If people only knew what Sitting Bull had really said during a famous speech he’d made.
Almost 2 centuries ago America went from being a wild frontier to an interconnected country. This happened partly because of the railway. Through the laying of track and the building of steam engines, people could get anywhere they wanted to go in double quick time. But what price progress? A high one, as far as Native Americans are concerned.
The 19th century government had high hopes for the Northern Pacific Railway. However there was a “problem”. The trains would run through sacred land, dwelled upon by tribes such as the Sioux. As the line extended, warriors like the legendary Chief Sitting Bull were being pushed to the fringes. Many had been placed on reservations, but Sitting Bull – who’d headed for Canada with his people following the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – had yet to be captured.
He had 2 famous encounters with the Northern Pacific Railway. One involved the fierce campaign by native people to hold back its construction. 4 years before the events of Little Bighorn, he openly defied the military in the most brazen and courageous way he could think of.
“As a symbol of his contempt for the soldiers,” History.com wrote in 2015, “the middle-aged chief strolled out into the open and took a seat in front of their lines.”
But that was far from all. “Inviting several others to join him, he proceeded to have a long, leisurely smoke from his tobacco pipe, all the while ignoring the hail of bullets whizzing by his head.”
And it wasn’t as if he was in a rush to depart after performing this act of defiance. Reportedly, “Upon finishing his pipe, Sitting Bull carefully cleaned it and then walked off”. It sounds like a sequence from a Hollywood movie, but it actually happened.
Sitting Bull’s second brush with the Northern Pacific happened under supposedly more civilized circumstances. To people’s surprise, he accepted an invitation to speak at the opening of the railroad in 1883. Having returned from Canada a couple of years earlier, he was hungry and desperate, so finally surrendered. Now it seemed he would walk into the lion’s den as part of what appeared to be a sick joke on behalf of the authorities.
These powers had endorsed measures such as the ‘Buffalo Harvest’ program, designed to subjugate Native Americans by striking at their vital resources, which meant virtually eradicating the buffalo from American soil.
No expense was spared when the Northern Pacific was opened. GRIID writes that “The ceremony was lavish, featuring the joining of the two ends of the railroad with a solid gold spike. Guests of honor included former President Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of State Henry Teller, the governors of every state that the railway connected, Northern Pacific president Henry Villard, and the bankers and investors who would rake in the profits from their venture. Other guests included diplomats from Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.”
Sitting Bull got up to speak. He’d put together his speech with the help of an American officer. It wasn’t intended to be controversial, but when the Chief opened his mouth it was clear things wouldn’t go to plan. For starters he wasn’t using English. He addressed the crowd in Sioux.
“I hate all white people,” Sitting Bull said. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” He was going to set the record straight, before an unsuspecting audience who believed he was telling them what they wanted to hear.
Sitting Bull laid out their crimes and offences caused against the peoples they swept aside in their desire for progress. All the while people sat there thinking everything was nice and dandy. Aside from the officer who’d inadvertently “collaborated” with him on this piece of protest, the speech went down a storm.
The fighting man’s powerful spirit had not dimmed. Only this time he was using his voice, instead of his tomahawk, as a weapon.