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Sitting Bull's Burials: A History

By Rod Thomas

Webmaster's Note: Friends member, Rod Thomas provides a superb history of Sitting Bull's burials that will enable one to better understand the Sitting Bull's family desire to bury their great grandfather at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Sitting Bull, 1885 by D. F. Barry

“It was a dark and stormy night.”  Really. The night of 7 April 1953 was filled with flurrying snowflakes and whisking winds that muffled the voices and sounds of digging coming from the small group of men huddled around and in a North Dakota gravesite.   The U. S. Department of the Interior had, on 3 April 1953, ruled that any actions regarding the remains in that grave were up to the next of kin.  Accompanied by a descendant, the self-appointed group of businessmen of Mobridge, South Dakota was digging up Sitting Bull to take him to South Dakota for burial in “their” memorial to the Indian leader.  The DOI ruling resulted from previous attempts by this same group of businessmen from Mobridge to move Sitting Bull’s remains.  North Dakota State officials rebuffed those attempts.  Now cloaked with legitimacy from the DOI, the Dakota Memorial Association and supporters secretly entered North Dakota fully prepared to get what they came for. 

            There were two plans for “extraction” as it is always good to have a backup.  Plan A had a small plane landing nearby the gravesite and whisking the remains back to the planned interment site overlooking the Missouri River but in South Dakota. Plan B centered on two automobiles, both with identical wooden boxes, and on one the actual and the other the decoy, to transport the remains with the decoy drawing away North Dakotan authorities from the other car.  While there may have been a sense of legitimacy to what was happening, the men knew that apprehension by state, local, or even reservation authorities would end their efforts to get Sitting Bull where they wanted him.  Weather precluded the plane in Plan A from landing so Plan B was executed.  

                The  mission was successful.  Sitting Bull’s remains were exhumed, placed in a wooden box, loaded into one of the two cars, and made it easily back across the state line.  Later, on 8 April, after preparation at the interment site, Sitting Bull’s bones were once again lowered into the waiting arms of Mother Earth.  This time however the modern casket was surrounded, supposedly, by 20 tons of concrete.  Not to help preserve but rather protect.  One of the Mobridge “Dakota Memorial Association” members allegedly declared that there was no way “…no one from anywhere, especially North Dakota, would ever dig him up again.”  How did this all begin?

            Sitting Bull was buried in December 1890 in the Fort Yates Military Cemetery after his death on the Standing Rock Reservation.  Mystery and myth immediately began with rumor of his head being smashed by some of the reservation police attempting to arrest the Hunkpapa leader.  Then there was the story that the Army officials had poured quicklime into the casket to help ensure mortification.  Two drunken soldiers supposedly broke into the grave in the early 1900’s and stole a thigh bone.  That bone supposedly is in the possession of the North Dakota Historical Society.  There is also the story that he was secretly taken out of the grave and is buried in Canada.  When Fort Yates closed, the cemetery was removed to other locations except for one grave – Sitting Bull.  By the early 1950s the grave site had disintegrated considerably as it had not been cared for a long, long time.  Smallish wooden plaques indicated the general direction to the site from nearby roads.  One of the most significant Native American leaders ever had almost simply returned to Mother Earth with not much more than a concrete slab and a pile of rocks to mark his passing. 

                In 1952, a group of businessmen in Mobridge, South Dakota, led by Walter Tuntland, formed the “Dakota Memorial Association” with a view of moving Sitting Bull’s remains to a site overlooking the Missouri River.  They crafted a careful plan to do so and enlisted what turned out to be very willing cooperation with Sitting Bull’s relatives.   Clarence Grey Eagle was a first nephew and he had persuaded the three living granddaughters of Sitting Bull to let him act on their behalf.   Mrs. Angelique Spotted Horse LaPointe, direct granddaughter; Mrs. Jennie Weasel Bear, granddaughter of his adopted son; and Mrs. Helen White Bull Mountain, granddaughter of Sitting Bull’s brother authorized Grey Eagle to officially represent the family in all matters regarding the bones of their grandfather.  Grey Eagle then began working with the Mobridge Association on moving the remains to South Dakota. 

                The initial request to remove Sitting Bull surprised North Dakota officials and author Robb DeWall surmised that the Mobridge Association knew they would be rebuffed from the beginning.  It is from DeWall’s book, The Saga of Sitting Bull’s Bones that we summarize the events leading to the current Sitting Bull family request to inter him at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.  Bickering soon turned to full-scale name-calling and emotions ran high over the next several months as North, and South Dakota fought over Sitting Bull’s bones in the press and in the courts.  Soon even Congress was involved and they turned to the Department of the Interior for guidance.  The Fort Yates gravesite, while no longer on a military installation, is on the Standing Rock Reservation as the reservation resides in both states.   The DOI ruling in early April 1953 was a key decision for the Memorial Association to make their darkness-shrouded move. 

                The Dakota Memorial Association decided early on their goal of moving the remains to a site near Mobridge.  First, the Fort Yeats site was severely degraded and uncared for.  Julius Skaug, George Walters, Walter Tuntland, and Dan Heupel initially started with the sole purpose of creating a dignified memorial for Sitting Bull.  That it later turned more commercial is understandable given the times and location not to mention the considerable “drawing power” of the name Sitting Bull.  Secondly, a new Corps of Engineers flood control dam being constructed might raise a new water level that would cover the Fort Yates site.   That it did not is just one more piece of irony in this story.  The group also decided early on that if the remains could not be moved “with permission” they would be moved any way possible.  With the remains on the Reservation and the DOI indicating the family would be the deciders the Mobridge Association launched their plan.

                An important part of this story is the creation of the bust that still over watches the grave and the Missouri River today.  Important in that the creation of this sculpture by one of this country’s premier sculptors, Korczak Ziolkowski, began not long after the Mobridge group was formed.  Ziolkowski was already deep into his Crazy Horse Memorial project in the Black Hills and was rather well known to the Indian community.  He agreed to do the memorial only if there were “no politicians, no lawyers, and no commercialization” involved in the project.  Tuntland and the others agreed and so came into being the bust of Sitting Bull that today adorns the memorial in South Dakota. 

            Grey Eagle and the granddaughters had insisted that the land on which the memorial was to be built would be deeded over to the Reservation ensuring perpetual care.  They were adamant that no form of commercialization would be close to the memorial and that any and all activities would demonstrate nothing but the utmost in respect and honor.  The Dakota Memorial Association promised that these wishes would be honored.  At one point in the process one of the granddaughters, Angelique Spotted Horse LaPointe changed her mind about where she wanted Sitting Bull buried.  In an interview with the Rapid City Daily Journal she indicated that she would prefer reinterment near Rapid City.   A family meeting led to agreement once again in the Mobridge site.

            A story like this ought to have a happy ending.  Unfortunately this doesn’t.  The new dam never did raise the water level enough to even seriously threaten the Fort Yates site.   The highway that would have taken travelers right by the memorial site was moved several miles away and the envisioned traffic for tourist trade never happened.  The deed to the land owned by a Mobridge resident was faked and turned down by the DOI and the Tribal authorities of Standing Rock Reservation.  The Sitting Bull family was never told that the land was not owned by the Tribe.  Despite assurances otherwise, the site and the incident drew politicians, lawyers, and yes even commercial designs.  The Dakota Memorial Association had pledged to raise $15,000 (in 1953 money) to build the memorial.  The Sitting Bull family was never told that a lot of the money came from the Mobridge Chamber of Commerce presided over by Walter Tuntland. 

           This past week, Ernie LaPointe and the other members of the Sitting Bull family requested that Sitting Bull be interred on the Montana battlefield where the combined Lakota and Northern Cheyenne nations dealt the U.S. Army its second largest defeat at the hands of native soldiers.  The reason?  The site at Mobridge has deteriorated over the last 50 some years.  The famous bust has been used for target practice and the site has been a party site for decades.   The hoped for honor espoused by the  businessmen from Mobridge has met the same fate as the Fort Yates site.  A newly formed Association has somehow acquired the site, has cleaned it up, and has plans for all sorts of venues centered around Sitting Bull.  Unfortunately, to the Sitting Bull family it sounds all too familiar. 

            Over the next few months or so there will be meetings, phone calls, emails, studies enough to merit another book on Sitting Bull’s bones.  In the end, it should come down to the family and their wishes.  It is after all the reason the DOI made their decision in 1953 and the DOI ruling was based on the Standing Rock Reservation tribal leadership observation that families should have final say.  

            The more complete story summarized here is contained in DeWall’s book and is a most engaging one.  I highly recommend it for those who wish to get more into the facts of this situation.  I knew next to nothing about any of this. 

Rod Thomas

February 25, 2007

DeWall, Robb. The Saga of Sitting Bull's Bones: The Unusual Story Behind Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski's Memorial to Chief Sitting Bull. Korczak’s Heritage, Inc.  Avenue of the Chiefs, The Black Hills, Crazy Horse, South Dakota 57730. 1984        

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