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Living In Our Own Fashion
The most celebrated of all Indian leaders gets his first new biography in more than half a century
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
After the Little Bighorn, when Sitting Bull led his people north to escape the vengeful soldiers sent after him, he hoped to find permanent sanctuary in Canada, the land of the Grandmother, Queen Victoria. “I will remain what I am until I die,” he said, “a hunter. And when there are no buffalo or other game, I will send my children to hunt and live on prairie mice, for where an Indian is shut up in one place his body becomes weak.” But, again, scarcity of food forced him to shift his tactics. By 1880 very few buffalo appeared on the Canadian plains, thanks mostly to the hide hunters of Montana, and when the Canadian government refused to accept responsibility for feeding Sitting Bull’s starving people, he had little choice but to return to the United States and surrender. He composed a song to express his feelings: “A warrior/I have been / Now / It is all over / A hard time / I have.”
His hard time continued. He was not implacably opposed to every government policy. He saw the need for schools, for example, and even learned to farm so well that he was put in charge of all the farmers in his neighborhood. But a tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show had convinced him of the error of alien ways: “The farther my people keep away from whites,” he told a woman missionary, “the better I shall be satisfied. The white people are wicked, and I don’t want my woman to become as the white women I have seen have lived. I want you to teach my people to read and write, but they must not become white people in their ways; it is too bad a life, I could not let them do it.” He saw no need to convert to Christianity, resisted attempts further to reduce the reservation whose border he already found confining, and led the opposition to the Dawes Severally Act, which divided tribal lands into individual allotments.
When the Ghost Dance agitation began in 1889, promising a reborn Indian world filled with buffalo and free of whites, he was a skeptic. But when he agreed to travel to the Pine Ridge Agency and look into it further, the Indian agent, terrified that he might urge that arms be taken up again, sent Indian police to arrest him. In the shootout that followed, on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, seven of his followers, and six policemen were all killed in and around his cabin that stood just across Great River from Many Caches, the spot where he had been born fifty-nine years before.
The Sitting Bull who emerges from Utley’s new book is still a great Lakota patriot, but a flawed statesman.
Shortly after he surrendered and six years before his death, Sitting Bull told a newspaperman of his doubts about the future: “White’men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo as their fathers did. … The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country and live in our own fashion.”
Other Americans have wanted to live in their own fashion, too, as the multiculturalists have been telling us for some time now. Last year in these pages Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., prophesied that while the views of their more extravagant spokesmen would eventually go the way of other recent historical vogues—quanto-history, psycho-history—they would, nonetheless, leave an important legacy: a “more systematic inclusion of minority views” that in turn “will prevent the callous dismissals of minority experience which have occurred even among our greatest historians.”
In A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America , (Little, Brown and Company), Ronald Takaki, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, bears him out. So far as the documents allow, this elegant, impassioned book recounts the American experience in the voices of the dispossessed and the newly arrived. One may quarrel with the emphasis the author places on the role American economic forces played in fostering racism and xenophobia…qualities that were surely alive and festering among the peoples of the Old World long before anyone ever set out for the New. But I know of no single volume that more eloquently chronicles the treatment and mistreatment that has been meted out to the various non-European minorities that, together, may one day constitute a new American majority.
The tale Takaki tells is often dispiriting. We have at least as often been hostile as welcoming to newcomers, no matter their color, and with few exceptions each new immigrant group has hurried ashore only to haul up the gangplank and do its best to repel the next boatload of would-be boarders. But despite the cruelties and setbacks suffered by so many of those whose stories are told in A Different Mirror , it is impossible not to be moved again by our great, perpetual experiment in creating a country whose population is now even more richly textured than the one that moved Walt Whitman to sing, “Of every hue and caste am I… I resist any thing better than my own diversity.”