You’d think the answer would be simple, but the question sent me down one rabbit hole of research after another.
Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota leader, was killed on December 15, 1890, at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota during a botched arrest. He had surrendered to federal authorities several years earlier, but when the Ghost Dance movement swept across Indian Country in the late 1800s, Indian agent James McLaughlin feared Sitting Bull’s influence and ordered his arrest.
According to History.com:
“The Indian police rousted the naked chief from his bed at 6:00 in the morning, hoping to spirit him away before his guards and neighbors knew what had happened. When the fifty-nine-year-old chief refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and a few hotheaded young men threatened the Indian police. Someone fired a shot that hit one of the Indian police; they retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest and head. The great chief was killed instantly. Before the ensuing gunfight ended, twelve other Indians were dead and three were wounded.”
Sitting Bull was buried at the Fort Yates Military Cemetery, but he has not rested in peace.
The Army abandoned Fort Yates in 1903, and all the graves were moved, except for Sitting Bull’s. By the 1950s, according to Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, “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.”
That’s when a group of businessmen from Mobridge, South Dakota, received permission through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move Sitting Bull’s remains from the neglected grave in Fort Yates to Mobridge—in an effort to attract tourists to their town.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski agreed to create a memorial to Sitting Bull on the site of the relocated remains “only after a heated argument over the exploitation of Native Americans, the consent to the project of Sitting Bull’s heirs, and a commitment not to exploit the monument as a tourist site,” HeritageRenewal.org states. However, he ended up boycotting the monument’s dedication ceremony because he believed the South Dakota governor was using it for political gain.
Ziolkowski’s statue of Sitting Bull still overlooks the Missouri River but has unfortunately been the victim of neglect and vandalism. Another monument at Fort Yates is now under the management of the Standing Rock Reservation.
In 2007, Sitting Bull’s four surviving great-grandchildren launched a movement to have their ancestor’s remains moved to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, where he played a key role in the defeat of Gen. George Custer and the U.S. Army. The New York Times also ran an article about it, but as near as I can tell, that effort failed.
And then there are those who say Sitting Bull is in Manitoba, Canada. In a 2007 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Sioux historian and elder Gordon Wasteste claimed “Sitting Bull’s remains were secretly spirited across the border at Turtle Mountain and buried on Canadian soil…over a century ago.”
Wasteste said Sitting Bull’s body was moved from the grave in Fort Yates long before the Mobridge businessmen dug it up in the 1950s. The tribe was motivated by concerns that Americans or Europeans would make a wax effigy of the great leader’s body from his bones, a not uncommon practice at the time.
So where is Sitting Bull buried? I have no idea, but judging by his enduring fame, it doesn’t matter where his body lies. His spirit remains indomitable.
Footnote: Incidentally, Fort Yates was renamed from Standing Rock Cantonment to honor Capt. George Yates, who was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the Army left, the fort’s buildings came under the control of the Standing Rock Sioux.