Sitting Bull didn’t come to Montana to fight at the Little Bighorn, says his great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe. The great Sioux spiritual leader and former war hero came to dance.
With others who had rejected treaties that confined them to reservations,
the Hunkpapa sun dancer was following an ancient ceremonial journey
dictated by the stars and the sacred pipe.
“The ceremonial journey begins when the sun is the spark that reignites the
pipe by entering the constellation we know as Cansas Ipusye (Aries) as
winter is about to give way to spring, and the ceremonial journey continues
to its apex around summer solstice when the sun dancers offer their blood,
sweat, tears and pain for the regeneration and the renewal of all life,”
LaPointe wrote in a statement for a new exhibit on his great-grandfather at
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Between June 4 and 8, 1876, as three columns of the U.S. Army headed toward
the Bighorn River to corner the Sioux and force them onto reservations in
the Dakotas, Sitting Bull organized a sacred sun dance.
Then in his 40s and past his warrior days, Sitting Bull offered 50 pieces
of flesh from each arm before he began the grueling ritual of dance and
prayers. On the second day, a vision came. Soldiers were falling into camp,
upside down, with no ears, LaPointe said.
“These dead soldiers who are coming are the gifts of God,” Sitting Bull
told his people. “Kill them, but do not take their guns or horses. Do not
touch the spoils. If you set your hearts upon the goods of the white man,
it will prove a curse to this nation.”
They did not heed his words, LaPointe said.
When six companies of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George
Custer were annihilated at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, victorious
Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho took horses, guns, scalps, uniforms and
anything that could be useful on their nomadic journeys.
Sitting Bull did not fight that day, LaPointe asserts, despite all that has
been said since. He took care of the women, children and elders in his
camp, which was attacked in the early phase of the battle. After it was
over, he prayed for the warriors and soldiers who died there, LaPointe
In the battlefield’s new exhibit, LaPointe wants people to understand that
while Sitting Bull was a man of war in his youth, he was also a spiritual
leader and a man of great compassion.
The Sitting Bull family has been working with the National Park Service in
creating an exhibit that will be completed by the battle’s anniversary in
Sharon Small, the Park Service curator at the battlefield museum, said the
exhibit has been assembled during the last year virtually from scratch.
“There needed to be balance within the park,” she said. “We put it right
next to the Custer exhibit.”
Many of the major pieces are in place and ready for public viewing. The
backdrop is Sitting Bull’s pictographic history of war deeds, copied from
ledger art that Sitting Bull had drawn while imprisoned at Fort Randall,
S.D., in 1882.
La Pointe had seen the originals at the Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles,
Mich., and wanted them duplicated for the battlefield museum in Montana.
suggested that his friend, artist Daryl No Heart, replicate Sitting Bull’s
originals on a buffalo hide now displayed at Little Bighorn.
“That was a perfect match,” curator Small said. “He couldn’t have done a
Sitting Bull made the originals for Martha Smith, sister-in-law of the
quartermaster at Fort Randall, and the quartermaster’s daughter, Alice
They had befriended the captive medicine man and asked him to make
copies of pictographs he had painted for the Indian agent. Before the
Quimby family was transferred, Sitting Bull gave them 12 completed
pictographs and one that was almost completed.
He drew himself counting coup against an Assiniboine enemy and charging a
Crow warrior. In another, he exchanges fire with a Crow and holds his
sacred shield. Others depict scenes of combat, usually with Crow enemies.
In the center at the top is Sitting Bull’s signature, a buffalo bull.
A life-size print of a photograph of Sitting Bull by famed frontier
photographer D. F. Berry stands on one side of the display case, and a
Berry photograph of two of his children, Standing Holy and Crow Foot, is on
the other side.
Standing Holy is LaPointe’s grandmother. Berry’s business card, signed by
Sitting Bull, will also be in the specially made display cases.
Crow Foot, about 17, died with his father on Dec. 15, 1890, when Indian
police came to arrest Sitting Bull at his home on the Standing Rock Agency.
A wooden hoop, part of a toy belonging to Crow Foot, and an eagle feather,
both found in Sitting Bull’s cabin, are part of the display. The feather,
the hoop and the Berry business card were loaned by LaPointe.
A beaver-pelt top hat presented to Sitting Bull in exchange for his
autograph in Bismarck during the Dakota Territory capital celebration in
September 1883 sits in the middle of the display case. It comes complete
with its original hat box from J.G. Volz & Co.
Sitting Bull’s armaments are also represented. At the bottom of the case
lay a bow and five arrows that Sitting Bull gave to Henry W.B. Mechling, a
7th Cavalry blacksmith from Company H, when the medicine man returned from
Canada to surrender at Fort Buford in North Dakota in 1881.
Mechling had been in Custer’s column the day of the battle, but when Custer
divided his command just before the battle, Company H was assigned to Capt.
That order saved Mechling’s life. Benteen’s forces and those under Maj.
Marcus Reno were pinned down on a hill above the Little Bighorn River while
Custer and more than 200 men under his immediate command were wiped out.
The Reno-Benteen survivors huddled for two hot June days on the hill,
holding off warrior attacks. Mechling was one of several awarded medals of
honor for bravery in bringing water to the wounded.
His medal and the items Sitting Bull gave him were donated to the
battlefield by his daughter, Minnie Grace Mechling, in 1993. The medal is
on display in another museum case.
The gun that Sitting Bull surrendered, a Model 1866 .44 caliber Winchester
carbine, is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Efforts to borrow the
gun were unsuccessful, Small said.
But a replica was acquired for the
exhibit, and the battlefield’s chief historian, John Doerner, is preparing
it to look as it would have in Sitting Bull’s possession.
Not yet arrived at the battlefield is an 1882 oil portrait by Western
artist Henry H. Cross painted from life in 1882. Sitting Bull signed the
It’s being donated by the James Mangan family of Fairfield, Conn. Mangan
plans to bring the painting to Montana in June, Small said.
LaPointe said he hopes to visit the battlefield in May to check on the
“I gave them a lot of little things,” he said. “I told them it was up to
them to put it together.”
This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette.