“Blood Brothers” traces the unlikely friendship of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill to spiritual atonement at Standing Rock and America’s ‘war on the wilderness’
By Bliss Bowen
“The red man was pressed from this part of the West
He’s likely no more to return
To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever
Their flickering campfires burn”
— lost verse of cowboy anthem “Home on the Range”
Reading Deanne Stillman’s extensively researched book “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” stirs a dispiriting sense of reverse déjà vu.
Celebrity worship, inequality, homelessness, and governmental disregard for wildlife and treaties with Native American tribes — all figure into a complex narrative winding from America’s 19th-century Western frontier up through 2016’s dramatic protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the Trump administration’s recent moves to open wilderness areas to mining and drilling.
“Trump’s war on the wilderness didn’t start with Trump. It’s a last attempt to completely take over the land, take whatever’s there,” Stillman says. “The tribes have been removed and sent to reservations, and now the move to eradicate wild horses and undo all these wilderness protections. I believe this is the endgame in a war against Native Americans. … This is just a continuation of the dark part of the American story.”
“Blood Brothers” covers earlier pages in that tale. Revolving around two historical icons whose names still signify outlaw independence, it expands on themes in the Westside-based author’s previous books: 2001’s “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murders, Marines, and the Mojave,” 2008’s bestselling “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” and 2012’s award-winning “Desert Reckoning.” All deal with what she calls “the promise and failure of the American dream.”
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull were two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) celebrities of post-Civil War America, and their rarified positions seeded their unlikely bond. Cody, a charismatic, velvet jacket-wearing ladies’ man, worked as a Pony Express rider, railroad buffalo hunter and Army scout, then performed in and eventually produced “equestrian extravaganzas” that re-enacted cowboy-and-Indian battles and other sensational events. Former scouts, cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley (whom Sitting Bull regarded as a daughter) all performed in Cody’s immensely popular show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” It was a huge “get” to book Sitting Bull, who had defiantly led his people to Canada for four years before starvation forced them to surrender their ponies, guns and freedom to U.S. Army demands and reservation rule. Brisk ticket sales measured the public’s fascination with the warrior once cursed as Public Enemy No. 1.
The book alludes to male bonding over ritual and blood shed in hunting and soldiering. But after the Army’s vicious campaign to eradicate Plains tribes so that white farmers could settle their land, how was working together possible for onetime enemies shoved aside by America’s rapid industrialization — namely Sitting Bull, Cody and his cast? Per Stillman, traveling shows like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” offered the only way off the reservation: “They got to hit the road and be free again, within a limited frame of reference. … Cody was spinning out this American scripture and permitting cowboys and Indians to live inside this world that was being obliterated on the outside.”
By the time he signed on with Cody, after ventures with other shows that did not treat him well, Sitting Bull was fascinated by American technology and wanted his children to “flourish in the world that had overtaken them.” But he could not understand how a culture whose weapons had defeated his people could not take care of its own; according to Stillman, he would “sometimes give away his salary” to orphans he encountered on the street.
Sitting Bull emerges as a compassionate leader of integrity with a wily business sense; the highest-paid member of Cody’s show, he asked for a signing bonus and insisted on ownership rights to photographs of him so he could raise money for his family. Were he alive today, he’d likely exhibit a rock star’s branding savvy. Cody paid high tribute when he told a Minnesota reporter that “no white man could convince his people to follow him
as they starved” as Sitting Bull had done.
Describing Sitting Bull as a very intuitive “spiritual force to contend with” (“We don’t have words in our language to represent what he represents to his people”), Stillman recounts his lifelong affinity for wild creatures; he purportedly learned of his impending death from a meadowlark. Horses are tracked alongside human characters, including Comanche (who developed a taste for booze after famously surviving Custer’s rout at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn) and the horse Cody gave to Sitting Bull — a gift that speaks volumes about their respectful friendship. The horse reportedly began doing his Wild West dance steps when Sitting Bull was shot in 1890; that story moved Stillman to write “Blood Brothers.”
Calling betrayal of Native Americans “America’s original sin,” she says it’s at the root of the nation’s ongoing troubles with gun violence: “It’s why we can’t relinquish our guns. Because we know what happens when people give up their guns, and it’s not pretty.”
Stillman hopes raising readers’ awareness of history will inspire reconciliation. She traces a line from Sitting Bull to a “profound” ceremony that took place in December at Standing Rock: Military veterans descended from soldiers who’d fought earlier generations of Native Americans arrived to protect Dakota Pipeline protesters, and knelt and asked forgiveness of Lakota elders. The episode is key to the relevance she reaches for with “Blood Brothers.”
“In the old days, on the frontier when the cavalry used to show up, there was trouble ahead for Indians. But here was a complete 180, and cavalry was coming to align itself with Native Americans at Standing Rock. I believe that signals a big shift in this country in our spiritual lives. It will take some time for that to be reflected in policy. … Sitting Bull lived at Standing Rock and he died at Standing Rock, and his spirit is across the Plains. What was going on last year and what’s continuing to go on reverberates everywhere.”
Deanne Stillman discusses “Blood Brothers” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, with host Rex Wiener at Beyond Baroque (681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice); call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org. She’ll also discuss the book at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, at the Santa Monica Public Library (601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica); call (310) 458-8600 or visit smpl.org.