As the Moon When Leaves Turn Green gave way to the Moon of the Wild Turnip (the end of May), Sitting Bull became more worried for his people. A party of Cheyennes just arrived from one of the agencies confirmed that lots of soldiers were being sent to fight the antitreaty bands. This news spread through the camps, and the following morning, Sitting Bull called to his side White Bull, his adopted brother Jumping Bull, and one of Chief Black Moon’s sons. He led them to the top of a small butte overlooking the village, now located on the Rosebud, near the mouth of Greenleaf Creek. Sitting Bull wanted these warriors as witnesses to his prayer to Wakan Tanka

The supreme chief and holy man, his hair unbraided and free of feathers, turned toward the sun and lit his pipe, which was wrapped in sage. He held the pipe vertical with the stem up, the bowl turned to face his body. As the three witnesses stood silent, Sitting Bull cried out:

Wakan Tanka, save me and give me all my wild game animals, and have [them] close enough so my people will have food enough this winter, and also [let] the good men on earth have more power so their tribes get along better and be of good nature so all Sioux nations get along well. If you do this for me, I will Sun Dance two days and two nights and will give you a whole buffalo.

When the smoke ceased to curl out of the pipe bowl, Sitting Bull wiped his face with sage, and the four men returned to the village. 


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The Sun Dance began two days later, after the big village moved to a new camping spot eleven miles farther up the Rosebud near a sacred sandstone formation known as the Picture Rock. The various ceremonies, feasting, and singing lasted for four days. On the day Sitting Bull honored his promise to Wakan Tanka, throngs of Lakotas and Cheyennes watched from the shade arbors. The chief entered the circular dance area wearing only a breechclout and some sage around his wrists and ankles. He walked to the painted medicine pole in the center and sat down with his back against it, his arms relaxed at his side, his legs straight out. Jumping Bull followed his brother and sat down, cross-legged, next to him. 

With a steel awl, a common trade item, Jumping Bull pricked the skin of Sitting Bull’s left arm, pulled the skin up, and, using a knife, cut off the small piece of flesh at the point of the awl. Jumping Bull repeated this procedure until fifty wounds oozed blood up and down the arm, then he switched to Sitting Bull’s right arm. The pieces were no bigger than a match head, but the tiny wounds caused swelling and bleeding nonetheless. The giving of flesh consumed an hour, with tears running down Sitting Bull’s face the entire time. The chief wasn’t sobbing in pain, however; it was a cry of humility before Wakan Tanka

Sitting Bull stood up and began to slowly dance while staring just below the sun. He wasn’t skewered and tethered to the medicine pole as in his previous Sun Dances. Glistening with sweat, the blood on his arms turning dark as it dried and scabbed, he danced for hours. Day became night, and still Sitting Bull danced. Like all Sun Dancers, Sitting Bull fasted prior to the ceremony, and the loss of blood, combined with a lack of nourishment and dehydration, put his body under extreme stress. But he’d made a promise to Wakan Tanka

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The following morning, as the sun’s fiery orb rose above the horizon, Sitting Bull again fixed his eyes just beneath it. The shuffling of his feet was much slower now; his arms hung at his side like lead weights. The world around him was no more — no spectators, no movement, no sounds, no colors. Just the sun. Then, from the place where he was staring, many figures on horseback appeared. Long Knives! But something was wrong; the soldiers’ heads were down, their hats falling off. More and more fell from the sky, like so many grasshoppers. A few Indian riders swirled among the Long Knives, and they, too, rode with heads down. 

From above, a powerful voice spoke to Sitting Bull: “These white men have no ears, so I give them to you.” Sitting Bull understood. Long Knives would attack his followers, but the soldiers would suffer a great loss. However, the voice warned, Sitting Bull’s people must not touch the spoils of their victory—not the soldiers’ guns, ammunition, clothing, saddles, or personal items. Nothing. If his people violated this command, the free-roaming Lakotas “will be in [the] white man’s clutches, at mercy of [the] white man.” And last, Sitting Bull was not to personally shed blood in this fight. He could carry a bow and arrows for protection, but he was not to take part in the battle. The Lakotas and Cheyennes watching from the shade arbors saw Sitting Bull suddenly falter. The chief looked ill, as if he was about to faint. Several men rushed to his side and eased Sitting Bull to the ground while others brought water. Among those hovering over Sitting Bull was Black Moon. In a voice weak and hoarse, Sitting Bull told Black Moon of his incredible vision, and he asked Black Moon to announce it to the people. Black Moon stood and turned to face the spectators. As he told of the supreme chief’s vision, everyone listened in awe. The truth of a Sun Dance vision was never questioned. “Whatever you foresaw,” said the holy man Black Elk, “it always came true.” And Sitting Bull had proved his closeness to Wakan Tanka and the gift of prophecy too many times to be doubted.

Mark Lee Gardner is the author of “To Hell on a Fast Horse” and “Shot All to Hell,” which received multiple awards, including a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. His expertise as an authority on the American West has led to appearances on PBS’s “American Experience,” the History Channel, AMC, the Travel Channel, and on NPR. In addition to his several books, he’s written for National Geographic History, American Heritage, the Los Angeles Times, True West, and American Cowboy. He holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Wyoming and lives with his family at the foot of Pikes Peak.