Living In Our Own Fashion

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In the autumn of 1884 a young Lakota named Standing Bear, a student at the Carlisle Indian School, was granted permission to travel into Philadelphia and attend a stage show. Something called the “Sitting Bull Combination” was appearing there, a troupe that included the chief and holy man Sitting Bull and a handful of warriors—Spotted-HornBull, Gray Eagle, Flying By, Long Dog, Crow Eagle, along with several of their wives.

The performance consisted of a sort of tableau, in which the men sat smoking their pipes in front of a tepee and the women bent over a pot, pretending to cook a meal, while a white lecturer explained the “inner life of the Indian.” Then, Sitting Bull, who neither spoke nor understood English, stepped forward and delivered an address in Lakota, explaining that the time for war against the whites had ended, that what was needed now was education for the children of his tribe.

A white translator stood at his side, allegedly rendering his remarks into English. But, Standing Bear noted, Sitting Bull’s words and those of the white man actually bore no relation to one another. As the Lakota continued to speak of peace, his interpreter had him recounting in flamboyant detail just how his warriors had destroyed Custer’s command at Little Bighorn. “He told so many lies,” Standing Bear noted, “that I had to smile.”

The showman was deliberately lying. Over the years white interpreters have more often simply gotten things wrong, usually exaggerating the supposed savagery of Native American culture in order to make those who nearly succeeded in destroying it seem more heroic, but sometimes conversely attributing to it a uniform austere nobility that was at best inaccurate and at worst patronizing. The simple proposition that Indians, like the whites whose intrusions they sought to withstand, were human beings who combined vices with virtues, strengths with weaknesses, still infuses too little historical writing about them.

In The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt), the historian Robert M. Utley has attempted a rounded portrait of perhaps the most celebrated of all Indian leaders. The standard biography for more than half a century has been Stanley Vestal’s Sitting Bull, Champion of the Sioux , based upon authentic interviews with old men who had fought under Sitting Bull, but rendered implausible by its author’s gaudy prose and hero worship. Using Vestal’s own papers, Utley has produced a biography both more believable and more balanced. Sitting Bull still emerges from it as a great Lakota patriot—a defensive . shield as well as an I offensive lance to his people, as Utley writes—but he is also seen as a flawed statesman whose brave defiance may in the end have only made things worse.

Sitting Bull’s life began about 1831 on the Grand River, Utley believes, at a place his people called Many Caches because of the food-storage pits they had dug there, and one is struck all through Utley’s account by the central role access to food in the form of buffalo played in the final years of Lakota freedom. Sitting Bull counted his first coup at fourteen, during a raid on the hunting grounds of the Lakotas’ traditional enemies, the Crows. And it was in large part the damage whites did to the buffalo herds and the grass on which they fed that made him determined to drive them from his people’s land.

It was both a tribute to Sitting Bull’s own distinctive blend of bravery, wisdom, and spiritual power and evidence of his people’s desperation in the face of destruction of the herds without which they could not imagine living, that in 1868 he was given a post that had never existed before in their world: “chief soldier,” or head war chief, empowered to make decisions of war and peace for all the Lakotas. Sitting Bull was a profound conservative, determined never to abandon the old ways: “Look at me,” he once shouted at a group of Assiniboins who had made their peace with the whites. “See if I am poor, or my people either. The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.” But he fought as a political revolutionary, principal chief of a people unaccustomed to following any leader.

The Lakota attachment to the Black Hills, which eventually led to the Custer fight, was partly spiritual—they held mountains to be uniquely sacred to them, though they had only relatively recently wrested them from other tribes—and partly practical: the slopes and valleys were alive with small game and ideally suited for winter camp. Sitting Bull called them a “food pack,” by which, one Lakota explained, he meant that “Indians would rove around, but when they were in need of something, they could just go in and get it.”