Sitting Bull is arguably one of the most famous Indigenous individuals to ever live. Born in 1831, he would become the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota people, also known as the Sioux, leading his people during the years of resistance against the United States and their policies of pushing the Indigenous off their lands.
This episode isn’t about the life of Sitting Bull, but the time he spent in Canada. Although I will go into a bit about his life before and after his time in Canada. As a young man, he was trained as a warrior and a medicine man who lived in a time when the traditional life of his people was being challenged by the growing number of white settlers coming into the traditional lands of the Lakota. As a leader of the resistance against American expansion, he emerged as a leader among his people.
In the 1870s, gold was discovered in what would one day be South Dakota, bringing huge numbers of prospectors and settlers into the area, pushing onto the lands of the Sioux. The land had been given to the Sioux under a treaty in 1868 but the military didn’t want to evict the new settlers who were coming into the area. As the Sioux and Cheyenne began to resist the encroachment, the Great Sioux War, also known as the Black Hills War, of 1876 began.
This would lead to the famous Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 in what would be the state of Montana. In the battle, the forces of Sitting Bull defeated Lt. Col. George Custer and his 262 men in a stunning victory. Unfortunately, this victory caused the United States to push for revenge and while Sitting Bull attempted to negotiate peace, the Americans wanted him to surrender their guns, horses and move to reserves. He rejected the offer and moved his people into Canada to the Wood Mountain area, which at the time was part of the North West Territories but today is southern Saskatchewan.
This was not the first time that Indigenous in the United States fled to Canadian territory, In 1862, Dakota refugees from the United States fled from American troops and settled in what would eventually be southern Manitoba, near the border with the Americans.
While Canada was far from a utopia for the Indigenous people of North America, it did present less danger than the American side of the border where one American army general said, quote:
“It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.”
The first group of Sioux arrived in Canada in November of 1876, consisting of a dozen scouts who came to the trading post of Jean-Louis Legare at Wood Mountain. Legare, seeing the poverty and desparate situation of the Indigenous, offered to trade with them. He also gave them $30 and they left. The next day 70 Indigenous groups were surrounding the store, looking for a place to camp.
On Nov. 24, 1876, North West Mounted Police Inspector James Walsh and several officers intercepted Sitting Bull and with the help of an interpreter, told him that Canada could not be used as a launch point for raids into the United States.
By May of 1877, after following the Frenchman River between Val Marie and Mankota, Sitting Bull sent an emissary to the Cypress Hills to warn the North West Mounted Police about his arrival and requested a meeting with them. Walsh met with Sitting Bull and assured him of protection in Canada in exchange for peaceful compliance under Canadian law. Sitting Bull presented a medal and stated, quote:
Walsh asked Sitting Bull if he would turn over any items taken in battle from the soldiers that died at Little Big Horn, which Sitting Bull complied with. Walsh then had those items returned to the families of the soldiers.
The two men would grow close, developing a friendship and a mutual respect for each other. Walsh would assure Sitting Bull of protection from the Americans as long as the Sioux obeyed Canadian laws. Walsh, for his part, truly felt that the Sioux had been mistreated in the United States.
Eventually, 5,000 Sioux were in the area and the Wood Mountain NWMP post was established with 22 NWMP officers serving there.
By all accounts, the first year for Sitting Bull and his people was quite good. They found plenty of bison, and were able to rest in peace. The Americans did come to Canada to try and convince Sitting Bull and his people to return to the United States. Three American emissaries were imprisoned by the Sioux but Walsh was able to convince Sitting Bull to let them leave. In the United States, Sitting Bull’s name was growing in prominence as newspapers reported on him, touting him as the mastermind of Custer’s demise and he gained fame being described as the last hold out of the Indian Wars.
After meeting with Sitting Bull, NWMP Commissioner Acheson Irvine would state, quote:
“His speech showed him to be a man of wonderful capability and I was much impressed.”
While in Canada, Sitting Bull would meet with another iconic Indigenous leader, Chief Crowfoot, the leader of the Blackfoot. At one time their peoples were enemies but Sitting Bull wished to make peace, and Crowfoot being a man of peace himself, accepted the tobacco peace offering. Sitting Bull was extremely impressed with Crowfoot and would name a son after him.
Unfortunately, the Canadian government did not see things the same way and thought that with Sitting Bull in Canada, he would incite the Indigenous towards war. In addition, they wanted to move the Indigenous out of the area to bring in white settlers. Sitting Bull for his part asked for a reserve for his people but this was refused.
The government of Sir John A. Macdonald saw the Sioux as, quote “American-Indians” and therefore would not be eligible for any land, food, or support.
Walsh would meet with Sitting Bull again, where he asked him to meet with an American commission. Sitting Bull is reported to have said, quote:
“Why do you come and seek us to go and talk with men who are killing our own race? You see these men, women, and children, wounded and bleeding? We cannot talk with men who have blood on their hands. They had stained the grass of the White Mother with it.”
Walsh was eventually able to convince Sitting Bull and 25 others to come with him to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was there they met with an American delegation. Due to the bad relationship between the Sioux and the Americans, the traditional pipe ceremony that was usually used at such gatherings was gone.
In the meeting, which included other Sioux with Sitting Bull named Bear’s Cap, Spotted Eagle, Whirlwind Bear, Flying Bird, Iron Dog, Medicine Turns-around, The Crow, Bear That Scatters, Yellow Dog and Little Knife. The only one to shake hands with the Americans was Bear’s Cap.
The Americans told the Sioux that those who stayed in the United States were not mistreated and if the Sioux in Canada returned, they would be treated as friends. Sitting Bull responded by stating his affection for Canada, and then shaking hands with the Canadians present. He then told the Americans, quote:
“You come here to tell us lies, but we don’t want to hear them. Go back home where you came from.”
He would go on to say, quote:
“For 64 years you have kept me and my people and treated us badly. What have we done that you should want us to stop? We have done nothing. It is the people on your side who have started us to do these depredations. We could not go anywhere else, so we took refuge in this country.”
He once more shook hands with the Canadians and then said to the Americans, according to NWMP reports, quote:
“You see me shaking hands with these people. The part of the country you gave me you ran me out of. I have now come to stay with these people, and I intend to stay here.”
In the 1990s, a Heritage Minute was created with Academy Award nominated actor, Graham Greene, portraying Sitting Bull in this meeting.
Commissioner Macleod would write a report about the treatment of the Sioux in America after the meeting, saying quote:
“I think the principal cause of the difficulties which are continually embroiling the American Government in trouble with the Indians is the way they are treated by the swarms of adventurers who have scattered themselves all over the Indian country in search of minerals before any treaty is made giving title. These men always look upon the Indians as their natural enemies and it is their rule to shoot at them if they approach after being warned off. I was actually asked the other day by an American who has settled here, if we had the same law here as on the other side and if he was justified in shooting any Indian who approached his camp after being warned not to advance.”
In 1880, Walsh would write a report speaking about the conduct of the Sioux and of their relationship with the police, stating quote:
“The conduct of those starving and destitute people, their patient endurance, their sympathy, the extent to which they assisted each other, and their strict observance of all order would reflect credit upon the most civilized community. The little that was daily left from their table was carefully preserved and meted out as far as it would go to the women and children. During those five or six weeks of distress, I do not think that one ounce of food was wasted at Wood Mountain Post.”
Eventually, the Canadian government felt that the friendship between Walsh and Sitting Bull was impeding Sitting Bull’s move back to the United States and Walsh was transferred to Fort Qu’Appelle in the summer of 1880. It is believed that Walsh was the only white man Sitting Bull ever trusted. Walsh’s replacement was not able to maintain the same relationship with Sitting Bull, further causing friction for the Sioux in their new home.
The government began to starve the Sioux to push them towards subjugation, so they could be moved to wherever suited the Canadian government. Most of the bison had been killed on the American side of the border, cutting off a major food supply for the Sioux and other Indigenous. American hunters and traders also set fires along the border to keep the last of the bison south of Canada. By some estimates, it is believed there were as many as 5,000 skinners and hunters on the American side wiping out the bison and preventing them from getting to Canada. In response to this, the Canadian government refused both a reserve and food to Sitting Bull and his people.
Legare, the trader that had first met the Sioux when they came into Canada, began to use his own money to support the starving Sioux with a large amount of food.
At one point, Sitting Bull heard that a small mission run by Father Hugonard near Fort Qu’Appelle had received flour. He set out with a few of his men towards the fort. Upon their arrival, Hugonard gave Sitting Bull and his men some meat and vegetables and then Sitting Bull made a speech. Hugonard relates, quote:
“Then Sitting Bull stood up and shook hands with me and everyone applauded him. He then made a speech in which he said they were at Wood Mountain and were starving as there were no buffalo and so they had come here thinking to trade horses to get fish and still they were starving and living principally on wild turnips. He heard there was flour here and had come to get some.”
Hugonard did not know if they meant to take the flour he had, or trade for it, but he soon had his answer, saying quote:
“Sitting Bull took the blanket from his shoulder and gave it to me. There was little or no money in the country, all was trade, but it was a good blanket, so I gave him three dollars for it. Then five of the men got up and each gave me a stick about a foot long. Each stick meant a horse, so it was that they were offering me five of the horses tied outside.”
After trading the items for food and money to buy food, Sitting Bull and his men went on their way, carrying six bags of flour.
Hugonard would describe Sitting Bull as such, quote:
Sitting Bull would again travel to Lake Qu’Appelle later to speak with his friend Walsh, but Walsh was absent at the time and the sergeant that was in command was under strict orders from Ottawa to not talk to, trade with, or feed Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull then returned to Wood Mountain dejected.
Eventually, Sioux began to return to the United States on the promise of rations. By 1880, the number of Sioux in Canada had fallen to 485 and by 1881, it was down to only 387.
On April 26, 1881, it was reported, quote:
“Despite Sitting Bull’s opposition, Legare took sixteen people to Fort Buford, but four of these were witnesses who returned with Legare to report as to how their people were treated.”
Sitting Bull would then journey to Fort Qu’Appelle to try and again convince the Canadian authorities to grant him a reserve, while Legare took a second group to Fort Buford, 32 people in all, to Fort Buford in present-day North Dakota. Included in this group was the eldest daughter of Sitting Bull.
On July 11, 1881, a third and final trip was conducted with Legare, taking eight Metis guides and 189 Sioux, including Sitting Bull, to Fort Buford.
In 1885, Sitting Bull began to tour with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show but then returned to lead his people. With the show, he would return to Canada briefly in August 1885 for shows in Toronto. He would continue to push against the US government over the taking of their traditional lands and in 1886 he encouraged the Crow, former enemies of his people, to oppose allotments for a reserve. In 1890, due to the growing popularity of the Ghost Dance movement, which foretold the return of the bison and the extinction of white people, the arrest of Sitting Bull was ordered. On Dec. 15, 1890 as agents with the government came to arrest Sitting Bull, a scuffle ensued that ended in a gunfight that killed Sitting Bull and 13 others.
It is said that after the shooting stopped, Sitting Bull’s face was smashed by a relative of a dead officer and his body was taken to Fort Yates, sewn in canvas, and placed in a wooden box and buried in a pauper’s grave. Sitting Bull, before he died, was said to have had a dream where there would be a fight over his grave and that his final resting place would be Turtle Mountain. He told this to his friend Chief Medicine Bear before he died. According to legend, the friends of Sitting Bull dug up his grave at night and under the cover of darkness, they transported his body to Manitoba and buried him where no one could disturb him.
In 2014, Canada Post issued a stamp of Sitting Bull, based on the famous picture of Sitting Bull standing with Buffalo Bill.
In 2019, a robe painted by Sitting Bull was returned to Saskatchewan and put on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina for 10 months.
I will close out this episode with a quote from James Walsh, who upon hearing about the death of his friend, said quote:
“He was not the bloodthirsty man reports from the prairies made him out to be. He asked for nothing but justice. He was not a cruel man; he was kind of heart. He was not dishonest. He was truthful.”
Information comes from History.com, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, WillowBunch.ca, Mysteries of Canada, Canadian Stamp News, Biographi, Native American Net Roots, History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West, Rapid City Journal, Sod Busters and Rough Riders,