Sitting Bull, a Sioux leader who is perhaps the greatest Indian chief of all time, was born into a world where his tribe was the superpower of the Great Plains; he could do what he pleased and go where he pleased. By the time of his death, his world was effectively the prison of a small reservation controlled by the new superpower – the United States of America.
While Sitting Bull first distinguishes himself for his defiance of whites during and after the Civil War, the most defining chapter of his leadership comes in the Great Sioux War of 1876. After President Ulysses S. Grant reneges on a promise to guarantee the sacred Black Hills to his tribe, Sitting Bull uses his political acumen to assemble perhaps the greatest Indian alliance in history, convincing rival tribes to band together in defense in the summer of 1876.
It is these 6,000 Indians camped on the banks of the Little Big Horn River that General George Armstrong Custer foolishly tries to vanquish with just 600 American soldiers. It is Sitting Bull's warriors – including the legendary Crazy Horse – who author perhaps the greatest military defeat the United States army has ever known at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
But Sitting Bull's victory over Custer is as short-lived as it is breathtaking. Within a year, the full force of the United States military has destroyed his main food supply – the buffalo – and driven him to seek refuge in Canada. Under pressure from the American government, Canada evicts Sitting Bull four years later and he returns, effectively a prisoner on a reservation, in 1881. But when famed showman Buffalo Bill asks him to tour in his immensely popular Wild West Show, Sitting Bull uses the tour as a platform to raise awareness of the Indian's plight, making Americans see Indians as human beings rather than savages for the first time.
But despite his success as a spokesman among the whites, Sitting Bull is drawn back to the reservation when a new religious movement – the Ghost Dance – grows in popularity. Sitting Bull tries to defuse the tension created by the Ghost Dance; his failure to do so not only costs him his life at the hands of Indian police, it also leads to the sad, final chapter of his Indian Wars: the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.