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President Obama and Chief Sitting Bull

President Obama and Chief Sitting Bull

by William H. Benson

June 19, 2014

     Next week some five hundred visitors will convene at the Real Bird Ranch, adjacent to the Little Bighorn Battle site, near Hardin, Montana, to watch the 21st Annual Battle of the Little Bighorn Re-enactment. For four days men will dress in cavalry soldier uniforms and ride their horses in the 7th U.S. Cavalry, under the command of Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, played by Steve Alexander of Monroe, Michigan.

     Also, young Indians from the Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes will “wear breechcloths and moccasins, and paint themselves and their horses with symbols of red, white, yellow, and black.” Last year, Frank Knows His Gun, an Oglala Sioux, played the part of Crazy Horse.

     Someone will play the part of Chief Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, who was also in the camp in June of 1876, but did not participate in the actual fight.

     Chief Sitting Bull had resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to confine the Sioux tribes to reservations. After the loss of the Black Hills to gold miners, the Sioux, along with the Northern Cheyennes and the Arapahoes, felt betrayed, and so they slipped away from their reservations and congregated in southwestern Montana, along the banks of the Little Bighorn River.

     Once, during a Sun Dance, Sitting Bull experienced a vision and saw soldiers falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers falling from the sky. “The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us,” he said. “We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers.”

     Because Custer refused to believe his scouts’ reports that more than 10,000 natives were gathered at the Little Bighorn, he attacked and was annihilated, along with 267 cavalry soldiers on June 25, 1867.

     In a fury, the federal government responded with a massive military force to drive the rebellious natives back to their reservations, and most complied, except for Sitting Bull who escaped to Canada’s Northwest Territories. After four years of hunger and desperation, he returned to his native lands and settled at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that straddles both North and South Dakota.

     Last week, on Friday the thirteen, President Obama and Michelle landed in Cannon Ball, North Dakota and visited the Standing Rock reservation. This was the first president to ever visit Standing Rock, and only the fourth president to visit any Native American reservation. Only Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton had done the same. Barack and Michelle met children at Cannon Ball’s elementary school, and they attended the powwow celebrating Cannon Ball’s Flag Day.

     When the president spoke, he quoted from Standing Rock’s most famous former resident, Sitting Bull, who said, “Let’s put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.”

     The president offered hope to the children he met, but life for Standing Rock’s children is grim. Unemployment stands at 79%, creating a poverty that stuns every visitor. Domestic violence, suicide, diabetes, infant mortality, and heart disease are rampant, and most of these negatives stem from chronic alcoholism. The reservation has become a “breeding ground of sorrow,” dependent upon government assistance. Someone said that on the reservation, “the dominant culture is welfare, not Sioux.” 

     The two casinos on the Standing Rock reservation have pumped some money into the local economy but created few jobs, mainly “because they are too isolated from potential customers,” many miles away from the high population urban centers.

     As a result of the broken conditions, the reservations’ schools struggle. A commentator said that the Bureau of Indian Education schools “perform worse than every major public school system other than Detroit’s schools, and the Native Americans have the highest dropout rates in the country.”

     Christopher Bordeaux, a South Dakota director of the tribal schools, said, “The bureau really has no idea what tribal schools are all about, and they have not taken the time to ever listen and learn how to help us, and then they turn around and point to us and say the schools are failing.”

     No small wonder it is that Sitting Bull resisted the reservation. His vision of what lay in store for his tribe included confinement, a scarcity of buffalo, and dependence upon untrustworthy white men for their food, clothing, and shelter. He was right.

     What can anyone do to improve life for those on the reservation?

     One surprising answer is a grassroots organization called White Bison, Inc., a non-profit that provides Wellbriety programs to the Native Americans, “mending their broken hearts,” ending the shame and guilt that alcoholics feel, and going “beyond sobriety and recovery to a life of wellness and healing everyday.” A solution may originate from within the tribes themselves.

     In his speech, the president said, “Michelle and I grew up feeling like we were on the outside looking in. But thanks to family and friends, and teachers and coaches and neighbors who didn’t give up on us, we didn’t give up on ourselves. If we’re working together, we can make things better.”