Sitting Bull Predicts Victory for the Indians

by Richard Sheppard

Early in June, 1876, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux climbed a hill in southeastern Montana. When he reached the hilltop, he lit his sacred pipe and said a prayer. His people were facing a big war with the United States Army, so Sitting Bull needed guidance from Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious.

"Give me a vision," he prayed, "and in return I will offer up a sacrifice of my own blood."

Far below the butte where Sitting Bull was praying, the teepees of his people stood along the banks of the Rosebud Creek. The teepees stretched for three miles along the creek, forming the biggest camp that Sitting Bull had ever seen in his forty-five years of life. At least ten thousand Sioux and Cheyenne people had gathered in this one place, to resist the United States government's plan to move them onto small reservations.
The teepees were so numerous that they seemed thick as grass, but Sitting Bull knew that the bluecoated soldiers were also numerous. "We are becoming an island of Indians in a lake of white and black people," he had warned his followers.

As he prayed, Sitting Bull had a vision of bluecoated soldiers marching like ants to attack the great camp. When he finished his prayer, Sitting Bull walked down the hill to the camp, and told his people to prepare for war by dancing the Sun Dance.

That afternoon a group of virgins cut down a cottonwood tree and carried it back to camp. They trimmed the branches from the tree and painted the trunk, transforming it into a symbolic enemy. Then the tree trunk was erected in the center of the dancing place.

The next day young men who wanted to prove their courage lay down in front of the tree. Medicine men drew their knives, bent over the young men, and skewered the muscles of the young men's chests or backs. Through the incisions in the muscles the medicine men threaded long rawhide thongs, by which they tied the young men to the enemy tree. Then the young men stood up and began to dance, leaning on the rawhide strips as long as they could stand the pain, or until their flesh tore loose.

Chief Sitting Bull walked toward the sacred tree. His hands and feet were painted red and across his shoulders were blue stripes symbolizing the sky. He sat on the ground and began to pray while his adopted brother, Jumping Bull, drew a sacrifice of blood from Sitting Bull's arms.

Jumping Bull used a pointed awl and a knife to draw blood. Starting at Sitting Bull's right wrist, he pierced the skin with the awl, lifted it, and cut off enough skin to leave a permanent scar. He repeated this process one hundred times, mutilating both of Sitting Bull's arms from wrist to shoulder. Sitting Bull never flinched as the cuts were made. As blood flowed down his arms and soaked into the earth, Sitting Bull kept his thoughts aimed at the spirit world. There his blood was being transformed into a scarlet blanket, a valuable gift for the Great Mysterious.

Staring at the sun and chanting a prayer, Sitting Bull stood up and began to dance. He danced all day, never pausing to eat or drink. Then he danced all night. Finally, at noon on the second day, he collapsed and saw a vision.
He saw bluecoated soldiers falling into the Sioux camp like grasshoppers. Their heads were bent in defeat and their hats were falling off. As he watched the soldiers fall, Sitting Bull heard the voice of Wakan Tanka say, "These soldiers won't listen. They are like grasshoppers that have no ears. I give you these soldiers as a gift, because they won't listen."

When Sitting Bull recovered from his trance, he told his people that they were destined to win a great victory. The bluecoated soldiers were going to fall right into the Indian camp, where they would be crushed like insects. But the vision also contained a warning.

"The enemy soldiers are gifts from the Great Mysterious," Sitting Bull cautioned his people. "Kill them, but do not take their guns or horses. If you set your hearts on the wealth of the white men, it will be a curse on our nation."
Soon after the Sun Dance ended, scouts came dashing into camp, howling like wolves to signal danger. They reported that a big column of U.S. soldiers and enemy Indians was approaching from the south.

To decide how to meet this threat, Sitting Bull held a council with other chiefs. According to an observer named Wooden Leg, "The chiefs of the different tribes met together as equals. There was only one who was recognized as being above all the others. This was Sitting Bull. He was recognized as the one old man chief of all the camps combined."

The chiefs talked until they reached a consensus. They agreed that half of the camp's warriors would ride through the night to launch a surprise attack on the approaching bluecoats. The rest of the warriors would stand guard over the women and children, who would break camp and retreat toward the Little Bighorn River.

Still weak from his sacrifice of blood, Sitting Bull probably stayed with the women as other men mounted their ponies and rode south. At least a thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors rode through the night to attack the bluecoats.
At dawn on the morning of June 17, 1876, the warriors found the bluecoats camped on the headwaters of the Rosebud Creek. It was obvious that the leader of the bluecoats, General George Crook, did not expect to be attacked. His men had not arranged their camp in a defensive circle: instead, their tents were strung out in meandering lines on both sides of the creek. There were a lot of tents. Crook's force consisted of 1047 soldiers of the United States Army, backed by 262 Shoshoni and Crow Indian scouts.

The bluecoats were still asleep in their tents when one of General Crook's Shoshoni scouts suddenly galloped through the bluecoats' camp, shouting a warning. A minute later the Sioux came howling down from the hills, but the warning had given the soldiers time to organize a defense.

The battle lasted all morning. The Sioux launched one mass attack after another, while the white men dug in and tried to survive the onslaught.

The chiefs who distinguished themselves in the battle included Crazy Horse, Two Moons, and Comes-in-Sight. According to historian Dee Brown, "Chief Comes-in-Sight was the bravest of all [the Cheyennes], but as he was swinging his horse about after a charge into the soldiers' flank the animal was shot down in front of a bluecoat infantry line. Suddenly another horse and rider galloped out of the Cheyennes' position and swerved to shield Chief Comes-in-Sight from the soldiers' fire. In a moment Chief Comes-in-Sight was up behind the rider. The rescuer was his sister Buffalo-Calf-Road-Woman, who had come along to help with the horses. This was why the Cheyennes always remembered this fight as the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother. The white men called it the Battle of the Rosebud."

By any name the battle was a victory for Sitting Bull's people. General Crook retreated to the south and made no further attempts to fight Indians that month. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors retired to their new camp on the Little Bighorn River, where they held victory dances.

During the festivities Sitting Bull thought about the vision he had experienced after his blood sacrifice. He wondered whether his vision had prophesied the victory over General Crook.

In Sitting Bull's vision, the enemy soldiers had tumbled right into the Sioux camp, falling from the air like wounded grasshoppers; then the hats of the enemies had fallen to the ground as they bowed their heads in surrender. But Crook's men had not entered the Sioux camp, and they had not bowed their heads in surrender. Therefore, Sitting Bull decided that the prophecy of his vision had not yet been fulfilled. He decided that another battle must be imminent. In this coming battle, the bluecoats would be crushed like insects.

On June 24, 1876, Sitting Bull made a big speech and said that Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious, had come to him riding on an eagle. Wakan Tanka had told him the cavalry was coming, but the Indians would wipe them off the face of the earth. He ordered the women to erect empty lodges at one end of camp, to fool the soldiers into attacking the wrong place.

The next day, some women gathering wild turnips saw bluecoats riding toward the camp. The enemy cavalry were a few miles distant, but they were approaching at a trot, their weapons flashing in the sun. The women ran back to camp, screaming warnings.

The enemy column contained about six hundred men of the Seventh Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer. As the bluecoats neared the Sioux camp, Custer split his force into three separate units. He expected the Indians to run away, so he wanted to surround their camp to block their escape.

The battle began in the afternoon of June 25, when one hundred and thirteen cavalrymen under Major Marcus Reno charged toward the camp from the southeast. Sitting Bull and his nephew, Gall, were at the point where the soldiers attacked. While Sitting Bull calmly made medicine, Gall organized a counter-attack.

Black Elk, a thirteen-year-old boy, was among the many warriors who hurried toward the fight. He later recalled, "I could see a big dust rising just beyond our camp and all the people were running around and yelling, and many were wet from the river. Then out of the dust came the soldiers on their big horses. They looked big and strong and tall and they were all shooting. My brother yelled for me to go back...[but] I followed him. By now women and children were running in a crowd downstream. I looked back and saw them all running and scattering up a hillside."

As the Indian resistance stiffened, Reno ordered his men to halt and take cover in some timber. Black Elk followed some warriors who crept into the timber on their bellies to flush out the bluecoats. He recalled, "The soldiers were shooting above us so that leaves fell from the trees where the bullets struck. By now I could not see what was happening in the village below. It was all dust and cries and thunder; for the women and children were running there, and the warriors were coming on their ponies."

As more and more Indians infiltrated the woods, Reno ordered a retreat. His troopers panicked and began to flee in a disorderly rout. The Indians rode after the soldiers, shooting them out of their saddles. The chase began to resemble a buffalo hunt.

Black Elk joined the chase. He recalled, "There was a soldier on the ground and he was still kicking. A man rode up to me and said, 'Boy, get off and scalp him.' I got off and started to do it. He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp."

At about this time, Custer led a charge into the other end of the camp. Most of the Indians who had been chasing Reno's men turned around and rode the other way to stop Custer.
Black Elk and a party of young men started riding that way, but they halted to watch a very pretty girl who was singing:
"Be brave! Be brave!
"Would you see me taken captive?"

So Black Elk did not participate in the fight against Custer. Like Sitting Bull, who also stayed down in the valley, Black Elk watched from a distance as Custer's men were surrounded atop the bluff that is now called Last Stand Hill.
Black Elk later recalled, "On a hill there was a big dust, and our warriors whirling in and out of it just like swallows, and many guns going off...The women were all singing and making the tremolo to cheer the men fighting across the river in the dust on the hill. My mother gave a big tremolo just for me when she saw my first scalp. I stayed there for a while with my mother and watched the big dust whirling on the hill across the river, and horses were coming out of it with empty saddles."

Custer and all his men were killed.
Sitting Bull had said that the troopers were a gift from the Great Mysterious, and that robbing their corpses would put a curse on the Sioux nation. Paying no heed to that warning, the warriors plundered cavalry saddles, carbines, and ammunition. Then the women came up the hill to finish off the wounded troopers, and to rob their bodies of watches, rings, and money.

After that the Indians seemed to lose their aggressive spirit. The next day, when their scouts reported that more soldiers were coming, the Sioux pulled up stakes and retreated into the Bighorn Mountains.
They would never again win a major victory over the United States Army.

Black Elk Speaks. Translated by John G. Neihardt. Wm. Morrow Co. 1932. Reprinted by University of Nebraska Press. 1970.
The Great Chiefs. by Benjamin Capps. Time-Life Books. 1975.
Indian Fights and Fighters. by Cyrus Townsend Brady. McClure, Philips & Co. 1904. Reprinted by University of Nebraska Press. 1972.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. by Dee Brown. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1970.
Sitting Bull. by Alexander B. Adams. G.P. Putnam's Sons. New York. 1973.