The 59-year-old Hunkpapa Lakota chief was still in bed when the cops showed up at dawn. There were more than 40 of them from the Standing Rock agency — there to take him in for fomenting unrest.
The American Indian Agent James McLaughlin feared that the stubborn old tradtionalist was going to jump the reservation with members of the Ghost Dance cult that was sweeping the Plains. After all, hadn’t Sitting Bull presided over the killing of Custer and his command at the Little Big Horn? Hadn’t he fled to Canada, where he stayed for years before coming in? Sure, the chief and holy might be getting on in years, but he was still and always would be a menace…
So McLoughlin sent out Lt. Henry Bullhead and a large contingent of Indian police to bring Sitting Bull in to Fort Yates on Standing Rock in North Dakota. The charge was bogus. Sitting Bull wasn’t a Ghost Dancer; for one thing, he wasn’t going to participate in a movement he didn’t lead. Sitting Bull had his own spiritual path — and he just wanted to be left alone to live out the rest of his days in a manner as close to the old ways as possible. If that pissed off the Agent, too bad.
Didn’t matter. If there was “Indian trouble,” Sitting Bull had to be mixed up in it.
Bullhead rousted Sitting Bull and told him to mount up, that he was coming in to see the Agent. Sitting Bull refused to comply. A crowd of relatives and neighbors gathered. The police tried to force Sitting Bull onto a horse. An enraged relative, Catch-the-Bear, raised his rifle and shot Lt. Bullhead. The wounded policeman pulled his revolver and shot Sitting Bull in the chest. Another policeman named Red Tomahawk shot Sitting Bull in the head.
Screaming and gunfire echoed across the prairie as the police and Sitting Bull’s people engaged in a confused, close-quarters firefight. When the gunsmoke wafted away on the chill winter breeze, there were six Lakota policemen dead on the frozen ground and two more mortally wounded. Lt. Bullhead was one.
Sitting Bull and seven of his people were also dead, along with a couple of horses.
The killing of Sitting Bull was one of the precipitating events in the great tragedy of the Lakota people. Two weeks later, the Seventh Cavalry would surround an encampment of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek. Another scuffle, another shot followed by a fusillade — and 146 or more Lakota men, women and children lay dead, their blood steaming in the snow.