Arrest Sitting Bull

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Douglas C. Jones is the author of two earlier books, a factual work, The Treaty of Medicine Lodge, and a historical fantasy, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer. In his current work he combines the meticulous research of the historian displayed in his first book with the literary flair and pace of his fantasy, to create the best kind of historical novel. Jones is a professional artist and journalist; these disciplines serve him well as he reconstructs each ambience with the eye of the artist and the ear and voice of the journalist—a happy amalgamation of talents.

Jones builds a flawless novel around the nucleus of the arrest of the recalcitrant Sitting Bull, the Sioux leader in the last days of the white man’s war with the Indian. He molds, polishes, and defines characters who spin around the central act of the arrest, each personality a clear, believable part of the whole, each adding his bit of energy to the relentless vortex that is pulling a people toward disaster. The incidents fit neatly into the total story; each is a carefully measured and complete statement, adding to the plot as closely as stones mesh in a flagstone walk. The themes of displacement, alienation, ambition, frustration, rebellion, acculturation, and loyalty are dealt with realistically and with remarkable insight.

Billed on the dust jacket as a “spine-chilling novel of death and deception, of misunderstanding and bureaucratic bungling, of attempts at conciliation and of burning hatred—all of which combine to sow the seeds of disaster,” it is certainly more than that; it is a study of the motives behind a conquered people’s last desperate attempt to resist change, of white men and women unsuccessfully attempting to penetrate the mystique of the Indian by using the Anglo-Saxon measuring stick, of the Sioux’ naïve attempt at blending their old beliefs with those promulgated by the Christian missionaries, of old enmities and loyalties, of the inner ideological struggle of the Indians serving as the white man’s police force.

The time of the novel is December, 1890. There is unrest on the Indian reservations in the Dakotas. Seasons of drought have depleted the grain and cattle on the land to which the Indians have been assigned. The supplementary rations provided by the government have been drastically cut by a penny-pinching Congress in a classic case of bad timing. Anarchy rules on some reservations, and wily old Sitting Bull takes advantage of the situation to foster as much dissension and resentment as he can. He encourages the spread of the ghost dance, a virtual religion promising an Indian Messiah who will free them from the white oppressor. The old warrior has no faith in the cult, but he uses it as a convenient device to harass those in authority. He knows, too, that his stirring up of the ghost dancers may lead to his arrest, an action that he hopes will instigate violence on the part of his followers.

James McLaughlin, Indian agent at Standing Rock reservation, does all in his power and wisdom to head off an uprising, but he knows an explosion is inevitable. He plans to delay it by arresting Sitting Bull, for he knows only too well that the canker of rebellion is nourished by the old man’s vitriol. Hastening the urgency of the arrest is General Nelson Miles, an Army officer insensitive to the wishes of the agent and the mood of the times. Miles wants to make the arrest his way, inviting unnecessary violence in so doing. McLaughlin must act summarily to prevent Army intervention; the arrest ends tragically in a way neither McLaughlin nor Sitting Bull had anticipated.

On one level this book is a fast-moving western with all the prerequisites, even an understated romance. On the more significant level, Jones makes the important statement that despite their overt differences, both Indian and white man share a common humanity—one of accomplishment and frustration, love and hate, heroism and weakness. He makes it clear that both are diminished by their condition; the white man is robbed of his morality as he robs the Indian of his identity.

Sitting Bull symbolizes man’s violent response to loss of self-esteem through loss of dignity. His resistance to change, and the manifestation of that resistance, is treated with understanding—Old Bull’s wily manipulation of his followers, his realistic assessment of conditions but refusal to accept them, have earned the grudging respect of the author. Jones sees both sides of issues and does not lose his perspective. While Sitting Bull does loom large in the narrative, it is those around him who are more memorable.

Agent James McLaughlin typifies the ideal government employee, a bureaucrat in the better sense of the word. Called “Whitehair” by the Indians who respect age and wisdom, he is recognized as firm but fair, and even loved by some. McLaughlin knows that he is more than the voice and hand of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; in his own eyes, and those of the people, he has proved himself a friend. A career employee of the Department of the Interior, he has been with the Bureau most of his adult life, surviving changes of administration because he is good at his job. Like anyone involved with topheavy management, he is frequently frustrated by the workings of bureaucracy. One of his keenest annoyances is the tendency of top level politicians in the Bureau to play it safe, and let the Army solve militarily what the Indian Bureau should be doing for itself. Jones has McLaughlin rant, “These gutless bureaucrats . . . . Pass the buck . . . . The Army, the Army, the Army, at the first sign of discontent on the reservations.” He always points out that, “You have to keep soldiers and warrior societies apart. When they rub together, you must expect a little disaster now and again.”

McLaughlin feels that the ghost dance will run its course, and the Indians will cause no problem, if there is no intervention. It is to the south, where political appointees have caused...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, November, 1977, p. 104.

Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 268.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, July 1, 1977, p. 682.

Library Journal. CII, August, 1977, p. 1678.

Publisher’s Weekly. CXII, August 1, 1977, p. 104.