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Sitting Bull

In 1877, after the overwhelming defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull and his Sioux crossed the International Boundary into Canada with United States forces in pursuit. His time spent on Canadian soil made many settlers uneasy, for they feared he would use Canada as a base from which to launch raids over the border. Much like his previous works on Aboriginals, Grant MacEwan re-examines the character of Sitting Bull and questions if he was truly vicious and cruel as so many made him out to be.

Sitting Bull - The Most feared name in all buffalo country - made an indelible impression on both American and Canadian history. The story of Sitting Bull, according to MacEwan, represents some of the gross misunderstanding among Canadians regarding Aboriginal history. In Sitting Bull: The Years in Canada, MacEwan asserts that Sitting Bull was not a treacherous savage but, rather, a thoughtful and conscientious individual who was thrust into difficult decisions over the loss of his land and traditional way of life. In some of his other publications, MacEwan debunks the stereotypical notion that aboriginals, in the 19th century, were primitive savages who reveled in violence and warfare. The story of Sitting Bull is no different, and MacEwan feels that he has been misjudged by most observers.

In a short matter of time, Sitting Bull had gained a notorious reputation across the American West as a ruthless and heartless killer. When Sitting Bull fled to the rolling plains of Saskatchewan to escape capture by United States' forces, Canadian settlers echoed the same fears as their neighbours to the south-they were convinced Sitting Bull would attack if he had reason to or not. If he did not attack innocent prairie farmers they were convinced he would start Aboriginal uprisings across the Canadian Plains. Canadians were very uncomfortable with Sitting Bull and his followers temporarily relocating to their country.

Some writers of his time called him a "typical savage," someone who was fuelled solely by war. MacEwan points out that this was untrue and that Sitting Bull would only enter combat if there was a justifiable reason. To him, and others like Crowfoot and Walking Buffalo, there was nothing more important to Aboriginal people than freedom. Sitting Bull met with United States government officials to repeatedly state his case: the ability to keep weapons and hunt wherever and whenever. The government insisted that the Sioux remain on large reserves and turn in all of their weapons.

It is impossible for historians to determine what would have occurred had Sitting Bull remained in Canada for an extended period of time. MacEwan also ponders the consequences of Sitting Bull being granted a reserve in Canada. The Western Canadian historian found it difficult to escape the thought that Canada might have experienced something resembling the Custer massacre. By that time, however, Sitting Bull was in no position to stir up hostilities and actually spent much of his later years touring in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. He had cut himself off from most of his people residing in North Dakota. Although he was asked on several occasions to participate in the North-West Rebellion, the prospect never truly interested him.

MacEwan describes Sitting Bull as a troublesome character who often enjoyed confrontation; however, it is unfair and inaccurate to describe the Sioux leader as a ruthless killer obsessed with warfare. Sitting Bull dedicated much of his life trying to provide land and freedom for his people so they could live a life similar to that of their ancestors. As the ideas associated with Manifest Destiny moved westward, conflict between government officials and Aboriginal peoples was inevitable.


MacEwan, Grant. Sitting Bull: The Years in Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1973.

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