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Living In Our Own Fashion

June 2024
6min read

The most celebrated of all Indian leaders gets his first new biography in more than half a century

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.”

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.”

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