In O’Connor’s biography, Sitting Bull emerges as a figure of dignity, endurance, wisdom, and mysticism. Twice warned of danger by birds, he revered the “Bird People,” and he wrote poetry. He was canny in his assessment of whites’ motives, yet he maintained his own high standards of honor. The book is an objective account of the Native Americans’ dwindling freedom, their shrinking lands, and the efforts of Sitting Bull—the most powerful of all the chiefs—to preserve their nomadic life.
Sitting Bull’s culture loved fighting, as the “sheer joy of combat” was a way of life for Plains tribes. Therefore, Sitting Bull astonished his people by adopting, rather than killing, an Assiniboine boy whose family had been killed by Sioux warriors. Their culture also respected nature. When hunting buffalo, the Native Americans slaughtered only as many animals as they could use; they did not want to destroy the precious herds.
Although he described whites as “a force like the wind,” Sitting Bull scorned their fighting methods and their lack of visible mourning for casualties. He thought it was callous the way that soldiers often left their dead behind them. Bored and disgusted by whites’ maneuvers, he once strode to the middle of a battlefield and smoked his pipe, to the amazement of whites and Native Americans alike.
After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull warned his warriors not to loot the knapsacks of the dead white troops, predicting that money, whiskey, and possessions would corrupt the Sioux, who were not by nature a materialistic people. He lived to see his prediction come true, as many Native Americans on reservations took up the least attractive aspects of white culture....
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The author of more than a dozen books for adults as well as for children, O’Connor has written biographies of Jack London, Buffalo Bill, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, and Bret Harte, as well as accounts of westward expansion and the golden age of American railroads during the era of the robber barons. An expert on Western topics, he wrote Sitting Bull well in advance of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, a modern turning point in Native American history. His works focus on historical figures who occupied a kind of “underdog” role, both in art and in politics. Sitting Bull’s triple accomplishments as warrior, poet, and peacemaker clearly fascinated O’Connor, who deserves commendation for piecing together little-known facts about Sitting Bull’s boyhood. Such material makes the figure of Sitting Bull tangible to young readers and emphasizes his humanity and vulnerability.
The mid-to late twentieth century political climate, and films from this period about Native American topics, established a heightened awareness of Native American rights, though not a complete reversal of the old stereotypes. This biography offers solid, unbiased history to a new generation of readers.