Battle over Sitting Bull’s bones
Vail CO, Colorado
STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. ” You have to travel back in time to get from the nearest town to the chipped and wind-whipped little stone face that peers out over the Missouri River and the endless plains beyond.
The drive from Mobridge across the river takes you from the Central Time Zone into the Mountain, and if you turn off the main road and clatter four miles down a winding path, you find it ” a modest monument on a lush green bluff.
This simplicity is striking because of what lies beneath: The remains of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief said to have foretold the defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
But it is more striking because of the state of extreme disrepair that befell the resting place of one of the best-known American Indians in history for half a century, until just two years ago.
It was shot and spat at, and worse. On the surrounding grounds bonfires burned and shattered beer bottles glittered. Someone tied a rope around the feather rising from the head of the bust, rigged it to a truck and broke it off.
The site is on what is called fee land, within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe but privately owned, and two years ago two men ” one white, the other a tribesman ” paid $55,000 for it and began cleaning it up.
They have plans for a $12 million monument complex they hope will honor Sitting Bull’s memory with the dignity missing for so long, and let new generations learn about him.
But these plans, like Sitting Bull himself, are not so simple. And they have torn open a wound over who will control the great Sioux chief’s legacy.
By 1868 there was relative peace between the Sioux and the U.S. government. The Second Treaty of Fort Laramie had secured for the Sioux a patch of land in southwest South Dakota.
Then gold was found in the Black Hills, whites rushed in, and the Sioux were ordered back to their reservations. Sitting Bull, having retreated into Montana, was said to have had a vision of a slaughter of soldiers.
Of soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky.
It was not long afterward that Custer and the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry were defeated at the Little Bighorn, in Montana, in the summer of 1876.
In the same way the Civil War has names particular to points of view ” think “War of Northern Aggression” ” Little Bighorn is also known as Custer’s Last Stand, and, to some American Indians, as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
The United States ultimately prevailed in the Indian Wars, but Sitting Bull became, and remains, an icon, a hero to his people. Later in his life he may have taken up ” the point is disputed ” the “ghost dance” movement, which forecast the return to life of dead Indians and an end to white domination.
This spooked U.S. authorities, and they went after Sitting Bull, who had settled back at Standing Rock. He was killed in a battle with Indian police and American soldiers on June 15, 1890.
There are pictures of Sitting Bull ” instantly recognizable, the single feather rising from the parted hair, the look at once stern and at peace ” hanging today in the home of Ernie LaPointe, in the Black Hills town of Lead.
He is a great-grandson of the chief, with a craggy face and jet-black hair pulled back into a pony tail. And he is furious.
His mother always told him never to stand on Sitting Bull’s back. Never boast of your heritage, she said. LaPointe, 58, believes the plans for a memorial complex atop his great-grandfather’s grave are doing worse ” cashing in.
“They want to use our grandfather,” he says, speaking for his three sisters, “as a tourist attraction.”
So this February he drafted a letter. He sent it to an assortment of Sioux tribes, including Standing Rock, which claims Sitting Bull.
“North Dakota, South Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have not honored their promise for proper care and maintenance of our Grandfather’s burial sites,” the letter said.
It called for a “final reburial” ” in Montana, at the site of Little Bighorn.
“So that he may spend eternity,” the letter went on, “at the sacred place where his vision had predicted the greatest victory for our people, the victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass.”
The two men who want to turn Sitting Bull’s resting place into a memorial complex are Rhett Albers, an environmental consultant who is white, and Bryan Defender, who owns the sanitation system for the Standing Rock tribe and is enrolled there.
They say people who come to the banks of the Missouri to see the site are confused ” wondering: Well, where is the rest of it?
Their plan for the site would stream visitors through an “interpretive center,” focused on the four Sioux ideals they say Sitting Bull represented: Fortitude, generosity, bravery and wisdom.
Other features under consideration are a snack bar, offices and meeting rooms, a gift shop and a restaurant serving wild game and American Indian dishes.
Confronted with LaPointe’s suggestion that all this adds up to an attempt to cash in on Sitting Bull’s legacy, they look perplexed.
“We are not wealthy people,” Albers says over lunch at a diner on the opposite side of the river. “We’ve donated our time and expense and money to do this, pursue it, do it in a positive way.”
Defender, 35, said he and Albers have met with groups on the Standing Rock reservation and received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to their plan. (The tribe’s chairman did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)
Albers said they hope someday to recoup their $55,000, but have no plans to draw salaries from the tourist center.
“It’s not about the money,” Albers, 45, says on a bumpy drive across the river in his pickup truck. “It’s about the man. And the tribute. And to have these sites which everyone recognizes as being significant.”
The two men take pride in their friendship, pointing out that in Mobridge, there is still lingering distrust between whites and members of the tribe.
“There’s all these hard feelings, racial discrimination all over the world, and in this area also,” Albers says. “There’s a way we can understand each other better, reconcile these differences, learn from this tradition.”
This is not the first struggle over Sitting Bull’s remains.
The Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where the great chief lived his last years, straddles the Dakotas, and for the first half of the 20th century his remains lay at Fort Yates, N.D.
The grave was poorly marked. Weeds sprouted.
So in the early 1950s, a group of businessmen from Mobridge approached North Dakota authorities about having the remains moved south of the state line. North Dakota balked.
And that is how, in 1953, during a blizzard and in the middle of the night, a group from Mobridge, with a mortician in tow and with the blessing of the Standing Rock tribe, dug up the remains and secreted them into South Dakota.
Ernie LaPointe says his mother, Angelique Spotted Horse, was among those who agreed to the 1953 disinterment, and was assured by South Dakota authorities that the remains would be treated with dignity.
She had her doubts, telling relatives: “They never lived up to it before. What makes them want to do it now?”
The Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski contributed the granite bust that marks the remains today. The bust is 6 feet tall and sits atop an 8-foot pedestal yet still seems small set against magnificent, mostly undisturbed, natural surroundings.
For a time volunteers visited the bluff to mow the grass and clean up. But those efforts waned, said Larry Atkinson, publisher of the Mobridge Tribune. Into the vacuum stepped vandals, drunks, partying teenagers.
“It was isolated. It was up on a spot where you could see vehicles coming,” Atkinson says. “Kids are kids, and they saw it as an easy place that everybody knew where it was. It was a party place.”
It was also a dumping ground. Refrigerators were dropped there. Shower stalls, too ” tubs and faucets, the whole thing. Water heaters, furniture, tires.
Bullet holes pock the shaft on which the bust of Sitting Bull sits.
Trashing the site became something of a rite of passage, Albers says. You became a senior in high school here and you and your friends drove out to Sitting Bull to raise a little hell.
He hears from them today. “You mean we can’t have the senior keg at Sitting Bull anymore?” Albers laughs.
“We’re stopping that.”
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