The Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull is the most famous of a long line of Native Americans who fought bravely to withstand the tide of white European settlers advancing across the continental U.S. His predecessors include Tecumseh, Black Hawk and Osceola; his contemporary was the Apache chieftain Geronimo. But it was Sitting Bull who won the Indians’ most prominent victory against the U.S. Army, when several thousand Native American warriors surrounded and defeated the forces commanded by the vainglorious General George A. Custer along the Little Bighorn River on June 25-26, 1876, killing 268 American soldiers — only days before the U.S. celebrated the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.
Born around 1831 in the Dakota Territory, Sitting Bull fought in many of the long-running battles between white settlers and Indians, from the early 1860s through the early 1870s. Still the white wave rolled on, as railroads sought to build tracks across Indian lands and a gold rush in Dakota brought thousands of prospectors into the region.
Sitting Bull’s victory over Custer prompted retaliation by Washington, and the chief and his followers fled to Canada, where they lived in dire poverty; in 1881, the Indians accepted a government offer to return to the U.S., where Sitting Bull served two years in jail before he was released. By now he had achieved notoriety for his 1876 triumph, and he lived as a celebrity, meeting President Grover Cleveland and appearing briefly in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. But when the last spasm of Indian resistance emerged in the late 1880s — the delusional Ghost Dance movement — whites again feared Sitting Bull’s influence. Federal officials ordered the chief’s arrest, and he was killed in the melee that ensued. A final indignity remained: Sitting Bull’s cabin was torn down and rebuilt as an attraction at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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