One cold winter day Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), the great Lakota warrior, was sitting on a bench in front of his home with his two wives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South and North Dakota.
He looked off in the distance at an approaching buckboard and smiled to himself as he pointed with his lower lip at the dust stirred up by the wagon. I am told he was a man with a great sense of humor.
Sitting Bull knew exactly who was driving the wagon and the question he would be asked when the wagon finally reached his door. And sure enough, as the wagon got closer he and his wives could see clearly that it was the minister from the local church.He climbed down from the buckboard and approached Sitting Bull as he shook the dust from his black hat. The minister exchanged a few pleasantries and then got down to the business of why he was making this visit. He said to the great Lakota leader, “It is un-Christian of you to have two wives. It is against the will of God. And it is barbarian and heathen.”
Sitting Bull sat there with his head cocked and listened patiently to the outburst of the minister. He was being dressed down by this white man but his only emotion was the slight smile on his face. Finally he raised his hand to quiet the angry minister and waved his hand at his two wives and said to the minister, “Well, there they are: you tell them which one has to leave.” And that was pure Lakota logic. Which of these Lakota women would be deprived of a loving home? Lakota logic had baffled the white man for a century or more.
It was this logic based on centuries of Lakota culture and traditions that was so foreign to the white settlers that they waved it off without ever making an effort to understand it. Lakota men had more than one wife at times because they considered it their duty based on their survival to care for, feed and clothe a woman who did not have a home, or perhaps their second wife was married to a brother who was killed in battle. Often a Lakota man took over the responsibility of caring for a fallen brother’s wife and children: To the children he became atay or father.
Many Lakota saw Sitting Bull as a great spiritual leader. When the infamous Ghost Dance (at least infamous to the white people), Sitting Bull allowed the dance to be performed near his home at Standing Rock. Hundreds of white settlers were terribly frightened of the Ghost Dance because it announced the return of all the Lakota who had gone before and many of the male dancers donned a shirt that became known as a Ghost Dance shirt, and this shirt would protect them even from bullets.
The local newspapers began to express concern, anger and fear of this new religion that was sweeping the Indian reservations of North and South Dakota. The dance was never intended to bring on an uprising, but was always meant to bring hope and pride back to the Lakota people. If only the white men had learned this there would have been no massacre at Wounded Knee that year of 1890.
When the tribal police came to the home of Sitting Bull to arrest him for allowing the Ghost Dance to take place on his land a scuffle ensued and the great Lakota warrior was assassinated.
Although Sitting Bull had made excursions across America and Europe as a member of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, he had never lost his feelings for his people, culture or traditions. He refused to bend to the will of the Indian agents and continued to live in the traditional way and for this he was considered a bad influence upon the Lakota and he was feared. Sitting Bull knew that the process of acculturation did not equate with equality. While those who acculturated and converted to Christianity prospered somewhat and hence were looked upon as “civilized,” those who did not were often shunned as “uncivilized.” And he was 100 percent right: The white man’s interpretation of “civilized” clearly did not mean equal. Indians were not citizens of the United States and were not allowed to vote or run for office.
A common term applied to those non-conformists has found its way into the lexicon of today’s conversation: When one does not conform they are said to be “off the reservation.” And this is truly ironic because the non-conformists usually were on the reservation.
Today in America it is the traditionalists or non-conformists who are leading their people back to their culture. The traditional Lakota women are now the keepers of the traditions and culture. Like Sitting Bull, the traditionalists have remained steadfast in their spirituality and language and have set the example for those who thought that they would be better off by abandoning their traditional beliefs.
When Sitting Bull asked the white minister which wife he should choose to leave his home he spoke volumes about the assault that was about to begin upon his people, an assault with the sole intent of destroying a culture that was thousands of years old.
Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation is named for this great leader.
Tatanka Iyotanka could have said to the minister and for all of the Lakota people, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)