Tue, Jun 19, 2007 - Page 7 News List

No rest for Sitting Bull, even in death


Drive from the town of Mobridge west across the Missouri River, clatter 6km down a winding path, and you find it -- a modest monument on a lush green bluff.

This simplicity is striking because of the complex history of what lies beneath: The remains of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief said to have foretold the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel 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 -- for half a century -- of one of the best-known American Indians.

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 out US$55,000 for it and began cleaning it up.

They have plans for a US$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 have torn open a wound over who will control the great chief's legacy.

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

But when 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, a vision of soldiers falling like grasshoppers from the sky.

It was not long afterward, in 1876, that the US Army's 7th Cavalry was defeated at the Little Bighorn in Montana -- also known as Custer's Last Stand, and, to some American Indians, as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

The US ultimately prevailed in the Indian Wars, but Sitting Bull became, and remains, an icon, a hero to his people. He was killed in a battle with Indian police and US 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 about the plans for a memorial complex atop his great-grandfather's grave.

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

So this February he wrote to an assortment of Sioux tribes, including Standing Rock, which claims Sitting Bull. He called for a "final reburial" -- in Montana.

"So that he may spend eter-nity," the letter went on, "at the sacred place where his vision had predicted that 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?

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