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The debate continues over where his bones belong.

The 16-year-old boy caught the horse for his father along the Grand River and was bringing it home on the frosty morning of December 15, 1890, before the first glimmer of daylight. As he passed the cabin of his famous uncle, a large party of Standing Rock Agency Indian police rode up to the cabin. The boy hid in some bushes. He could not see much, but he heard voices, the cries of his two aunts married to his uncle, then shouts, gunfire and cries of pain. The boy ran to find his father. He worried for his aunts and uncle.

The boy returned with his father to the cabin to find his uncle, seven supporters of his uncle and four Indian police dead. His uncle was Tatanka Iyotake, the great Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) military and spiritual leader.

James McLaughlin, Standing Rock agent, had sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates one way or another. Two troops of cavalry, a Gatling gun and a Hotchkiss gun under the command of Captain Edward G. Fechet were close by if needed. McLaughlin believed Sitting Bull was a leader of the new Ghost Dance movement that looked for the return of the old way of life and the departure of the white man. The whites feared the dance would lead to a Sioux uprising.

Captain Fechet and his troops arrived at the cabin, ending the fighting. The agency police threw Sitting Bull’s body into a wagon and then laid his dead comrades on top. The cavalry and police escorted the body wagon north to Fort Yates, crossing the new border bisecting the Standing Rock Reservation and dividing the newly established states of North and South Dakota. Soldiers wrapped Sitting Bull’s body in canvas and placed it in a wooden coffin. They buried him in the military cemetery, with no service. Four military prisoners dug the grave and covered the coffin with soil; only agent McLaughlin and three officers watched.

Sixty-three years later, in 1953, the 16-year-old boy was now an old man. Clarence Grey Eagle waited in the North Dakota Department of Health offices in Bismarck. With him were interpreter Ray Claymore and Walter Tuntland, George Walters and Ray Miles, three businessmen from Mobridge, S.D., who had formed the Dakota Memorial Association.

Grey Eagle thought about the disrespectful way the police and soldiers had handled his uncle’s body. For years, he had asked that the grave site be improved, but no action was taken. Now the Dakota Memorial Association was working with him to provide a proper burial site and erect a monument.

The North Dakota state officials were taking a long time. Grey Eagle had workers at the grave site ready to dig.

It angered Grey Eagle that people had tampered with Sitting Bull’s remains. According to J.F. Waggoner, who had helped construct the coffin, the soldiers had poured quicklime into it. One rumor had it that they had not buried Sitting Bull’s body, but had dissected it. Another rumor held that the remains had been dug up and reburied at a secret location. Two boys claimed they had dug into the grave and removed two bones.

Later, the remains were dug up, placed in a wooden box, and reburied in the same spot with a thin slab of concrete poured over the top. The federal government closed the fort in 1903, and removed all military graves, leaving Sitting Bull behind. No one cared for the grave. No one erected a headstone. North Dakotans’ promises to do something came to naught. It was time for Grey Eagle to do something.

Sitting Bull’s three granddaughters, Nancy Kicking Bear, Sarah Little Spotted Horse and Angeline Spotted Horse LaPointe, gave Grey Eagle power of attorney to exhume and reinter the remains at a site still on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, across the Missouri River from Mobridge.

Nancy Kicking Bear asked the famous sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a bust of her grandfather for the proposed grave site. Ziolkowski was busy carving an entire mountain in the Black Hills in the likeness of Crazy Horse for the Lakota people. But he said yes to Nancy Kicking Bear. He examined the North Dakota grave site and was disgusted by its poor condition. He met with Grey Eagle and the Mobridge people and picked a lonely, windswept bluff overlooking the Missouri River as the site for the monument. Ziolkowski then selected a largepiece of granite from Crazy Horse Mountain and began carving Sitting Bull’s likeness.

Grey Eagle continued to wait in the North Dakota state offices. Finally, state historian Russell Reid and state health officer Dr. R.O. Saxvik met with Grey Eagle and told him he could not take Sitting Bull’s remains since Sitting Bull was an important historical figure. They would consider his request at a later date.

News got out about the proposed reburial. A war in the press raged between North and South Dakota. Then Rapid City, S.D., began to work toward bringing the remains there. Even Montana floated the idea to move Sitting Bull’s remains to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where Sitting Bull had played a part in the victory over the 7th Cavalry.

After further research, Grey Eagle and his friends determined that since Sitting Bull was on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and was buried on federal property, North Dakota had no jurisdiction. The Interior Department responded to Grey Eagle’s request to move Sitting Bull’s remains, stating that as far as the federal government was concerned the disinterment and removal was up to the next of kin, the three grandchildren.

Grey Eagle and the Mobridge men believed they had the legal right to remove the remains, but did not want to cause an incident with North Dakotans during the removal. On the night of Wednesday, April 8, 1953, they drove in a snowstorm to Fort Yates.

With the help of Charles Spencer, the Standing Rock superintendent, they removed the concrete slab, dug until they reached the bones, carefully removed the larger bones and sifted the soil for the small bones. Al Miles, a mortician registered in both North and South Dakota, witnessed the exhumation. They filled in the hole and returned to South Dakota along the west bank of the Missouri River. They had a grave waiting for Sitting Bull’s remains, placed the bone box in a steel casket, lowered it into the grave and buried it under 20 tons of concrete.

North Dakotans soon heard about what happened. “South Dakota Ghouls Steal Sitting Bull’s Bones” headlined the Bismarck Tribune. “I was tired of the white man’s red tape and delays,” Grey Eagle explained through his interpreter to Bob Lee, staff writer for the Rapid City Journal, “North Dakota had done nothing to honor our great leader and they were trying to keep his own people from obtaining a memorial for him. So we went and got him.”

North Dakota wanted the bones back but at the same time claimed that the South Dakotans missed the grave and got someone else’s bones or only some of the bones. The battle would rage for years.

On Saturday, April 11, 1953, more than 62 years after his death, a memorial service was held for Sitting Bull, attended by a large crowd of Lakotas and others, including Sitting Bull’s three granddaughters and Grey Eagle. That August 26, Korczak Ziolkowski brought the twicelifesize bust to the grave site and supervised its erection on top of a granite pedestal bearing the engraving:

Tatanka Iyotake
Sitting Bull

On September 2, 1953, Sitting Bull’s relatives helped dedicate the monument.

Later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River, creating the Oahe Reservoir. This massive inland sea produced stability problems with the bridge from Mobridge to the west side of the river and the monument. The Corps had to reroute the bridge traffic upriver, isolating the Sitting Bull monument.

The site deteriorated; vandals chipped the nose, broke the pipe and scratched away at the inscription. They littered the grounds with trash. In 2005 Bryan Defender of McLaughlin and Rhett Albers of Mobridge bought the 40-acre property where Sitting Bull’s bones rest. They have established the nonprofit Sitting Bull Monument Foundation to raise funds for the restoration of the burial site. The federal government has placed the site on its National Register of Historic Places. Defender and Albers have cleaned up the area, and brought in electricity for nighttime lighting. With sculptor Monique Ziolkowski, Korczak’s daughter, they are working to restore the monument. The Standing Rock Sioux plan to make the site more accessible and build a Lakota cultural center nearby. Meanwhile, the North Dakota grave site has been restored and a marker is located there.

“It doesn’t really matter where the bones are,” Albers says. “The monument is a tribute to Sitting Bull. Many Lakota consider the South Dakota site holy, leaving sage and items to honor Sitting Bull.” Some of Sitting Bull’s remains may still be at Fort Yates while the rest lie under the monument along the Missouri River. But some descendants want to move Sitting Bull’s bones to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, on the Crow Reservation in Montana. They believe the U.S. Park Service can better honor Sitting Bull there.

In 1881 Sitting Bull crossed the border from his Canadian exile and announced: “I now wish to be allowed to live this side of the line or the other, as I see fit. I wish to continue my old life of hunting, but would like to be allowed to trade on both sides of the line. This is my country, and I don’t wish to be compelled to give it up.” He is not known to have ever said anything about where he wished to be buried.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here