History,  Native Americans,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

On Sitting Bull’s Vest

While there were many important Indian leaders during the expansion of the West, Sitting Bull is one of the most familiar.  He was an important political and spiritual leader. His leadership was integral to the success of the Lakota at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and his final surrender at Fort Buford was a true turning point in American history.  

In an interview with Darrell Dorgan in the summer of 2004, Ron His Horse is Thunder (formerly Ron McNeil) reflected on his great, great, grandfather, Sitting Bull. His great grandfather was Sitting Bull’s nephew and adopted son One Bull. He said Sitting Bull is often called “Chief” and “Medicine Man,” but these terms are not accurate in that they did not mean what we commonly think.  Sitting Bull was a great spiritual leader who led the spiritual ceremonies and whose guidance was sought by many, but he was not a healer. He saw visions and had a special gift that enabled him to foretell the future.  Ten days before the Battle of Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull led a sun dance during which he had a vision that soldiers would fall upside down in the Lakota’s camp.  This made the warriors fearless – they knew the soldiers would die. Sitting Bull was known and admired for his bravery.  He was famous for “counting coup” which involved striking the body of an opposing warrior with a coup stick rather than killing them.

Sitting Bull was an influential political leader who advocated against the Lakota forming alliances with the white settlers and refused to be a part of treaty negotiations.  His political power enabled him to accomplish something never done before; he pulled together under his leadership all the self-governing bands of the Lakota Sioux and led the Sioux resistance.  Due to his opposition to the treaties others eventually signed, he led a small band of his people to exile in Canada rather than surrender. They spent four hard years there, facing harsh winters, a scarcity of food and disease.  Confronting the fact that what he feared and opposed was inevitable, Sitting Bull, to save his people’s lives, surrendered at Fort Buford in 1881. They were sent to the Standing Rock Reservation.

After the Battle of Little Big Horn Sitting Bull was a “living legend” and due to his celebrity made money off his pictures and autographs. He met and became friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and spent a year with his Wild West Show. He thought of it as an easy way to make money and maybe bring attention to his people’s plight. Additionally, Ron His Horse is Thunder said it was a way for Sitting Bull to get to know the white people and how they lived. He described them as living in their cities like ants on an ant hill.  

Sitting Bull still held a great influence over his people.  When the Ghost Dance Movement started authorities became convinced he would use the movement to form a resistance at Standing Rock. (This spiritual movement saw a messiah coming who would enable the Indians to return to their old ways.) Lakota police were sent to his cabin to bring him in for questioning.  A commotion ensued and a large group of his followers arrived, a shot was fired and a gun battle ensued. In the melee Sitting Bull was killed.  

Following the death of Sitting Bull according to Ron His Horse is Thunder, it is believed many of his possessions were taken by the Indian police. There have been a few artifacts from Sitting Bull over the years that have been found and authenticated. One of these was a pipe and tobacco pouch, and a headdress that for a time was loaned and displayed at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (NDCHF). While the headdress is back at its home at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, the NDCHF is proud to be able to display a beautiful and intricate pictograph vest that is believed to be one made for Sitting Bull during his time in Canada. It is on loan from Ross Rolshoven, a NDCHF Board member and collector of western and Native American artifacts.

Every year Rolshoven attends Liebel’s Wild West Show in Arizona. This is a show where dealers come together and you can find anything and everything western and Native American. About ten years ago Rolshoven stopped by a vendor who was known for quality items, and he was drawn to a rare vest with a pictorial design and stunning and unique beadwork. The floral pattern on the front was unusual and the four warriors on the back of the vest were intriguing. Two were carrying a distinctive flag that piqued Rolshoven’s interest.   The vest and its mystery went home with him.

The flag was particularly captivating.  Rolshoven looked through many flag books but could not find it. One day while looking through a boating magazine he came across an ad for British Navy Pusser’s Rum and that same flag was on the bottle.  He found it when he least expected it! The flag was a British naval flag from the time period that Sitting Bull would have been in Canada. At that time Canada was still under British rule. Not only was Sitting Bull in Canada during the time period this flag would have flown, he made it known that he wanted to be thought of as a British Indian.  Knowing this history, Rolshoven thought of Sitting Bull and his followers and began to wonder. Around this time he took the vest to an expert restorer out of Fargo to get a few missing beads replaced.  She thought this vest certainly could have been made for Sitting Bull.  

Setting out to find more evidence that would confirm his gut feeling, Rolshoven went to the Hudson Bay archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba and looked through their holdings. He went through a box of Major James Walsh’s belongings that included letters and a leather journal. Major Walsh was part of the North West Mounted Police while Sitting Bull was in Canada, and developed a close friendship with him. He wrote many observations of his friend. Major Walsh in his writings noted that the Native Americans actively did bead work during their time in Canada.  Also in his notes, he refers to Sitting Bull as “limps somewhat, having been shot in the right foot…” Ernie LaPointe, a great grandson of Sitting Bull, confirmed in his book about his great grandfather  that according to oral tradition, Sitting Bull was shot in the leg and walked with a limp. Why is this significant? One of the other warrior figures on the vest has red beads in the right ankle area just below the knee, indicating a wound. The bottom two warriors are shown with coup sticks; Sitting Bull was well known for counting coup. Additionally, the two riders on the bottom are wearing the open tipi legging design that Sitting Bull wore during the Battle of Little Big Horn. We know this from ledger drawings of Sitting Bull wearing these leggings. The riders, each wearing a full length war bonnet clearly represented a great warrior.

The back side of the vest on display at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

The floral pattern on the front of the vest included four tobacco plants; this was unusual in Sioux beadwork. The top two plants were Nicotiana plants and the bottom two were a tobacco plant typically grown by the Native Americans in northwestern North Dakota at that time. The inclusion of the tobacco plants indicates Sitting Bulls stature as a medicine man who was seeking a peaceful existence away from war. While there are no pictures of Sitting Bull wearing this vest, there are pictures of his adopted son, One Bull, wearing a beaded vest with the same beading style and a tobacco plants on the front. Sitting Bull and One Bull were very close and it is logical that they would have similar beaded motifs on their respective vests. With all it took for daily living, how would there be time to do the intricate work involved in a vest such as this? According to a published interview with Major Walsh, Sitting Bull had three wives with him in Canada; “When I last saw him about a year ago, three wives were living with him…” Certainly one of these wives would have been assigned this task.

When Rolshoven had the vest looked at by an appraiser, she agreed with his conclusion from the circumstantial evidence he had put together; this vest was indeed likely made for Sitting Bull. The appraiser thought the vest was obviously made for ceremonial use and was an unusual piece because it was pictorial. The four riders in her opinion all represented the same warrior, perhaps in different battles. She concluded, “The vest was made for a particular warrior, a great fighter, chief and diplomat in the 1880 time frame of the Sioux who would have had the authority to broker an agreement with representatives of the Canadian government. Only one Sioux chief has the qualifications for this: Sitting Bull….Sitting Bull was also 5’9” and of slender build, the right size for the vest.”

In 2019 when the Antique Roadshow was in West Fargo, Rolshoven had artifacts expert Bruce Shackelford, take a look at the vest. Shackleford agreed with Rolshoven’s research and conclusion. Rolshoven has been back to the Wild West show and spoke with the vendor from whom he bought the vest.  They are also convinced by his research – they had no idea of the prize they once had. Rolshoven with a detective’s spirit continues his research.

Today if you are in Medora, you can see this beautiful example of Native American artwork that most certainly belonged to the great legendary leader Sitting Bull. When you do take a look, think of the amazing story Sitting Bull’s vest tells!

The Cottonwood Reflections was first posted in August 2022 after a visit to Fort Buford
and talking with Gabe Yellowbird.

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