This Day in Resistance History: Sitting Bull’s Railway Speech
On September 8, 1883, the Sioux leader Sitting Bull made a speech to government officials, railroad barons, and the U.S. military in honor of the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway. And on this one occasion, after a long and bloody attempt to defend his people and their lands from White invaders, Sitting Bull seized the chance to express his opinion of those he had opposed for so long against tremendous odds.
Some context: The lands of northern Montana and Idaho had not drawn as many settlers as other parts of the U.S. west, and for good reason. The harsh prairie environment included scalding summer heat, winter temperatures ranging from 10 to 40 degrees below zero, relentless winds without any tree breaks to slow them down, and a lack of water. But to the Sioux, these lands were perfect. The prairie tableland meant that they could ride their horses during hunting at top speeds. The buffalo provided for most of their food and clothing needs. They were able to hunt at will, and move to fresh hunting grounds when they wished.
Even with a relatively small invasion of Whites, the balance of this life was upset. Sitting Bull summed up the problem, a set of differences that went far beyond culture:
White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo…White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their tepees here and there to different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in their towns or farms. The life my people want is freedom.
But the settlers kept coming. In 1870, there were 5,000 of them, and another 15,000 soldiers at various forts. In 1880, 117,000 Whites lived in territory all around the government-mandated Sioux Reservation, plowing the fields up to plant wheat and destroying buffalo migration paths. By 1885, the number of settlers had doubled to 234,000.
The U.S. government did not just want the Sioux hunting grounds. They also wanted the Black Hills, where gold had been discovered in 1874. These lands are sacred to the Sioux, and when pushed to sell them, the Sioux Nation retaliated. General Custer was sent to drive back the two most important leaders, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, onto the reservation, leaving other Sioux lands undefended. The resulting Battle of Little Big Horn was a stunning defeat for the United States. This was a culmination of wars between the United States and the Sioux Nation that had been ongoing since 1862, the same year that the Homestead Act was passed.
One of the biggest raids on Indian lands was the confiscation of huge tracts that were transferred to the railroads. After the Battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull led his people north to Canada, remaining there until 1881. By the time of his return, the railroad was close to completion; the containment of Indians on their reservations was ongoing; random raids and massacres of various bands that attempted to move to traditional hunting lands had become a feature of Indian life. And well underway was the systematic starvation of the Sioux through the U.S. government’s “Buffalo Harvest” program.
The buffalo, essential to the survival of the Sioux way of life, were being eradicated from the prairies. Hunters were paid a bounty to kill as many as possible. Huge mountains of buffalo skulls were common features on the prairies of the Dakotas and Montana. The purpose of this program was described by an army officer to reporter John F. Finerty: “Better [to] kill the buffalo than have him feed the Sioux.” The intention was not only to break the spirit of the Sioux Nation but also to force Indians to subsist on handouts from the government.
And it worked. Sitting Bull, on his return to Montana, watched 300 of his tribespeople starve to death during the winter of 1883 at Fort Peck. Neither the medical treatment nor food rations promised by the government were available to prevent this.
It was in this context that the Northern Pacific Railway, with incredible audacity, decided it would be a nice touch to their railroad completion celebration to have Sitting Bull deliver a speech. In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it describes Sitting Bull’s surprising acceptance of the offer.
The ceremony was lavish, featuring the joining of the two ends of the railroad with a solid gold spike. Guests of honor included former President Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of State Henry Teller, the governors of every state that the railway connected, Northern Pacific president Henry Villard, and the bankers and investors who would rake in the profits from their venture. Other guests included diplomats from Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Plus the defeated leader of the Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull, who had submitted a draft of his speech in advance for approval. The remarks had been co-written with a young Army officer who spoke Sioux and made extensive “suggestions” for Sitting Bull’s remarks.
Sitting Bull rode at the head of the parade with his army chaperone by his side. But when it was time for him to speak, the audience was surprised when the famous Indian warrior spoke in Sioux, not in English. Sitting Bull looked directly to the U.S. Secretary of State, to Grant, to the generals and railroad barons who sat before him. “I hate all White people,” he said. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” He went on to describe all the atrocities that his nation had endured at the hands of the United States. He would stop periodically to smile, and the audience applauded enthusiastically, assuming he was welcoming them and complimenting their great achievement. Sitting Bull would bow in return, then resume his scathing assessment of the White man’s corruption and dishonesty. Only the panic-stricken Army officer who had helped Sitting Bull draft the speech could understand him, and knew it was pointless to interrupt. Sitting Bull received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
“I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,” Sitting Bull told the officers at Fort Buford when he turned himself in. In 1883, this great leader was an outcast, had starved nearly to death, and was a prisoner of U.S. policies. But he understood that his only path was continued resistance. With bullets, warriors, and even provisions taken from him, Sitting Bull still had his anger, his sense of justice, and the words that rendered his enemies into fools.