In addition to telling the fascinating story of Sitting Bull’s life, Bill Yenne’s biography, Sitting Bull, presents an excellent introduction to the history and culture of Native Americans living on the Great Plains during the nineteenth century. Much of the book necessarily focuses on the violent clashes between two fundamentally different cultures. When Sitting Bull was a young man, he and other indigenous peoples of the region were still living as they had for centuries. They practiced a nomadic way of life without fixed settlements, obtaining their food and other needs by following the great buffalo herds across the plains. Sitting Bull loved everything about this lifestyle, and he grieved to see Euro-Americans (or “wasichu”) slaughtering the buffalo and coercing the tribes to settle into reservations. Ironically, the year Sitting Bull was killed, 1890, was the same year in which the census bureau announced that the United States no longer had a definable frontier (or line between settled and unsettled lands) in the American West.
Like any writer on the subject, Yenne sometimes finds it difficult to separate historical facts from legends. He observes that Sitting Bull’s “legacy survives in two worlds, with one foot in history, where he remains complex and difficult to understand, and the other foot in popular history.” Although dependable knowledge about Sitting Bull’s early life is limited, Yenne concludes that Sitting Bull was probably born in 1831, close to where the Grand River enters the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. He was initially given the name Jumping Badger, and then he was called Slow because of his careful and deliberate behavior. At about the age of fourteen, he was allowed to take his father’s former name, Sitting Bull (or Tatanka Iyotanka), after he first “counted coup,” the dangerous practice of touching a person from an enemy tribe with a stick. The Lakota word tatanka referred to a buffalo bull, and the word iyotanka implied that the bull was stubborn or intractable. The name also referred to the first stage in a traditional allegory about the four stages of life.
Sitting Bull belonged to the Hunkpapa branch of the Lakota tribal groupcommonly known as the Western Sioux. The Hunkpapa (which means “head of the camp”) acquired the name from their practice of defending the campsite at large assemblies of Plains Indians. The Lakota people in language and culture are closely related to the Nakota and Dakota (all three names mean “friends” or “allies”). The three tribal groups did not like to be called Sioux, a name that means “snakes” or “enemies” in the Ojibwa (or Chippewa) language. The Lakota-Nakota-Dakota were famous for their skill and organization in warfare, which was the basis for their hegemony over a large portion of the Great Plains, spanning from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from Manitoba to Nebraska.
In contrast to romantic writers who have described Native Americans as living together in peace and harmony, Yenne acknowledges that they frequently engaged in violent conflict. He writes, for instance, that warfare with the Crow tribe was deeply embedded in the Lakota culture. Like many indigenous peoples, the Lakota considered the “scalps of women and children, as well as those of defeated warriors, . . . legitimate trophies long before the wasichu set foot on the plains.” Sitting Bull did not object to the violent methods of U.S. Cavalry, but he was not impressed with their military skills. He said, “The white soldiers do not know how to fight. They are not lively enough. They stand still and run straight; it is easy to shoot them.” In addition, he described the wasichu warriors as heartless: “When an Indian gets killed, the other Indians feel sorry and cry, and sometimes they stop fighting. But when a white soldier gets killed, nobody cries, nobody cares; they go right on shooting and let him lie there.”
Until the second half of the twentieth century, a large percentage of white Americans looked upon Sitting Bull as a villain opposed to progress and as the person responsible for the death of General George Armstrong Custer. By the late twentieth century, in contrast, it had become commonplace, especially among intellectuals, to perceive him as a hero who had defended an oppressed people and who had fought against imperialism. Yenne writes that “the truth is more complicated than either stereotype.” His thesis is that Sitting Bull can be considered a “composite of many realities.” Among his different and complex roles, he was “a warrior, a leader, a shaman, and an ’Indian chief’ a father, and an inspiration to his people.”
As a spiritual leader, Sitting Bull was believed to have possessed exceptional and mysterious powers. The Lakota term for such a person was eikasa Wakan, commonly translated as “medicine man” by white...
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