BILLINGS, Mont. - Sitting Bull's four surviving great-grandchildren want the bones of their famous ancestor moved from a cement-clad grave in South Dakota to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.
Ernie LaPointe of Lead, S.D., the spokesman for the family, said that for 50 years, Sitting Bull's grave on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Mobridge, S.D., has been neglected and dishonored. Now, LaPointe said, new owners of the property plan to exploit the memory of the legendary Lakota political and spiritual leader.
LaPointe and his sisters, Marlene Little Spotted Horse Andersen, Ethel Little Spotted Horse Bates and Lydia Little Spotted Horse Red Paint, sent letters Wednesday advising government and tribal officials in the Dakotas and Montana of their intent to have the remains moved.
"This is to notify you and other interested parties of family right and authority to re-inter our Great-Grandfather Sitting Bull to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana," it says. "We do this because North Dakota, South Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have not honored their promise for proper care and maintenance of our grandfather's burial site."
Darrell Cook, superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said the battlefield has agreed to help LaPointe and his sisters.
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"We recognize Sitting Bull's legacy and that it is at the Little Bighorn," Cook said.
Sitting Bull led an alliance of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and others in defiance of government orders to settle on reservations. His struggle culminated in a resounding defeat of the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.
The National Park Service and Sitting Bull's direct descendants have a long-established working relationship that dates to planning for the new Indian Memorial at the Battlefield, Cook said.
"I think that's why they felt comfortable coming to us about this," he said.
Before a final decision is reached on placing the remains at the battlefield, Cook said, the National Park Service will probably order an environmental assessment, so the public will have a chance to comment.
The catalyst for the great-grandchildren's decision apparently was a proposal by the nonprofit Sitting Bull Monument Foundation, which recently bought the grave site from a private owner. According to its Web site, the foundation's plans include preservation and protection of the grave site and development of an educational and cultural center and museum. It would also include a riverfront recreational development, amphitheater, snack bar, restaurant and gift shop.
The foundation has already completed a major cleanup at the grave site and has installed electricity and lighting.
LaPointe said he and his sisters were not consulted about the plans and don't want to see a restaurant and gift shops at the grave site.
Reached by telephone Wednesday morning, Bryan Defender, a member of the Standing Rock Tribe and one of the founders of the Sitting Bull Monument Foundation, said commercialization was never his intent.
"Our motivation behind this is very sincere,'' he said. "The development is a very positive thing. The only thing I want to do is display our culture, our history in an authentic, positive way and to pay tribute to a leader who has never been properly paid tribute."
He agreed that until 2005, when he and Rhett Albers bought the land where Sitting Bull rests, the grave had been neglected. But the foundation has cleaned it up and is raising money for a $12 million complex to honor Sitting Bull and the Lakota heritage, Defender said.
"I'd like to call him (LaPointe) and talk to him about this," he said. "I would absolutely have to take a look at it."
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, tourism director for Standing Rock, said Wednesday that she had not heard about LaPointe's letter. Her first reaction to hearing of his plan: "I don't think that's possible."
She said that although LaPointe has rights, he is not enrolled at Standing Rock and she doesn't know what rights he has on reservation lands. That would be a matter for the tribal chairman to comment, Allard said. He was spending the day with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D., and was unavailable Wednesday, she said.
The tribe had been working with the foundation on new signs for both the Mobridge grave site and the original burial site at Fort Yates in North Dakota, she said. North Dakota, which had owned the Fort Yates site since 1956, turned it over to the tribe earlier this year.
"Finally we got both sites in our ownership," she said. "There are a lot of plans for both sites."
Those plans include better roads, signs and landscaping, she said. The tribe is just waiting for the snow to melt to begin.
The tribe's motivation was in showing respect, not in commercialization, she said.
If Sitting Bull's remains are moved, it won't be the first time. After his death in 1890 in a shootout with Indian police at his home on the Grand River, Sitting Bull's body was buried at Fort Yates on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
LaPointe said his mother and her two sisters agreed that Sitting Bull's remains should be removed to a site near Mobridge on the South Dakota side of the reservation in 1953 after they were promised that the new grave would be maintained in perpetuity. They were also promised that it would not be commercialized.
Everything that has happened in the past 54 years has been a violation of an agreement signed "under duress" by his mother, Angeline Spotted Horse LaPointe, LaPointe said. She wanted Sitting Bull's remains removed from the Standing Rock Reservation, he said.
"She said they stood with the killers of her grandfather," LaPointe said.
Angeline LaPointe acquiesced reluctantly to the wishes of a sister and a cousin who had obtained pledges from the Dakota Memorial Association that Sitting Bull's remains would be cared for and honored. The association was formed by people in Mobridge solely for that purpose. It appears that the organization no longer exists.
Angeline LaPointe was born to Sitting Bull's youngest daughter, Standing Holy. After his death, Sitting Bull's relatives and followers fled, but they were brought back to Standing Rock and held there under protective custody. In the summer of 1891, Sitting Bull's immediate family and about 300 others left Standing Rock and followed the Cheyenne River to the Badlands. They laid low for three years, disappearing into the rough country when any authorities from the agency arrived, LaPointe said. Then, the Indian agent at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation arranged to have the family enrolled there.
"We don't want to break any rules or laws," LaPointe said in a telephone interview. "But we are his closest relatives, and we have the main say in what is done with our grandfather."
He said he sees no impediment to removing the remains to Little Bighorn, where the grave will be honored and maintained in perpetuity.
"This is our mother's wish," LaPointe said. "We don't have to ask permission from nobody."
Sitting Bull died Dec. 15, 1890, when Indian police were sent to arrest him. Authorities believed that he was involved in a Ghost Dance movement spreading across Indian Country. The movement invoked a desperate dream of a messiah who would bring back the buffalo, drive out the white intruders and allow Indians to live as they had for thousands of years. They feared he would be a rallying point for malcontents, and they wanted him removed.
Sitting Bull refused to go with the Indian police and one of his supporters fired, downing a policeman. In the melee that followed, 14 people were killed or mortally wounded.
The old warrior and holy man was hurriedly buried at Fort Yates, now headquarters of the Standing Rock Reservation. His remains have been the subject of dispute ever since. Despite assurances from the medical examiner, rumors circulated almost immediately that he was never buried there. Others insisted that Sitting Bull's followers dug up the remains and reburied them in a secret location in Canada.
Sitting Bull did not rest peacefully in his grave. When Fort Yates was abandoned in 1903, his grave was the only one left behind. It was poorly marked and maintained and rarely visited.
In 1953, a group from Mobridge, apparently interested in Sitting Bull's tourism potential, decided he should be removed from the Fort Yates burial site on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation to a site near Mobridge. When North Dakota objected, the South Dakota group got the support of Sitting Bull's three granddaughters to dig up the body in the middle of the night and move it to Mobridge.
North Dakota officials later claimed that the Mobridge group got only a few bones and that they were not necessarily those of Sitting Bull. They also argued that Sitting Bull had already become part of the Fort Yates soil where he had been buried and would remain there forever.
When the Mobridge group dug up the bones, they were placed in a steel vault, moved to the Mobridge grave and covered with 20 tons of cement that day. Korczak Ziolkowski, who was in the early stages of carving the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, sculpted a likeness of the chief to stand over the grave.