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Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Death of Sitting Bull: The Story of Red Tomahawk

The Death of Sitting Bull
The Story of Red Tomahawk
December 15, marks the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Lakota leaders, a veteran and survivor of the “Indian Wars,” Sitting Bull. In Lakota, his people knew him as Tatanka Iyotanke. 

There are many books out there that talk about the traditional life, war exploits, the tragic death, and the enduring legacy of Sitting Bull.  I’d like to recommend a few different perspectives about the Lakota leader:

The Lance and the Shield by Robert Utley
Gratify yourself with a copy of this comprehensive book and get to the know Sitting Bull as a hero. 

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPoint
A really great read, a reflection and recollection of the oral traditions of Sitting Bull as he was known to his children and grandchildren.  Just remember that Sitting Bull was Hunkpapa Lakota, the author is Oglala Lakota, and that there are good people on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. 

There’s so much written about Sitting Bull and events surrounding his murder. It is true that Agent McLaughlin sent the Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull.  It is true that Sitting Bull was killed by a fellow tribesman.  If you want to read and know more about Sitting Bull, there are number of books about the man.  I’d like to share with you a little about the man who killed Sitting Bull. 

In 2009, I came across a short paper about Red Tomahawk written by one of his descendants.  A copy of this account is at the North Dakota State Archives and can be viewed there in person.  This resource cannot be checked out.  I was curious about what I found and dug a little deeper into the story about Red Tomahawk. 

 I believe that Red Tomahawk was a man of his time, a time of vanishing bison, a time of radical change on the Great Plains, a desperate time when the only choices were hard ones.  Here’s the paper by Brenda Red Tomahawk, expanded upon by myself. 

Captain Red Tomahawk of the BIA Standing Rock Indian Police.

Red Tomahawk is a name forever associated with ending Sitting Bull’s life on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in 1890. But, he was a man of great stature, determination, and leadership in his own right, before and after Major James McLaughlin ever ordered him to arrest the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull. 

Tacanipiluta (Red Tomahawk) was born in 1849 somewhere in Montana Territory.His mother, Wambli Sapa Win (Black Eagle Woman) was both Hunkpapa Lakota and Sihasapa Lakota, two tribes of the Teton Lakota Sioux. His father, Sinte Maza (Iron Tail) was Ihanktowana Dakota (also known as Yanktonai). Red Tomahawk’s name was also his paternal grandfather’s name, given to him by Iron Tail as a mark of honor. 

As a young man, Red Tomahawk traveled throughout his people’s land from Montana to Minnesota hunting bison. In 1866, Red Tomahawk was part of the foray that harassed the soldiers at Fort Rice and took their entire beef heard. Two years later, Red Tomahawk participated in the ten-day siege of Fort Rice which was lead by Pizi, Chief Gall, of the Hunkpapa Lakota. In the years between the Dakota Conflict of 1862 in Minnesota and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills Expedition of 1874, Red Tomahawk fought bravely alongside his tribesmen in defending his people’s lands from miners. 

In the summer of 1876, when General Custer and the 7th Cavalry were meeting their fate at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Red Tomahawk stayed behind at Standing Rock Agency.  The following year, a Black Hills treaty negotiations party came to Standing Rock.  When the treaty of Minehanska was ratified, Red Tomahawk put aside his warrior days and became a friend of all citizens. 

The BIA Indian Police on Standing Rock in 1890.

Red Tomahawk maintained a semblance of his warrior status by becoming a member of the BIA Indian Police. He was hired as a sergeant and gradually through promotion worked himself up to the rank of captain during his eighteen years of service. He became a prominent leader who was recognized on and off the reservation. 

Red Tomahawk became an allotted member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (“allotted” meaning he received an allotment of land on which to live) and later an enrolled member of the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (“enrolled” meaning he became an official member of a tribe which is recognized by treaty and is guaranteed certain rights such as health care, education, and housing). Red Tomahawk became a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council and strove for improvements for the welfare of his people. He always spoke Lakota and used very little English, but he also recognized that change of lifestyle was important to his people. 

Red Tomahawk and Queen Marie of Romania.

Red Tomahawk met many dignitaries during his lifetime.In 1902 he met with President Roosevelt at Mandan, ND. Later, in 1924, he honored Romania’s Queen Marie with a gift of an eagle feather warbonnet and a traditional Lakota name. In 1926, Red Tomahawk met with Ferdinand Foch who was both the Marshall of France and the British Field Marshall. Red Tomahawk smoked a pipe with Foch and afterwards gifted him with a warbonnet. In June, that same year, 1926, Red Tomahawk attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the anniversary, U.S. Secretary of War, Mr. Patrick Hurley met with Red Tomahawk at a lunch in Bismarck, ND. As became his standard tradition when meeting key figure heads, Red Tomahawk gifted Hurley with a warbonnet. In 1928, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Mr. Charles P. Summerall, was met and welcomed to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation by Red Tomahawk in his language on behalf of all the Lakota living there. 

In 1929, Red Tomahawk travelled to Washington D.C. as Summerall’s personal guest.  Once there at the U.S. Capital, Red Tomahawk was invited to attend a luncheon with President Herbert Hoover and Vice-President Charles Curtis (Curtis himself was an enrolled member of the Osage Indian Nation in Kansas, with native linage also from the Pottawatomie and Kaw Indian Nations). Red Tomahawk presented each with a pipe and a beaded tobacco bag wrapped in grey cloth as a token of Standing Rock’s friendship. 

This photo of Red Tomahawk was taken by Frank B. Fiske.

While in Washington D.C. Red Tomahawk took a tour of Arlington National Cemetery and there he placed his personal warbonnet upon the Tomb of the Unknowns. Upon returning from his State visit, Red Tomahawk was welcomed back to North Dakota and given a general reception at the Bismarck capital. He was the guest of honor. 

Tacanipiluta died as he lived – among his people. He was married four times throughout his life and left six surviving children at the time of his death on August 7, 1931.  Relatives and friends, native and non-native, gathered at his home to pay their final respects to a beloved leader. Burial services were conducted in both Lakota and English.  The State Board of Administration requested that Red Tomahawk be interred on the Bismarck State Capital grounds, but he was laid to rest on the reservation near the Cannonball River according to his family’s wish. 

Red Tomahawk's image was chosen to represent the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

During his lifetime, Red Tomahawk diligently strove to create positive awareness of his Lakota culture and helped to educate the general public. In public ceremonies, he introduced his culture to everyone from foreign countries to various parts of the United States.  He adamantly displayed his traditional warrior attire for all to see. He generously offered items of cultural and personal significance as tokens of personal relations and to demonstrate a willingness to create harmony amongst all. He advocated for a better life for Standing Rock and worked for peaceful negotiations among all Americans, native and non-native alike. 

The old ND Highway signs with Red Tomahawk's profile.

In 1923, Red Tomahawk’s profile was chosen to mark all North Dakota state highways. It is displayed to show all travelers that a Lakota is safely guiding them. In 1951, the North Dakota Highway Patrol also adopted his profile for use as the department symbol and as the patrol vehicle emblem. The department’s Colonel’s Award for Excellence bears Red Tomahawk’s name and likeness to symbolize his contributions to the state of North Dakota as a Lakota warrior and ambassador for peace. 

Present-day ND Highway signs with Red Tomahawk's profile.

Red Tomahawk took the Christian name Marcellus, meaning Young Fighter, when he converted to Christianity, and to reflect his warrior days. 

Of Sitting Bull’s death, Red Tomahawk offered this frank, brutal, and succinct account: At the time of the death of Sitting Bull I was second lieutenant of the Indian Police at Fort Yates.  Sitting Bull had become sullen because of some action of the government and had gone out unto the reservation with a band of Indians. The Indian police were ordered to go out and bring him in dead or alive. We found him with about 500 men out on the banks of the Grand River, about thirty miles from Fort Yates. The Indians in the party were holding a ghost dance, which the government had prohibited. The Indian police went over to where the camp was and told them to stop the dance, but they did not do so. Captain Bull Head, Sergeant Shave Head and myself went over and stood beside Sitting Bull and I grabbed Sitting Bull’s left arm and held him. One of Sitting Bull’s men fired and shot Bull Head. When I saw him sinking to the ground I drew my revolver and shot Sitting Bull twice, once through the left side and once through the head. We broke up the dance and Sitting Bull was taken back to the agency dead.


  1. He met Marshal Foch in 1921, and Queen Marie in 1926, during her Grand Tour in America.

  2. Do you know if any other woman was given this honor befor Queen Marie? Tnx in advance!

  3. Crazy that Sitting Bull was shot in that manner . It didn't sound like he was resisting his arrest. I suppose it was different times then. Kinda sad really.