by Bill Yenne, Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pa., 2008, $29.95.
In 1877 New York Herald reporter Jerome Stillson conducted the first newspaper interview with the yet-unconquered Lakota leader Sitting Bull. Stillson told the great chief: “Your face is dark. My people do not see it.” The comment prompted Sitting Bull to speak to the American public about everything from U.S. Army soldiers (“They have no hearts”) to his own spirituality (“I began to see when I was not yet born”). Stanley Vestal’s mid-1920s interviews with Sitting Bull’s nephews, White Bull and One Bull, and Robert Utley’s painstaking research for The Lance and the Shield (1993), further illuminated the careworn face of the great Lakota. Bill Yenne’s new biography, Sitting Bull, is a worthwhile supplement to these sources, and while it does not break much new ground, it does offer a succinct and sympathetic portrait of the man and his legacy.
Yenne sketches in the edges of Sitting Bull’s life. He relates the efforts of Sitting Bull’s great-grandson Ernie LaPointe to relocate his forebear’s body to Little Bighorn National Monument; interviews officials at the Standing Rock Agency and Sitting Bull College; analyzes the cultural symbolism in Sitting Bull’s excellent pictographic autobiography; and provides in-depth profiles of side characters such as Catherine Weldon, friend and personal secretary to Sitting Bull during his life on the Standing Rock Reservation. Yenne also captures the forces of change—technological, cultural and environmental—that Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa band contended with to sustain traditional Lakota ways.
Yenne’s biography is foremost an ethical one: He uncovers, in great detail, moments when Sitting Bull’s strong heart and keen mind enabled him to be a just leader. In one instance, Sitting Bull adopted an enemy Assiniboine as his brother when the surrounded young man, about to be killed, appealed to him to save his life; in another, he arranged for the release of a captive homesick white woman just after the July 28, 1864, Battle of Killdeer Mountain, when antagonism against whites was high. These instances became legendary among his own people. Insights like these make for a compelling read, and while Utley’s The Lance and the Shield (re-released this year as Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot) remains the authoritative source, Yenne’s efforts strike close to the heart of the great Lakota. Sitting Bull’s face is certainly no longer in the dark.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.