We had a nice breakfast and gassed up in Mobridge, then bugged out for an amazing morning on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, seeing some of the most rugged and remote country of our lives. Our first stop was a lonely, windswept hill down a narrow ranch road that runs in back of an Indian casino. Here is the supposed burial site of the great Lakota medicine man, Sitting Bull.
Why “supposed”? Because Sitting Bull’s remains have not exactly rested in peace over the years. It all began on December 16, 1890, when a contingent of Indian policemen were dispatched from the army base at Fort Yates (North Dakota) to arrest the 56-year-old Sitting Bull. At the time, a spiritual uprising known as the Ghost Dance was sweeping through the Sioux nation, and some authorities believed that Sitting Bull was encouraging it. After all, this was the man whose leadership had played a key role in Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn fifteen years earlier. With his influence over his people, it often seemed there wasn’t much he couldn’t do — maybe even inspire an impoverished, defeated people to rise once more against their white conquerors.
As the role of Indian police reveals, the Lakota themselves were deeply divided. Some were eager to embrace the Ghost Dance fervor, which held out the promise that believers would see a kind of Judgement Day in which whites were swept from the earth and the buffalo returned, setting everything back to rights. Others saw clearly that, like it or not, the whites had won, and it was time to get haircuts, learn English, and adjust their minds to the new reality. As for Sitting Bull, most historians believe that he was too pragmatic to put much stock in the Ghost Dance — but that he wouldn’t hesitate to try to turn it to his advantage if he thought his people might have one more chance for freedom.
When the Indian police tried to place Sitting Bull under arrest at his camp on the Grand River, some forty miles from Fort Yates, all hell broke loose. A disastrous gun battle ensued in which Sitting Bull and seven of his followers, including his 17-year-old son, were fatally wounded; six Indian policemen also lost their lives.
Since the stunned and bloodied police had orders to bring Sitting Bull back “dead or alive,” they did just that, throwing his body in the back of their wagon along with their own dead. As High Eagle, one of the policemen, put it, “Well, we have gone to work, and we have killed our chief.”
Needless to say, these men were hardly in the mood to give any ceremony to the burial of Sitting Bull, not while six police families prepared for funerals. So the day after his death, it fell to J.F. Waggoner, a fort carpenter, to put together a hasty coffin. Waggoner embodied the wistful thoughts that gripped many of the whites who had matched wits over the years with the proud, intelligent chief: “For he was surely a fighter, a thinker, a chief, and a gentleman. He had eaten many a meal at my house, and I cannot but speak well of Sitting Bull.”
Sitting Bull was a big man who weighed in at about 250 pounds, and Waggoner held his breath as the body, still wrapped in the same bloody blanket in which it was transported the day before, ”filled that box chock-a-block.” Before burial, Waggoner and four other soldiers were ordered to dowse the body with quicklime, a compound frequently used on the bodies of condemned men to make their bodies decompose more quickly.
Waggoner remembered, “We laid the noble old chief away without a hymn or a prayer or a sprinkle of earth. Quicklime was used instead. It made me angry. I had always admired the chief for his courage and his generalship. He was a man!”
Fort Yates was dismantled in 1903, and all the military graves were moved. The town kept the name Fort Yates and remained as the headquarters of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There Sitting Bull remained until April 1953, when a relation named Clarence Gray Eagle led a group who swooped into town in the dark of night, dug up the old hero’s bones, and made off with them to the site near Mobridge, which overlooked the mouth of his beloved Grand River (now inundated because of damming of the Missouri River). To make sure he stayed put, they entombed the grave with twenty tons of steel and concrete and erected a dignified monument sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, who went on to design the Crazy Horse memorial.
As we walked up to the beautiful, lonely spot, paint horses grazed near by, evoking the memory of Indian ponies. In spite of the stern, impressive monument that faces the river, a vast emptiness surrounds the grave. Neglect and cleanup were both in evidence here, and it was unclear which was carrying the day. It doesn’t really help that there is an inexplicable shaft nearby honoring Sacagawea. I love Sacagawea, but she was never anywhere near this place.
I didn’t feel Sitting Bull’s presence, though I doubt he would have approved of any of it. What I did feel was regret at the way the Sioux were driven off the land they’d occupied for God knows how many centuries.
Today we had a straight shot through the reservation on a portion of the designated “Native American Scenic Byway,” also called Highway 1806 in honor of Lewis & Clark. On the reservation, towns, houses, and even signs are in short supply. Under a vast sky, you simply roll along forever, praying you don’t get a flat tire, as sunflowers give way to rugged rolling hills and vast grasslands. I had the strangest feeling of being small and vulnerable. I was out of my element, and I knew it.
There wasn’t even a sign when we crossed into North Dakota. On the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, they don’t much care about such things.
We stopped in Fort Yates to see if we could find the site of Sitting Bull’s original burial. The town is dominated by a new and very nice agency headquarters, where we saw modern-day Indians just going about their normal daily lives — applying for driver’s licenses, registering kids for school, and attending government hearings. I felt too shy to ask anyone for directions to the Sitting Bull site, and our pilgrimage began to seem a little silly to me. For white people, the Sioux are frozen in time in 1890, the last time anyone paid them any mind. But here, no one was sitting around moping about Sitting Bull.
We caught a glimpse of a small and poorly marked plaque on our way out of town. But we didn’t turn back. The Lakota had moved on. Time for us to move on, too.