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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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Knitting. Fractals. Twitter. If you haven’t listened to this interview with Rosanne Cash, you should. She’s absolutely delightful. You’ll learn something.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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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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Bonhoeffer Biographer on Bonhoeffer
Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A listener from Greenwich, Connecticut (who asked to go unnamed) picked up on Shane Claiborne’s reference to a German Protestant theologian who participated in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler during World War II:

"And Dietrich Bonhoeffer who has been a good teacher for us on community, he says, ‘The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.’ And I think that that’s something that’s held us together is not just to fall in love with a movement or a revolution, but to try to live in radical ways and in simple ways."

"Bonhoeffer" by Eric MetaxasThe listener recommended we interview Eric Metaxas, whose biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is currently on The New York Times bestseller list. Well, we did produce a show in 2003 on this great figure called "Ethics and the Will of God: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" and probably won’t be doing another show on him anytime soon.

But, this speech by Metaxas at a Socrates in the City lecture on April 9, 2010, the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death, serves as a great introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. Heads up: the introduction is humorous but long; if you want to cut to the grist of the talk, start at the 14-minute mark.

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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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