In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we share a lesson from one of our favorite Indian leaders, Sitting Bull. This Hunkpapa Lakota warrior had “earned his stripes” as both a warrior leader and a wise, civil leader. In his middle years, he gave up active fighting and spent his time as a medicine man. A thoughtful and generous man, he had gained a reputation for humanitarian deeds—securing the release of a white woman in 1864 and saving the life of an Assiniboine boy, whom he later adopted.
In the Plains Indian culture, no one individual literally commanded others; instead, he led through influence. In that environment, Sitting Bull worked continuously to communicate with other leaders, spending time talking with younger warriors as well as tribal elders. He also understood the value of symbolism, making his life and deeds the personification of tribal values.
Before the Battle of Little Bighorn, he took part in the ritual Sun Dance (dancing for three days with skewers attached from a pole to his skin), bringing public attention to his vision of a coming battle.
Sitting Bull understood that one does not communicate or motivate all people with the same tools. Some need face-to-face visits, others need to hear public announcements, some react to symbolic gestures, and some are energized in meetings with peers. The success of the Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn is a tribute to a man who brought multiple tribes and multiple levels within those tribes to focus on a common cause. When Custer made his surprise attack on June 25, 1876, the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes were ready.