Sitting Bull

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12360

How would you feel if you and your neighbors were forced to move to a terrible place? How would you like to be named after an animal? Learn why there are few Native Americans left and what happened!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What happened to the Native Americans in the 1800s as more Americans began moving west?

As more American settlers began to expand west, the Native Americans who had inhabited the land for centuries began to feel threatened.

The settlers took their food and land. Even worse, they forced the Native Americans to leave their homes and move to reservations. A reservation is an area of land assigned to Native American tribes.

Reservations are managed by tribal leaders rather than the American government. Think about how you would feel if you were told you could no longer live in your home and that your family had to move to a new region.

  • Would you be willing to move?

Tatanka Yotanka, which translates to Sitting Bull, was a part of the Sioux Native American tribe. He refused to move to a reservation and would not sign any treaty that would require him to do so. Sitting Bull said sending Native Americans to live on reservations was the same as sending them to prison.

In 1868, the Sioux leader, Red Cloud, signed a treaty with the United States. Sitting Bull did not agree with the treaty. Many other members of the tribe agreed with Sitting Bull and looked to him for leadership. They even made him the Supreme Chief, or leader, of the Sioux. Sitting Bull even began leading small attacks against Americans who invaded Sioux land.

Chief Sitting Bull, 1885

Image by David Francis Barry, via Wikimedia Commons, is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division ID cph.3c11147 and is in the public domain.

In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a region occupied by the Sioux. To see where the Black Hills were located and what the region looked like, click the hot spot on the image below.

The United States wanted the gold and began using military force to make the Sioux move to reservations. Sitting Bull began building an army of Native Americans from the Sioux tribe and other neighboring tribes, including the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. The army consisted of nearly 10,000 Native Americans.

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Sitting Bull was considered a holy man by his followers because he claimed to have visions of the future. In one of his visions, he saw American soldiers falling from the sky. He said this vision told him a great battle was coming and the Native Americans would be victorious.

Shortly after, on June 25, 1876, the Native American army fought the U.S. Army, led by Colonel George Custer, at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Like Sitting Bull had seen in his vision, the Native Americans were victorious. The Battle of Little Big Horn is considered one of the greatest Native American victories in all of history.

The success at Little Big Horn did not last for long. The U.S. government began sending more troops into the Black Hills region, and Sitting Bull’s men could not hold them off. They were forced to retreat to Canada. Sitting Bull and his men were unable to stay in Canada forever. There were not enough buffalo in the region, which was their primary food source, and they were starving.

In 1881, Sitting Bull returned to the United States and surrendered. His worst nightmare came true; he was forced to move to a reservation in South Dakota. He was only allowed to leave the reservation to participate in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he was paid $50 per week. He did not remain a part of the show for long, because he felt the show made fun of Native Americans.

In 1890, a group of Native Americans emerged called the Ghost Dancers. The Ghost Dancers believed God would force white people to leave the land and would bring the buffalo back. Sitting Bull supported the Ghost Dancers.

The U.S. government was afraid the Ghost Dancers would lead a Native American uprising. Fearing Sitting Bull would lead the uprising, police officers were sent to the reservation to arrest him. Conflict broke out between the officers and Sitting Bull’s followers. Sitting Bull was killed during the conflict.

Based on what you have read, write your responses to the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  1. What happened to the Native Americans as more Americans began to move west?
  2. How were the Native Americans treated by the U.S. government?
  3. Why do you think people looked to Sitting Bull as a leader?

The way the government treated Native Americans is not a positive aspect of American history. Forcing families to relocate created a lot of hate and tension between Americans and Native Americans.

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to review what you have learned about Sitting Bull by creating an interactive timeline.

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