Tatanka Yotanka
Tatanka Yotanka
(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.

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 killed.
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 in perpetutity.
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.

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 coming.
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.

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.

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 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 encampment.

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.

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.

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 be forgotten.

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?

Thank you for visiting this site. Please come back often. More will be added as it becomes available.

COMMENTS: bobf@jal.cc.il.us