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Chief Sitting Bull and the Canadian Connection

General George Custer
General George Custer in 1865 (US Public Domain)

If it wasn’t for the discovery of gold in the Dakota Territory in the mid-1870s there may not have been any infamous Battle of Little Bighorn and the subsequent escape of Chief Sitting Bull to Saskatchewan. OK, let’s start from the beginning…

As part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, signed at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, the US government granted the region’s Native Americans exclusive farming and hunting rights to the Black Hills…holy ground to the local tribes of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Then gold was discovered there in 1875 after prospectors had crossed reservation borders in clear violation of the 1868 treaty. When they were assaulted by the Native Americans, the US Army saw trouble brewing, ignored the original treaty agreement and invaded the region. The tribes were a little pissed, to say the least, leading many Natives to leave their reservations and join the rebel Chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse who were forming up bands of warriors to the west in Montana.

November 1875, the US government ordered all Natives--including those who were part of the already-established Great Sioux Reservation--to move onto reservations. Any who didn’t were considered “hostile.” Them were fighting word to the Natives. The US Army, including Major General George Custer with his 7th Cavalry, was sent into the region to bring the Plains Indians under control. By force if necessary. When the government demands were ignored, Custer moved into southern Montana Territory near the Big Horn River to engage the Sioux nation with his force of 700 men, split into 3 battalions. Underestimating the Native American strength, Custer and his 200-man battalion were cut off and annihilated within an hour’s fighting on June 1876 at The Battle of Little Bighorn (also called Custer’s Last Stand) by an attacking force of some 3,000 Native warriors. Montana’s version of the Alamo, only much quicker. White Americans were outraged. Come on! This was the country’s Centennial and they were used to battlefield victories.

The most prominent Native American leader was Chief Sitting Bull, a well-respected Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux medicine man. To avoid the avenging US Army troops after the battle, many of the Sioux under Sitting Bull fled north and crossed the international border into Canada in what is now Saskatchewan, called the North West Territories then.

To set back the clock a bit…

As early as May 1876 the Canadian North West Mounted Police had received reports of American plans to destroy the Sioux. Put on alert, NWMP Inspector James Morrow Walsh at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills (he named the newly-established post after himself) ordered border patrols and told the men to report back on any movements. By December 1876 an advance party of Hunkpapas led by Black Moon appeared and camped near Wood Mountain, 20 miles over the Canadian border, an area said to have bountiful buffalo grazing lands. The land was surrounded by hills and deep ravines where wood, water, shelter and grazing fields were plentiful. The hills were excellent lookouts for catching buffalo herd migration as well as the approach of any enemy horsemen. Years later--in the Twelve Mile Lake area just 20 miles to the northeast--my mother’s family and relatives started farming the fertile grasslands and many family members still reside there. I’s an area I was quite familiar with as a young boy during my many visits to my grandparents’ farm.

A NWMP police scout was sent out and came back to give Walsh the Sioux numbers. There were 500 men, 1000 women, 1400 children, 3500 horses and 30 mules. But no Sitting Bull. Nevertheless, Walsh had to lay down the law from the start and rode into the Sioux camp on 15 December (a 4-day ride east from Fort Walsh) to inform the new arrivals that they could not use Canada as a base to make across-the-border hit-and-run raids. If they did, they were gone. The Sioux force stated they were tired of fighting and only wanted to live in peace without fear. They did ask Walsh for a small amount of ammo to hunt with. Walsh agreed, providing it was used for hunting only. To Walsh’s surprise, the Sioux claimed they were British Indians because 65 years earlier their grandfathers had fought with the British during the War of 1812 and that King George III had promised them Canadian residency should they not wish to live any longer in the US. As proof, many of the Sioux braves proudly displayed medals originally presented to their grandfathers by George III.

Returning to Fort Walsh, Walsh made immediate arrangements to reopen the NWMP post at Wood Mountain--which had been shut down 2 years prior--to keep an eye on things so that nothing got out of hand. In January 1877 a half-dozen white soldiers arrived, including a Sioux interpreter. That same month more Sioux arrived too, but still no Sitting Bull. Yet.

Then 25 May 1877 Chief Sitting finally made his appearance in Wood Mountain to bring the total Sioux numbers of men, women and children up to 5000. Walsh again rode east to meet the incoming Sioux and to inform Sitting Bull on what was expected of him as a guest on Canadian soil. At the meeting Sitting Bull expressed his hated for the Americans and how happy he was to be in Canada, the country of the “Great White Mother.” Walsh told Sitting Bull the same thing he told Black Moon. Sitting Bull had no objections, stating he had buried his arms on the American side of the border. Although on opposite sides, Walsh and Sitting Bull became good friends over the next few years, establishing a trust with each other.

But Walsh was now caught in a bind, a real international predicament, you might say. To the Canadian federal government, the Sioux were a threat to Western settlement. They were concerned that Sitting Bull could unite Canadian and American Native Americans to rise up against the white population. Meanwhile, the Americans only wanted the Sioux back in America on certain terms and that was complete surrender and agreeing to reserve settlement, something the Sioux did not adhere to. Canadian Native Indians—the Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, along with the Metis--weren’t all that thrilled by the presence of armed Sioux in Canada because that meant more mouths to feed on the already-disappearing Buffalo herds, although the previous winter had been a good one for the existence of Buffalo, with some herds drifting in from the Cyprus Hills area. But that was the last good year. After that, they were in very short supply.

NOTE: According to some information, the numbers of American Buffalo roaming the American-Canadian West at the time of the American Civil War may have been as many as 60 million, perhaps more. By 1890, they were down to less than 1000. Quite a drop. Why? Millions were shot just for sport plus killing them was a tactic to starve out the American Natives and force them onto reservations. The Buffalo numbers are up to about 360,000 today. Like cattle, they are in controlled herds across North America. Four years ago, I saw one such heard of several hundred along the Trans-Canada Highway about an hour east of Regina.

On more than one occasion, the American authorities tried to persuade Sitting Bull and his followers back south, even sending an official commission led by General AH Terry of the US Calvary. But the Sioux weren’t budging, even though their Buffalo food supply was dwindling after an exceptionally harsh 1877-78 Western Canadian winter. On orders from Ottawa, Walsh told the Sioux they would not be given any government assistance--except for protection from the Americans--with the hope the Sioux would return to the US. By 1879 Inspector Walsh transferred his personal headquarters to Wood Mountain to be closer to the scene. There were now 26 NWMP at the post, expecting to keep thousands of Sioux under control.

Chief Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody
Chief Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody in Montreal, Quebec, 1885 (Canadian Public Domain)

That summer a far-reaching grass fire hit the prairies, forcing any migrating Buffalo to avoid the region altogether. It was an even more terrible blow to the Sioux and the other Native Americans, who were now facing starvation. May 1880 saw most of the Sioux finally leave to take up residence on American reservations. Two months later, Ottawa decided to replace Walsh, feeling his friendship with Sitting Bull was a hindrance to American-Canadian relations and Western settlement. Also, for the past several months, the American press were referring to Walsh as, “Sitting Bull’s Boss.” Stubborn, Sitting Bull and a few others still stayed north of the border until the following year, when most of them left Canada too. Sitting Bull stayed on, then finally surrendered to American forces July 1881 at Fort Buford in the Dakota Territory. However, 60 Sioux stayed in Canada and became citizens, eventually belonging to the Wood Mountain First Nation.

The international crisis had finally come to an end. Sitting Bull went to a reserve and later performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where he became a good friend to young sharpshooter star Annie Oakley, whom he nicknamed “Little Miss Sure Shot.” In 1890, nearing 60, he was shot to death in South Dakota for allegedly resisting arrest in what the American authorities alleged was another native uprising.

James Walsh went on to be the first Commissioner of the Yukon Territory at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897-98. He died in Brockville, Ontario in 1905. He was 65.

All these years later, the fight between the Sioux nation and the US government for the Black Hills rages on. In a 1980 decision by the United States Supreme Court, Washington offered the Lakota Sioux $15.5 million market value for the land, plus 103 years of interest at 5 percent to bring the combined total to $120.5 million. The Lakota refused the money, demanding return of the land instead. It’s still in the courts.

July 1965 the Wood Mountain Historic Park was officially opened by the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources. On a nearby hill is a monument to the legendary Chief Sitting Bull. Although Wood Mountain has a population of only 25 people today, those numbers swell for a brief period in mid-July when the village celebrates the Wood Mountain Stampede, an event that many of my relatives take part in or at least watch. My wife and her father attended it in 2009 during a family reunion. Since its inception in 1890, the Stampede is Canada’s longest-running annual rodeo, even going strong through 2 World Wars.



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