(Photo courtesy of JDK Chipps))
In 1831, life on the Great Plains was good for the Lakota. The land provided everything. There
were bison which provided meat to eat, skins for shelter and clothing, and bones for
utensils. Even the sinew served the buffalo hunter as bow strings. There were
respected enemies against whom to prove one's valor: Absaroke, Flatheads, Assiniboine, Omaha, Chippewa, and Pawnee.
In this year of 1831, in a Hunkpapa Village near what is today called the Grand River,
a son was born to Chief Jumping Bull. In time, the world would come to know this one.
If life was good for the Lakota people, it was especially good for the youth.
While still a small child, the little one learned to use a small boy's bow. With this,
he hunted birds, rabbits, and other such small animals. There were also ponies to ride,
and creeks in which to swim. No boy could have asked for more.
As the boy grew into a young man, he desired to prove himself to his people. At the tender age
of ten, he demonstrated both skill and courage when he killed his first buffalo.
At the age of just fourteen, this boy (nicknamed "Hunkesh-nee" or "Slow" because of his
deliberate way of doing things) joined a raid
against the Hunkpapa Lakota's traditional enemy, the Absaroke. Known later to wasichu
as Crows, the Absaroke were formidable enemies and themselves mighty warriors. (Jumping Bull,
Tatanka Yotanka's father, would die while killing his own Crow slayer) The boy counted coup by touching a Crow warrior, and thus at the
age of fourteen, the boy became a man and a warrior.
TATANKA YOTANKA THE WARRIOR
At the age of fifteen, Tatanka Yotanka displayed great courage in a fight with
the Flatheads in 1847. He galloped past their skirmish line, laughing
and taunting them. In spite of the shower of arrows and the hail of Flathead bullets
directed against him, Tatanka Yotanka sustained only a minor
foot wound. This display convinced all that not only was this young man courageous,
his medicine was powerful as well. This caused the warrior societies to consider him
as a brother. The warrior societies of the Lakota have often been called "the finest light cavalry in the
world." It was as a member of the Strong Heart and Kit Fox societies that Tatanka Yotanka
made war against the enemies of his Lakota people. Later he would be a well-respected
member of the Silent Eaters society as well. Later in life, Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka became the last known
head of the "Cante Tinza" society.
One incident symbolizes the courage of Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka in his warrior
days. A band of Hunkpapa were engaged in a running fight with a band of Absaroke.
One of the Crows forted up in a small, narrow ravine. Try as they might,
the Lakota could not dislodge him. While attacking himself, Tatanka Yotanka
discovered that the Crow was out of ammunition. Not wishing to kill an unarmed man
whom he regarded as extraordinarily brave, Tatanka Yotanka tossed the man his own
loaded rifle, then attacked him armed only with a coup stick. Tatanka Yotanka
was wounded by the Crow but nonetheless counted coup on him before he was
Tatanka Yotanka was an extraordinarily brave man who set an example for all Lakota
warriors to emulate. In his deeds in traditional warfare with enemy tribes,
Tatanka Yotanka symbolized the valor and greatness of the plains warrior.
Trouble always followed when the ever-expanding American frontier brought white traders, trappers,
and settlers into contact with the First Nations. Although the Lakota Nation had met white traders years earlier, t
troubles between them and the whites heated up in the early 1850s as increased contact led to cultural conflict and contamination
boiled over into violence. Treaties were made and as quickly broken as the whites sought the desirable
lands occupied by the Indians.
Sioux people living in Minnesota finally rose up against the whites, and violence and
bloodshed was the rule. But overpowered by the superior numbers of the whites, the Minnesota
tribes retreated onto the plains. The United States Army made little distinction between the Minnesota
bands and the bands--Hunkpapas included--who were indigenous to the area. The
warfare between the Sioux and the whites became general.
In 1863, Tatanka Yotanka had his first fights with the United States Army. In 1864, he took part in the
Battle of Killdeer Mountain. The following year, 1865, he led an unsuccessful siege operation against
Fort Rice (in present-day North Dakota).
In 1876, the Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota
The courage Tatanka Yotanka so often displayed in warfare against other Indians was no less apparent when he fought
the whites. In 1872, Tatanka Yotanka was a member of a Lakota war party that had
attacked white railroad workers near the Yellowstone River who were protected by soldiers.
Even while the bullets buzzed overhead, Tatanka Yotanka sat down in plain view of the soldiers, lit his
Cannupa, and enjoyed a smoke as the soldiers continued to fire. When he finished, he carefully
cleaned the pipe, then walked away.
TATANKA YOTANKA versus
GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER
Although the two men were superficialy similar--both were cavalry leaders of great
personal bravery, TATANKA YOTANKA and
GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER stood for very different things. Tatanka Yotanka
stood for the inalienable right of the Lakota people to exist on the Great Plains as
a sovereign and free nation; Custer defended the right of his people to
invade and occupy the Lakota country. Although numerous treaties guaranteed
these lands to the Lakota in perpetuity, wasichu continued to built roads and forts into
Lakota territory. Even a railroad was under construction through Lakota land. The
Lakota would not tolerate this invasion, and the United States government was
pressured politically to provide protection for their citizens in Lakota
country, never mind the nature of their trespass. War was inevitable, and swift
In 1863, Custer rose to national prominence by virtue of his courageous cavalry charge at
Gettysburg. For his part, Tatanka Yotanka sustained a bullet wound
in his left hip on September 2nd of the next year. This wound occured during an
attack on a wagon train near present-day Bowman, Montana. The warfare continued.
Preoccupied by the Civil War, the United States Army could not afford to concentrate
its attentions on the Great Plains. On December 21, 1866, the Oglala Lakota under Red CLoud
achieved a great victory over the army in what the whites call "The Fetterman Massacre" and which the
the Lakota call the "Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight." It must have been obvious even to Washington bureaucrats that
the struggle for the Great Plains was to be no easy matter.
Sporadic warfare continued to be the rule. In August, 1872, a Lakota force led by Tatanka Yotanka and Crazy Horse
attacked an engineering party of whites on the Yellowstone River at its
junction with Arrow Creek. The engineers were protected by a detachment of
500 soldiers, and the battle was not decisive.
On April 4, 1874, Tatanka Yotanka led an attack against the Yellowstone Road and Prospecting
Expedition. Although the Lakota came off the better in this engagement, they were
unsuccessful in deterring other wasichu from following.
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
Any hope of a peaceful, reasonable settlement to the plains conflict ended on
July 30, 1874, when Horatio Nelson Ross, a member of Custer's expedition,
discovered gold in the Black Hills. In November, 1875, federal officials opened the Black
Hills for mining, never mind that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota Nation
and not the United States of America. This outrage the Lakota would not tolerate.
Washington's answer to this problem of their own creating was to demand that Tatanka Yotanka lead his
people onto a reservation by January 31, 1876. He declined the invitation. The die was cast.
PREPARATION FOR THE BATTLE
In May, 1876, all 12 companies of the Seventh Cavalry joined up at Fort Abraham
Lincoln. A force under the command of General Terry rode out of Abraham Lincoln on May 17. On May 29, General George
Crook's troop rode out of Fort Fetterman. On June 7, Terry and Custer reached
the Powder River estuarial plain.
On June 18, the chiefs brought their peoples to the Little Bighorn where a
large Indian encampment was established.
THE BATTLE OF THE
The men of the 7th Cavalry were rousted from the bedrolls at midnight
on June 25th, 1876. The troop marched until two o'clock a.m. After dawn the next
morning, Custer's Crow Indian scouts reported the location of the Indian
TATANKA YOTANKA HAS A WAKANVISION
In June of that bloody year 1876, the lodges of the Lakota and Sahiela (Cheyenne) stretched along
the banks of Rosebud Creekin southeastern Montana. High above the encampment on
a butte sat Tatanka Yotanka. In
his hands were his Cannupa. He alternately smoked and prayed,
sending a sacred voice skyward. The great man offered to sacrifice his
own blood for a vision that would guide The People. And the vision came. He
saw many, many bluecoats (soldiers) attacking the encampment.
When Tatanka Yotanka returned,
he directed that a sacred cottonwood pole be erected. There would be a
sun dance, a sacrifice of "red blankets" to Wakan Tanka. Although
the young dancers had leather thongs inserted through incisions in
their chests or backs, Tatanka Yotanka was tended to
by Jumping Bull, his adopted Assiniboine brother, who made over one hundred cuts in his arms.
Tatanka Yotanka danced and danced. Again a great
vision came to him. He saw the attacking bluecoats fall in defeat.
On the morning of June 17, a scout reported the presence of General Crook's troops
up the Rosebud from the encampment. Over 1000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode to
the attack and after a bitter day of fighting, drove Crook's force away from the encampment.
When the victorious warriors returned, Tatanka Yotanka
was pleased, but he knew that this was not the great victory
of his vision. That was yet to come.
On the afternoon of June 25, the battle began. Custer had divided
his command into three elements. This was a serious mistake in
view of the great concentration of warriors. Just as the
vision had predicted, Custer charged the camp but was quickly driven away to a low eminence now
know as "Last Stand Hill." There the Lakota and Cheyenne under
the battlefield leadership of Crazy Horse and Gall, annihilated Custer's contingent to
the last man. Tatanka Yotanka had
first looked after his family, then made medicine for the warriors. (For an account of
Tatanka Yotanka during the Battle of the Greasy Grass, see
Sitting Bull and the BLBH.
In 1877, the U.S. Army relentlessly pursued and harassed the
plains nations. At last in 1877, Tatanka Yotanka led
his followers to Canada. He refused an offer from General Terry to return
to a reservation in exchange for a pardon, but in 1881, he chose to surrender.
The buffalo was by and large gone and there was no way to feed the People.
Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka was sent
to the Standing Rock Reservation but this did not satisfy the army.
He was sent to Fort Randall (in violation of his surrender agreement)
where he and his followers were kept until 1883 when he was allowed to rejoin
his people at Standing Rock.
WITH BUFFALO BILL CODY
Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild
West Show" for four months in 1885. Doubtless the $50 per week plus whatever he
could get for his autograph was incentive. The great man also probably jumped
at the chance to escape reservation life for a while. But four]
months was all that he could stand, after which he returned to Standing Rock Reservation.
THE GHOST DANCE--THE END
Kicking Bear, a Miniconjou Lakota, appeared at the Standing Rock Reservation in 1890.
He told Tatanka Yotanka about a new spiritual movement that had begun
among the desert peoples of the southwest. This was the Ghost
Dance. If all red men followed this path, Kicking Bird said,
the whites would be covered up and the world would be as it used to be.
This understandably created great excitement among the Native
Nations. Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka embraced
the Ghost Dance ritual. There was nothing left to lose but life. And
what was life without freedom to one who had known the freedom of the open
plains? But the white authorities became suspicious of ghost dancers. And
because of his defiant spirit, the agency agent, a rogue named Major
James McLaughlin, sent the tribal police to arrest
Tatanka Yotanka. On December 15, 1890, the tribal police came for him.
In the melee that followed, Tatanka Yotanka,
Assiniboine adopted brother, Jumping Bull, and his son, Crow Foot, were killed.
Tatanka Yotanka had served his people for 59 years.
He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest Lakota leaders ever. His name should not
After the death of Tatanka Yotanka, reaction from was varied.
The Lakota naturally mourned him as well he deserved. Many whites heaped scorn upon his memory because
he had stood in their way for so many years. (For more information on this, visit the Sitting Bull
Memoriam written by Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner.) But Grandfather Tatanka Yotanka had
not lived his life to please wasichu. Rather he had lived to serve his people, the Lakota Nation, in whose bosom
his memory is sacred.
As a sort of bizarre fotnote to this Grandfather's momentous life, today
the states of South Dakota and North Dakota each claim to have possession
of his body. North Dakota claims that Grandfather
Tatanka Yotanka's remains lie at Fort Yates
where he was shot down and killed. But South Dakota admits that
in 1953, they stole Grandfather's body, hauled it to South
Dakota, and reburied it. For the whole story of this affair, check out
Sitting Bull, Where Do You Lie?
OTHER TATANKA YOTANKA
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