Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too, Part 1

Standing Rock Monument, Fort Yates, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, ND. It’s a very odd monument to unfamiliar eyes: unglamorous, unprepossessing. It’s the beginning of a part of my tour where the monuments and significant places are less curated. It’s up to the looker to slow down and really look close.

~ Dedicated to Genessa Kealoha

Journal: Faith, South Dakota, early morning July 24th, 2017

I woke up in the backseat of the rental car this morning feeling just a little stiff. I drove late into the night last night so I could break up the long drive. I stayed alert enough to continue until a little after midnight, but then sleepiness began to give me that oddly swaying feeling; time to pull over. I chose a nice big gravel lot with a semi truck parked close to the road. I pulled into the other end of the lot near a row of colorful but rusted old tractors and other farm machinery, changed into my sleep clothes, and curled up in my backseat nest. I’ve decided to leave it ready for such impromptu car campings.

When I awoke, I stepped out to a soft cool morning. It had rained intermittently last night and there were still a few occasional drops falling. A man stepped out from a little garage in front of what I then observed was a little motel right next to the lot. He kindly invited me into the motel’s cafe for hot coffee and to freshen up, without rebuking me in word or in tone for spending the night for free right outside of his establishment. I thanked him but decided to push on. I had a little thermos with some coffee left and had felt the urge to keep going. But what a generous man! I did rebuke myself afterward for not stopping in just to show that I appreciated the invitation.

Journal: Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017, later

A little less than two hours later, I reached McLaughlin, South Dakota, in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. At the little gas station, deli, and apparently popular gathering place, I confirmed directions to Fort Yates, another half hour northeast in the North Dakota part of the reservation.

I followed the signs to Fort Yates and to historical monuments on the main street that runs along the Missouri River. In a parking lot across from the tribal administration building, there’s a stone set upright on a pedestal of yellow-painted brick, well weathered, and some historical placards, also worn. The Standing Rock placard tells the tale of how this stone inspired the reservation’s name:

I went into the administration building and briefly described the nature of my trip. The woman at the desk directed me to the Sitting Bull Visitor Center at Sitting Bull College, up on the side of the hill above the main campus buildings. I was greeted there by Jennifer Martel, and she had much to say. Before long, it was clear to me that she’s had a long experience of feeling that she and her people are often talked at and around, that they are very frequently misrepresented and misunderstood, often because people from academia and from other cultures try to explain and portray Native American cultures in ways that make sense to themselves. That doesn’t necessarily translate into truth. It was also clear to me that this was a time to say very little, just to listen. So I did.

Lakota Winter Count (facsimile), Sitting Bull Visitor Center in Standing Rock Reservation

After we spoke for awhile, Jennifer rose to greet some people who arrived for a meeting and said she’ll keep in touch. I looked through the exhibits in the lounge area of the visitor center, then headed to the Sitting Bull College Library. I’ve just set up a little writing station where the wireless signal is best. I’ll start with asking the young lady at the desk for help….

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017: the rest of the story

I ask the young lady at the front desk to help me find a few things I’m looking for, especially biographical information for the life and death of Sitting Bull, and especially, precisely where he died. So far, I’ve had little luck with that. She’s welcoming and friendly, and we get to talking as she begins to look through her digital and print materials. She introduces herself as Stormy, great-great (how many greats, I don’t remember) granddaughter of One Bull, nephew and adopted son of Sitting Bull. She kindly prints out maps for me to make it easier to find Sitting Bull’s monuments. After we look around for awhile, I sit down to look through what she’s given me so far while she assembles a collection of books for me. She’s friendly but not gushing, and seems like a person that would take most things in stride. I like her a lot.

Late nineteenth century map showing the site of Sitting Bull's camp in Standing Rock, from the papers of Francis M. Craft, photo of book image 2017 Amy Cools

Map showing the site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the north bank of the Grand River in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, based on a late nineteenth-century map among the papers of Francis M. Craft

We continue to search our materials for information about the exact location of Sitting Bull’s death. Stormy hasn’t come up with anything so far with her online search. Among the books she gave me, I read that Sitting Bull was killed in his cabin on the Grand River ’40 miles from the Agency’, according to his biographer Stanley Vestal. The number of miles is new information for me, and I do find one more particularly helpful thing in these books: a map of Standing Rock from the late nineteenth century from the papers of Francis M. Craft, a Catholic priest who used to live here.  Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, and the map shows the location of his camp on the Grand River. One of Sitting Bull’s monuments is near where the Grand River flows into the Missouri. I’ll start there so I have plenty of daytime hours to work my way west along the Grand River to seek the place where he died.

Sakakawea Memorial on the bank of the Missouri River near Sitting Bull’s memorial at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

I make my way to Highway 1806, here called the Native American Scenic Byway, and head south towards Mobridge, short for Missouri Bridge, a little town near the monument. I cross a bridge over the Missouri River and a little island. Instead of turning left on the 12 to Mobridge, I turn right towards the casino, then left, following a roadside sign which directs me towards the Sitting Bull Memorial down a little gravel road. I park and walk down the path towards the monument site near the bank of the river. Or, rather, monuments. I didn’t know that I would find two monuments here. The first I see is an obelisk with a medallion set into it portraying a woman and an infant. My mind immediately goes to the legend of Standing Rock, of the Arikara woman and her baby who turned to stone long ago.

But across the little path that encircles the obelisk, I find a bronze plaque which tells the story of Sakakawea, who famously accompanied the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery and was instrumental in its success. Cartoonist Bob Thaves once joked that sure, Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels. Sakakawea guided Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and all their big, strong men on their grueling trail first as a pregnant teenager, then as a first-time mom caring for the newborn infant strapped to her. Not only that, she jumped into a river to rescue Lewis and Clark’s journals and other important things when their boat capsized or was about to (they named that river in her honor), found wild foods for the men to eat when their rations ran low, and in countless other ways was instrumental to the expedition’s success. She was a truly impressive person.

As I read the plaque’s brief summary of her life and death, I remember that I saw signs earlier for Kenel and Fort Manuel. I mentally add that to my itinerary for later today or early tomorrow.

Sakakawea Memorial historical plaque

After I spend a little time here, I walk further down the path towards Sitting Bull’s monument overlooking the river. This may be the site of his remains, or of some of them. He was originally buried at Fort Yates, on the other bank of the Missouri River north of here. I’ll visit that monument later today or tomorrow. There’s a story that says his remains were secreted away and buried here, closer to the place he died, away from the Agency whose overzealous Indian police killed him in a botched arrest for allegedly helping to foment Native American discontent reinvigorated by the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance was the central ritual of the quasi-Christian cult of Wovoka, a Paiute holy man. Wovoka preached that Jesus Christ would soon return to earth if the Native Americans would live lives of scrupulous virtue and perform this sacred circle dance. In the happy time of Christ’s return, the sad world of death, destruction, deprivation, and loss of liberty brought by the whites would be swept away. Health and plenty would return and the people would be joyfully united with their ancestors and dead loved ones (the ‘ghosts’).

Sitting Bull Monument near Mobridge, SD, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

The evidence was scant indeed that this religious movement was linked to any plans for violent rebellion; indeed, one of the virtues that Wovoka called on the people to practice was total nonviolence. The evidence was also scant that Sitting Bull had much more than a tangential link to the movement. He was curious about the movement and looked into it, but didn’t become a believer. However, there seemed to him no harm in it, and its message of nonviolence accorded well with the peaceful practices of his own life subsequent to his life as a young warrior. True, Sitting Bull never trusted the U.S. government, as was fitting given the history of their encounters with his people, but he no longer advocated armed resistance. He had seen the futility of this course over his lifetime and since his people now numbered so few, his primary purpose was to see that the remainder live as best they could in this alien new world imposed upon them.

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque

The distrust between Sitting Bull and the U.S. government went both ways, however, though the military power was all on one side. Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin sent out a cadre of Native American tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull for questioning. Initially, Sitting Bull was willing to go and asked leave to get dressed first, since it was his practice to sleep without clothes. But the police were impatient and tried to force him into his clothes while restraining his hands. Some friends and family, as well as adherents of the Ghost Dance movement, observed the disturbance and came to investigate. Sitting Bull then began to resist his rude treatment and in the scuffle that ensued, shots rang out. Sitting Bull was deliberately killed by shots from two separate policemen, and all told, fifteen men died, some from each side of the fight.

Sitting Bull was killed very near the site where he was born.

Ranchland along the north bank of the Grand River

After awhile, I go back a little ways north on 1806 and turn left, or east, on the first gravel road past the dirt road that runs along the Grand River, to see what I can see. I turn left again on another road, a rougher little dirt road called 121st St, which points directly toward the river. I pass through ranchland with grazing black cattle, the river usually in sight to my left. The road dead-ends at Strong Heart Ranch. I have not gone nearly far enough to reach this site I seek, but this road places me closest to the river bank that I can reach from this side, and I want to get a feel of what the riverside scenery is like. I turn back, then turn left on the gravel road towards Wakpala. I take this road through that little town and beautiful ranch land, all the way to Highway 12. I take the 12 to Highway 63, which I take back north to Fort Yates. Little Eagle, a town near the Highway 63 bridge that crosses the Grand River further south than the 12 junction, is nearer the likely site: it’s almost 40 miles from Fort Yates, the distance specified in the old map between Fort Yates and Sitting Bull’s camp. I decide to wait until tomorrow to visit that place since I’ll be passing that town and that bridge on my way south tomorrow to my next destination.

Tipis and farmland along the Wakpala road

I return to Fort Yates and seek Sitting Bull’s original burial site, which is still perhaps the current site of his remains. Stories of his reinterment elsewhere, which I mentioned earlier, are still in dispute. I find the monument on the east bank of the Missouri River, just off Sitting Bull Ave on a wide gravel path that runs north from here along the river through a tiny park. I read the plaque, look around, then sit and think. Two Native women walk by, talking and picking up litter from the grounds. One of the women approaches and greets me. We each tell what brings us here and where we’re from. She’s lived here for most of her life, as has her shy friend. That friend smiles at me and moves off to continue her task, taking no part in the conversation. The woman who greeted me tells me what she knows of the story of Sitting Bull and of his possible reburial, and about local landmarks. She points out an area where the sage grows thickly. It’s used for sweat lodges by the men and just to crush and breathe in the scent by women because, she says, the men can handle breathing in the smoke but the women can’t ‘well, you know, because we’re women’. I smile inwardly. She has a very sturdy appearance, like she’s spent her life outdoors and working hard, and seems able to hand more physically than most women and men I know.

The other Sitting Bull memorial on the other bank of the Missouri River, Fort Yates

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque, Fort Yates

I double check with her about a good place to spend the night. She agrees with a person I spoke to earlier that day, that the lodge and casino I’ll find just a few miles north of here is the best local place to go. I head there to get a good night’s sleep and do some research for my journey tomorrow.

To be continued…

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Sources and information: 

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Faith, South Dakota‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009

Ginger Rogers, Article 2: Backwards and in High Heels’. ReelClassics website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

The Legend of Standing Rock‘. Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center and St. Joseph’s Indian School website

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website

Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932


Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500

5 thoughts on “Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too, Part 1

  1. Pingback: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories | Ordinary Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2 | Ordinary Philosophy

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  5. Pingback: New Podcast Episode: Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too, Part 1 | Ordinary Philosophy

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