In 1876, Sitting Bull led the victorious Sioux in the Battle of Little Big Horn that dealt the U.S. cavalry its greatest defeat and claimed the life of Gen. George Custer. Sitting Bull's remains were secretly spirited across the border at Turtle Mountain and buried on Canadian soil near the Turtle over a century ago, according to the account of a family whose ancestors were traditional leaders among the Dakota at that time.
"That is one of the top secrets among the Dakota people," said Sioux historian and elder Gordon Wasteste, 84, in a phone interview from his home on Sioux Valley First Nation.
Wasteste says Sitting Bull isn't the only warrior whose remains were laid to rest near the Turtle. The warrior who actually killed Custer -- his identity remains a secret known only to a few Dakota -- is also buried in a secret location on Canadian soil.
The family has been among the guardians of the secret for more than a century.
"Sitting Bull is buried near Turtle Mountain," Wasteste said. It is his third grave -- he was buried and moved twice from graves in the Dakotas.
Wasteste's ancestors included a woman who witnessed the assassination of Sitting Bull in 1890 near Standing Rock, S.D.
The family also includes chiefs who held positions of authority on Turtle Mountain.
Wasteste's great-grandfather was Bogaa Wasteste, one of three lawkeepers in the seven-member council of the Affiliated Tribes, a confederacy of tribes who all spoke similar Sioux languages. They were known as the Buffalo People and they led a plains-based society with Turtle Mountain as a spiritual, political and commercial centre.
The council handled trade for the confederacy and kept trade routes open.
Wasteste's great-grandfather and his co-lawkeepers would have been asked for permission, or at least been consulted, before any burial, even one for a man as important as Sitting Bull.
The mystique that surrounded the warrior and chief exists to this day.
Wasteste was willing to confirm the burial is on Canadian soil but the exact location remains a secret.
The account he supplied is fascinating to anyone interested in the history of the Great Plains and the deliberate destruction of the Sioux culture in the late 1800s.
Wasteste told of a trip Sioux warriors made after Sitting Bull was placed in his second grave in North Dakota.
The fact there were two graves before the third and final resting place is a revelation, too.
Warriors secured the precious body to a travois pulled by a horse and they accompanied it north. The trip was a mission to keep the remains safe from American grave robbers, Wasteste said.
They travelled under cover of darkness until they made it safely over the border into Canada on the north side of Turtle Mountain.
Sitting Bull, born Tatanka Iyotank around 1834, became a stoic symbol of Indian resistance to white settlers throughout the 1880s. Hunted by enemies and American cavalry alike, Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada for a few years and oral history tells the story of Canadian aboriginal allies pleading with him not to return to the United States because they feared he would be killed.
He was shot to death while being arrested at his home on the Standing Rock reservation on Dec. 15, 1890. His assassin was a man in the escort of Dakota police led by a warrior named Bullhead.
Wasteste picked up the account there, saying his grandfather's sister witnessed the fatal shooting.
"They had to arrest Sitting Bull. All the time, he knew they were coming. They approached from the south. They were in a camp and they had this log house built." Sitting Bull was under guard in the log cabin.
Twenty-five feet from the door to the cabin, Bullhead and his Dakota escort stopped.
"He walk in front and he called Sitting Bull out. First time, he didn't come out. Second time, Bullhead called and Sitting Bull came out. Sitting Bull said, "I'm finished with war, with everything. I want to live in peace."
"Just then somebody shot him. There was one guy, only one guy that shot him... which he shouldn't have."
The man who shot Sitting Bull dropped seconds later himself, killed by a single shot from another man in the Bullhead's escort. "Only two shots were fired."
Sitting Bull was buried first at a U.S. army base, Fort Yates, N.D., and later moved. A Fort Yates grave was opened in 1953 and a body moved to South Dakota, but Wasteste says Sitting Bull had long been resting in southern Manitoba.
Wasteste recalled that about this time in American and European history, it was not unusual for wax effigies of famous people to be displayed in museums.
Mixed with these stories was another bizarre and far rarer practice involving the use of the actual bones of a dead person in the effigies.
The most famous example was British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who left directions to preserve his body after his death.
In 1832, Bentham's body was dissected in the presence of his friends. His skeleton was reconstructed, a wax head supplied to replace the original and he was dressed in his own clothes. The effigy was set upright in a glass-fronted case. It is preserved at University College in London.
Word of it reached the Dakota, who'd heard of the wax effigies. They were horrified the fate would claim their revered leader.
"They don't want that to happen to him," Wasteste said.
"To be waxed and put in a museum. They moved him three times. At night, where nobody know where they take him, they got him to Canada," Wasteste said.