A look back at the last Indian warrior

July 12, 1993|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

Sitting Bull was a great man whose tragedy it was to achieve greatness at the moment of his civilization's death.

In any era, he would have been a leader. He was born with a rugged body, a deep mind and an acute sensitivity to the world of the spirit. He grew into a warrior of bravery and a mystic dream-seer, a man wise in his knowledge and in his understanding of his Sioux people.

His times, however, were unique. Whites, armed with superior weapons and a deadly efficient approach to war, were invading the western plains, chasing out and killing the buffalo and squeezing the nomadic Sioux onto ever-smaller reservations, finally demanding that the Native Americans give up the hunt and become farmers.

In the face of such unprecedented threats, Sitting Bull's people responded by designating him as their first-ever supreme chief. That is what he became, not just to the Sioux but also to whites, albeit in a distorted fashion.

As Robert M. Utley notes in "The Lance and the Shield," whites saw Sitting Bull as "the archdemon of the Sioux holdouts, the architect of [Col. George] Custer's defeat and death [at Little Bighorn], the supreme monarch of all the savage legion arrayed against the forces of civilization."

His position was far from that. Sitting Bull led through force of example, personality and moral stature. He was the conscience, not the dictator, of his people.

This is the Sitting Bull that Mr. Utley, the former chief historian of the National Park Service, portrays in his well-documented and eye-opening biography.

Mr. Utley's first priority is to see Sitting Bull within his own culture, to understand how he was viewed by those who knew him and whom he led, and to examine historical events from the Sioux perspective.

The white world exists on the edges of "The Lance and The Shield," brought into the narrative only when it's important for the reader to know how white motives and attitudes influenced white actions -- and how, ultimately, they forced Sitting Bull and his people into submission.

In 1877, Sitting Bull, then in his late 40s, told a Canadian soldier, "I will remain what I am until I die, a hunter, and when there are no buffalo or other game, I will send my children to hunt and live on prairie mice, for where an Indian is shut up in one place his body becomes weak."

But four years later he had to acknowledge the reality that, in the face of white power, the Sioux way of life was doomed. More than any tribal leader, he knew what that meant, and he knew the pain.

In a meeting with American soldiers, he gave up his rifle through Crow Foot, his son, and said:

"I surrender this rifle to you through my young son, whom I now desire to teach in this manner that he has become a friend of the Americans. I wish him to learn the habits of the whites and to be educated as their sons are educated. I wish to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle. This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living."

Sitting Bull became a farmer, but he did not cease to be a leader and an irritation to white officials. In 1890, he was slain by Sioux police working for an American agent.

He left behind a life of dignity and pride, of achievement and vision. And also a song:

A warrior

I have been


It is all over

A hard time

I have.


Title: "The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull"

Author: Robert M. Utley

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length, price: 413 pages, $25

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