Carrying Forward Sitting Bull’s Songs and Memories that Keep History Alive in the Hardest of Times
by Krista Tippett, host
I can’t say that I knew much about Sitting Bull when we began this research several years ago. His was the final name in our first series of shows on the spiritual legacy of historical figures. We here at On Being have delved into the universally recognized names of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Rumi. And we’ve explored significant theological figures of the 20th century, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel too. This fall, we’ll be launching a second series, beginning with the scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Producing these shows has been extraordinarily rich at times and at others extraordinarily hard. None of them has felt more complex or more daunting in the end than Tatanka Iyotake.
The word “elusive” also describes the process of approaching the facts of this man’s life and the meaning of his legacy. That is in part because of the complexity of this legacy and of the terrible history of the United States government’s treatment of native peoples, of which the story of the Lakota on the northern Great Plains is just a part. It is also a function of the relative privacy and largely oral nature of the historical record of Lakota culture.
Sitting Bull was a thorn in the side of the U.S. government that first gave the Black Hills to the Lakota, then wanted them back after gold (Sitting Bull called it “shining dust”) was discovered there. He refused to negotiate or sign treaties with federal authorities; he didn’t, decreeing from observation and experience that their promises were not good — and certainly not to be trusted over lands that he understood as a sacred inheritance. General Custer’s army attacked, and Sitting Bull’s troops improbably prevailed. Thereafter and until the end of his life, he was pursued as Public Enemy No. 1 by American journalists and politicians. I’ve read some of those reports; Sitting Bull was portrayed like the Osama bin Laden of his day.
After weeks and months of being steeped in what feels like this hidden realm of American history, I feel confident about the truth of that paragraph I’ve just written. I know, at the same time, that it is nearly as simplified as those newspaper reports of Sitting Bull’s day — one side of narrative made up of competing and utterly irreconcilable points of view. In the end there was, to be sure, violence all around.
Sitting Bull’s own relatives and people were divided over his leadership and his resistance to any partnership with the federal government. Members of his own extended family were implicated in his death. This is a wound they carry even today, layered among the many wounds they have carried forward out of the settlement of the American frontier and into the present.
In the end, Sitting Bull’s mistrust of treaties was vindicated by the history that followed. He is not remembered in Lakota oral history principally for that, or for the victory at Little Big Horn. He is remembered for qualities of character that were invisible to press and politicians of his time yet that inspire and strengthen his people even now: humility towards the land, compassion towards living beings, and the ultimate sacrifice of his life on behalf of his people.
Of all I have learned that makes me ashamed of this history and my implication in it as an American citizen, I am appalled that it was not until 1978 — 1978! — that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guaranteed the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies. And these were at the essence of Sitting Bull’s life and legacy. Ceremony is the very element of Lakota spirituality and lifeways. Sitting Bull helped shape the vision quest and the Sun Dance. Yet even while his closest lineal descendant, Ernie LaPointe, was growing up, which is not that far away in our lifetime, his family lived in fear of speaking openly or performing these ceremonies.
It is very moving to hear from Cedric Good House, who lives on the Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull died, how the vision quest and Sun Dance are now experienced as sources of healing, very much in the best spirit of Sitting Bull’s memory. Cedric Good House brought his son to our interview and is carrying forward songs that keep different memories and meanings of history alive in the hardest of times. I interviewed them in late November 2009. As we finished and said our goodbyes, Cedric Good House wished me a “Happy Thanksgiving” — a blessing that warmed me and stayed with me for days, containing, as it does, such a long view of history in which true generosity can be obtained.
He also offered the image of the pilgrimage some of the Lakota make on horseback each December, in memory of Sitting Bull’s death and life — from Standing Rock Reservation straddling the Dakotas to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. This is painful history to know as my own. But I am grateful for it, and more complete. I’m delighted to know Sitting Bull by his real name, Tatanka Iyotake, and to witness his enduring teachings of humility, compassion, passion, and healing alive in our midst.
I also recommend reading Sitting Bull by Bill Yenne and Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe.
I consider these two books as complementary reading. Bill Yenne’s biography is meticulously researched and gives you a detailed understanding of Sitting Bull’s life within a larger historical and geographical context.
On the other hand, Ernie LaPointe brings the gift of simple storytelling to the page through the oral tradition of his family and culture. Reading one account gives a richer sense of the other, and through this we gain a better understanding of “parallel histories” in contemporary American culture.
Sitting Bull’s Legacy: Strength in Culture and Family
by Patrice Kunesh, special contributor
Louis Primeau (seated, far right), the uncle of my grandfather, served as translator and tracker for James McLaughlin (leaning against tree), the U.S. official who ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest in December 1890.
As a law student studying the tragic history of the federal government’s unwarranted removal of thousands of Indian children from their families, I told my mother of my intent to fight for the right of Indian tribes to secure the well-being of those children. She replied, to my utter surprise, “No child should have to grow up on an Indian reservation.”
My view of the reservation had been constructed around stories from my grandfather, Theodore Kelly, a Hunkpapa Lakota who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the early 1900s. He spent summers running with abandon through the prairie grass, fishing along the banks of the Missouri, hunting and relishing tachupa, the bone marrow, which he said was the best part. Seldom did he hear shi’cha (“naughty”), only hoksila seka (“good boy”) and hoksila washte (“good girl”).
My mother then told me about the precarious side of his childhood: the grinding poverty, the disease, and the despair that had become rooted into every part of the reservation. Often there was not enough food for the family or fuel to heat the house. His brother, along with scores of other children, was sent far away to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as part of the federal government’s assimilationist policies aimed at breaking up families and severing their ties to the land. Like so many other Indian children, he grew up confused and angry about his identity and indefinite place in American society. I was not dissuaded by my mother’s response — only more resolved to work for the rights of American Indian tribes to be self-determined and self-sufficient.
I found my inspiration in the words of Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Lakota people who also grew up in a territory that became the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull is renowned for his prowess as a warrior and visionary spiritual leader; but, later in life when pressed by the army, he would look first to the children, the old, and the sick. He would seek to secure their safety and consistently would give away his possessions and meat to feed and clothe them. He gained a reputation as the most generous man in a society where generosity was the ultimate virtue.
Even in the face of defeat, Sitting Bull’s primary concern was for the children. On the threshold of the passage of the General Allotment Act — one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation leading to the utter destruction of the traditional tribal way of life on the plains and prairies of the Dakota Territory — Sitting Bull finally surrendered to the U.S. Calvary to save his people from starvation and further degradations.
Years of fighting a losing battle against the government’s confiscation of Lakota lands and confinement onto reservations had reduced the Lakota to a pitiful state of privation and dependency. In 1883, just seven years before his tragic death, Sitting Bull addressed a committee of U.S. Senators at the Standing Rock Agency. While the senators insisted on more land cessions from the Lakota in the sacred grounds of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), Sitting Bull reminded them of their treaty obligations for compensation and supplies. His pleas were not for himself, but for the children.
He said to the U.S. Senators who were visiting Standing Rock:
“I am looking into the future for the benefit of my children, the Sioux, and that is what I mean when I say I want my country taken care of for me. My children will grow up here, and I am looking ahead for their benefit, and for the benefit of my children’s children too; and even beyond that.”
After years of conflict and the painful transition from an unencumbered life to a life as reservation accommodationists, some tribal people began to rethink what it meant to be Lakota, indeed to be part of the Sioux nation. To Sitting Bull, the true survival of his people meant cultural survival and the endurance of the tiospaye, or family relationships.
The foundations of his prominence as a leader and his spiritual powers were derived from his tiospaye, which nourished the Lakota lifeways and a culture that valued children and ensured their future well-being. Sitting Bull insisted on preserving the collectivity of the land and family through tribal customs and ceremonies.
Despite my mother’s faltering view of reservation life, she constructed her own life around the family as a sacred circle. In her home and in the homes of her 13 children, there is always a place for grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren. We often have a complete family circle at one time. The land we hold at Standing Rock also remains an essential cultural connection for us. It reminds us of Sitting Bull’s enduring legacy, which implores: “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”
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