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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Lance and the Shield

Tatanka Yotanka was one of my childhood heroes, his biography The Lance and the Shield: The Life of Sitting Bull written by Robert M. Utley was supposed to deepen my cursory knowledge of the Lakota Chief. That's what it did, even if the question of whether childhood heroes even should be further explored is left unanswered. Basically, Sitting Bull was far less important for what most people perceive him to be (leading the Sioux and Cheyenne against Custer at the Little Big Horn and eradicating the 7th Cavalry), but instead was one of the most influential chiefs of Lakota (who were governed by a sort of aristocracy based on deeds (generosity, bravery, wisdom) and oratory prowess affirmed by popular support). He ultimately failed tragically in his fight, resisting white rule and trying to preserve the Sioux way of life.

Utley's book is a fascinating document because it provides a down to earth approach to Sitting Bull and his fight. It shows how Little Big Horn was more accidental as victory than anything else, how Crazy Horse (and Sitting Bull when younger) led into battle not through commands but through examples of bravery, which as a tactic of course proved foolish against (more or less) disciplined soldiers armed significantly better. Utley gives us a glimpse into Bull's life, his wives, his children, his attempts at protecting them and at providing a future for them.

Summing this up, one can only describe the whole story as tragic. Sitting Bull's vain attempt to preserve something that inevitably lost. The way whites dealt with these remnants of Indian culture. The way the Sioux became divided based on government hand outs. Not a very uplifting tale, if an instructive one and a huge stain on the American manifest destiny. Funny (sad?), how a people with such lofty ideals (Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Publius' work, Winthrop's city upon a hill, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address), acted in such a disgusting (and hypocrite) manner, but then some things never change. Do they?

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