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‘Sitting Bull,’ by Bill Yenne

Without a doubt, Tatanka Iyotanka, Sitting Bull, was one of the most respected, important Indian warriors, religious leaders and Native public figures of the 19th century. Much has been written about the eminent Hunkpapa icon. Nevertheless, many aspects of his life have been obscured in these writings by romantic notions, political censoring or lack of cultural context.

San Francisco author Bill Yenne does an admirable job of looking beyond these misconceptions, and in doing so has produced an absorbing biography of the man and his times. His new book, simply titled “Sitting Bull,” is a refreshing and intimate portrait that offers readers a rare glimpse of the man behind the legend.

Born around 1831 in the Missouri River region, Sitting Bull was given the name Hoka Psice, or Jumping Badger. As a youth, he earned the moniker “Slow” because of his careful and deliberate manner. According to Yenne, he killed his first buffalo at age 10, and counted coup for the first time at 14. After this act of bravery, his father bestowed his own name, Sitting Bull, upon the young warrior, taking the name Jumping Bull for himself.

Around 1851, Sitting Bull married for the first time, taking a wife by the name of Light Hair. In the ensuing years, he took more wives, including Snow on Her, Red Woman, Seen by the Nation, and Four Robes. He and his wives produced a number of children, some of whom died in infancy or childhood. His family today is represented by his great-grandson, Ernie La Pointe of South Dakota. Much of Yenne’s information came from oral interviews with La Pointe.

Sitting Bull often claimed that he could see the world around him before he was born, and by the time he was a young man, he was known as a powerful wicasa wakan, or religious leader. Throughout his life he was intensely spiritual with a charisma that overwhelmed even his adversaries.

Many have debated about the role the Hunkpapa chief played in the fight against Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876. Thankfully, Yenne does not dawdle over another hackneyed retelling of the Little Bighorn battle. Indeed, as he reveals in his book, Sitting Bull himself grew weary of the story. In the spring of 1877, he led his band to Canada for safety; but by midsummer 1881, faced with dwindling numbers and in constant competition with other tribes for limited food resources, he surrendered at Fort Buford near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in the future state of North Dakota.

Yenne’s study is most interesting when the author discusses the Lakota leader’s impressions of wasicu society during the time he spent traveling on lecture tours and as part of Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Although his assessment of these years could benefit from a wider reading of more recent secondary sources, the insights he provides into Sitting Bull’s thoughts and ideas about urban settlement, technology and the character of 19th century white Americans are both fascinating and significant.

His book helps to dispel romantic, essentialist notions that have served to suspend Indians in time as hapless creatures of an archaic past. Through Yenne’s research, we learn that Sitting Bull was a progressive, practical thinker, interested in new technology and not opposed to the beneficial things Euro-Americans had to offer. Sitting Bull summed up his thoughts on the matter this way: “When you find anything good in the white man’s road, pick it up; but when you find something bad … leave it alone.”

Indian Agent James McLaughlin saw Sitting Bull’s authority among his people as an impediment to assimilation. In the years after the chief settled on the Standing Rock reservation, McLaughlin sought to minimize his influence on the tribe. Ironically, the more McLaughlin tried to discredit him, the more notoriety he achieved. Thanks in part to his public exposure through his years with the Wild West Show and the attention he received from the press, he became one of the most notorious and outspoken Indians in history.

Sitting Bull’s intense and well-founded distrust of the American government was legendary, as he spent the better part of his life fighting off its aggressive assimilative and expansionist policies and campaigns. Overall, his views are reflected in a statement he made to a reporter from the New York Herald in 1877: “Americans are great liars. ... I never treated with them in a way to surrender my people’s rights.” Sadly, his steadfast refusal to relinquish those rights ended with his murder at the hands of tribal police in December 1890.

While Yenne’s analysis of certain events could be stronger, his narrative is pleasurable and the book is an easy and interesting read. This is a fine introduction to the life of this extraordinary Lakota leader.