Laid to rest: Lakota leader's legacy is being restored after years of neglect
Fort Yates, N.D. — LaDonna Brave Bull Allard's parents used to let her outside to play with a stern warning: Stay away from Sitting Bull's grave.
There really was little about the burial site to draw a child's forbidden interest. It was scarcely more than a forlorn slab of concrete, topped by a boulder and rimmed by fence gone ramshackle with age.
Now a historian for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Brave Bull Allard is playing a key role in efforts to improve Sitting Bull's grave, which has suffered more than a century of neglect and vandalism since his burial in 1890.
Earlier this year, the Standing Rock Sioux took ownership of the gravesite. And this summer, the tribe will erect interpretive signs, plant grass and start other landscaping enhancements to honor the leader regarded as the chief architect of the Lakota victory against Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
"We'll be seeing improvements," Brave Bull Allard says during a recent visit to the gravesite once forbidden to her. She bemoans the loss of cottonwood trees that stood near the grave until Sitting Bull's old nemesis, the U.S. Army, through its Corps of Engineers, cut them down a decade ago to maintain a nearby dike.
"They just ran these big bulldozers through the site without notifying us," she says. "We were really upset."
The bulldozer was merely the latest insult to Sitting Bull's grave.
As a child growing up during the 1960s, Brave Bull Allard rode her bike on the dike bordering the grave, and later played softball and ran track on nearby fields. But there was little about the grave to invite attention.
Some people even said Sitting Bull's grave was empty; that grave robbers came along in 1953, three years before Brave Bull Allard was born, and stole Sitting Bull's bones.
About 55 miles to the south, in Mobridge, S.D., Rhett Albers recalls the day 13 years ago when one of his neighbors drove him across the Missouri River to see one of the area's hidden attractions.
The sightseeing trip came soon after Albers moved to Mobridge, a town noted as a fishing haven. The two men drove down a winding road until reaching a grassy bluff high above the riverbank.
There, perched on top of a polished stone pedestal, stood a granite bust of Sitting Bull gazing across the wide Missouri.
Underneath the monument, entombed below 20 tons of concrete and steel to keep the grave undisturbed: Sitting Bull's second final resting place.
"It was just trashed," Albers says. "Beer bottles all over the place. At that time I thought, 'This is just amazing.' "
Albers soon learned the macabre history of Sitting Bull's bones, a story that begins in the early 1950s with a group of Mobridge businessmen who decided Sitting Bull deserved a more fitting burial site.
The businessmen bought a 40-acre parcel of land across the river from the city, within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, with plans for a monument. They approached the sculptor of Crazy Horse Mountain in the Black Hills to ask him to carve a bust of Sitting Bull.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski agreed, on several conditions. The project must have the approval of Sitting Bull's heirs, and it must be done in a respectful way, not merely as some crass tourist attraction.
So the business leaders found an elderly man named Clarence Grey Eagle, who was 16 years old in 1890 when reservation police officers went to arrest Sitting Bull at his cabin along the Grand River, a tributary whose mouth enters the Missouri across from Mobridge. Supporters of Sitting Bull balked when the police tried to take him away. A gun battle erupted, killing Sitting Bull, seven of his followers and six police.
Grey Eagle senior was, in fact, one of the police officers who had gone early one morning to arrest Sitting Bull, regarded as a threat during a time of high tensions. The elder Grey Eagle also was an in-law of Sitting Bull, which made his son a distant descendant in the eyes of the Mobridge Chamber of Commerce.
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Clarence Grey Eagle, who spoke no English and required an interpreter, agreed to assume power-of-attorney for Sitting Bull's family and to request an exhumation permit. Three of Sitting Bull's granddaughters also agreed to the reburial and the promise of a more suitable monument.
There was just one problem: North Dakota health officials wouldn't grant a permit to exhume the remains. They said the grave was an important historic site and should not be disturbed.
But the Mobridge group found a bureaucratic loophole. They obtained a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which owned the gravesite in Fort Yates, determining that the decision of Sitting Bull's proper burial site should be left to the family.
With the letter as justification, the men from Mobridge swiftly went to work, driving to Fort Yates in the wee hours of the morning on April 8, 1953. Under the supervision of a retired mortician, they used a tow-truck hoist to remove a concrete slab over the grave and removed the bones.
Then they hurriedly drove 55 miles south, reburied the bones on the site overlooking the river, and announced that Sitting Bull now had a proper grave.
The removal ignited a bitter feud between the sister states that dragged on for several years, with North Dakota officials clamoring for Sitting Bull's return, then declaring that the "grave robbers" had taken the wrong bones.
To protect against a reprisal raid, "braves" - including descendants of the Indian police officers who went to arrest Sitting Bull - were posted at the new burial site until it could be crowned with concrete.
Several months later, on a hot and windy Labor Day weekend, Mobridge hosted a two-day dedication ceremony.
A poster promoting the ceremony promised a "Most Stupendous Spectacle of Indian Dancing" and "the Beating of Tom-Toms And The Weird Songs of the Sioux" and boasted $600 in cash prizes for the dancers.
A crowd estimated at 5,000 turned out for the unveiling of the larger-than-life sculpture, including South Dakota's governor, but the sculptor stayed home.
But those who moved Sitting Bull's bones didn't foresee a complication caused by the rising floodwaters backing up behind the Oahe Dam, located near Pierre, S.D., and dedicated in 1961.
Massive Lake Oahe required a new bridge to allow U.S. Highway 12 to span the Missouri River at Mobridge.
The new bridge was several miles to the north, forcing the rerouting of Highway 12, which ran right past the Sitting Bull monument when it was built. So by the time Albers came along in the 1990s, the second gravesite - rendered remote and largely forgotten - had fallen prey to neglect and vandalism.
Because the monument was on private land, Bureau of Indian Affairs police had no jurisdiction. And because the monument was more than 60 miles from the sheriff's office, and far from lands under its jurisdiction, deputies never patrolled the area, either.
"It had become a party spot," Albers says. "Kids from all over would come to party there. It was a standard thing. You'd hear about the senior keg at Sitting Bull. Party at Sitting Bull."
Albers, an environmental engineer who consulted with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on sanitation, was bothered by the litter-strewn gravesite. So was Bryan Defender, a member of the tribe who worked for the sanitation service.
Several years ago, when nobody else seemed to be doing anything to protect the site, the two men began negotiating with the owner of the property, a man in Washington state who was the son of a Mobridge banker, a key figure in moving the bones, to buy the 40-acre site and granite bust of Sitting Bull.
Defender and Albers told the man to name a price. Finally, after three years of on-again, off-again talks, the man's lawyer in Mobridge called unexpectedly to say he had a sales offer waiting for them in his office. They went down immediately and readily agreed to the asking price for the land and bust: $55,000.
Soon after the purchase, in 2005, the pair formed the nonprofit Sitting Bull Monument Foundation, and began consulting with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other native groups, as well as Sitting Bull descendants, about what should be done to make a proper tribute.
Last year, they got the monument listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, a distinction that the original grave has yet to hold.
The historic marker at Sitting Bull's grave in Fort Yates concludes with this observation: "He was buried here but his grave was vandalized many times. This marker is directly over the grave site."
Gravesite, not grave. In fact, the first documented time Sitting Bull's grave was opened came in 1895, when two men dug up a wooden coffin, and later reburied the bones in a wooden box inside the coffin.
One of the men, Frank Fiske, kept what he thought was a thigh bone as a souvenir.
Ultimately, the bone was acquired by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, whose director announced in 1958 that the bone Fiske saved as a keepsake actually was an upper arm bone - and probably belonged to a young, short woman.
North Dakota officials seized on that finding as an indication that the Mobridge group moved the wrong bones. They also noted that the grave diggers found loose bones, not bones in a box or coffin, as noted in accounts of Sitting Bull's burial and reburial by Fiske.
Also, records kept by the tribe indicate that there were many Indian burials where Sitting Bull was laid to rest, in a plot outside the fort's fenced Christian cemetery, in unmarked graves.
When Hunkpapa Lakota, including Sitting Bull descendants, gathered in 1990 on the centennial anniversary of his death, they chose the original gravesite as the location to honor his memory.
Last December, when the Standing Rock Sioux asked to obtain Sitting Bull's Fort Yates grave site, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which had been given the plot in 1956 by the federal government, readily agreed.
The transfer took place in January, in a ceremony near an exhibit of ghost dance shirts from Standing Rock. In recent years, the state was uncertain about how to improve the gravesite because it is a sacred site.
"Now was the time," Merl Paaverud, the State Historical Society's director, said in a recent interview. "I think it will be well taken care of. We want Sitting Bull's story told. It's best done, I think, by his people."
The furor over which state can rightfully lay claim to Sitting Bull's bones has subsided. Now the focus is on how best to pay tribute to the man and preserve both grave locations. The tribe and foundation are working together.
The Sitting Bull Monument Foundation will launch a fundraising campaign for a planned $12.7 million visitor's center, located above the burial site on the bluff. Backers envision exhibits depicting Sitting Bull's life, from boyhood until he rose to be a unifying force in the struggle against the encroachment of Lakota lands.
"I think it's a project that's going to be beneficial to our community," says Defender, 35, who began his sanitation career on the back of the truck and several years ago bought the company.
His cleanup crews hauled away more than three large truckloads of trash, including refrigerators, car tires and beer cans. Lots of beer cans.
"You name it, it was there," Defender says. "It's better now," but his crews and volunteers still patrol for trash.
Defender and Albers inevitably are asked, "Where is Sitting Bull buried?"
"Honestly, we don't really know," Albers says. "We really don't care. It's about history and honoring the legacy. We can tell people the story, and they can make up their own mind. They're both sacred sites, and they should be maintained."
Brave Bull Allard, who likes what she's seen of the plans to improve the South Dakota monument site, agrees.
"Both graves are important to us," she says. "We honor both graves. We respect both graves, and both graves have Indian people in them."
The matter of Sitting Bull's bones, as a detective story, probably defies a tidy ending. But the long controversy over his remains seems laid to rest.
On the Web:
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: www.standingrock.org
Sitting Bull College: www.sittingbull.edu
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522.