Battle over Sitting Bull

Descendant opposes plans for memorial, wants reburial at Little Bighorn
2007-06-17T23:00:00Z Battle over Sitting BullThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 17, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. - You have to travel back in time to get from the nearest town to the chipped and wind-whipped little stone face that peers out over the Missouri River and the endless plains beyond.

The drive from Mobridge, S.D., across the river takes you from the Central Time Zone into the Mountain, and if you turn off the main road and clatter four miles down a winding path, you find it - a modest monument on a lush green bluff.

This simplicity is striking because of what lies beneath: The remains of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief said to have foretold the defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

But it is more striking because of the state of extreme disrepair that befell the resting place of one of the best-known American Indians in history for half a century, until just two years ago.

It was shot and spat at, and worse. On the surrounding grounds bonfires burned and shattered beer bottles glittered. Someone tied a rope around the feather rising from the head of the bust, rigged it to a truck and broke it off.

The site is on what is called fee land, within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe but privately owned, and two years ago two men - one white, the other a tribesman - paid $55,000 for it and began cleaning it up.

They have plans for a $12 million monument complex they hope will honor Sitting Bull's memory with the dignity missing for so long, and let new generations learn about him.

But these plans, like Sitting Bull himself, are not so simple. And they have torn open a wound over who will control the great Sioux chief's legacy.

• • •

First some history.

By 1868 there was relative peace between the Sioux and the U.S. government. The Second Treaty of Fort Laramie had secured for the Sioux a patch of land in southwest South Dakota.

Then gold was found in the Black Hills, whites rushed in, and the Sioux were ordered back to their reservations. Sitting Bull, having retreated into Montana, was said to have had a vision of a slaughter of soldiers.

Of soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky.

It was not long afterward that Custer and the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry were defeated at the Little Bighorn, in the summer of 1876.

In the same way the Civil War has names particular to points of view - think "War of Northern Aggression" - Little Bighorn is also known as Custer's Last Stand, and, to some American Indians, as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

The United States ultimately prevailed in the Indian Wars, but Sitting Bull became, and remains, an icon, a hero to his people. Later in his life he may have taken up - the point is disputed - the "ghost dance" movement, which forecast the return to life of dead Indians and an end to white domination.

This spooked U.S. authorities, and they went after Sitting Bull, who had settled back at Standing Rock.

He was killed in a battle with Indian police and American soldiers on June 15, 1890.

• • •

There are pictures of Sitting Bull - instantly recognizable, the single feather rising from the parted hair, the look at once stern and at peace - hanging today in the home of Ernie LaPointe, in the Black Hills town of Lead.

He is a great-grandson of the chief, with a craggy face and jet-black hair pulled back into a pony tail. And he is furious.

His mother always told him never to stand on Sitting Bull's back. Never boast of your heritage, she said. LaPointe, 58, believes the plans for a memorial complex atop his great-grandfather's grave are doing worse - cashing in.

"They want to use our grandfather," he said, speaking for his three sisters, "as a tourist attraction."

So this February he drafted a letter. He sent it to an assortment of Sioux tribes, including Standing Rock, which claims Sitting Bull.

"North Dakota, South Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have not honored their promise for proper care and maintenance of our Grandfather's burial sites," the letter said.

It called for a "final reburial" - in Montana, at the site of Little Bighorn.

"So that he may spend eternity," the letter went on, "at the sacred place where his vision had predicted the greatest victory for our people, the victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass."

• • •

The two men who want to turn Sitting Bull's resting place into a memorial complex are Rhett Albers, an environmental consultant who is white, and Bryan Defender, who owns the sanitation system for the Standing Rock tribe and is enrolled there.

They say people who come to the banks of the Missouri to see the site are confused - wondering: Well, where is the rest of it?

Their plan for the site would stream visitors through an "interpretive center," focused on the four Sioux ideals they say Sitting Bull represented: Fortitude, generosity, bravery and wisdom.

Other features under consideration are a snack bar, offices and meeting rooms, a gift shop and a restaurant serving wild game and American Indian dishes.

Confronted with LaPointe's suggestion that all this adds up to an attempt to cash in on Sitting Bull's legacy, they look perplexed.

"We are not wealthy people," Albers said over lunch at a diner on the opposite side of the river. "We've donated our time and expense and money to do this, pursue it, do it in a positive way."

Defender, 35, said he and Albers have met with groups on the Standing Rock reservation and received an overwhelmingly positive reaction to their plan. The tribe's chief declined to be interviewed for this story.

Albers said they hope someday to recoup their $55,000, but have no plans to draw salaries from the tourist center.

"It's not about the money," Albers, 45, said on a bumpy drive across the river in his pickup truck. "It's about the man. And the tribute. And to have these sites which everyone recognizes as being significant."

The two men take pride in their friendship, pointing out that in Mobridge, there is still lingering distrust between whites and members of the tribe.

"There's all these hard feelings, racial discrimination all over the world, and in this area also," Albers said. "There's a way we can understand each other better, reconcile these differences, learn from this tradition."

• • •

This is not the first struggle over Sitting Bull's remains.

The Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where the great chief lived his last years, straddles the Dakotas, and for the first half of the 20th century his remains lay at Fort Yates, N.D.

The grave was poorly marked. Weeds sprouted.

So in the early 1950s, a group of businessmen from Mobridge approached North Dakota authorities about having the remains moved south of the state line. North Dakota balked.

And that is how, in 1953, during a blizzard and in the middle of the night, a group from Mobridge, with a mortician in tow and with the blessing of the Standing Rock tribe, dug up the remains and secreted them into South Dakota.

Ernie LaPointe says his mother, Angelique Spotted Horse, was among those who agreed to the 1953 disinterment, and was assured by South Dakota authorities that the remains would be treated with dignity.

She had her doubts, telling relatives: "They never lived up to it before. What makes them want to do it now?"

The Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski contributed the granite bust that marks the remains today. The bust is 6 feet tall and sits atop an 8-foot pedestal yet still seems small set against magnificent, mostly undisturbed, natural surroundings.

For a time volunteers visited the bluff to mow the grass and clean up. But those efforts waned, said Larry Atkinson, publisher of the Mobridge Tribune. Into the vacuum stepped vandals, drunks, partying teenagers.

"It was isolated. It was up on a spot where you could see vehicles coming," Atkinson said. "Kids are kids, and they saw it as an easy place that everybody knew where it was. It was a party place."

It was also a dumping ground. Refrigerators were dropped there. Shower stalls, too - tubs and faucets, the whole thing. Water heaters, furniture, tires.

Bullet holes pock the shaft on which the bust of Sitting Bull sits.

Trashing the site became something of a rite of passage, Albers said. You became a senior in high school here and you and your friends drove out to Sitting Bull to raise a little hell.

He hears from them today. "You mean we can't have the senior keg at Sitting Bull anymore?" Albers said with a laugh.

"We're stopping that."

• • •

The aspects of the plan that anger LaPointe are the very attractions Albers and Defender say are most needed to sustain a fitting memorial to Sitting Bull - the visitors center, the amphitheater, the snack bar.

The pair are in the early stages of raising an estimated $12.7 million to bring the memorial to reality. For guidance, they have consulted the operators of a monument to Crazy Horse, carved into South Dakota's Black Hills, about 200 miles southwest of the Sitting Bull site.

More than 1 million people a year visit that still-unfinished sculpture, begun by Ziolkowski in 1948, which features the Sioux warrior atop his horse. Crazy Horse's head alone is spacious enough to house the four presidential heads of Mount Rushmore.

Enthusiasts support the monument with memberships at donor levels from $41 to $1,500. Pat Dobbs, a spokesman for the Crazy Horse site, said its success has taken "quite a bit of effort and years."

• • •

LaPointe says he has the backing of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to move the bones of Sitting Bull to Montana, and that an environmental assessment is planned soon.

And he has the backing of Darrell Cook, superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where there are already some memorials and markers recalling the battle in 1876.

If LaPointe is successful, expect nothing like what Albers and Defender are trying to do in South Dakota.

"Sitting Bull, he was a humble man," Cook said. "I don't think building memorials and visitors centers and that type of stuff is appropriate."

The Smithsonian Institution, meanwhile, is researching Sitting Bull's living descendants and preparing a "repatriation report" for a lock of the chief's hair and a pair of his leggings it holds, which would be returned to them.

South Dakota authorities, in letters to LaPointe, have deferred to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which says removal of human remains, even from private land enclosed by a reservation, requires the consent of the tribe.

Members of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, which also claims descendants of Sitting Bull, have voted to leave the remains where they are.

Ron His-Horse-Is-Thunder, the chairman of Standing Rock, did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press over several weeks. But Tim Mentz Sr., who is enrolled at Standing Rock and handles issues related to the repatriation law, said the tribe established a formal "lineal tree" for Sitting Bull in the early 1990s that named LaPointe as one, but not the only, direct descendant.

He refused to say who else was on the list. As for LaPointe, "He cannot promote or say that he is the only closest relative," Mentz said. "That is clearly false."

There are whispers that the dispute may wind up in court, and LaPointe said he has been looking for law firms that might represent him for free.

• • •

It is difficult to nail down any aspect of the dispute as provable fact, particularly in a culture that for centuries has relied on a tradition of oral history.

It is not even possible to nail down as fact the presence of the actual bones of Sitting Bull on that Missouri River bluff.

One story that persists in North Dakota is that his remains are still buried at Fort Yates, that fakes were placed atop them, and that it was the fakes that were taken to Mobridge in 1953.

Another story goes further, holding that Sitting Bull's remains are somewhere in Canada. According to that legend, the great chief himself ordered that fakes be planted at Fort Yates.

The story holds that he foresaw a bitter fight over his bones once he was gone.

Copyright © 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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