Sitting Bull's Greatest Pipe Smoking Demonstration

One of the most acclaimed displays of heroism and contempt for the enemy in battle was achieved by smoking a pipe.

The hero of this story is Sitting Bull, the warrior reputed by some to be the military strategist behind the defeat of General George Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876. He did not actually lead that battle, but had prophesied the defeat of the enemy, expanding his reputation as a spiritual leader. Born in 1831, Sitting Bull was a warrior, perhaps the most famous of his era, and Native American warriors were the real deal. They underwent tests of strength, courage, and stamina that would make an Army Ranger raise an eyebrow.

For example, Sitting Bull's adopted brother Grouard underwent tests of courage in 1872 that included the removal of flesh, which was thought by the Sioux to represent ignorance. So they removed some of Grouard's as an offering to the spirits. Four braves inserted needles in his upper arms to lift the flesh and then carved pieces from it while Grouard did his best to remain silent.

The Importance of Courage

Sitting Bull was a chief and spiritual leader of the Hunkpapa people, a tribe of the Lakota Sioux of the Great Plains, in what is now known as the Dakotas. He was among the last Native Americans to surrender to the United States government. In his culture, bravery was the most highly respected trait, and he distinguished himself countless times.

He killed his first buffalo at age 10 and accomplished his first "counting coup," which is the touching of a live enemy in battle, at age 14. Any such blow struck against an enemy counted as a coup, but the most admired of these accomplishments was to touch an enemy warrior with a hand, bow, or coup stick (yes, these warriors carried dedicated ceremonial coup sticks used for humiliating an enemy) and to remain unscathed in doing so.

Jumping Badger was his original name, but he was later called Slow in reference to his deliberate and thoughtful approach to problems. He knocked a Crow warrior from his horse for his first coup during a raiding party, and in celebration of the accomplishment his father relinquished his own name and gave it to his son. Slow was now Sitting Bull.

One of the most strident opponents of white settlers and railroads moving into Sioux land, Sitting Bull conducted raids on army outposts and livestock. The natives knew that the tribes would need to cooperate if they were to have any chance of repelling the invaders, and Sitting Bull's uncle led a campaign to declare Sitting Bull the leader of all the separate Lakota Sioux, a position unheard of before that time. Other groups, including some Arapaho and Cheyenne, joined him in the 1870s.

Sitting Bull was the leader of all the separate Lakota Sioux, a position unheard of before that time

An Important Skirmish

In 1872, four years before the famous battle at the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull was skirmishing with the Army and interfering with the large-scale survey for the construction of tracks by the Union Pacific railroad. George Custer and his troops were in pursuit and came to the Yellowstone River, which Sitting Bull and his braves knew well and had already crossed. The water was swift and Custer managed to get his men to a small island in the center, but could not proceed because of the current. Swimmers with a raft tried to carry a cable to the other side, but they were pushed two miles downstream by the water, and after a day of failure Custer decided to skin some cattle to mount on frames made from small trees and build what his Crow guides called a bull-boat to take the cable across.

Custer had lost the element of surprise by then, and the Native Americans started firing rifles from the opposite shore. Because Custer couldn't move from the island for a counter attack, the battle became one of sharp shooters on both sides trying to whittle the numbers of the opposition. Custer's primary advantage was mobility and he was trapped, though not in danger of being overwhelmed.

the battle became one of sharp shooters on both sides

The Native Americans knew the river and took advantage of their light and agile ponies, and crossed to the bluff behind Custer to press his position from two sides. Custer's horse was shot from beneath him, though he was unharmed.

Sioux braves decided to test their courage by riding into sight to deride and antagonize the enemy. Some were shot and wounded, even though the medicine man had provided charms of protection and urged them to go closer. No one had been killed, and they thought the reason for that was the charms provided. The medicine man continued urging the braves to go closer to the enemy rifles, but Sitting Bull thought this exercize was unnecessary. He didn't want his men needlessly killed, and they had already demonstrated their courage.

Actions are Louder than Words

The medicine man was unhappy with that decision and cast aspersions on Sitting Bull's bravery. Sitting Bull could not allow his courage to be questioned lest he lose the respect of his men. He silently gathered his pipe and tobacco and casually walked to within bullet range of Custer. He sat down, completely unconcerned, filled his pipe, lit it with his flint and steel, and began smoking as bullets whizzed overhead and struck the ground around him.

His men were astonished at his courage. Custer and his troops were appropriately antagonized by this demonstration of raw contempt for their strength and wasted bullet after bullet, none striking Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull soon turned and called to his men to join him. Only four did so, two Cheyenne and two Sioux, and they nervously shared Sitting Bull's pipe, smoking as fast as they could so they could finish and remove themselves from the danger. They wanted to withdraw, but Sitting Bull calmly and slowly smoked until the bowl was consumed. Then he quietly tapped out the ashes and cleaned the bowl, and finally stood with abject apathy regarding the impotent soldiers trying to kill him. The five warriors strode back to their people, Sitting Bull more casually than the others.

His nephew White Bull, who was among the braves who joined the smoking demonstration, would later call Sitting Bull's display "the bravest deed possible." It was better than counting coup. With a pipe and a bowl of tobacco, Sitting Bull demonstrated his utter disdain for his enemy. Custer and his men were not even an inconvenience; they were beneath notice.

Custer did finally get off that island, but could not catch up to the Native Americans. Sitting Bull had inflicted little physical damage on Custer's forces, but the sheer contempt demonstrated was excruciating.

Sitting Bull's reputation soared. He had achieved a profound psychological advantage and sent Custer a message that needed no translation. Simultaneously, he quelled in his own forces any potential doubts regarding his courage. And he did all of that without firing a shot. He merely smoked his pipe.


  • Sitting Bull: A Biography, by Alexander B. Adams (1973)
  • American Indian Relief Council
  • Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull by Stanley Vestal (1984)
Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History


    • Jack+ on March 25, 2021
    • What a wonderful story! Thank you, good sir, for sharing it with us.

    • Lee brown on March 25, 2021
    • WOW! I know it isn't correct to say this anymore, but "That is a man."

    • DrPo on March 26, 2021
    • My favourite Chuck and hero from youth in one story- just kind of magic😉.

    • Bob D, on March 26, 2021
    • "make Special Forces training seem a moderate inconvenience."Wow. just how much Special Forces training do you have to dismiss it an merely an annoyance,

    • Tampaholic on March 26, 2021
    • During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived - everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn't treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger. "You fool," he shouted as he reached for his sword, "don't you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!" But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. "And do you realize," the master replied calmly, "that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?"(other versions of this story then describe how the general, surprised and awed by the master, sheepishly leaves). That's what this story brings to mind. I smoke my pipe at work in the face of adversity, incompetent know-it-alls, short tempered hot heads who use their anger to hide their insecurities and short comings, one uppers, and what other miseries that life brings in general. This article was a bunch of Bull... Sitting Bull. Good article

    • Chuck Stanion on March 28, 2021
    • Bob D.: The Special Forces comparison merited more thought and I've modified the sentence. I appreciate the heads up!

    • Will L on March 28, 2021
    • We were taught about Spartans and dream with their bravery. These are American Spartans and were in harmony with their environment, so much to learn.

    • Smokebacca on March 28, 2021
    • Chuck, I enjoy reading any historical story you undertake. Simply riveting. I have heard this tale before, but never as well put.

    • Gary Yovan on March 28, 2021
    • I realize the limitations of the topic, but of interest is Bull's appearances in Buffalo Bill's western show and the sad way he died among his own people. Heroes, like prophets, are often not appreciated in their own country.

    • Phil Wiggins on March 28, 2021
    • Peace Pipes Beautiful A!!!

    • nathan meek on March 28, 2021
    • Thanks for sharing the Cool story about Sitting Bull. The imagery of his action -pretty awesome

    • Joseph Kirkland on March 28, 2021
    • Chuck, another great story.BTW, I would have loved to see Sitting Bull do the “Slide for Life” at Victory Pond at Ft Benning.

    • Astrocomical on March 28, 2021
    • If you ever read the exploits of the Apache you might be astonished at their physical prowess that IMO unmatched by any human tribe I have ever read. These guys were absolutely FEARLESS.

    • Tampaholic on March 28, 2021
    • @Astrocomical: I believe the native American warriors were in the same league as the Japanese ninjas. Guerrilla warfare...

    • Flustered on March 28, 2021
    • "Make an Army Ranger raise an eyebrow."??? Who made you the leading authority on eyebrow raising? Why not a Green Beret, a Delta Force Soldier, Navy Seal, or a woman giving a natural childbirth... I'm sure she could raise an eyebrow. Don't be so quick to delegate the eyebrow raising position to just anybody. Spock from Star Trek or 'The Rock' Dwayne Johnson have great eyebrows, if I had eyebrows I would raise one at the fact that a certain amount of merited thought went into this title of high recognition. Just ribbin' ya, Chuck!

    • Jd.Zhang on March 28, 2021
    • Extraordinary courage!

    • D. on March 28, 2021
    • Oscar The Grouch had great eyebrows!

    • Dan on March 31, 2021
    • Groucho Marx had extraordinary eyebrows.

    • Tampaholic on March 31, 2021
    • Well. now you're just beating a dead horse, a dead crazy horse. Let it go, man.

    • Aaron Gyes on August 18, 2022
    • That is a heck of a story. Thanks. The bravest of the brave, I hope is how he is remembered.

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