Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Death of Sitting Bull: The Story of Red Tomahawk

The Death Of Sitting Bull
The Story Of Red Tomahawk
By Dakota Wind
STANDING ROCK, N.D. & S.D. - 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 Lakȟóta his people knew him as Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake. Lt. Henry Bullhead was also attributed to the violent end of Sitting Bull.

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 Huŋkphápȟa Lakȟóta, the author is Oglála Lakȟóta, 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 him. 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 left 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 Huŋkphápȟa Lakȟóta leader Sitting Bull. 

Tačháŋȟpi Lúta (Red Tomahawk) was born in 1849 somewhere in Montana Territory. His mother, Waŋblí SápA Wiŋ (Black Eagle Woman) was both Huŋkphápȟa and Sihásapa Lakȟóta of the Thítȟuŋwaŋ (Teton). His father, Siŋté Máza (Iron Tail) was Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna (Yanktonai). 

Red Tomahawk’s name was also his paternal grandfather’s name, given to him by Siŋté Máza as a mark of honor. "I got my name from my grandfather after doing some deed once," he explained to Colonel Alfred Welch.

Red Tomahawk's pictograph signature. 

Red Tomahawk shared some of his lineage with Welch, going back to Wanáta, The Charger, "I can show my father's [line] back for a long time. Back to Wanáta. So can Chief [John] Grass." His grandmother and Grass' grandmother were sisters. "There was a fight between the Dakȟóta and the enemy close to the Lake Of The Broken Axe [Painted Woods Lake] and a girl was taken away from the enemy and finally married into the family of Red Thunder [the father of Wanáta]. From them I came," Red Tomahawk explained.

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 Phizí, Chief Gall, of the Huŋkphápȟa Lakȟóta. "I was sixteen years of age when we ran off those cattle at Fort Rice," said Red Tomahawk to Welch.

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  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. 

According to Colonel Welch's notes regarding Red Tomahawk, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was a close personal friend of Red Tomahawk in the post-reservation era. 

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 Lakȟóta 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. In 1921, Red Tomahawk met with Ferdinand Foch who was both the Marshall of France and the British Field Marshall; he smoked a pipe with Foch and afterwards gifted him with a warbonnet

In 1926, he honored Romania’s Queen Marie with a gift of an eagle feather warbonnet and a traditional Lakȟóta name. 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 Lakȟóta 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 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. 

But Red Tomahawk met more than presidents and royalty. Dignitaries were also tribal. On July 4, 1920, met with Pawnee visitors, former scouts under General Nelson Miles in 1876. The Pawnee acknowledged stealing horses from Red Cloud, and one added that this was the first time he had ever been in a Sioux camp. 

Red Tomahawk gifted one of the former scouts ten dollars, and extended the hospitality of Standing Rock that they would have lodging, food, and that they should make themselves at home in the camp and ceremonies. Red Tomahawk assured the safety of the Pawnee visitors, that once they were enemies and that he had fought them himself but didn't think they were very brave, and boasted that if he "had coughed in the night time, they would have run away." Then Red Tomahawk assured the Pawnee that none would hurt them.

Tačháŋȟpi Lúta 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 friendly Lakota was 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: 

Sitting Bull was my friend. I killed him like this...

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.

In Fort Yates, 1915, Colonel Alfred B. Welch interviewed Tačháŋȟpi Lúta (Red Tomahawk), who asserted to Welch that his name meant [His] Red War Club. Welch spoke with Red Tomahawk about the death of Sitting Bull. "I was under orders," Red Tomahawk said to Welch, "so I killed him. He should not have been hollared [sic]." 

Welch asked if Sitting Bull's spirit ever returned there. "Yes. Sometimes," replied Red Tomahawk, "He rides in on an elk spirit." Welch wanted to visit Sitting Bull's burial site and asked Red Tomahawk to go with him there. Red Tomahawk declined the invitation and ended the interview with, "No. I do not go. I am afraid. There are mysterious flowers upon his grave every year. We do not know where they come from. They are wakȟáŋ."


  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.

  4. Red Tomahawk is curiously open about his murderous exploits

  5. THE HOLOCAUST is well documented , and published.Sadly for the First Nations Peoples, the real HUMAN BEINGS...reports of their genocide would never achieve status, befitting the significance of their betrayal by Americans.