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The Story of Sitting Bull’s Bones

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota was in the headlines last fall and winter because of Native American demonstrations protesting an oil pipeline being dug under their tribal lands and threatening their main source of water.  Trust me, I have no intention of weighing in on this bitterly contested issue.  But it does occur to me that I have never written about one of the best stories to ever emanate from that corner of the world.

Standing Rock, which straddles the shared border between North and South Dakota, is the homeland of the great Hunkpapa War Chief and – later – Medicine Man, Sitting Bull.

This is not a story about the Hero of the Greasy Grass (the Native name for the Little Big Horn River) – especially since by that stage of his life he was no longer a fighter, and had assumed the role of respected spiritual leader and medicine man.  Neither is it the story of Sitting Bull leading his people north to safety into Grandmother’s Land (Canada) following the battle, nor his courageous decision to bring them back to their homeland when promised rations and a safe haven didn’t actually materialize.

It isn’t even the more cheerful story of Sitting Bull’s glorious but brief, career in show business where he formed lifelong friendships with Buffalo Bill Cody and the lady sharpshooter whom he called Little Sure-Shot (Annie Oakley).  We’re even going to skip over his ignominious demise outside his own cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation when armed Indian Police betrayed him and he was shot in the resulting scuffle.

Perhaps another time.

No, this is a more recent story, that took place over sixty years following his death and burial in the Fort Yates Cemetery on the Standing Rock Reservation on the North Dakota side of the border.

This isn’t even about politics, then or now, although it does include a fair amount of civic pride, a desire to correct a perceived wrong, and quite a bit of beer.  Memories are long on the northern plains, and on this particular late night in a Mobridge, South Dakota cowboy bar, the discussion somehow turned to the subject of what a shame it was that Sitting Bull was interred on the wrong side of the state line after living so much of his life in South Dakota.

Now right away, I must interject that although the above paragraph pretty much represents how this whole thing started, claiming that Sitting Bull rightfully belonged to South Dakota was pretty much of a stretch right from the get-go.  Sitting Bull was a Teton Sioux, a proud, strong and numerous tribe whose nomadic lifestyle meant they roamed seasonally following the migrating buffalo, pursuing or avoiding enemies, meeting allies to trade, observe the Sun Dance, and other factors, like weather and, yes – water.  Their traditional “homeland” was enormous, covering many current western states, not just the two represented in this tale.

Some versions of the story have the cowboys setting out that very night to correct this oversight, but considering their state of inebriation and the fact that they would eventually need five tons of concrete to complete their project, I’m inclined to believe there was a bit more planning involved.

The scheme apparently still held merit by the time they sobered up, and they even enlisted the help of some civic leaders (who apparently didn’t have that much to do at the time), and especially a contractor to supply the concrete.

Just what was their plan?  Well, to dig up Chief Sitting Bull and remove his earthly remains to a site just inside the South Dakota border, of course!

Perhaps because of the sparse population on the reservation, the group’s secret was somehow kept, and they completed their mission in the dead of night, drove south across the state line, and re-interred Sitting Bull’s bones on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.  The five tons of concrete were to insure that once the people of Fort Yates discovered what had transpired, the great chief would be sufficiently “sealed” to prevent a reprisal.

Which is pretty much what happened.  The North Dakotans, being deprived of what was something of a minor tourist attraction, issued a statement that the South Dakotans had plundered the wrong grave, but their attempt to save face was pretty much discounted by all involved.

In addition to the spectacular view, the location was enhanced with a sculpture atop the concrete slab, rendered by Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor of the ongoing Black Hills mountain carving of Crazy Horse.  The upshot of the episode is that Fort Yates now brags of being the location of “Sitting Bull’s Burial Site”, while South Dakota claims his actual grave.

Now as you might have guessed, I take a fair number of visitors to Sitting Bull’s grave, each time telling the sacred story of Sitting Bull’s Bones.  It’s usually a brief photo op, a mildly interesting break in a long travel day.  But the last time I was there, I witnessed something which put the entire affair in perspective for me.  As we arrived a Native couple were slowly climbing the steps to the monument.  The woman placed some sweet grass at the base, and started talking.  I kept a respectful distance, but I was close enough to hear her say, “Grandfather, it’s [her name].  It’s been a while since I was last here, and I just wanted to let you know…”

With these words I just about lost it.  This was not just a tourist trap with an amusing backstory.  This was somebody’s grave. Somebody with descendants – who loved and revered him.  This is not a white story, or an Indian story; it’s a human story.  I shared my experience with my group as soon as we got back on the bus, and will never tell the story of Sitting Bull’s Bones again, without this inspiring coda.

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