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        Sitting Bull | Spiritual Leader and Military Leader

        Over the course of the 19th Century, white settlers moved westward, and the US Government brokered treaties with Native Americans and often resorted to using military force to claim land for the United States. To this day, Sitting Bull—spiritual and military leader of the Lakota tribe—is remembered as the Native American chief who took the greatest stand against the US government. Through two primary source activities and a short biographical video, students will understand the remarkable courage of this leader who stood up for his people.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will learn about Sitting Bull’s determination to protect Native American land and culture in the face of Westward Expansion and the overwhelming power of the US military. After viewing a video about his life, students will examine an 1885 photograph of Sitting Bull and read excerpts of his description of the Battle of Little Bighorn. The lesson concludes with students imagining a dialogue between Sitting Bull and a more cautious counterpart.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Arable - able to be farmed
        • Wary - cautious
        • Manipulative - attempting to control a situation or person
        • Relentless - without ceasing
        • Prospector - a seeker of an item (usually gold)
        • Inevitable - unavoidable
        • Integrity - honesty, sincerity
        • Insurmountable - impossible to overcome
        • Sobering - to make serious 


        General George Armstrong Custer With a rebellious spirit and poor academic skills, Custer barely managed to graduate from West Point. During the Civil War, however, he distinguished himself as a brave fighter and adept leader in battles including Bull Run and Gettysburg. Finishing the war with the rank of Major General, Custer then became the leader of the 7th Calvary, which sought to subdue Native American tribes in the American West. He was killed and his forces defeated during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. 

        Learn more about General George Armstrong Custer:

        Background on Sitting Bull | Spiritual Leader and Military Leader

        Before European settlers arrived in the Americas, the land was populated by Native American tribes. The Lakota people, who resided in what is now South Dakota, were some of the most fearsome warriors.

        Sitting Bull, who would become chief of the Lakota during the period of rapid expansion by the United States into the American West, was the son of a great Lakota warrior. He showed no promise as a fighter at first, so as a child, he was called “Slow.” But after proving himself in a battle with an enemy tribe at age 14, he was given the name “Tatanka Iyotanka,” which means Sitting Bull.

        In 1865, after a couple of years fighting American soldiers, Sitting Bull led a successful attack against a white settlement. In 1868, he became chief of the Lakota people and signed a peace treaty with the United States, which stated that much of the Lakota land would be left alone.

        However, the US government ignored the treaty when, several years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills - land that was sacred to the Lakota and many other tribes. The US declared war against any tribes that tried to hinder its takeover of the valuable territory.

        Sitting Bull could not be swayed. He refused to give the US government what it wanted and lamented its disregard for the treaty terms that he and his people had followed. A conflict began that would last for years.

        During a Sun Dance ceremony, Sitting Bull had a vision that his people would defeat American forces. The vision came true just days later, when Sitting Bull led his forces to victory against American troops in the Battle of the Rosebud. Afterwards, the chief united Lakota and Cheyenne forces, and one week after the previous battle, met American General George Custer’s 300-man battalion with a force that was thousands of warriors strong. The General and his troops were defeated at the battle of Little Bighorn within an hour.

        After this, the US Army was more determined than ever to seize control from the Native Americans. The Black Hills were flooded with federal troops. To escape the growing strength of the US forces, Sitting Bull led his people to Canada. They stayed there for four years.

        When Sitting Bull returned to his original territory, he was held prisoner for two years. To escape further persecution after his release, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and made a comfortable living while traveling the country. However, he disliked the American way of life, which was driven by capitalism and consumerism, and left so many people in poverty. He left the Wild West Show and went to live out his days in a cabin near where he’d been born. “I’d rather die an Indian than live a white man,” he said.

        And so, in 1889, when some Native Americans took up a Ghost Dance to try to bring back the Indian way of life and cleanse the land of its white invaders, Sitting Bull joined them. Fearing the impact his legacy and leadership capabilities could have on the movement, US government officials sent for Sitting Bull’s arrest. Officers came to take him away, but he resisted, and the ensuing gunfight resulted in the legendary chief’s death.

        A monument to Sitting Bull stands overlooking the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in the same location where his remains are buried. It is a somber reminder of the tremendous and involuntary sacrifice made by the people who first called this country home.

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • Ask students: Have you ever tried to bring people together to reach a common goal?
        • Introduce Sitting Bull:
          Sitting Bull was a Lakota leader who united Native American tribes to fight against the powerful and well-equipped American military in order to defend their way of life.

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF].

        Play the Video:


        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. What events led to the Battle of Rosebud, Sitting Bull’s first victory against the American military?

        2. Why did Sitting Bull mistrust the United States government? Was he justified in holding these views?

        3. How were the less well-equipped Native Americans able to defeat General Custer’s forces at the Battle of Little Bighorn?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the photo on the right. This 1885 photograph of Sitting Bull is housed at the Library of Congress. It was taken by David Frances Barry, one of the leading photographers of life in the American West and a pioneer in the field of producing images using glass plates. This “cabinet card” is something that Sitting Bull would have sold during the period after his surrender to U.S. forces when he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling outdoor show that included reenactments, displays of skill, and scenes of American Indian and cowboy lifestyles. Dramatic recreations of Custer’s Last Stand were a highlight of the show and featured actual people who had fought on both sides of this important battle. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and similar spectacles were popular from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century. Although American Indians who participated in the show were paid the same as their white counterparts, the show promoted stereotypical depictions of the Indian way of life. After only four months with Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, fed up with the mainstream American lifestyle. Sitting Bull often gave away the funds he earned through the sales of his photographs to people with greater needs than his own.


        1. Why might the photographer have copyrighted Sitting Bull’s image?

        2. What are some words you can use to describe the expression on Sitting Bull’s face?

        3. Take a careful look at Sitting Bull’s clothing and accessories. Do you think these were things he normally wore or were they put on especially for this formal photograph?

        Written Primary Source Activity (20 minutes)

        Students will extract information from excerpts of Sitting Bull’s description of the Battle of Little Bighorn that was published in the New York Times on May 7, 1881. The interview is from an article published toward the end of a four-year period in which Sitting Bull lived in exile in Canada and was conducted by Major L.N.F. Crozier, a Canadian Mounted Police officer charged with pushing Sitting Bull and other members of the Lakota tribe out of Canada. Lacking sufficient food, Sitting Bull and his followers returned to the United States and surrendered to authorities in July 1881. 

        Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].


        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Sitting Bull took huge risks in combatting the United States military on multiple occasions. Imagine a conversation that could have taken place between Sitting Bull and another Native American leader on the day before the Battle of Little Big Horn. What arguments might Sitting Bull have used to persuade this leader to join the fight against Custer’s army? What might the other leader have said to convince Sitting Bull to avoid facing such overwhelming odds? These leaders would have known, for example, about the Battle of Washita River (also known as the Washita Massacre) in which Custer’s troops killed over one hundred Cheyenne men, women, and children on November 27, 1868 including their leader, Chief Black Kettle.


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