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Leaders - Traditional Leaders of the Hunkpapa Lakota

Traditional | Contemporary

Traditional Leaders of the Hunkpapa Lakota

When describing leadership among the tribal nations, it is important to know that the traditional American Indian concept of leadership was quite different than that of the Euro-American concept of leadership.

Unlike the Euro-American concept of formal majority vote, American Indian leaders were chosen simply by the people who chose to follow them. For example, a leader of a traditional Indian encampment would be a leader only as long as the people agreed with his decisions. If he made a major error in judgment or began to make unfavorable decisions, the people would no longer listen to him. If some of the people still agreed with him, however, they might continue to recognize him as leader and might even have gone so far as to break away from that encampment to create their own little band.

Historically, treaty agreements and peace talks between the Indian people and the U.S. government were extremely difficult to coordinate because of this fact. Indian people did not consider it appropriate for one person to make decisions for everyone else. This frustrated government officials, who were hard-pressed to find an “official spokesman” for an entire tribe.

It is important to understand this concept of voluntary leadership among Indian people since some of the historical figures who were considered “leaders” were not considered leaders by all tribal members. Even today, there is debate over who was a true leader among the Lakota and Dakota people.

There are, however, many prominent figures among the ancestors of the Standing Rock Nation.

SITTING BULL (Born 1834—Died 1890)

Sitting Bull

Perhaps the most famous leader among the Hunkpapa and, indeed, throughout the world, is Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was born on the Grand River in 1834. As a youth, historical accounts assert that Sitting Bull was already a deep thinker and a strong warrior.

Sitting Bull, Tatantanka Iyotake, was known best for his part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Before the battle, Sitting Bull had a vision of soldiers falling into camp. This vision reinforced the belief in the strength of Sitting Bull’s medicine. Sitting Bull was commended, by Indian and non-Indians alike, for his generosity and his concern for people. lit his later years, when he traveled with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Sitting Bull was often seen giving money to the street urchins of the cities he visited. He once commented that he could not understand how there could be so much poverty in the midst of such wealth.

Sitting Bull strongly protested against any cessions of Indian land and opposed the confinement to reservations. In fact, after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull fled to Canada and remained there with his band of followers until 1881. After he returned to the reservation, he remained an outspoken advocate for his people until his murder in 1890.

RAIN IN THE FACE (Born 1835—Died 1905)

Rain in the Face

Chief Rain-in-the-Face was a brave warrior and stood firmly in preventing the killing of game and buffalo of the Lakota. His warriors once attacked railroad survey crews. Captain Yates, Tom Custer, and 100 cavalrymen arrested Rain-in-the-Face for killing two trespassers on Lakota land. He later escaped for the guardhouse at Fort Lincoln. He was a key leader who fought Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. On a buffalo hunt in 1877, a gun he was carrying accidently discharged hitting him in the knee and crippling him. True and loyal to the Lakota people, Rain-in-the-Face died at Little Eagle, on the Grand River, September 12, 1905. (Cross H. 1927, p.57)

GALL (Born 1840—Died 1894)


Renowned Chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, Gall was born near the Moreau River, South Dakota in 1840. As a young man he was recognized as a warrior. He gained chieftaincy by his own daring exploits and superiority in statesmanship and oratory, and became one of Sitting Bull’s most trusted counselors. Although not actively engaged in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876, he was in command of one wing of the Lakota, and from a distance ingeniously outlined the movements that defeated General Custer and his command. He fled to Canada, but on January 1, 1881, voluntarily surrendered to Major Ilges at Poplar River Camp, Montana. He travelled America and Europe with Buffalo Bill. He died at Oak Cree, South Dakota, December 5, 1894, and was buried with military honors. (Cross H. 1927, p.24)

JOHN GRASS (Born 1839—Died 1918)

John Grass

Chief of the Sihasapa Sioux. His Indian name was Matowatakpe. As an orator he had no equal as he understood and spoke all the tribal languages. Grass was a proficient interpreter of sign language which was practically universal with all tribes on the plains. He was principal advisor to Sitting Bull and has been given credit for assembling the 7,000 warriors which fought and defeated General Custer. John Grass was born in 1839 and was only 37 years of age at the time of the Custer battle. He died at Fort Yates, North Dakota, May 10, 1918, at the age of 79 years. (Cross H. 1927, p.32)


Two Bears

Two Bears (Mato Nopa) was one of the prominent chiefs of the Upper Yanktonais. The Yanktonais hunting territory ranged from the eastern Dakota Territory to the Missouri River. Around 1865, Tow Bear’s band camped near Fort Rice. Two Bears served the council at Fort Rice at the July 1867 treaty commission meeting at Fort Rice with the Lakota. At the council at Fort Rice, on July 2, 1868, Chief Two Bears voiced his objections to the reservation proposal:

“Now I will tell you one thing that I don’t like; you are going to put all the tribes together and I do not approve of it. I speak for my own band; our country is on the other side of the river—we are Yanktonais...The trouble was begun by the whites rushing into our country...There is one thing that I must tell you; though I want to make peace, yet I don’t want to sell my land to the whites. It is the whites who will break the treaty, not us. I don’t give permission to any white man to chop wood and get hay in our country.”

By 1879, the Burnt Lodge, Lower Yanktonais settled 40 miles above the Grand River Agency on the east side of the Missouri River. Two Bears’s band included 55 lodges (families).1

THUNDERHAWK (Born 1834—Died ?)


Though little is written about Chief Thunderhawk, it is known that as a young man he was a companion of Sitting Bull, and a warrior of prominence. Since the Hunkpapa were a small band, Thunderhawk figured importantly in Hunkpapa and Lakota affairs. He was Chief of his band, a position which he retained all his life. His band followed the buffalo. During the 1870s, Thunderhawk was a dominant leader of the reservation Hunkpapa people at the Grand River Agency. After allotment, his band moved to 20 miles below the agency where his band constituted 28 lodges. He is credited, along with Mrs. Galpin, with saving the life of Father DeSmet. He, along with several other Hunkpapa, represented the Hunkpapa at the Sioux Indian delegation in Washington, D.C. in October, 1888.2

RUNNING ANTELOPE (Born 1821—Died 1897)

Running Antelope

Running Antelope, in his earlier years, was closely allied with Sitting Bull, who was eleven years his junior. Running Antelope, a band chief, was prominent among the Lakota. In 1851, Running Antelope was elected one of four “shirt wearers” of the Hunkpapa. A shirt wearer served to intercede between the council and the headmen and akicita who carried out tribal policy and decisions. He was a brave warrior and accomplished diplomat. Under the influence of James McLaughlin, he became a dominant leader of the reservation Hunkpapa people at the Grand River Agency. After the allotment period, Running Antelope established a settlement of about sixty families in the Grand River Valley and opened a store. In his later years, he regretted signing the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and longed for the time when the Lakota were free, and realigned with Sitting Bull. It was often said that Running Antelope was the greatest orator of the Sioux Nation.3

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