STANDING ROCK RESERVATION, S.D.
One monument to Sitting Bull is in Mobridge, S.D. But Ron His Horse Is Thunder, above, does not believe the American Indian leader truly rests there. More Photos »
Here, on a snow-dusted bluff overlooking the Missouri River, rests Sitting Bull. Or so it is said.
Stand before the monument and see the pocks left in the granite by bullets. Notice where the nose was replaced after vandals with chains and a truck yanked the bust from its pedestal. Spot where the headdress feather was mended after being shot off. And wonder, along with the rest of the Dakotas:
Is Sitting Bull here?
The 12-foot monument rises where Sitting Bull is supposedly buried and where he certainly once felt at home; where the steel-blue clouds of winter press down upon the hills of dormant grass; where nothing moves but a solitary bird in flight, and the whinnies of a distant horse sound almost like an old man’s rueful laughter.
It all seems fitting, even the vandalism, given how this world-famous American Indian has never received the respect in death that was often denied him in life. Now two men are trying to pay that respect, in late but earnest installments.
As one of them, Rhett Albers, collects another beer bottle discarded near the base of the monument, the other, Bryan Defender, gazes up at the bust of Sitting Bull. As always, the face of stone gives away nothing.
Maybe in the end it does not matter where the holy man actually rests, says Mr. Defender, who is Hunkpapa Sioux. Like the man whose history he honors.
Sitting Bull. Distinguished as a warrior against rival tribes and American soldiers. Served as spiritual leader for the Indian victory at Little Bighorn. Refused to accept white encroachment. Surrendered. Was imprisoned. Toured briefly with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Then, at age 59, was killed during a botched arrest in 1890, an arrest rooted in the belief that he supported a growing movement of resistance among the Sioux.
The government buried him in Fort Yates, on the North Dakota side of this sprawling reservation that straddles the Dakotas. There, in what was then a predominantly white military community, his grave site became little more than a weedy lot.
Then, in 1953, some Chamber of Commerce types from the small South Dakota city of Mobridge executed a startling plan. With the blessing of a few of Sitting Bull’s descendants, they crossed into North Dakota after midnight and exhumed what they believed were Sitting Bull’s remains. One photograph from that strange night depicts a Mobridge mortician supervising the exhumation; he holds a cigarette in one hand and a human femur in the other.
The men raced back 55 miles to bury the remains on this bluff, across the river from Mobridge. They scoffed at North Dakota’s contention that they had taken the wrong bones, and justified their actions by saying that Sitting Bull had been born near here and that the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski would soon create a more fitting monument to him. And would having Sitting Bull’s remains help tourism in Mobridge? Well, of course.
Up in Fort Yates, the state eventually unveiled a plaque that left vague the whereabouts of Sitting Bull’s remains (“He was buried here but his grave has been vandalized many times”), while on this bluff across from Mobridge, the area around the monument became a place to dump used tires, to have a beer party, to shoot off a gun — sometimes into the granite.
“People would say, ‘Party at Sitting Bull!’ ” Mr. Albers recalls. “It was a joke.”
The site’s poor condition vexed Mr. Albers, 45, an environmental consultant, and Mr. Defender, 35, who runs the reservation’s solid-waste-removal operation. That irritation turned to embarrassment when a visiting foreign-exchange student asked Mr. Albers to see the monument dedicated to the famous Sitting Bull.
So, two years ago, the men bought the monument and its 40-acre parcel from a private owner for $55,000. They mowed the grass, trucked away 50 cubic yards of debris and established a nonprofit corporation with plans to recoup their expenses and establish a cultural and educational center.
They also came up against the still-emotional question of where the great Indian leader truly rests. Not long ago, someone scrawled a message across the granite pedestal: “Sitting Bull is not buried here!”
A drive through the reservation, from Mobridge to Fort Yates, is a drive through an undulant moonscape of stillness, disturbed only by the dance of an occasional horse. Here, unemployment among the 11,000 people is nearly 80 percent, and the challenge of restoring a sense of self-identity cannot be addressed alone by revenue from the two modest casinos.
In an office in Fort Yates sits Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a great-great-great grandson of Sitting Bull. A lawyer by training, tall and lean, he expresses support for the Mobridge effort to honor his ancestor in a manner befitting the man. But when asked whether he believes Sitting Bull is buried on that bluff, he slowly shakes his head no.
Then where is Sitting Bull?
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a tribal historian and storyteller who is overseeing improvements to the Fort Yates grave site, tries to explain. “A person like Sitting Bull was never meant to just die and disappear,” she says.
Yes, but where is he?
Smiling patiently, the woman opens her arms and spreads her hands.