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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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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 (1885)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.

Pictographs by Sitting Bull's Hand: A Smithsonian Ethnographer's PerspectiveIn 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. Krista Tippett and Ernie LaPointe During an Interview in His HomeSitting 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.

Sitting Bull by Bill YenneI  also recommend reading Sitting Bull by Bill Yenne and Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointeI 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.

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Song of Sitting Bull at the Surrender of Fort Buford

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

For the Lakota people, Cedric Good House of Standing Rock Reservation says, songs kept different memories and meanings alive. Sitting Bull sang the song above, Mr. Good House says, to remind his people of their way of living at a time when things looked most bleak — in what the history books describe as the “surrender” at Fort Buford:

"Our story says it was an exchange of lifestyle. People were starving. He chose that the better would be for them to have food and shelter. So he in turn took his rifle, he gave it to his son; his son gave it to Colonel Buford or whatever his name was. And he’s the one that called it a surrender, but it wasn’t a surrender. It was an exchange of lifestyle. You’re going to give this lifestyle to my son, not to me."

Check out the rest of our show, "Tatanka Iyotake: Reimagining Sitting Bull," to hear more of Cedric Good House and Sitting Bull’s great-grandson Ernie LaPointe describe the spiritual legacy of Tatanka Iyotake.

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Sitting Bull’s Legacy: Strength in Culture and Family

by Patrice Kunesh, special contributor

Louis Primeau and James McLaughlin on the Standing Rock AgencyLouis 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.

Sitting Bull (1885)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.”

Sitting Bull at Council Standing Rock Reservation 1887Sitting Bull addresses a federal commission with James McLaughlin at Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory. (photo: D. F. Barry)

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.”


Patrice KuneshPatrice Kunesh teaches federal Indian law at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She also directs the university’s Institute of American Indian Studies.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Sitting Bull and the Lakota People: A Painful History I Better Understand Now

by Krista Tippett, host

Tatanka Iyotake - Reimagining Sitting Bull
"One Bison, Horizon Cloud" (photo: Jim Brandenburg)

I can’t say that I knew much about Sitting Bull when we began researching his legacy for our show titled "Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake." His is the final name in a series we envisioned several years ago, of programs on the spiritual legacy of historical figures. We’ve delved into Albert Einstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Darwin, Rumi, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this series. 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 Sitting Bull, 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 word was 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 number 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.

Pictographs by Sitting Bull's Hand: A Smithsonian PerspectiveAfter 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. And 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. But 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.

SoundSeen: In the Room with Ernie LaPointeOf 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 kept different memories and meanings of history alive in the hardest of times. I interviewed them in late November. As we finished and said our goodbyes, Cedric wished me, “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 will be making on horseback, 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.

Sitting Bull by Bill YenneAnd, if you’re looking for a starting place for reading material about Sitting Bull, I recommend reading two books: Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe and Sitting Bull by Bill Yenne. I consider these two books as complementary reading.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointeBill 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.

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A Student’s Reaction to “Tatanka Iyotake”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Robynne Greeninger, a nurse and single mother who is currently working toward her law degree, recently sent us this thoughtful essay reflecting on our show about Sitting Bull’s spiritual legacy as part of an assignment for a World Religions class at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota:

"This is a subject that is very close to my heart. I am half Native. My father is a full-blooded Sioux from a Lakota tribe. …

The story of Sitting Bull is mostly portrayed in war and defiance. But this SOF broadcast digs into the spirit of the man and what he was truly about — his way as a medicine man, visionary, and a protector of his people. Tatanka (his birth name) was a spiritual man, as most Natives were in those days. He was merely trying to preserve his peoples’ ways. …

I see a lot of Tatanka’s life closely aligning to the life of Christ. He was viewed as a visionary, chief, medicine man, and he died trying to protect his people. He was highly spiritual and compassionate. It is so upsetting to me that part of him has been overlooked or not been given credence. Some of the things the ‘white people’ did to force his hand were abominable and, instead of taking blame, the government has depicted events in a way that made Tatanka look horrible!”

Robynne’s professor assigns his students to listen to SOF and submit their reflections on our website. And, we’re hearing from other educators who are using — or want to use — SOF as a teaching tool in a variety of settings. In response, we’re launching a new initiative titled SOF Learning + Education to help people connect around this shared interest.

If you’d like to get involved, fill out our educators questionnaire so we can learn more about what you’re doing. You can also become a fan of our newly created SOF Learning + Education page on Facebook, where we’re trying to connect educators — from college professors to organizers of book/listening clubs, from high school teachers to leaders of adult learning groups — who can share what they’re doing or would like to do, ask questions about using our materials in creative and meaningful ways, and make suggestions that would help us facilitate learning.

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Fact-checking Sitting Bull

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Nancy's desk

We’re nearing the finish line of a new show: "Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake (that’s Sitting Bull’s name in Lakota). This program has been a year-and-a-half in the making, and we’re eager to put it out in the world. Kate, our managing producer, has said she’s always known a show about Sitting Bull would create unchartered challenges for us practically and editorially. As a team of wasicu (i.e. non-Native) producers, we’ve been engaged in new levels of intercultural communication that’s stretched us all.

The learning curve has been steep. As we’ve sifted through all the information gathered, sometimes it’s been confusing to do the best we can to ensure that what Krista says on the radio is journalistically accurate. The historical narrative is complicated, and along the way we’ve had to make judgment calls, recognizing that sometimes there’s no singular, discernible truth.

Last week, Colleen wrote about her adventures fact-checking the script for The Moral Math of Climate Change. Likewise, we wanted to shed light on our script process for “Reimagining Sitting Bull.” Oceans of ink have been devoted to telling the story of this Lakota leader and historical icon, much of it penned by non-Lakota.

And yet, as we’ve verified our facts, we’ve had to remember that we’re neither historians nor documentarians. Our job as producers of a weekly radio program is to offer our audience engaging, illuminating — and yes — accurate audio and multimedia storytelling. One of our goals with this show is to explore a dimension of Sitting Bull that doesn’t get talked about that much — namely his spiritual legacy and connection to the Sun Dance. We’ve tried mightily to stay focused on this aim and keep the script from devolving into an unwieldy history lesson that’s difficult for listeners to digest. Let us know if we’ve hit the mark.

Here are a few “before-and-afters” that reveal how we’ve been refining the script as we’ve gone along. You can see in the photo above that my desk is cluttered with multiple versions of the script as it has progressed.

First script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act make it legal for the Lakota and other tribes to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.

Second script draft:
Not until 1978 did the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guarantee the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies.

The first draft version suggests that up until 1978, it was “illegal” for Lakota and other tribes to take part in traditional spiritual ceremonies. As I’ve come to understand it, there was a period from 1883–1934 when the government passed laws to suppress Native spiritual practices and promote assimilationist Christianization policies. The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRF) provided legal protection under the First Amendment’s establishment clause for Lakota and other Native Americans to worship without interference from the federal government. We changed the script language to more accurately reflect the nature of the AIRF legislation.

First script draft:
The Indian Offenses Act of 1883 decreed their social and religious customs to be “barbarous and demoralizing.”

Second script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs and rituals “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act in 1883 which banned participation in ceremonial dances, including the Sun Dance.

Third script draft:
[We cut the sentence].

Fourth script draft:
U.S. officials deemed native customs “barbarous” and “demoralizing” and passed the Indian Offenses Act of 1883.

I couldn’t find a primary source version of the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 to confirm that the words “barbarous and demoralizing” were included in the original legislation. A colleague in the MPR newsroom pointed me to an excellent 1997 Stanford Law Review article that provided more detail about the U.S. government’s Christianization policies and how these suppressed Native spiritual practices like the Sun Dance.

This article includes references to government officials using the words “barbarous” and “demoralizing” in published reports so we adapted the script accordingly and provided a little more information about the Indian Offenses Act itself and the Code of Offenses it defined. By the third draft, we cut this sentence from the script for time because the show was running long. Then at the last minute, Krista shortened the sentence and added it back in.

First script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose with the Lakota people as part of their encounter with the Wasicu, or White, encroachment on their traditional lands as the Western frontier was settled.

Second script draft:
For Sitting Bull’s legacy also embodies divisions that arose among the Lakota as part of their encounter with the wasicu, or non-natives, as the Western frontier was settled.

Wasicu is a Lakota word that translates roughly as “those who take the fat” and you’ll see it used by Lakota to refer to non-Native Americans. Carole Barrett, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Mary in North Dakota wrote to us that, linguistically, the term has nothing to do with skin color. It’s used to describe a greedy person who takes the all the buffalo fat, “a choice part of the buffalo that was generally shared with others,” according to Barrett.

As you can see, some language we tweaked while other sentences landed on the cutting room floor. We’re curious if you have more knowledge and insight to add to the mix? Are there facts we got wrong or may have misunderstood? Please let us know your input.

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A Story of Sitting Bull’s Signature

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

While preparing for this week’s show on Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull, we hoped to find audio recordings of this legendary Lakota leader talking or singing. We reached out to historian Bill Yenne and Alexandra Shadid, an archivist at the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collections, which houses the papers of Walter Stanley Campbell — better known by his pen name, Stanley Vestal, one of the earliest biographers of Sitting Bull whose source material is the foundation for much of the current research being published on Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull's SignatureSitting Bull’s signature from a pictograph he drew in 1882. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Both scholars informed us that they weren’t aware of any audio recordings in Sitting Bull’s own voice, but Ms. Shadid did offer up the transcripts of Vestal’s interviews and songs by Sitting Bull. She also referred us to a recording housed at the Minnesota Historical Society, just a five-minute walk from our offices in downtown Saint Paul. Here, on Christmas day 1946, Mary P. Hunt tells the story of living in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation (in what was the Dakota Territory) and her encounter with Sitting Bull, who was, in her words, being held prisoner with members of other tribes. She recounts how she sat with him for a couple of days teaching him how to sign his name in English script, which he then sold in exchange for a 50-cent piece.

I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of Ms. Hunt’s story; Bill Yenne writes about Sitting Bull’s time at Fort Randall as such:

"Sitting Bull submitted quietly, albeit not happily, to his life at the post. He certainly knew that things could have been worse. The Fort Randall complex — more a campus than a stockade — was his forced residence, but ironically it gave him his first ever-known, fixed address. Because of this, Sitting Bull suddenly started receiving fan mail. Bags of it began arriving from all over the world. Having learned to write his name in wasichu script, he relished signing autographs for people who wrote to him, or who made their way up the Missouri to visit him."

Nevertheless, delightful anecdotes like Ms. Hunt’s are some of the gems that we’ve stumbled upon time and again while doing this work. Unfortunately, most people will never get to hear all this wonderful archival material that is part of the oral lore of a legendary figure, which only adds to the complexity of verifying what’s fact and fiction, and somewhere in between. I’m glad we could give her story a stage.

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A Humble Offering

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Krista Tippett meets Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull's great-grandson(photo: Nancy Rosenbaum)

Last week, I traveled with Krista, Trent, and Mitch for a production trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We’ve been planning a program about the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull for years. Finally the pieces of this production puzzle have started to come together.

After landing in Rapid City, we drove through the snowy Black Hills until we arrived at the cozy home of Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe. As we prepared for this trip, several people (including Ernie’s wife Sonja) advised us to bring him a gift of tobacco. Some of you responded to an earlier blog post, including David Born who once served as chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

He suggested where to buy the traditional pipe tobacco, or kinnikinnick, and recommended that we wrap it in a red (a sacred color for the Lakota) cotton cloth. What mattered most, he advised, is that Krista should present the tobacco with humbleness, humility, and respect. Here are some notes from our conversation:

"You can let him know that you understand it’s traditional when seeking the advice/wisdom of an elder to present a gift. You want to acknowledge that the information he’ll be sharing is important and sacred and you want to honor that. You can acknowledge your own ignorance about his customs and let him know that you’re not trying to be Native, stereotype Natives, or romanticize them. The gift of the tobacco is a way of both making a request and expressing appreciation — not just of Ernie but of the Lakota nation. What matters most is that the tobacco is given with "a good heart."

A quiet hush descended over Ernie’s living room when Krista formally presented a pouch of tobacco wrapped in red cloth. She spoke quietly and with grace. As I reflect back on this moment, it seems like this singular exchange set the tone for the two-hour interview that unfolded between them — one of respect and intimacy.

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The Details Are in the Tobacco: Preparing for Our Sitting Bull Production

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

I recently wrote about the research around an upcoming SOF program exploring the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. We’ve zeroed in on some possible voices for the show, including Ernie LaPointe (pictured at right), Sitting Bull’s great-grandson. Ernie lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Krista will be interviewing him at his home in late October.

One of the reasons why Krista wants to conduct the interview in Ernie’s home is because she’d like him to show her things — photos, relics, memorabilia — that are evocative of Sitting Bull’s memory. I needed to find out what artifacts he has so I asked if he could give me a rundown. But as soon as the word “artifact” tumbled out of my mouth, Ernie said I would need to speak with his wife, Sonja. From what I could understand, Ernie follows the traditional Lakota way, and therefore does not talk casually about people who have passed on.

Ernie’s wife, who is German, explained that when Krista comes in October we’ll need to bring a gift of tobacco. “Not a pound, just a little,” she said. Ernie will use the tobacco as an offering to his ancestors when he asks their permission to discuss their lives and memory. Sonia also mentioned that if anyone on our production team is “on her moon” (in other words, menstruating), Ernie won’t be able to present certain sacred objects. Apparently Ernie has a prayer room in his house with a sign on the door that reads something like: “Do not enter if you are on your moon.”

We’ve already started talking as a production team about the tobacco: How much should we bring? What kind? Should it be presented in a pouch or a tin? As an associate producer for this show, I’ll be following up on on these kinds of details in the weeks to come.

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It’s the Journey and the Destination

Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

Over the summer, I’ve been doing research for an upcoming program we’re producing on the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. I’ve been on board with Speaking of Faith for under a year and so far, and all the shows I’ve worked on have featured guests who are alive — people like novelist Mary Doria Russell and torture expert Darius Rejali who can speak in the first person about their life and ideas. But this upcoming Sitting Bull show is different. Here we’re trying to find the right voice(s) to illuminate an iconic historical figure. At times I’ve felt like a detective as I’ve sifted through names and followed one lead to the next, keeping my fingers crossed that someone would return my phone calls.

Sitting Bull book coverFortunately I’ve encountered some helpful and responsive guides who’ve helped steer the search. One of those is biographer Bill Yenne, author of Sitting Bull. He was nice enough to take time out of his day recently to answer my questions and offer big-picture advice.

One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures. Honestly, I haven’t resolved this as I’ve reached out to Lakota contacts in South Dakota and beyond. Being an outsider to Lakota culture, I’m still learning to find language that’s respectful and appropriate.

Bill YenneYenne (pictured here) also advised me to do more listening than talking and to get over a deadline-driven expectation that things are going to come together quickly. He recommended traveling to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in South Dakota with a willingness “to sit down and hang out.” And not just hang out but also to give people gifts of tobacco as an offering. He said the legacy of Sitting Bull is complicated and we’re not going to get the story from one person.

Coming out of that conversation I was convinced that Mitch and Trent needed to make their way west to South Dakota with tobacco in hand. But Kate, our sage managing producer, shook me from this reverie. She said the demands of our weekly program couldn’t support such a plan, one that had no guarantee of finding the voices we needed.

So, with that, I regrouped with my colleagues to figure out where to go next. I’ll be sharing more of that journey, including conversations with former SOF guest David Treuer and University of South Dakota law professor Patrice Kunesh in the coming weeks and months. Our plans are still coming together, but, with each conversation, the path forward gets a little bit clearer.

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Sitting Bull: Sharing Our Research

by Trent Gilliss, online editor

Sitting Bull (1885)In the past few years, we’ve produced shows for a biographical series, generously funded by the NEH, profiling well-known and lesser-known historical figures: Rumi, Niebuhr, Semple McPherson, Einstein, Heschel, Darwin. Many hours of research and speaking with scholars about these dynamic characters informs our radio and online productions. And each treatment reveals its own journey to that greater understanding.

As we are quickly learning, Sitting Bull’s legacy has many threads, many truths. We want to present you with the varieties we encounter. More than a matter of transparency, reporting what scholars and ancestors of this legacy share and how we wrestle with these dichotomies and mutual understandings is to present an in-depth look at this great man and the complexity of that heritage. And, in the process, we hope to demonstrate our due diligence and the important work of the many scholars who bring Sitting Bull to life.

I’ve asked our production staff to document and share with you, on this blog, what we’re learning about Sitting Bull — and the editorial decisions we make in the process, including what we choose not to do. We’ve done a fair amount of research over the years and delayed production so we could find the right voices that can speak to the themes, the ideas we want to tease out.

Nancy Rosenbaum, our associate producer, was tasked with making this happen and finding those voices. She’s done an admirable job, and we’re well on our way. Look for a series of posts from her (and others) in the coming weeks in which she’ll share more about her conversations with scholars and storytellers and family members.

And, if you have an feedback or recommendations, please leave a comment or contact us. We welcome good advice.

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