Completely faithful to his culture
If you were asked to name the most famous Indian chief of them all you might say Geronimo or Cochise, you might opt for Crazy Horse or Chief Joseph but you would most likely choose Sitting Bull.
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, Sitting Bull
The Hunkpapa Lakota known as Sitting Bull, Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake in Standard Lakota Orthography, also nicknamed Slon-he or "Slow", c. 1831 – 1890, is best known as the architect of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn and as friend of Buffalo Bill Cody and one of the stars of Cody’s Wild West. The first was only partially true and he only appeared with Cody for four months in 1885. But his was a truly great life.
Sitting Bull has been portrayed on screen very many times, starting with the 1912 silent movie Custer’s Last Fight, when he was played by William Eagle Shirt (Thomas Ince’s favorite Indian actor and a true Sioux), and then in several other silents, including two in 1926, both played by African-American Noble Johnson. New Yorker J Carrol Naish did him twice too, in the dire 1950 Annie Get YourGun (he didn’t have to sing) and the fairly preposterous 1954 Dale Robertson B picture Sitting Bull.
Sioux chief from New York
Australian Michael Pate, who had played pretty well every other Indian chief, regardless of tribe, did a Sitting Bull in The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965, also to be found in the Clunker rack in stores. More recently, August Schellenberg seems to have cornered the market a bit in Sitting Bull performances, from Witness to Yesterday in 1973 on TV to HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 2007, with the 1996 TV Crazy Horse in between.
An August Sitting Bull
Noted Native American actors Eric Schweig and Graham Greene have also had a go. There are at least 30 celluloid Sitting Bulls all told. Some have been good but many have been inaccurate and inappropriate and some have been plain silly. Russell Means gives us a splendidly malevolent Bull in the TV adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Buffalo Girls. He is seriously nasty.
The bad guy
For years many people’s view of Sitting Bull was as the evil and ferocious killer of brave Custer. This later turned to awed fascination, even lionization. Pompous and unpleasant Indian Agent James McLaughlin of the Standing Rock agency where Bull was confined from 1882 disliked the chief intensely and despite evidence to the contrary considered him one of the leading recalcitrant non-progressives; Sitting Bull was a disgruntled trouble maker, obstinate and narrow-minded. This view of Sitting Bull was taken as gospel for many years and so the Lakota chief has had a bad press and suffered from a poor reputation well into the twentieth century.
In 1932, however, Stanley Vestal (pen name of Walter Stanley Campbell, who taught literature and creative writing at the University of Oklahoma) published Sitting Bull, Champion of the Sioux. Vestal conducted exhaustive research, speaking to many elderly Sioux Indians who had known Bull, in particular the old chief’s nephews White Bull and One Bull.
Vestal’s portrait came as a shock to many (Indian and white). His Sitting Bull was a great man – actually, the book teeters on the edge of hagiography. Rather in the way that Mari Sandoz did for Crazy Horse, Vestal painted his portrait of Sitting Bull looking through a personal and literary lens rather than a clinical historical one but his book was an invaluable corrective.
In 1993, Robert M Utley, well known to those interested in the West as biographer of Geronimo, the Texas Rangers, Billy the Kid and George Armstrong Custer, brought out his very fine biography, The Lance and the Shield: the Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt & Company). It is an excellent title: the lance was Bull’s favorite weapon and it symbolizes the first part of his life as he did all in his power to attack the invading whites and drive them from his tribe’s lands, while the shield presented to him by his father, which he treasured, represented the protective, elder-statesman Sitting Bull of later years who (like Crazy Horse) adopted a more defensive policy of not seeking war but still resisting fiercely unwarranted assaults.
Mr. Utley’s book, like all his works in fact, smacks of the word ‘definitive’. He writes in such a balanced way and shows evidence of such exhaustive and careful research that you instinctively believe what he writes. The Lance and the Shield is an outstanding work.
Robert M Utley
Furthermore the book is dedicated to his sons, whom he named Don and Phil - so what’s not to like?
Discounting a bit of mumbo-jumbo in a prologue, Utley moves right into Sitting Bull’s early life. He believes that the probability is that Sitting Bull was born into a distinguished Hunkpapa family at Many Caches on the Missouri River in 1831, which would have made him in his mid-40s at Little Bighorn and perhaps 59 at the time of his sudden death.
The Hunkpapas were one small tribe of the greater Sioux confederacy. Sioux is really a generic word whites used to describe the Dakotas and Lakotas, a corruption of a Chippewa word signifying enemies, and is probably thus better avoided, although in time the Lakota and Dakota people came to answer to the term. Seven closely-related groups established themselves in the westernmost part of the Sioux lands, the Oglala, Brule, Miniconjou, Two Kettle, Sans Arc, Blackfeet (Blackfeet Sioux or Sihasapa, not the Blackfeet tribe further to the northwest) and the Hunkpapa or Uncpapa. Utley tells us that “the Lakota culture was hardly a generation old at the time of Sitting Bull’s birth” and altogether the Lakota peoples numbered no more than twenty thousand, the Hunkpapas no more than three thousand. In 1870 all of Dakota Territory counted fewer than 5000 white citizens. By 1880, there 134,000 and only five years later this number had doubled. The Sioux were simply submerged by a white tide of land- and resource-hungry humanity.
The boy was named Jumping Badger at first, or sometimes Slow, because of his deliberate ways. The boy’s father, Sitting Bull, was a chief and his mother, Her Holy Door, was a small, intelligent woman who remained a great influence on the younger Sitting Bull until her death in 1884.
The cardinal virtues
In the chapter Youth, Utley describes very interestingly the life of a growing Hunkpapa and it is clear that Sitting Bull, as he was named in honor of his father, excelled in all pursuits. He gained an early reputation as a warrior against the traditional enemies of the Sioux, the Crow. Utley tells us of the four cardinal virtues of the people which Sitting Bull did his utmost to shine in throughout his life: they were bravery, first, meaning individual valor (which signified more than group victory); next came fortitude – the capacity to endure physical pain and discomfort without complaint as well as with dignity and reserve; generosity was also key to the Sioux character and if you had more than one of anything you had a moral duty to give it away to those who lacked; lastly, wisdom came from age and experience as well as insight gained through an active spiritual life.
Warrior and medicine man
Chapter 2, titled Warrior, tells of how Bull won his eagle feathers for counting coup and red ones for being wounded in combat. The following chapter, Wichasha Wakan, describes Bull’s spiritual path, his developing role as medicine man and ability to prophesy. He belonged to various exclusive or secret societies where he exercised a growing influence on the tribe. One of these was the Heyoka, who remind us of the Cheyenne “contraries” of Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man: they did things backward – they might dress lightly in winter and warmly in summer, for example, or walk and ride backwards. Bull had dreamed of thunderbirds, a powerful augury, and those who had done this painted lightning on their faces. Sitting Bull grew to have an almost priestly role.
It is in this chapter, though, that Utley comes closest to Vestal in his picture of his admired character. The youthful Sitting Bull could apparently do no wrong and excelled in everything. He rather reminds you of that awful head boy at school who shone in all disciplines and was the darling of the teachers. You longed for him to be taken down a peg. It comes as a relief later to hear of certain military or strategic shortcomings Sitting Bull displayed. Once the principal enemy became the whites, the wasichus, with their miners, railroad workers, settlers and, worst, soldiers, Utley says that the lessons were clear. Early defeats taught the Sioux first that they must acquire better firearms, and second, avoid open battle with the ‘long knives’, relying instead on guerrilla hit-and-run tactics at which they excelled. “Sitting Bull’s record suggests that he fully grasped the first lesson, only partly the second.”
The Long Knives
First, in the early 1850s, came General William S Harney, “a big, powerful man with personality and convictions to match”, whom the Sioux called Mad Bear, unilaterally and arrogantly naming ‘supreme chiefs’ of the tribes (who had never existed) and dealing only with them.
The grand council that was convened at Fort Laramie on the North Platte which led to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was attended by many Indians but not by all. Those who did not attend or sign, including Sitting Bull, were nevertheless held to be ‘treaty breakers’ when the provisions they were ignorant of or disapproved of and had not agreed to were not kept. In any case, like so many treaties, it only lasted as long as was convenient to the white man. As an old Indian, veteran of many such councils, summed up: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it.”
The narrative is studded with one injustice towards the Sioux after another, often at the hands of stupid or arrogant or racist army officers (who were sometimes all three). Take as just one example, the account of an Army lieutenant named John L Grattan who on August 19, 1854 marched into a Sioux village and demanded the surrender of a Miniconjou visitor who had killed an ox [in a rare slip Utley says “an oxen”, which is a bit odd] strayed from an emigrant train. When the chief of the village temporized, Grattan immediately ordered his thirty men to open fire with rifles and cannon. When the Sioux fought back and killed the soldiers, the whites termed it the Grattan Massacre and would not rest until the “savages” had been punished.
In the 1860s it was Generals Sibley and Sully. The war against the Lakotas they launched in 1863 would last, on and off, until 1881. There are useful and fascinating maps that chart the progress of the whites as they encroached, step by step, broken treaty by broken treaty, upon Sioux lands, trying to confine the Indians to reservations which would be theirs “eternally” but which were then broken up and the land stolen within a few years. Also marked are the sites of “battles”, which were often murderous attacks on the tipis of women and children claimed as “victories” by fame-hungry soldiers.
It is clear that while there was no overall “big chief” of the Hunkpapas, still less of all the Sioux, Sitting Bull played a leading role in the attack on the invading whites. He made military mistakes (for example underestimating the power and effectiveness of artillery and Spencer carbines) and did not always succeed but he gradually built up a reputation as a formidable warrior and a thorn in the side of the “bluecoats”. At the same time, Utley relates, Sitting Bull was able to welcome “black robe” missionaries and envoys and was content to trade with whites when it suited his purpose. But when the soldiers attacked, he was an implacable foe.
An older Bull
In 1870 Sitting Bull shifted his strategy. He heeded the advice of his uncle Four Horns: “Be a little against fighting but when anyone shoots be ready to fight.” In Utley’s terms he changed from an emphasis on the lance to the shield.
There are entertaining descriptions of half-caste and white characters such as Frank Grouard, of mixed white and Polynesian blood, runaway son of a Mormon missionary, freighting and mail riding in Montana and getting into scrapes with the law, who arrived in Bull’s tipi and was adopted by him. He became known as Standing Bear (no relation to Henry in Longmire) or Grabber. Standing Bear, who soon became fluent in Lakota, provided the Hunkpapas with invaluable information on the whites and often fought fiercely on the Sioux’ behalf. He left us priceless accounts of Sioux life and Sitting Bull in particular.
He fell out with Sitting Bull and moved in with Crazy Horse. Later he left the tribe and became an emissary of the Indian Peace Commission at Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska. In 1876 Grouard became Chief Indian Scout and interpreter under General Crook. In a May 1876 report Crook wrote, "I would sooner lose a third of my command than Frank Grouard!" Grouard was a major player in Crook’s 1876 Rosebud campaign. He reached the Little Bighorn battle site at 11 pm on June 25, discovering the bodies of the slain before being chased back to Goose Creek by hostiles, bringing Crook the news of Custer’s death. In 1877 Grouard claimed he was present at the murder of Crazy Horse and he was present at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.
He later served as a US marshal in Wyoming and was involved in the Johnson County War of 1892. He died in St Louis in 1905. It really is a fascinating life and why a movie hasn’t been made of it is anyone’s guess. They’d get it all wrong, though.
Other fascinating characters appear in the story, like “Custer’s black white man”, Isaiah Dorman, an ex-slave from Louisiana who was married to a Hunkpapa and known to the Sioux as Teat. A wood chopper near Fort Rice, he had signed on with Custer as an interpreter. When Dorman was wounded at Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull told the braves, “Don’t kill that man, he is a friend of mine” and he gave him water from a buffalo-horn cup. But as soon as Bull was gone a Hunkpapa woman shot him with a rifle and others mutilated his body. No known photograh of Dorman exists.
Perhaps Sitting Bull’s most remarkable achievement was before the battle at Little Bighorn: it was the way he managed to unite the Indians – not only different Sioux tribes but also other peoples, especially the Northern Cheyenne. Sitting Bull came as close as anyone to being thought of as a dominant chief and his word was listened to and respected like no other’s. The combined villages may have numbered twenty thousand and they acted with unusual discipline and harmony.
Sitting Bull himself did not, of course, ‘command’ the forces at Little Bighorn. The Sioux and Cheyenne did not have generals as the whites understood the term and while whites may have attributed to Bull Napoleonic evil genius as a supreme commander, it was simply not the case. Utley says:
The Indians did not win the Battle of Little Bighorn because of generalship or even leadership. They won because they outnumbered the enemy three to one; because they were united, confident and angry; and above all because the immediate threat to their women and children fired every man with determination to save his family. The Indians won too because their foes allowed themselves to be beaten in fragments and because their leadership broke down.
Bear Coat Miles
Little Bighorn may have been a “victory” which shocked the United States but it was the beginning of the end for the Indians, including Sitting Bull. After Custer came General Nelson A Miles, known to the Sioux as Bear Coat. Miles was a wily politician good at claiming more than his due but he was also a tough general.
General Nelson A Miles
In his chapter Winter of Despair Utley describes the post-battle year as Hunkpapas, frozen and starving, tried desperately to beat off the merciless blows of the army. In early May 1877, to Sitting Bull’s despair, Crazy Horse and his people surrendered at Camp Robinson, Nebraska. The next day Bear Coat attacked the Miniconjou village on Muddy Creek, burning it, killing the chiefs and scattering the people into the winter wilds. Sitting Bull would still not surrender, however, and at about the same time crossed the border into Canada.
The land of the Grandmother
Utley’s chapters on Sitting Bull’s four years in Queen Victoria’s Canada are absolutely fascinating. But it was a story of how a sympathetic and friendly welcome, especially at the hands of the police inspector James M Walsh, “Long Lance”, turned gradually sour. It was a question of politics, really, as Ottowa, London and Washington jousted for position on a difficult question. In one way the United States were only too happy to be rid of Sitting Bull and his people, and pressed the Canadians to grant them the status of Canadian Indians. But the British dominion had enough troubles with its own Indians to wish to absorb American ones, and stubbornly refused. The Canadian treatment of the Hunkpapas was fair, correct and decent. But the Canadians wanted them to leave. Walsh was increasingly sidelined and the Ottowa line hardened.
In the end it was the buffalo, the pte, that defeated Sitting Bull. They stopped coming and the people, not rationed on a reservation, starved. Finally, at long last, in 1881 Sitting Bull realized he must go back to the States and surrender.
One of the few “goodies” in this painful story is Jean Louis Legaré, a trader at Wood Mountain who sympathized with the Sioux and did his best – almost bankrupting himself – to help them. He negotiated and arranged the surrender under the best terms possible and he comes across as a most attractive character.
Jean Louis Legaré
The ragged, gaunt procession entered Fort Buford on July 19, 1881 and surrendered. Sitting Bull was the last to hand over his prized Winchester repeating rifle. Afterwards he sang a song: A warrior / I have been / Now / It is all over / A hard time / I have.
Decline and fall
For twenty months, in the latest in an endless series of broken promises, Sitting Bull was separated from his people and imprisoned as a PoW at Fort Randall. In May 1883 he was transferred to Fort Yates. He stood ready to compromise. He would learn to earn his living from the land and send his children to the white man’s school. Utley suggests how hard it must have been to live confined, on the government dole and with a white overlord.
James McLaughlin, Indian Agent
Agent James McLaughlin was a successful and dynamic but essentially petty and arrogant man and he disliked Sitting Bull from the outset. This was to have very negative, indeed fatal results for the Hunkpapa chief.
The brief interlude in 1885 with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is described in the short chapter 21, The World Beyond, and makes you inevitably think of Little Big Man again. Bull had an especially close relationship with Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot as he called her.
Bull and Bill
Bull adapted amazingly well and was happy to make money from his autograph (he had learned to write his name) and selling trinkets his wives made, though in line with the cardinal virtue of generosity he gave most of the proceeds away. Curiously in a way, the ‘killer of Custer’ was feted and entertained, and he enjoyed it. But he was soon back at Standing Rock, living quietly and suffering various illnesses.
Bull opposed the disgraceful Sioux Acts of 1887 and 1888, which attempted to apportion private homesteads to the Sioux and make available the “surplus land” (about half the total) to white settlers. But he had no power, not even influence any more. To the land grabbers Bull was a mindless obstructionist battling the benevolent programs of a generous government. But Sitting Bull said, “I would rather die an Indian than live a white man.”
The government cut rations as fast as it stole the land and there was a series of crop failures. Starvation once again stared the Sioux in the face. It was against this background that the Ghost Dance movement arose that led to the tragedy of Wounded Knee. Sitting Bull seems to have dallied with the religion in his capacity as Sioux holy man but to have been basically skeptical. That didn’t stop McLaughlin and the army being terrified that he would join and lead the “dangerous” movement, inciting war once more.
The penultimate chapter, which deals with the final days and the Ghost Dance, tells of another interesting character who came into Sitting Bull’s life, Mrs. Catherine Weldon. She is clearly the model for Amanda Teasdale in Berger’s 1999 sequel The Return of Little Big Man.
Born Susanna Carolina Faesch in 1844 in Kleinhüningen, Switzerland, she arrived in Brooklyn at the age of eight. In 1866 Susanna married Dr. Bernhard Claudius Schlatter, a physician and fellow Swiss, but divorced two years later. She then met and married Richard Weldon who would eventually abandon her. She became an activist with the National Indian Defense Association and especially interested in the outrageous treatment of the Lakota.
In 1889 she traveled with her fourteen-year-old son to Standing Rock Reservation and volunteered to assist Bull. She wrote many letters on his behalf, irritating politicians and agent McLaughlin thoroughly. As she lived with Sitting Bull and his wives there were rumors and she was branded a “squaw”. She found it increasingly difficult to live with Bull and his wives on their terms and finally left with her son (who trod on a rusty nail on the boat and died of lockjaw). The press even blamed her for Wounded Knee for having “incited the Indians”. She died alone in 1921 in a poor New York apartment as a result of a fire started by a candle. Another fascinating story.
Robert Utley treats the death of Sitting Bull without apportioning much specific blame. He says of McLaughlin,
He cannot have been too sorry over the death of Sitting Bull, but he certainly was not prepared to risk the lives of his policemen for it. Confinement of Sitting Bull in some distant prison suited McLaughlin’s purposes fully as well as death, and without much doubt that is what he intended.
Of the Indian police, Utley writes:
The most persuasive refutation of the charge against the police lies in their own actions. However badly they handled the arrest, they clearly made every possible effort to get their prisoner out of the Sitting Bull settlement alive. Only when fired on … did Bull Head and Red Tomahawk ensure, as the agent had ordered, that under no circumstances was Sitting Bull to be allowed to escape. As Captain Fechet pointed out in his official report, “If it had been the intention of the police to assassinate Sitting Bull, they could easily have done so before his friends arrived.
This is probably right, although it is also possible that police instructions were too vague, even deliberately vague, especially when police chief Louis Primeau warned officer Bull Head that Sitting Bull must be watched very closely. “If he should [attempt to leave the reservation] you must stop him and if he does not listen to you do as you see fit.” McLaughlin’s own letter to Bull Head added the postscript: “You must not let him escape under any circumstances.”
If not a deliberate assassination, the death of Sitting Bull seems to have been a result of incompetent and over-nervous police officers and lack of diligence in wording of orders from an antagonistic agent not sorry to see Sitting Bull dead.
Sitting Bull was not a paragon of virtues and he was not a general of Napoleonic skill but as Robert Utley says in his final words,
He was a real Indian, and a real person, completely faithful to his culture. He earned greatness as a Hunkpapa patriot, steadfastly true to the values and principles and institutions that guided his tribe. In this guise, not as some generic ideal Indian of the popular imagination, his memory achieves contemporary significance.