American Portraits

Sitting Bull’s Purpose at Little Bighorn

In this lesson, students will learn about Sitting Bull and his role during the Battle of Little Bighorn. They will see how he fulfilled his purpose throughout this battle and through his example, learn how they can pursue purpose in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


Sitting Bull was lying in his lodge in the tribal circle when he received word that the American army was attacking. He was in the middle of a massive encampment where men, women, and children were staying in a thousand teepees. He ordered the women and children to move away from the battlefield while dozens of warriors rode their horses and whipped up a large dust cloud to cover the movement. Sitting Bull climbed atop a black horse and rode out to encourage his warriors, who plunged into battle. Sitting Bull was pleased to have such a strong army of Cheyenne, Hunkpapa Sioux, and Lakota Sioux warriors to face the Americans in battle….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Sitting Bull’s bold defense of his territory inspire you to be dedicated to your own purpose?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Sitting Bull and his role during the Battle of Little Bighorn. They will see how he fulfilled his purpose throughout this battle and through his example, learn how they can pursue purpose in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Sitting Bull’s performance during the Battle of Little Bighorn.
  • Students will understand how Sitting Bull’s actions show a dedication to purpose.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of purpose in their own lives.


Sitting Bull was born in 1831 to a highly-respected Hunkpapa Sioux family. The Sioux were part of the seven Lakota tribes who lived along the Missouri River in modern-day South Dakota. His father, Jumping Badger, was a mystic who had been a warrior at a young age. At twenty-five-years-old, Sitting Bull followed his father’s path and became a leader of the Strong Hearts, a group of elite warriors. He was known to be brave, generous, strong, and wise.

In the late 1850s, the seven Lakota tribes met to address the growing threat posed by American settlers expanding west onto tribal lands. At the special council in the Black Hills, 5,000 Lakota pledged their resistance to white encroachment. They sent a message to the President of the United States asking to be left alone, stating, “[Americans] could not be allowed to come into our country.”

By 1864, Sitting Bull was driven by the purpose of resisting what he considered to be a white invasion. He refused to sign any treaties or enter a reservation, stating, “We do not want to eat from the hand of the Grandfather [the President of the United States] . . . We can feed ourselves.” He also joined the fight against white armies sent to the Dakotas and assaulted forts that were built there.

In June 1876, Sitting Bull had small pieces of flesh ritualistically taken from his arms, followed by hours of dancing, during the most sacred of Lakota religious ceremonies. Suddenly, he stopped dancing and held his gaze to the heavens, receiving a prophetic vision while communing with the Great Spirit Wakantanka. He described a vision that included white soldiers and their horses above an Indian village falling upside down, which signified death. Some of the Indians in the village were falling upside down but not as many. It was a great victory over the encroaching enemy. The forty-five-year-old warrior would soon ride out to lead and encourage his warriors to fulfill the prophecy at Little Big Horn.


  • Mystic
  • Elite
  • Commune
  • Mobilize
  • Pell-mell
  • Resistance
  • Ritualistic
  • Chaos
  • Breastworks
  • Dismount
  • Initiative
  • Endure

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Sitting Bull?
  • What was Sitting Bull’s role during the Battle of Little Bighorn?
  • What do you think was Sitting Bull’s biggest contribution during the Battle of Little Bighorn?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Donovan, James. A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn, The Last Great Battle of the American West. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  • Wert, Jeffrey D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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