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Sitting Bull featured in Bismarck parade


Who doesn’t love the fireworks, potato salads, and parades that come with the Fourth of July celebrations each year? North Dakotans have enjoyed Fourth of July festivities for generations. For instance, in 1889, the Bismarck Tribune reported that their Fourth was filled with “Handsome Men, Charming Ladies, Splendid Steeds, Charging Steeds, and Brilliant Decorations.” They even went so far as to say the parade had reached its “Zenith of Success.” But this parade was historic for a more important reason, too. On today’s date in 1889, the famous and influential chief most commonly known as “Sitting Bull” joined the parade along with a number of his warriors. The Tribune called their presence a “novelty,” but it symbolized more than just entertainment. Keep in mind that this is the same Chief who once claimed his primary business in life was to “kill whites.” Now, about a year before his death, he was a part of their parade.

This was not a sudden change of heart on his part. Sitting Bull’s cooperation with white settlers was a long time in coming, and historians disagree about whether it was willing and sincere or reluctant and resentful. When the legendary Lakota Chief responsible for the Battle at Little Bighorn and countless other conflicts finally surrendered in 1881, he said “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to hand in my rifle.” He was then bustled to different reservations during the next few years to prevent him from organizing more resistance. In 1885 he was allowed to join Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” and made a small fortune between his weekly pay of fifty dollars and the high amount he charged for autographed photos. It was rumored that he cursed the audience in Lakota under his breath during each show, but the claims have never been proven. He did give speeches about the importance of reconciliation between the Lakota and the settlers. But after becoming a romanticized legend and shaking hands with President Grover Cleveland, he left the show after only four months, returning to his home in South Dakota, where just a few years later he was killed when police tried to apprehend him … fearing he was going to aid the Ghost Dancers.

So, when Sitting Bull and his supporters joined the Bismarck Independence Day Parade in 1889, their presence held many symbolic meanings. It could have symbolized the sad resignation of the Lakota to the settlers’ presence, or it could have symbolized their willing reconciliation. It could have shown the public’s acknowledgement of Sitting Bull as a great Chief, or it could have shown that the public viewed Native Americans as curiosities. But one thing is sure, the parade watchers of 1889 did not only get a “brilliant celebration” as the newspaper reported. They also witnessed an historic event.

Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas


State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation: Today in North Dakota History Bismarck Daily Tribune, Friday July 5th, 1889 History of North Dakota” by Elwyn B. Robinson