Standing on the hilltop a few miles outside of Mobridge, one can take in a view of open land and the Missouri River. It’s hard to not feel peaceful. The process of getting Sitting Bull’s remains there? That was anything but.
Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotaka) was a Hunkpapa Teton spiritual leader killed by a Native police officer in 1890, nine years after he surrendered to the United States. The arrest warrant that led to the shooting was issued to prevent Sitting Bull from attending a Ghost Dance ceremony. Unlike the warrior spirit of his contemporary, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull was regarded as being open to negotiation. When that failed, he organized a resistance movement against U.S. expansion into lands guaranteed by treaty to Native people.
After his death, Sitting Bull was buried in an Army-made coffin at Fort Yates, the tribal headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The gravesite at Fort Yates was never pretty, but 62 years of neglect only made it worse, the cause of consternation for Sitting Bull’s relative, Clarence Grey Eagle. The gravestone didn't even have a name on it. Worse yet, the construction of the Oahe Dam was likely to form a long lake that would run right over Sitting Bull’s grave. People were worried.
SIMPLE PAPERWORK, RIGHT?
Two of those people were Mobridge businessmen that thought Sitting Bull belonged in South Dakota. Grey Eagle, who claimed to have seen the leader shot, agreed. He and other Sitting Bull descendants – including granddaughter Nancy Kicking Bear – gave their approval to move the remains to a hill outside of Mobridge. They filled out the appropriate forms. Descendants have a right to move family remains, so the process was expected to be smooth.
It was not. Despite being legally sound, the forms were rejected by North Dakota officials. After some discussion, a plan was formed that would get the remains to South Dakota whether North Dakota liked it or not. (Spoiler alert: They didn't.)
The plan became something straight out of a heist movie. A group of men would travel in the dead of night to Fort Yates to dig up and relocate Sitting Bull’s remains. A plane was arranged to pick up the remains before sunrise. If the plane couldn’t land, it was on to Plan B. One of the two cars would bring back the remains in a wooden box. An identical box would be in the second car. Should anyone try to stop the operation, the car with the dummy box would block the road and hope that anyone interfering wouldn’t realize they had the wrong car until the actual remains were safely into South Dakota. Everyone in the group was unarmed. If things went wrong, the last thing anyone wanted was a shootout with angry folks intent on keeping Sitting Bull in North Dakota.
As snow flew, the crew snuck across the border, removed a large cement pad, and sifted through the dirt to find all of Sitting Bull’s remains. (The coffin had apparently disintegrated.) The winter weather prevented the plane from landing as planned, so the remains were taken to South Dakota on a very, very tense drive.
That tension dissipated once the crew cleared the border. Everyone paused to exit their vehicles and celebrate. Normally reserved, Grey Eagle erupted in a high-pitched whoop, a celebration of making things right for his ancestor.
BACK in SODAK
Work wasn’t done yet. The crew moved on to the burial on a beautiful hill overlooking the Missouri River outside of Mobridge. A mixer was waiting for the group’s arrival, ready to surround the remains on all sides with cement to prevent any further relocation of the sacred remains. But before the cement was poured, Grey Eagle approached and placed a trembling hand on the vault. As the cement mixed, everyone took a moment to silently honor the man whose remains had been as controversial as the warrior’s life.
Twelve hours after the stealth operation began, Sitting Bull was in his final resting place. Armed guards were left behind to monitor the site, but there wasn’t much that potential intruders could do. 20 tons of concrete doesn’t leave much room for negotiation.
Early in relocation talks, Korczak Ziolkowski had been contacted about creating a sculpture of Sitting Bull that would mark his new and final grave. When asked, the sculptor’s response was “Sure, I’d be happy to – just as soon as I finish that mountain carving I’m getting started.” (That “mountain carving” was Crazy Horse Memorial, which would turn into a multi-generational project that will become the largest sculpture in the world once completed.)
In all seriousness, Korczak agreed immediately, creating a seven-ton sculpted portrait of Sitting Bull. Rumors floated about a possible hijacking while transporting the Sitting Bull bust from Korczak’s studio in western South Dakota to Mobridge, so only three people knew the transport plan. Korczak literally “rode shotgun,” carrying a loaded shotgun during the whole trip.
When they were ready to move Sitting Bull’s bust from the truck to a nine-foot pillar of granite standing on a concrete base, Korczak wrapped a steel cable around the piece, put one foot on the head and the other on the shoulder, and asked the crane operator to take it up.
“With you up there on top of it?”
Final Resting Place
With the magnificent sculpture in place, a memorial service for Sitting Bull was held on Saturday, April 11, 1953, 62 years and four months after his death. On Sept. 2, 1953, an official unveiling and dedication was held. The monument shares the land with a monument to Sakakawea, allowing visitors to honor and celebrate two important Native legends.
“What I like most is that is the face of a very strong person, but there is compassion too,” said Kicking Bear of the Sitting Bull sculpture. Visitors can celebrate the same strength and compassion at the site. Available to experience for no charge, the secluded and undeveloped spot is an ideal place for a visit, picnic, or quiet reflection, a far cry from what it took to get Sitting Bull to his final resting place.
The Sitting Bull and Sakakawea monuments are two miles southwest of Mobridge on Highway 1806.