Book Review: Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War by Dennis C. Pope

Whether cast in terms of manifest destiny or, more crudely, “the Indian problem,” at its core the conflict between white and Native Americans was a clash of cultures. While not necessarily the centerpiece, Dakota Territory was frequently a stage upon which it played out. Despite the fact it focuses on a narrow slice of the life of Lakota war chief Sitting Bull, Dennis C. Pope’s Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War is infused with one of the fundamental differences between the Plains Indians and white society.

Pope’s book looks at the period when Sitting Bull was essentially a prisoner of war. Sitting Bull was one of the Lakota Sioux’s leading warriors and war chiefs after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to continued violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had guaranteed the Black Hills and much of western South Dakota and eastern Montana and Wyoming to the Sioux in perpetuity. His resistance to abandoning traditional plains life led other groups to band with him and his vision of soldiers falling from the sky helped inspire the defeat of Custer’s Seventh Calvary in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Within a year, Sitting Bull led his band to Canada to escape the U.S. military. By 1881, though, things had become so dire for the band that Sitting Bull surrendered.

Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War focuses on the roughly two years that followed that surrender. Although initially transferred to Fort Yates near the Standing Rock Agency in what is now south central North Dakota where many of his band’s friends and relatives were located, the government feared he might lead another uprising. As a result, he and his band were taken by steamer down the Missouri River to Fort Thompson in what is now southeastern South Dakota. Isolated from family and friends, Sitting Bull and his people were, for all intents and purposes, prisoners.

Pope uses a quite readable narrative history approach to this period, something not always easy when dealing with a topic that is not only more than 100 years old but one in which the central figure’s ideas and thoughts are communicated through others. In limiting the book to the period from Sitting Bull’s surrender on July 19, 1881, until he and his band were allowed to rejoin the rest of his tribe at Standing Rock in May 1883, Pope brings a unique period in the warrior’s life into sharp focus. Moreover, this focus reveals that although survival required the Lakota to adapt, Sitting Bull’s core beliefs never changed.

Throughout his life, Sitting Bull believed no one could sell Indian land. As far as he was concerned, “treaty Indians” had exceeded their authority and their acts did not bind him. He surrendered only in order to save his band. When he did so, he offered to be placed on a reservation on the Little Missouri but wanted the right to cross back and forth into Canada whenever he wished. “This is my country, and I don’t wish to be compelled to give it up,” he said in surrendering. Instead, he was sent to Fort Randall, where he was more under the supervision of the War Department than the Interior Department, which was normally in charge of Indian affairs.

Despite his status, Sitting Bull possessed a type of celebrity status. From surrender to Fort Randall, social events were held at which prominent citizens and military personnel and their families could meet Sitting Bull. Even though he did not agree with the white man’s ways, he understood the tools of attempting to survive in it. As a result, he would often charge for autographs or photographs. While attempting to “endure the peace” he also sought out a balance for others of his tribe to make sure they survived while he sought to maintain traditional values. For example, even though he let one of his children be among a handful taken to a boarding school away from Fort Randall, he told anyone who asked or listened that the land belonged to the Sioux and that he and his people were suffering an injustice.

Pope relies on newspaper and other contemporary accounts and government documents to show how Sitting Bull personally refused to concede tradition even if he and his people had lost control of their fate. Sitting Bull’s views were such that he personally questioned what good, if any, white society offered. He told one newspaper correspondent:

The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in open country, and live in our own fashion.

Reality, though, meant his people had to give up that freedom. But even when Sitting Bull agreed to “[b]e a white man and go to farming” at Standing Rock, he told newspaper reporters that the Sioux owned the land and he could go where he pleased. By then in his early fifties, Sitting Bull was simply stating the principle that guided his entire life. The fact his people may have lost the clash of cultures did not mean that he had to abandon his basic beliefs, something Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War shows he did not do even when within the control and custody of the U.S. government.

The white man had many things that we wanted, but we could see that they did not have the one thing we like best, — freedom.

Sitting Bull, quoted in Dennis C. Pope, Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War

1 comment to Book Review: Sitting Bull, Prisoner of War by Dennis C. Pope