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Sitting Bull’s Legacy: Strength in Culture and Family

by Patrice Kunesh, special contributor

Louis Primeau and James McLaughlin on the Standing Rock AgencyLouis Primeau (seated, far right), the uncle of my grandfather, served as translator and tracker for James McLaughlin (leaning against tree), the U.S. official who ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest in December 1890.

As a law student studying the tragic history of the federal government’s unwarranted removal of thousands of Indian children from their families, I told my mother of my intent to fight for the right of Indian tribes to secure the well-being of those children. She replied, to my utter surprise, “No child should have to grow up on an Indian reservation.”

My view of the reservation had been constructed around stories from my grandfather, Theodore Kelly, a Hunkpapa Lakota who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the early 1900s. He spent summers running with abandon through the prairie grass, fishing along the banks of the Missouri, hunting and relishing tachupa, the bone marrow, which he said was the best part. Seldom did he hear shi’cha (“naughty”), only hoksila seka (“good boy”) and hoksila washte (“good girl”).

My mother then told me about the precarious side of his childhood: the grinding poverty, the disease, and the despair that had become rooted into every part of the reservation. Often there was not enough food for the family or fuel to heat the house. His brother, along with scores of other children, was sent far away to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as part of the federal government’s assimilationist policies aimed at breaking up families and severing their ties to the land. Like so many other Indian children, he grew up confused and angry about his identity and indefinite place in American society. I was not dissuaded by my mother’s response — only more resolved to work for the rights of American Indian tribes to be self-determined and self-sufficient.

Sitting Bull (1885)I found my inspiration in the words of Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Lakota people who also grew up in a territory that became the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull is renowned for his prowess as a warrior and visionary spiritual leader; but, later in life when pressed by the army, he would look first to the children, the old, and the sick. He would seek to secure their safety and consistently would give away his possessions and meat to feed and clothe them. He gained a reputation as the most generous man in a society where generosity was the ultimate virtue.

Even in the face of defeat, Sitting Bull’s primary concern was for the children. On the threshold of the passage of the General Allotment Act — one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation leading to the utter destruction of the traditional tribal way of life on the plains and prairies of the Dakota Territory — Sitting Bull finally surrendered to the U.S. Calvary to save his people from starvation and further degradations.

Years of fighting a losing battle against the government’s confiscation of Lakota lands and confinement onto reservations had reduced the Lakota to a pitiful state of privation and dependency. In 1883, just seven years before his tragic death, Sitting Bull addressed a committee of U.S. Senators at the Standing Rock Agency. While the senators insisted on more land cessions from the Lakota in the sacred grounds of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), Sitting Bull reminded them of their treaty obligations for compensation and supplies. His pleas were not for himself, but for the children.

He said to the U.S. Senators who were visiting Standing Rock:

“I am looking into the future for the benefit of my children, the Sioux, and that is what I mean when I say I want my country taken care of for me. My children will grow up here, and I am looking ahead for their benefit, and for the benefit of my children’s children too; and even beyond that.”

Sitting Bull at Council Standing Rock Reservation 1887Sitting Bull addresses a federal commission with James McLaughlin at Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory. (photo: D. F. Barry)

After years of conflict and the painful transition from an unencumbered life to a life as reservation accommodationists, some tribal people began to rethink what it meant to be Lakota, indeed to be part of the Sioux nation. To Sitting Bull, the true survival of his people meant cultural survival and the endurance of the tiospaye, or family relationships.

The foundations of his prominence as a leader and his spiritual powers were derived from his tiospaye, which nourished the Lakota lifeways and a culture that valued children and ensured their future well-being. Sitting Bull insisted on preserving the collectivity of the land and family through tribal customs and ceremonies.

Despite my mother’s faltering view of reservation life, she constructed her own life around the family as a sacred circle. In her home and in the homes of her 13 children, there is always a place for grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren. We often have a complete family circle at one time. The land we hold at Standing Rock also remains an essential cultural connection for us. It reminds us of Sitting Bull’s enduring legacy, which implores: “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”


Patrice KuneshPatrice Kunesh teaches federal Indian law at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She also directs the university’s Institute of American Indian Studies.

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