WASHINGTON – In the same week Fox News President Roger Ailes assailed President Barack Obama for being un-American, the Fox News website attempted to paint the president as out of touch for admiring Indian Chief Sitting Bull. But the network got its history wrong.
The manufactured controversy began earlier this month upon Obama’s release of a book meant for children called, “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” (Knopf, $17.99). The 31-page book is intended to pay tribute to 13 Americans whose traits he sees in his own children.
One of the historical figures Obama chose to include was Chief Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux spiritual leader who led his people as a war chief during years of resistance to U.S. government policies.
Sitting Bull is one of the Indian chiefs most remembered in American culture today, largely because he led a movement to resist assimilation and attempts by colonists to take over lands in a way that he felt unjust.
Along those lines, Sitting Bull played a role in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, which resulted in the death of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Obama reflected on Sitting Bull in his new book, saying he was “a Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises.”
Fox News on Nov. 15 posted a clip of an article that reviewed the book, with the network listing a headline on its website titled, “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.”
The headline fit into the storyline Ailes was making in the mainstream press the same week, stating in an interview that Obama has a “different belief system than most Americans.”
A problem for Fox News, however, was soon pointed out by online commenters: Sitting Bull had not killed Custer. The network had posted a false headline.
“As has been pointed out Crazy Horse of the Teton Lakota was one of the leaders at Little Big Horn,” wrote one commenter. “The other two were Gall of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Two Moons of the Northern Cheyenne. Sitting Bull was in the village but did not participate in the battle.”
“These kind of articles do not help those of us that are anti-Obama,” wrote another. “It gives ammunition to the other side claiming that Fox News is biased. Please stick to facts and avoid re-writing history.”
Patrick Goldstein wrote for the LA Times that Fox News was unfairly rewriting Indian history in order to attack the president: “The Indian wars have been over for roughly 130 years, but at Fox News, no war is too distant in memory to go unnoticed, especially when it comes to opening up a new avenue of attack on Barack Obama.”
As the commenters correctly suggested, Sitting Bull did not kill Custer. Rather, he helped lead a camp of Sioux that Custer stumbled upon and attacked.
Not knowing how large the Indian camp was, Custer and his men were overwhelmed. Custer was ultimately killed in the battle.
Historians indicate that Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the fight, and was instead focused on defensive responsibilities.
The American public at the time was fascinated by Custer’s defeat, and some believed Sitting Bull had personally killed him, but Sitting Bull made clear before his death in 1890 that he did not kill Custer.
“They say I murdered Custer,” Sitting Bull told a reporter in 1877. “But it was a lie. He was a fool who rode to his death.”
After the battle, Sitting Bull ended up leading his band across the border into Saskatchewan, Canada and remained in exile for many years near Wood Mountain, refusing a U.S. pardon.
Sitting Bull later performed in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show before returning to his homelands where, in 1890, police attempted to arrest him, and wound up killing him – leading to much sadness for his people, and helping to ensure his historical legacy.
A spokeswoman for the network said the headline was changed to “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General” and an editor’s note was posted after the article: “Headline has been corrected for historical accuracy.”
For some, however, a new headline won’t cut it.
In a statement, Rhonda LeValdo, president of Native American Journalists Association, called on Fox News to apologize “to the Native American nations across this country who consider Sitting Bull a hero and a warrior who stood up for his people.”