to the sides of the ponies. Buffalo robes, horn bowls and spoons, stone tools and willow beds were packed and stowed on travois or ponies backs.  The order of march was: the four old-man councilors went ahead.  Behind them rode the sub-chiefs and some of the Akicita; then the people of the village and  the travois, followed by pony herds.  At the sides and rear rode more “Akicita” to keep order and guard the people.  They rode until the scouts gave the signal that they were as near the heard as they could get without frightening the bulls standing guard.  Camp was then set up.  Children gathered the rocks to hold down edges of the tipis; women and older boys erected lodge poles. Lodges of the chiefs were in the center along with councilors and their families. The outer ones were in a ring, with each door facing the rising sun. The women spun sticks between their palms over small boards until smoke came. The fire was then carefully fanned and piled over with dry grass. The children brought parfleches of dry buffalo chips for fuel. Dogs were tied to trees so they would not disturb the hunt. The first arrow is aimed at the shoulder blade. The animal is butchered by cutting it at the large joints so women could handle the meat. The muscles were not cut, allowing large slabs for drying. Buffalo was used for food, tipi covers, robes and clothes. The bones used as tools and weapons, horns for spoons. parts were used to even tan hide; bones to make awls to pierce the hide and sinew from his back to sew with. 


Droppings were used for fuel for fires. The skull was set to face the rising sun. Sioux custom was to greet the rising sun; face the source of all life each morning, and stand for a moment or uplifted silence before beginning the day’s activities.  Jumping Bull was a great warrior, but he was not a chief.  Medicine Men, shamans, were regarded greater than chiefs, for they possessed supernatural powers.


The little one learned to use a small boy’s bow and at the tender age of ten, killed his first buffalo.  When he was twelve snows old in the year of many buffalos, a buffalo calf charged “Hunkeshnee”.  He leaped on it’s back, seized it’s ears with his hands and pulling with all his might, fearlessly rode the buffalo calf until the hind quarters of the calf sank bringing it to it’s haunches.  He then proceeded to ride the buffalo calf, demonstrating he was a born rider; thus earning recognition.  When “Jumping Bull” heard of his only son’s exploit, he had a feast that night in honor of him.  


As the boy grew into a young man, he desired to prove himself to his people, demonstrating both skill and courage distinguishing himself from an early age as a leader.  The Akicita’s task was to protect a hunt from being spoiled by reckless young men; making sure there were only full-fledged hunters.  Tatanka Iyotanka acquired unusual skill with bow and arrow and was an expert horseman.  He was on his pony so much his legs became permanently bowed.  The only discipline exerted upon him was to become like the men, which sprang from his own desire for achievement. 


He was so eager to be part of the hunt, he rode to the rear of hunters; attempting to be included in buffalo hunts unnoticed.  He would follow, watch the kill, and play the hunting game with the buffalo calves; staging a mock hunt, attempting to strike calves with his arrows; and striking them with his hands in the Native American method of “counting coup”.  He displayed leadership qualities by, imitating elder’s occupations, suggesting interesting things to do, and straightening out quarrels.  Because of his sense of humor, he spoke quietly and calmly in an amusing manner, with an air of self-confidence; and using good judgment inspiring confidence in his companions as well.


When he was 14, his father gave the boy a coup stick, the slender wand with which he could gain prestige by touching or striking an enemy in battle. During his youth, he went to battle and joined his first war party in usual tribal raid for horses on the Assiniboin, and the Absaroke, Hunkpapa (Lakota’s traditional enemy; known later to washichu as the Crow).  The Absaroke were formidable and themselves mighty warriors.  The chance to use his coup stick came when a 20-man war party set out on a raid to capture horses from a traditional enemy, the Crows.  The boy painted his gray pony red and himself yellow, and sneaked away on the raiders” wake.  When the enemy was sighted, Hunkeshnee dashed ahead of the older warriors.  A Crow dismounted to aim an arrow at the charging boy, but slow struck him with his coup stick and galloped unscathed out of range.  This was all he had wanted: first physical contact with the enemy; he left the actual killing to his elders.


Back in camp, his father, filled with pride, formally divested himself of his own new name and bestowed it on the boy: “ My son has struck the enemy,” he cried.  “He is brave! From this time forward his name will be Ta-tan-ka I-yo-tan-ka”.  The boy had “counted coup” by touching a Crow warrior; thus gaining a reputation for fearlessness in battle.


In 1847, at the age of fifteen, he received his first serious battle wound in a single combat with a Crow during a horse-stealing raid.  He and the Sioux warriors drove a large number of horses from the enemy camp under cover of night, but the infuriated Crows caught up with them in the morning.  When battle was joined, Tatanka Iyotanka galloped past the skirmish line, laughing and taunting them in spite of the shower of arrows and hail of Flathead bullets directed at him.  He went after a Crow who wore a red shirt with ermine trimmings—the garb of a chief.  Both men dismounted, guns and buffalo-hide shields in hand.  The Crow shot first; his bullet ripped through Tatanka Iyotanka’s shield and plowed a furrow through the sole of his left foot.  Then Tatanka Iyotanka fired.  The Crow fell and Tatanka Iyotanka finished him off with a knife—but for the rest of his life he walked with a limp. 


This display convinced all that, not only was this young man courageous; his medicine was powerful as well, causing the warrior societies to consider him as a brother.  The warrior societies of the Lakota have often been called “the finest light cavalry in the world.”


Young Tatanka Iyotanka was not handsome, but women liked him, finding him courteous and gentle.  He would marry nine times.  Paradoxically, one of the first human beings he killed was a woman; but he took her life as an act of mercy. She was a Crow, a captive taken in a raid.  Ordinarily she might have been adopted into the band, but the women of the camp came to the conclusion that she was a whore.  Puritanical about sexual matters, they lashed her to a pine tree, heaped brush around her and set it afire.


But before the flames reached her, Tatanka Iyotanka, then only 17, fitted an arrow to his bowstring and killed her.


Only a few favored were able to communicate with the winged and animal people. He had learned this and gave evidence when he was a small boy.  As an adolescent, he became aware of special ties to the spirit world, and in manhood it bloomed as a widely admired talent.  He would go out alone and simply put himself in complete harmony—feeling strongly the sense of kinship with them.  His spiritual upbringing was a feeling of sensitivity and rapport with all forces and beings of nature; understanding what they said, he would imitate songs of birds.  While taking a rest during a hunting foray in the Grand River bottoms, a bird warned him to be still and urged him to play dead a grizzly bear was poised over him.  Opening his eyes and discovering this to be true, he froze.  The grizzly, after snuffling at him, wandered away.


“Pretty bird you have seen me and took pity on me/amongst the tribes to live, you wish for me/ye bird tribes from henceforth.”  He once asked a woodpecker if he was to become a leader among his people.  The bird cocked his head, turned his eyes upon Tatanka Iyotanka, went racing around the tree tapping out a message “yes, you will become great because you talk with bird people.”  He then began a rapid hammering warning Tatanka Iyotanka “danger behind you!”  He grabbed his bow and arrow, and whirled to see a grizzly bear lumbering to its feet.  He showed no fear, stood his ground and waited until the bear rose on its hind legs. He then sent his arrow straight to the four-legged’s heart.  The cry of the bear was almost human.  It lunged forward a few steps, fell and thrashed about for several moments, then lay silent.  Tatanka Iyotanka then turned to thank his little friend woodpecker for warning him.  He then cut off the bear’s claws.  This entitles him to wear an eagle feather for his coup and a most cherished treasure, a grizzly-bear necklace.


Later, at a lake in the Black Hills, he heard a call from a spot high on a rocky crag.  He climbed the butte and found an eagle perched there.  He interpreted the experience as a prophecy that he would one day rise to lead all his people.


Once he came upon a wolf wounded by two arrows.  The wolf said, “If you will relieve me, your name shall be great”.  He pulled out the arrows and washed and dressed the wounds.


He had much love and high regard for children; was unfailingly kind, generous, humble and wise; virtues admired by his tribe.  He counseled always to be kind, even to people who hate you; give food to the needy;  to love the tribe; and to seek peace, by ending quarrels; be kind to animals and birds and make sure they are fed as well.  He treasured his “cannupa” (pipe), most sacred of ceremonial objects, an essential medium for communing with Wakan Tanka. He filled his “cannupa”; held it to the front, stem upright with his right hand on the bowl pointed the pipe in each of the four directions, and called Wakan Tanka to aid the tribe through all troubles, promising in return to give buffalo hides, tobacco, and his flesh in Sundances. "Itanchan" chief, Tatanka Iyotanka, a Lakota Medicine Man in times of peace; he was a great warrior in time of war.  He employed his talents for the benefit of all people.  As a young man, he became a leader of the Strong Heart Warrior Society and Kit Fox societies that made war against the enemies of his Lakota people; and later, was a well-respected distinguished member of the powerful “Silent Eaters”, a select group concerned with tribal welfare.  As a tribal leader, he helped extend and successfully increased Sioux hunting grounds westward into what had been the territory of the Shoshone, Crow, Assiniboin, etc..  A member of the Buffalo Society  fraternity of Heyoka, he dreamt with sacred content of thunderbirds and attained visions of powerful spiritual meaning and could foretell future events. A thunderbird dream has no greater honor nor no more fearsome obligations.  Failure to perform Heyoka Ceremony attracted lightning strikes that could kill.  The thunderbird dreamer had to abase himself publicly through dress and behavior inviting ridicule by acting the fool and conducting himself in ways opposite of normal--could even thrust arms in a boiling kettle of soup.  Tatanka Iyotanka painted his face with lightning as a result of dreaming of a thunderbird.  He composed a thunderbird song to end drought.  Considered Wichasa Wakan (a sacred holy man) of incomprehensible power, dreams and visions; as well as having gifts of leadership, wisdom; and the knowledge to perform sacred ceremonies and rituals to drive out malevolent spirits; a Medicine Man, he understood and carried roots for doctoring, herbs to relieve maladies, and a sacred stone to aid in finding items.


In a society that esteemed warfare as life’s central activity, Tatanka Iyotanka advanced with the bravest fighting men.  By the age of twenty-five, he became leader of the “Strong Heart Warrior Society’, an elite military society.  The position entitled him to wear a long red sash around his shoulders.  During a battle, he was required to choose a point in the midst of the melee, stake himself there by pinning one end of the sash to the ground, and never retreat unless another Strong Heart released him.  The office was a worth-while role for a man of Tatanka Iyotanka’s temperament.  His peers observed that he was like the buffalo; headstrong, fearless, opinionated, incapable of surrender—in sort, bull-headed.  In a winter blizzard the buffalo never turned tail as domestic cattle do; instead they faced the gale and plowed ahead.




Trouble always followed when the ever-expanding American frontier brought white traders, the trappers, and settlers into contact with the First Nations.  Although the Lakota Nation had met white traders earlier, troubles between them and the whites heated up in the early 1850’s.  The Lakota (Sioux) had begun to feel the pressure of the white expansion into the Western United States. Increased contact led to cultural conflict and contamination boiled into violence. Treaties were made and as quickly broken as the whites sought the desirable lands occupied by the Native Americans.


Tatanka Iyotanka was designated the chief of the Hunkpapas in the 1860’s, just when the greatest issue facing his people—the encroachment of the whites—was coming to a head.


Because the Hunkpapa lived and hunted north of the early routes of western travel, Tatanka Iyotanka had little contact with whites and did not participate in the resistance until the Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota, 1862.  Violence and bloodshed was the rule.  Overpowered by the superior numbers of whites, the defeated Minnesota tribes retreated and were driven west onto the plains.


He heard from them what life was like on a reservation. In June 1863, Tatanka Iyotanka saw his first encounter in a skirmish with white soldiers in a broad campaign mounted by the U. S. Army in retaliation for the Santee Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, the “Minnesota Massacre”, in which Tatanka Iyotanka and his people were not involved.  The United States Army made little distinction between the Minnesota bands and other bands—Hunkpapas included—who were indigenous to the area.  The warfare between the Sioux and the whites became general.


In 1864, Tatanka Iyotanka was one of the defenders and fought U. S. Troops when General Alfred Sully used artillery against a Teton Encampment at the “Battle of Killdeer Mountain.”  It was during this period that Tatanka Iyotanka formed his resolve to keep his people away from white man’s world and never sign a treaty that would force them to live on a reservation.  


September 2nd of that same year, he sustained a bullet wound on his lift hip. The wound occurred during an attack on a wagon train near present-day Bowman, Montana.  The warfare continued.


With other Sioux leaders he soon took his followers to the pristine valleys of the Powder and Yellowstone rivers where buffalo and other game were abundant.  He continualy warned his followers that their survival as free Native Americans depended upon the buffalo.  During this time, Red Cloud of the Oglala subtribe was the leader of the Tetons, but Tatanka Iyotanka’s influence as a holy man was steadily growing.  Beginning in the summer of 1865 columns of U. S. soldiers repeatedly invaded the Powder River country.  Tatanka Iyotanka had occasional encounters with the U. S. troops, learning their ways; their strengths and weaknesses; and in 1865 he led an unsuccessful siege operation against the newly established Fort Rice in present-day North Dakota.  


For the next 5 years he was in frequent hostile contact with the army, which was invading and threatening the Hunkpapa Sioux hunting grounds and bringing ruin to the Native American Economy. Tatanka Iyotanka attempted to save his people from the threat of extinction and headed the battle in defense of this. In 1866 he became principal chief of the northern hunting Sioux with Crazy Horse, Leader of the Oglala Sioux, and his vice-chief.


Preoccupied by the Civil War, the United States Army could not afford to concentrate its attentions on the Great Plains.  On December 21, 1866, the Oglala Lakota under Red Cloud achieved a great victory over the army in what the whites call “Fetterman Massacre” and which the Lakota call the “Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight.”  It must have been obvious even to Washington bureaucrats that the struggle for the Great Plains was to be no easy matter.  Sporadic warfare continued to be the rule.  Tatanka Iyotanka was an extraordinarily brave man who set an example for all Lakota warriors to emulate.  In his deeds in traditional warfare with the enemy; he symbolized the valor and greatness of the plains warrior.


Respected for his courage and wisdom, in 1867 he was named chief of the entire Teton Sioux Nation, under whom the Sioux tribes united in their struggle for survival on the North American Plains.  Later, Tatanka Iyotanka became the last known head of the “Cante Tinza” society.


During the middle of the decade, some of the finest Sioux buffalo grounds were being disrupted by a heavy traffic of miners along the new Bozeman Trail, which led from Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail northwestward to Virginia City and other gold camps in Montana Territory.  Chief Red Cloud of the Oglalas, whose people resided in the path of these intruders, attacked the traffic along the trail so ferociously and persistently that, by 1868, the government was ready to make peace at a high price.  





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