In 1877, the Teton Sioux tribes surrendered to the U.S. army and lost their rights to the Powder River territory and the Black Hills. The Sioux were moved to a large reservation “believed to be virtually worthless by the surveyors.” Around the same time, a great wave of north European immigrants was moving across the country. This created a demand for more land in the Midwest, and gave the government an incentive to force the Sioux off their land.
White settlers’ migration westward gave the U.S. government a further need to expel Native Americans from the American Midwest, very similar to the economic incentives Brown has discussed in earlier chapters.
In the late 1870s, Sitting Bull was still free in Canada. This was dangerous for the government, since Sitting Bull was a living, breathing symbol of Native resistance to the U.S. Sitting Bull met with American representatives in October 1877 at Fort Walsh and refused to comply with any American demands.
In this chapter, Brown discusses a new form of resistance to the U.S.—symbolic resistance. Sitting Bull’s very existence could be considered an act of resistance to the U.S., because of all that he symbolized. While Sitting Bull’s symbolic resistance couldn’t stop white expansion westward, it was clearly a thorn in the U.S. government’s side.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government refused to give aid of any kind to Sitting Bull’s followers, many of whom were starving. Finally, in 1881, Sitting Bull and his followers crossed back into the U.S. and rode to Fort Buford, desperate for rations. Sitting Bull was arrested almost immediately.
Even Sitting Bull, perhaps the most famous and successful Native American resistors of U.S. expansion, was forced to give up. The U.S. military was just too powerful.
At the time that Sitting Bull returned to the U.S., the Sioux were in danger of losing much of their territory to the U.S. government. Agents and land speculators were able to use their access to food and other resources to pressure dozens of Sioux chiefs into signing contracts surrendering their territory to white settlers. Fortunately, the agents and speculators failed to pass a Senate bill depriving the Sioux of their lands—the Sioux had a fair number of supporters and allies in Washington.
Again, Brown doesn’t offer a lot of information about how, precisely, government agents used their access to food and resources to pressure the Native Americans, but it’s easy enough to imagine. The passage emphasizes that access to food was one of the most important negotiating tools the U.S. had during its interactions with the Sioux (explaining why white settlers slaughtered buffalo for no practical purpose: they were trying to weaken the Native Americans).
In 1882, Sitting Bull was released from jail and brought before government commissioners to testify on the state of life on the Sioux reservation. During the hearing, Sitting Bull accused the commissioners of being drunk and disrespectful. He’d long ago decided to distrust all white men. The following day, Sitting Bull spoke at length before the commission. He talked about the long history of white settlers dishonoring the Sioux.
Sitting Bull’s speech marked a notorious act of symbolic resistance to the United States of America. His speech didn’t accomplish anything concrete, but it stands as an important and moving expression of opposition: through Sitting Bull, Native Americans were given a voice before the government.
In the following months, Sitting Bull began a long speaking tour, during which he traveled across the country, denouncing the treachery of white America. The Indian Bureau was at first highly skeptical of such a tour. But the bureaucrats allowed Sitting Bull to travel, since it was better that he tour the country than remain among his own people and foment a rebellion. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West Show.
The twilight of Sitting Bull’s career was full of bizarre changes: for a time, he appeared in Buffalo Bill’s show. While this may seem like an ignominious act for a respected chief, Sitting Bull tried to use his national platform to voice opposition to the U.S. government’s policy of expansion. (Readers are encouraged to watch Robert Altman’s brilliant satirical film from the 1970s, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, about Bill and Sitting Bull’s Wild West Show.)
In 1888, Congress prepared to pass a bill that would deprive the Sioux of their territory in the Midwest. Politicians convinced General Crook to persuade the Sioux to comply with Washington, on the ground that complying was the only way to ensure peace. In the end, many Native American tribes agreed to the new treaty, following Crook’s advice.
After decades of experiencing horrific violence, Native Americans gave in rather than risk another war. In effect, they were pressured and extorted into giving up their lands.
By the middle of July, the agreement had been signed by many tribes, but not the Sioux or the Hunkpapas. If the two tribes refused to sign the new treaty, then it would be void, and the Senate wouldn’t be able to pass its bill. Sitting Bull was able to mobilize his people and convince them to turn down the new treaty. However, the government commissioners held a second meeting with the Sioux chiefs, and didn’t invite Sitting Bull. During this meeting, the chiefs agreed to sign, even after Sitting Bull burst into the meeting. Furious, Sitting Bull shouted, “There are no Indians left but me!”
Sitting Bull’s famous words are often interpreted to mean that he and he alone was still opposed to the U.S. government. By refusing to sign the treaty, Sitting Bull refused to play along with the government’s charade of neutrality and fairness: Sitting Bull knew the treaty was unfair, and he wasn’t afraid to say it. However, Sitting Bull’s peers’ decision to sign the treaty is at least understandable, since they were trying to avoid another war with the U.S. military.
In the early 1890s, news of the mysterious Paiute Messiah spread across the country. The Messiah practiced a new religion called Ghost Dance, and he wanted to spread his religion across the country. He claimed that he’d spoken directly to Jesus Christ, who appeared to him as a Native American. Sitting Bull was skeptical of the Ghost Dance movement, but he allowed his Sioux followers to practice the religion.
The Ghost Dance movement marked a sudden turn in the history of Native American resistance. Instead of fighting for concrete ends, such as land or food, many Native Americans of the period embraced Ghost Dance as a kind of moral and spiritual resistance to the U.S., seeking refuge within their own souls.
Followers of the Ghost Dance movement believed that their religion made them impervious to bullets. But for the most part, its tenets “were the same as those of any Christian church.” The religion emphasized love, respect, and peace. By the end of 1890, Ghost Dance had become ubiquitous among the Sioux. In Washington, D.C., the religion was interpreted as a challenge to the U.S.’s authority, partly because Sitting Bull was known to support it. The government sent troops to arrest Sitting Bull. Ghost Dancers tried to protect Sitting Bull from arrest. In the fighting, Sitting Bull was shot in the head and killed.
It’s a mark of the U.S. government’s tyranny that it considered Ghost Dance—a nonviolent, effectively Christian movement—an affront to U.S. authority. The U.S. had won control over the vast majority of Native American land: it had gotten everything it wanted. But it couldn't stand Native Americans asserting their pride and dignity so publicly. Thus, they banned Ghost Dance and—supposedly in the confusion of the arrest—killed Sitting Bull. As in the earlier chapters of this book, it’s possible that Sitting Bull’s killing was premeditated, rather than provoked in the moment.