Sitting Bull
True West|January 2021
THE SIOUX LEADER’S FINAL FLIGHT TO FREEDOM
ROBERT M. UTLEY

Sunday, June 25, 1876, was a clear, hot, sunny day in the valley of Montana’s Greasy Grass River, which the white man’s maps labeled the Little Bighorn. Six tribal circles of Lakotas and one of Northern Cheyennes, the coalition of winter roamers, sprawled for nearly three miles down the narrow valley, rimmed on the east by the snow-fed river. The Hunkpapas occupied the extreme upper end of the village, the Cheyennes the lower. In between rose the lodges of Blackfeet, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Oglala and Brule. It was an unusually large village: 7,000 people, 2,000 warriors, housed in thousands of tipis and wickyups. In the past few days, Indians arriving from the agencies had swollen the village.

Sitting Bull’s lodge, on the southern edge of the Hunkpapa circle, sheltered 12 people besides the chief: two wives, his mother, two teenage daughters, three sons, two stepsons, his sister and the brother of his two wives. He treasured his family.

On this hot summer day, some of the men rode up to the bench-land west of the valley to tend their grazing pony herds. After a night of dancing and feasting, others dozed in their tipis or beneath the tall cottonwood trees shading the riverbank. Children played in the cool waters of the stream. Women dug for wild roots.

In the middle of the afternoon, a current of anxiety ran through the village, disturbing the peaceful scene. Shortly, heralds rode through each circle. “They are charging, the chargers are coming!” they cried. They were coming, and they were soon within sight of Sitting Bull’s lodge. “I heard a terrific volley of carbines,” recalled Moving Robe Woman. “The bullets shattered the tipi poles. Women and children were running away from the gunfire.” In the tumult, Moving Robe Woman recalled, “I heard old men and women singing death songs for their warriors who were now ready to attack the soldiers.” One Bull and White Bull galloped down from the bench to help their uncle prepare for battle. Old man chiefs were not supposed to fight, but he had to defend himself and his family. Astride a large black horse, brandishing a Winchester rifle, he hurried among warriors pouring from their tipis. “Brave up, boys, it will be a hard time. Brave up!” White Bull shouted.

But the “chargers” quit charging. They got off their horses and lay on the ground firing at the Hunkpapa tipis. Sitting Bull dismounted and joined others, including the venerated chief Four Horns, in a shallow draw from which to shoot back. White Bull called this “standstill shooting.”

Soon warriors from the other tribal circles began reaching the scene, many following the indomitable Oglala, Crazy Horse. The standstill shooting ended.

Crazy Horse and the arriving warriors drove the soldiers into timber enclosed by a bend in the river. Now on the defensive, the troopers fought back, though ineffectively. In about twenty minutes they mounted and burst from the timber, racing across the open valley toward a line of high bluffs on the other side of the river, every man for himself. Warriors rode among them, striking them down as they sought to save themselves. They jumped into and crossed the river, then climbed the bluffs to the top. They had lost 30 killed and 13 wounded.

Sitting Bull had not ridden in this rout of the soldiers. As long as they remained in the valley, he fired his Winchester at them and encouraged his young men to fight. After the soldiers had reached the top of the bluffs, he rode about the valley examining the carnage, then crossed the river and climbed one of the ravines scouring the bluffs. At the top, soldiers had formed into a defensive circle and were exchanging fire with Indians scaling the heights. One Bull recalled that his uncle “was back on the hill sort of directing things, though he himself did not go into the fight at all”—appropriate behavior for an old man chief. He even remarked to One Bull that the warriors should let the soldiers go back home and tell the whites what had occurred on these bluffs.

But there were still more soldiers to fight. They had been glimpsed downstream, opposite the lower end of the village. “The word passed among the Indians like a whirlwind,” said Red Horse, “and they all started to attack this new party, leaving the troops on the hill.”

Accompanied by One Bull, Sitting Bull joined the other warriors hastening north along the ridgetops. Soon they spotted the new threat: many soldiers already fighting against converging warriors. Instead of joining the fight, Sitting Bull left One Bull and worked his way down a broad coulee to the river, splashed across, and rode to where the women and children had gathered beyond the Cheyenne circle. He saw his duty as helping to protect the women and children, rather than exposing himself in the battle that he could see developing on a high ridge across the river.

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