“The Wild West became a theatrical manifestation of all the great players in our story and how they moved and clashed across our purple mountains and redrock canyons and mesas and prairie that led to the Milky Way and its oceans of stars to which we were all tethered, whether or not we knew it but we did know it because we all had the yearnings and the desire. And on the Cowboy Band played, soundtrack of longing and delight, music that accompanied the American conquest, which bears the national sin and triumph.” – Deanne Stillman, Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill
Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, the latest, acclaimed book by Deanne Stillman, gives an unexpected view into white America’s troubled relationship with its native population through the window of the intriguing alliance between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. We learn more about this fascinating story, with lessons from the past that impact current, troubling issues facing our nation, in a revealing excerpt and conversation between AFLW senior nonfiction editor Christina Simon and the author.
IN WHICH SITTING BULL AND BUFFALO BILL JOIN UP IN THE CITY OF BUFFALO, AND TATANKA IYOTAKE REUNITES WITH ANNIE OAKLEY
Some friendships form quickly and fade just as fast. Others last for a short period of time, an hour, say, or a day, but even they may be as deep as the kind that lasts for a lifetime…And then there are those in which mysterious forces, the hand of the Creator perhaps, necessity, desire, brings two people together, even former enemies, in an alliance that seems unlikely, and in the end, not at all. Such was the join-up of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, “foes in 76, friends in 85,” as a photo caption would say of the pair, each an icon to himself, together a powerhouse of mythology and might and sparks.
The men had much in common. Both were fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. Both were celebrated, surrounded by admirers and those who embodied the other side of admiration, jealousy; both were known to everyone and no one, in the end, misunderstood, trapped in a persona, worn down by their gifts.
Both were men of action, fearing not a rumble nor a personal assault; they were warriors in service of their people and their time, not unlike Montezuma and Cortes in some ways, Montezuma who carved out hearts with obsidian and ate them, and dreamed of the newcomer’s arrival atop a horse, and Cortes, who performed the assigned dance, lusting for sparkles in the ground and sending greyhounds to devour those in the way. But unlike Montezuma and Cortes, there was one thing that made them blood brothers, took them way beyond a show biz alliance, and that was the buffalo, to which they both owed their lives and paid tribute to with their names.
Two sides of the buffalo coin they were. William Cody had killed thousands of them – about three thousand to be exact – while he hunted as an employee of the railroad, taking the plentiful animals from the land to feed workers along the Iron Road, leaving their carcasses and organs to rot where they were felled and skinned. He won the name “Buffalo Bill” in a contest, because he shot more buffalo on one day than the other guy, and from then on, that’s how Cody was known, and the name allied him with the animal that was synonymous with the Great Plains, although he was really no friend to the buffalo – until late in life, after he had witnessed or known about some terrible things, and he had a change of heart and tried to save them. On the other hand, Sitting Bull was kin to the buffalo (along with the other creatures of the plains); when he killed one or several, he uttered a prayer, and then his people were called in to take the animal, and they carved it up, later making use of not just the meat, but the hide, the horns, the hooves, the spleen, the sinew, and when he danced under the sun, staring at it until he nearly went blind, the dance was in concert with the buffalo, whose skull looked on and whose bones were all around him, and pierced his skin, and he asked for continued blessings for his people and through the pathway of the dancing and sacrifice and the buffalo and all other facets of the circle, there was life.
In 1883, as the Wild West show began, Sitting Bull had come in from Canada and at Ft. Buford, was permitted to go on one more buffalo hunt, the very last one before the curtains closed. The railroad had divided the vast herds in half – the northern and southern herds – and by then, both populations had dwindled. After that, cows replaced buffalo on the reservations, and every month, a steer would be released and resident Indians would be permitted to kill it in a mock version of their hunts. There was never enough meat and of course, this strange form of early canned hunting did not satisfy the Indians’ other needs. For instance, they were not permitted to hold sun dances, the most important ceremony of the year, or any number of other rituals. Their medicine bags were confiscated and so were their pipes (though there is many an account of facsimile medicine bags being presented to authorities while the real thing was hidden away). And they were not allowed to leave the agencies, without special permission which was hard to acquire. In short, they were prisoners, with few ways out. One escape hatch was the Wild West, a spectacle which employed not just cowboys and Indians, but elk and horses and buffalo as well – not that the animals wanted a job, but they too became re-enactors in a frontier drama that was over but would never close.
It is not known what Sitting Bull thought about beginning his Wild West career in a city called Buffalo (itself probably named after the animal, though that is not known for sure either). A smart man, he must have known that this was the English word for what he called “pte”, and he had surely heard it many times from interpreters, most prominently, perhaps, when he embarked on that final buffalo hunt, for it was a noteworthy adventure known at the time it happened as being the very last one that he and his people would be permitted to embark on and thus there was much ceremony about it. We can further surmise that he may have seen the word at the train depot or elsewhere, or that someone even joked en route about heading to Buffalo, of all places, “Hey, chief, get it? Do you know where you’re going?” or that the reporter waiting for him on the; depot probably was introduced, in translation, as representing the Buffalo Courier, and that he understood, most likely and before he arrived, that William F. Cody, whose show we was joining, was a famous figure nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” But if he did make those assumptions, would they have caused him pain or a sort of strange amusement at one more folly of the wasichu? A reaction he must have had, but it is lost to the ages, and at that point, you could say that having witnessed and been part of one of history’s most rapid reversals of fortune, he may have simply thought, “It figures.” Yet in a little while, he would be meeting up with a new herd of the four-legged, small though it was, for they were part of the Wild West, and from then on, he would be touring with them.
On the day that Sitting Bull arrived in Buffalo, he traveled along Michigan Avenue in a parade of carriages with his in the lead. One of the men who accompanied him was the reporter from the Buffalo Courier. The interpreter Halsey was also there.
Let us recall that one of the reasons Sitting Bull had joined the Wild West and had travelled with other troupes before allying with this one is that he wanted to learn how the white man moved in the world. He wanted to learn his ways, to find out about the things that were the foundation of his dominance. Had he known there were so many white people, he would soon say upon visiting cities of the Midwest and east, he would have understood that his war could not have been won. Yet now that it was over, one of the things he most wanted was for his children to flourish in the world that had overtaken them. To that end, he played several roles, not that he was acting or presenting a false front or pretending to be a person that he was not. Certainly, he was an ambassador of sorts, not in the glad-handing way, for that would have been untrue, but he was also a representative of his people, and as such there were specific things he would be conveying. You could say that he was a man on a mission. To that end, he was also a kind of spy in a strange land; given his attunement to the natural world, he would have continued this walk in cities and towns, absorbing details of life and behavior and how the newly constructed centers of human endeavor worked upon ground that had once supported other tribes. So it must have been with a sense of puzzlement and curiousity that he entertained the questions of the reporter from the Courier, who probably confirmed things that he already knew and indicated that the distance between the two cultures would not be bridged in words, at least in this first interview.
“Have much pleasure and much fatigue,” Sitting Bull said, according to the report which appeared on June 13th, the next day, evidently in response to a series of unreported queries. “Great difference between prairie travel on horse and foot and on the wagons drawn by the vapor horse. Major Burke very kind, all persons very kind. Think all the pale-faces feel kind to the Sioux soldier. Believe they know why he held his braves and all his people to starve rather than submit to what was wrong. Believe the pale-faces respect him for the hard fights and do not wish to hurt him because he had to kill the pale-faces when he was fighting.” He continued in this vein, adding that he always spoke the truth to the white man, but was always deceived. Still, in his heart, he had no wish for blood, and he knew the power and brain of the white man. He was sorry the white man was not as honest as he was full of brain power, and he recognized the wasichu’s inevitable supremacy.
“I hope that the red man has enough self-respect and the white man enough honesty left to make the end of the controversy a peaceful one,” he said. It was to that end that he had agreed to come and see “the great scout and warrior, Buffalo Bill,” and was pleased to be in the old campground of the great White Father, hoping to meet him in Washington. “If he would listen,” Sitting Bull said, “I have something to say. I would not ask for something he cannot give.” All he wanted, he explained, was for a wide prairie where he could live with his tribe in safety. And he hoped that the pale-faces would let him die in peace, and that his people could bury him undisturbed.
In retrospect, this last remark was significant, almost wrenching, in fact, suggesting a certain concern, you might say, or prescience, given Sitting Bull’s ability to see and feel the past and the future, for discussion of what might happen to him in death is not something that appears elsewhere in the historical record. Another, more thoughtful reporter, might have wondered why the Lakota warrior expressed such a concern, and pressed him a bit further. Perhaps he wanted to, but shied away for various reasons; the statement was a striking one in the most fundamental of ways, and it’s quite possible that the reporter thought about it later, especially when Sitting Bull was assassinated and interred. In any case, the interview quickly moved on, with the reporter asking about the Little Big Horn – the thing that obsessed the country. Sitting Bull raised his hand and warned him off. “That is of another day,” he said. “I fought for my people. My people said I was right. I will always answer to my people. The friends of the dead pale-faces must answer for those who are dead.”
To break the spell of this apparently awkward moment, the interpreter offered cigarettes and they all had a smoke. As the carriages continued down the avenue, Sitting Bull took note of the size of the horses pulling vehicles such as brewers’ conveyances. These would have been much bigger than the fast and fleet ponies which his people rode, bigger even than the more robust cavalry horses which he had encountered in battle; they were plow and draft horses, after all, and for a man who had an affinity with the four-legged, these must have been quite a wonder. Soon, Buffalo Bill would be giving him his own horse, and for the first time since his surrender two years earlier, he would be permitted to dress in full war regalia and ride the animal that had been stripped from his tribe. In doing so, he would of course be re-creating a moment that was contained and paid for – but in many ways, it was where he lived, along with Buffalo Bill and the cowboys of the Wild West, who joined him in staged acts of glory and defiance, the endless version of the American dream.
What was Sitting Bull thinking as he approached the Driving Park? Recall that he was oh so gaily dressed when he emerged from the train, with his war bonnet of eagle feathers and owl feathers dipped in crimson. He wore a buckskin tunic trimmed with intricate beadwork and it was said that his medicine bag was the finest specimen of handicraft ever turned out by the Lakota nation. His black hair was braided in long scalplocks, the reporter noted, and the two main plaits were twined with strips of otter skin. He wore a brass chain with a crucifix around his neck, and buckskin pantaloons trimmed with black and white beads; on his feet were moccasins decorated with elaborately worked porcupine quills. He carried a long calumet trimmed with ribbon, and a bow and arrows in buckskin cases festooned with beads. On his face, there were a few traces of vermilion pigment that he had applied several days earlier, probably for his journey out of the plains.
Sitting Bull and his party arrived at the park as the day’s program was under way. Buffalo Bill was presenting his shooting skills on horseback, and that scenario was followed by an Indian attack on a stagecoach. Then came pony races, followed by another attack, this one on a settlers’ cabin. “Sitting Bull seemed much interested,” reported the Courier, “and gave vent to frequent monosyllabic utterances of approval. A number of people connected with the show pressed forward to get a good view of the famous redskin.” Among them was the “clever and adept feminine markswoman Annie Oakley.” Given her iconic status in the American story, the language may seem restrained, but she was not yet a superstar. At the time of Sitting Bull’s arrival, she herself had been part of the Wild West for just a few months. She and Sitting Bull had met when both were on tour the previous year in St. Paul, striking up an immediate friendship, one in which Sitting Bull would take note of her skills and give her a nickname that her immortality. Now, they fell right into conversation, with Annie asking Sitting Bull a number of questions about a red silk handkerchief and some coins which she had sent him after they went their respective ways. “I got them,” he said via the interpreter. “But I left them at home for safety. I am very glad to see you. I have not forgotten you and feel pleased that you want to remember me.”
Finally, word came that Buffalo Bill was ready to meet Sitting Bull. He indicated assent and the carriage moved along the track towards the grandstand. People spotted Sitting Bull and began cheering loudly. Suddenly the carriage was stopped. Up the track, standing motionless, was Cody. Major Burke stepped down from the carriage, followed by Sitting Bull, his interpreter, and a reporter. Major Burke approached Buffalo Bill, and heartily shook his hand. “I am here, governor,” he said. “I’ve got him. Come and shake hands. He’s a fine fellow. See, he is coming.”
Adapted from Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill by Deanne Stillman
Christina Simon: Two iconic figures of the American West, Sitting Bull, the famed Lakota Chief who was known as the man whose tribe killed General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn and Buffalo Bill, the army scout and buffalo hunter, whose real name was William F. Cody, possessed reputations anchored in a narrative of mutual distrust. Yet in the book, you break open that commonly held belief to reveal a “strange” friendship between the two men. What was the real nature of their friendship?
Deanne Stillman: That’s a question for the ages. We don’t know exactly, but it’s clear that there was respect and admiration. Both men were warriors, after all, and that says a lot when former enemies come together – “foes in 76, friends in 85,” as the publicity material said. Who else makes peace but former enemies? A similar story plays out in the movie “Hostiles.” With Cody and Sitting Bull, there was something else. They were both superstars. They knew that each could benefit from the other. Sitting Bull joined up with Buffalo Bill in his Wild West show after being courted by several similar shows for several reasons, primarily because he wanted to get to Washington DC and meet “the grandfather,” aka the President, and ask him why the American government had betrayed his people.
That meeting did not happen, although he and other Native American cast members did get to DC and met with state department officials. There’s a scene in my book in which the Indians are inside an office with western art on the walls – buffalo stampedes and so on. They start to laugh, except for Sitting Bull, who was silent. As for Cody, he spoke highly of Sitting Bull to reporters and Sitting Bull did the same regarding Cody, and this happened in front of each other, about each other. Of course that was show biz. But that was not an era in which there was a mania for “sharing,” as there is today, and it’s doubtful that Cody and Sitting Bull talked about themselves to each other. One person who facilitated their alliance was Annie Oakley, whom Sitting Bull had befriended at a shooting exhibition before both of them had hired on with Buffalo Bill. He gave her the nickname of “Little Miss Sure Shot,” a piece of “branding” which pretty much made her career. Though that was a mistranslation; for what he was really saying, you gotta read my book! By the way, Annie Oakley is a major character in my book too – she was another misunderstood figure of that era, a great advocate for women and self-defense, something that is overlooked today when we remember her.
I will also say that one sign of the connection between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill was the horse that Cody gave him when he left the show to return to Standing Rock in 1885. Five years later when Sitting Bull was assassinated, it was outside his cabin as the bullets were flying. It danced at the sound of gunfire, trained to do so in the Wild West. This image haunted me for a long time – a horse from Cody “dancing” while Sitting Bull was being killed. This was at the height of the Ghost Dance frenzy, as it happened. The image led me to write Blood Brothers.
CS: This is a dual biography. What was the most challenging part of writing about two towering historical figures using this structure?
DS: There were some books of this nature that served as templates, to a degree. For instance, Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose. But there were other people I worked into the story. Annie Oakley as I mentioned. She is a key player, and it could be argued that Sitting Bull might not have signed on with Cody had she not paved the way. And then there’s Catherine Weldon, the white woman who ran away from Brooklyn to live with the Lakota, and ultimately, Sitting Bull. She was a Native American rights advocate and also an artist who was not fulfilled in white society. She lived with Sitting Bull and his wives for awhile, and I recount their arrangement in my book. Another strange friendship! But back to your question. The main difficulty was how to frame the entire story. So I framed it between two major events of the frontier era – the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. Sitting Bull was blamed for killing Custer, which was not the truth – but that fueled his notoriety. To this day, some people still think he killed Custer, though, as I write in my book, his medicine was all over the battlefield; someone came up to me at a reading in Cody, Wyoming, and confided that she never knew that Sitting Bull did not kill Custer and she seemed a bit shaken by the news. She had grown up with that idea – that Sitting Bull was ‘public enemy number one.’ I myself was struck by her comment; I had no idea that this myth about Sitting Bull was still so entrenched, and that in this day and age, for one woman at least, finding out that he did not kill Custer could be so unsettling.
Of course, Wounded Knee ended that era, and it followed the killing of Sitting Bull. Strangely, Cody re-created it in a film, using actual survivors and army participants of that conflagration. I recount the making of that film in my book as well. Once I figured out the framing of this story, other elements began to fall into place.
CS: The Wild West show starring Buffalo Bill and, for a short time, Sitting Bull, was a traveling extravaganza performed live in big arenas for thousands of spectators as it reenacted battles between Indians and whites. The show was complete with Sitting Bull in his war bonnet, buffalo stampedes, Annie Oakely’s dazzling sharpshooting skills, stagecoaches, and Indians in full war paint. It earned millions as audiences flocked to see it. Aside from the theatrics, what do you think made the show so compelling to both spectators and Indians, including Sitting Bull, who performed in the shows?
DS: The Wild West was writing American scripture, moments after certain events had happened. It was the original “ripped from the headlines” show, re-enacting bloody episodes which signified Manifest Destiny – or the march of the white man. The show was criss-crossing the country as the frontier was vanishing. Weirdly, it provided cast members – cowboys and Indians – with a way to live inside what no longer existed, a dreamtime that was now foreclosed. Within the confines of Cody’s show, there were no rules, except for what the show and traveling required. Of course, for Indians, being in the show was not a free choice; they were essentially prisoners of war and it was one way they could leave the reservations with permission. Yet without this show, it’s hard to imagine what sort of mythology America would have. What stories would we tell ourselves about who we are? The fact is, as I’ve often said, we are a cowboy nation, and we live inside the Wild West. Every mass shooting in this country derives from this violent history. Until this is reconciled, meaning until we come to terms with the truth of what happened on the frontier, don’t expect to see any shift at all on the question of, say, gun possession and related matters
To answer your question about the compelling nature of the Wild West and how Native Americans responded, I would not say that they were necessarily compelled by it. It was a job; yes, they could leave the reservation because of it, but they were not spectators at these shows. Also, Sitting Bull was not a performer in the show; he rode around the arena once at the beginning of each show and that was it. He appeared as himself, and sometimes got bigger billing than Cody. It was a big big deal to have him in the show, and Cody knew it. That’s why he sought him for the show. Sitting Bull had toured with a couple of other troupes before joining the Wild West and was not treated well. I think the two men were bound to become “co-stars”; as I write in my book, they were “two sides of the buffalo coin.”
CS: In 2016, controversy over the Dakota Access oil pipeline erupted at Standing Rock in North Dakota on land the Sioux consider sacred. Native Americans and U.S. military veterans (some of them Native American) joined together as human shields to protect the tribes. Despite the protests, the pipeline was completed. You write, “Regardless of the outcome at Standing Rock, one thing is certain: a shift is underway.” Can you elaborate?
DS: I don’t think the pipeline has been completed, but its construction was not stopped. But something profound occurred during those protests. Descendants of soldiers who served at the Little Bighorn, themselves army veterans, apologized to Lakota elders for the white man’s betrayal of Native Americans in the Indian war in a ceremony on the reservation. Their apology was accepted. To me, the moment was a 21st century version of “foes in 76 and friends in 85” – the slogan for Cody and Sitting Bull coming together – and while Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull had joined in a commercial venture, here was a new incarnation of that alliance, and to me, it was a profound moment in the unfolding story of the red and white man on this continent. Once upon a time, the cavalry showing up on Indian lands was big trouble for those already dwelling there. In 2016, the reconciliation that this country needs began to happen, and it happened at Standing Rock – where Sitting Bull was killed.
CS: In the introduction, you write: “It would seem that America has embarked on the painful and necessary journey of healing our original sin—the betrayal of Native Americans. This is the fault line that runs through the national story, and perhaps the brief time that Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” You seem hopeful. Why? What message does the book offer regarding issues we are facing today?
DS: As for what message my book offers, I don’t think of it in those terms. The message is the story and that’s all I can do as a writer. Put it in a bottle and see if or where it comes ashore.
CS: This is such an intensive research based book. How long did it take you to write it and what was your process? What projects are you working on currently, now that this is out in the world?
DS: This book took about eight years. My process is sacred, and outside of a few essays I’ve written about the elements of my work and what I teach in my classes at the UCR-Palm Desert MFA Low Residency Program, I don’t discuss it in interviews. As for what’s next, BLOOD BROTHERS was just optioned by an independent producer, Marilee Denke, and I’m working on a new play, set in the desert, one of my favorite places and a character in much of my work.
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer, and her plays have won prizes in festivals around the country. Her latest book, Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill (Simon and Schuster, 2017), was named in October as a “best new history book” by Barnes and Noble, received a starred review in Kirkus, appeared on several “Best of 17” lists (including two at The Millions), was excerpted in Newsweek, and was praised by Doug Brinkley, Ron Rosenbaum and others. Stillman also is the author of Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (based on her Rolling Stone piece), which was an Amazon editors’ pick and winner of the Spur and L.A. Press Club Awards; Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, an L.A. Times “best book of the year” and California Book Award silver medal winner, available on audio with narrators Wendie Malick, Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, Richard Portnow and John Densmore; and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave, an L.A. Times bestseller and “best book of the year,” which Hunter Thompson called “a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” In addition, Stillman writes the “Letter from the West” column for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her work has appeared in lithub, Salon, Slate, Orion, Tin House, the New York Times and elsewhere, and she is widely anthologized. She is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program, where she teaches nonfiction, and an advisory board member of Angels Flight • literary west. For more information, visit Deanne Stillman on her website at www.deannestillman.com.
Photo of Deanne Stillman by Cat Gwynn