Tatanka Yotanka, or “Sitting Bull”, is probably the most famous Indian Chief in American history, yet it is not widely known that he spent four years as a refugee in Canada.
Profession: Sioux Indian Chief
Country of Origin: United States of America
Country of Asylum: Canada
Date of birth: 1831
Born in what is now known as South Dakota, Sitting Bull became the political, military and spiritual leader of the Sioux tribe. In 1868, he made peace with the US Army in exchange for a sizeable reservation free of white settlers. In the mid-1870s, however, an influx of gold prospectors and railroad crews outraged the Sioux, who left the reservation and joined the Cheyenne and Arapaho resistance.
In 1876, the US Seventh Cavalry under Custer launched an expedition to punish the resistant Sioux. Soldiers destroyed hundreds of Indian homes, killing many civilians. On June 25 the soldiers reached a Sioux settlement in the valley of the Little Bighorn. All 260 soldiers, including Custer, were ambushed and killed by the Indian forces.
The Sioux victory provoked angry reprisals by the army. Some Sioux leaders surrendered and led their followers back to the reservations. Sitting Bull and a group of his followers fled to Canada.
A US Commission was sent to negotiate their return. According to writer W. Fletcher Johnson, Sitting Bull rejected the Commission’s overtures. Johnson’s description of the Sioux leader reveals the ambivalence with which the Europeans viewed the Indians: “Silent, stately and impassive, this model aboriginal leader, this scoundrelly medicine man, this rascally foe and treacherous friend, this model, in sooth, of Machiavel’s own sort, squatted himself on a buffalo robe next to the wall and took out his pipe and smoked it, and expressed, with his insolent manner, the following sentiment: ‘This commission which has come to interview me can go to the devil.'”
The British Government gave Sitting Bull and his people refuge and protection in Canada, but they received no supplies and were forced to stay in a small area. The land was barren, game was scarce, and the refugees suffered without food and clothing. Many died of starvation. Sitting Bull remained in Canada for the next four years.
In 1881, he and 148 of his people returned to the US and were taken prisoner. After serving two years in prison, he was allowed to return to a reservation. A living legend by this time, he raised badly needed funds by performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, a circus act.
In 1890, reservation police tried to arrest him for supporting the Ghost Dance movement. This was a religious revival which taught that the Native Americans would be delivered from white oppression, that the whites would be destroyed and that the Buffalo – and the old way of life – would return. In the shootout that followed, he was killed by a policeman.