DEANNE STILLMAN’S WORK is like one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscapes, forcing a different perspective on the American West. Stillman re-catechizes our national mythology by putting symbols and personas that we already think we know into new light. Her latest book, Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, is no exception. Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull both controlled their own reputation and celebrity, but it could not last forever. Stillman tells a story that is fair and thorough, and imbued with the voices of the dead.
HEATHER SCOTT PARTINGTON: Can you talk about what you call the “precipitating incident” that led you to Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull’s friendship?
DEANNE STILLMAN: Some time ago, while working on Mustang, I learned that when Sitting Bull was assassinated in 1890, there was a horse outside his cabin, and as the bullets were flying, it danced — or so goes the legend. The horse had been trained to dance at the sound of gunfire while in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Sitting Bull was part of Cody’s show for four months in 1885, and when he returned to Standing Rock, Buffalo Bill gave him this horse. That was a big deal, symbolically speaking, because the tribes had been stripped of their ponies during the Indian wars. The image of this horse echoing the gunfire stunned me, but there was something more. The dancing happened at the height of the ghost dance frenzy, the apocalyptic call for a resurrection of the buffalo and a return to the old ways, a response to the dire situation of Native Americans. Many Lakota were part of the ceremonial dancing and thanks to sensational news reports, white people including reservation officials feared a revolt — “Look at that dancing! The Indians are going wild!” Sitting Bull was blamed for the dancing — after already being blamed for killing Custer (though that was not the case) — and he was asked to call for its end. He refused but offered to visit a neighboring reservation and talk with the dancers. His proposal was denied and it was time for his arrest. This was really a death warrant — and he knew it. Strangely, Cody had been dispatched by General Nelson Miles to make the arrest himself, in the hope that Sitting Bull would agree to surrender himself to his old traveling partner. But Cody was waylaid en route. Amid the attempted arrest, Sitting Bull was killed by tribal police. And throughout it all, here was this horse, kind of a stand-in for Cody and a representative of the very West itself, joining the ghost dance. That was the precipitating incident, an image really, that led me into this story and I couldn’t shake it for a long time, still can’t, and I knew it would become a book.
I was interested in how shrewd Sitting Bull was — changing one speech at the last minute to speak honestly about his captors, and negotiating for the rights to his own photos. And, as you say, “Beyond the fact that he did not trust them, he now realized that plenty of things were available once he was inside their world.” What do you think would surprise readers most about Sitting Bull?
There was only one time that I know of that Sitting Bull smuggled in an insulting speech, and that was very shortly after his return from exile in Canada following the Lakota victory at the Little Bighorn. He and his people had been away for seven years. They were starving and in bad shape; Canada had kicked them out under pressure from American officials. Sitting Bull had just laid down his rifle via his young son in a ceremony of return and conclusion. A few weeks, or maybe it was days, after that, he was asked to appear at the opening of the railroad in Bismarck, a huge event. They needed celebrities. Who better than the most notorious Native American of the time — Sitting Bull? So there he was, to extol the wonders of the Iron Road — the thing that carved the Great Plains in half — and he said something that his translator was not expecting. The translator gave the official speech but apparently there were some in attendance who got the real message. Over the years, this was not Sitting Bull’s usual style or intent; he wanted to find out how to coexist with his captors, to teach his children how to live in this strange new world.
Maybe something that might surprise people about Sitting Bull was that he gave away a lot of his income from the show to orphans he met on the road. He was impressed with the superior technology of white people — firearms, electricity and so on — but couldn’t understand why they could not take care of homeless or destitute kids who were wandering the streets. A few years ago, I was sitting in a library in Riverside, reading about this for the first time, and I was surrounded by homeless people who were essentially living in the stacks. The condition that Sitting Bull described had not, has not, changed at all, as we all know. That was one of the reasons he returned to Standing Rock; he had seen enough.
Also, one more surprise, at least to two women at recent events of mine. Both came up to me afterward and told me they were surprised to learn that Sitting Bull did not kill Custer. As I write in my book, he was nearby — and according to a companion performed a ceremony the day before Custer was killed on the site that came to be known as Last Stand Hill.
Did your research take you in any interesting tangents that didn’t make it into the book?
For sure. Always happens. Sacajawea, who plays a minor role in my book though of course not in the bigger American story, is buried near Sitting Bull, across a highway in North Dakota (if you believe that’s her actual burial ground — and it’s not clear Sitting Bull is buried there either). There are many ghosts on the Great Plains, but one thing I just couldn’t get into in my book is that Sacajawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, a trapper and gold prospector who was born on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (he’s the baby on Sacajawea’s back, shown in the many sculptures of her across the West), is said to be buried near Malheur. But again, he could be buried somewhere else … my book does conclude with Sacajawea; there’s a conversation about her at her birthplace on the Shoshone Reservation in Idaho (though she may have been born elsewhere). Her descendants wonder if she is to “blame” for the tragedy that unfolded in the American West, having guided Lewis and Clark across it (but again, one more fable: she was not really a guide, but did help the explorers acquire horses from Indians, without which they could not have completed their trailblazing trip). What would have happened without her? That is the big question, and something I ask at the end of my book.
The Wild West was such a precursor to the spectacle of American politics and reality television. You write that the Wild West was “a parade of moments and acts that had come to signify American history […] a mesmerizing spectacle that was lie and truth, fable and news, a thing that inscribed the American story for the ages.” How do you think the show changed our American identity? Do you see any parallels to the current state of politics and entertainment?
I don’t think it changed our identity — I think it formed our identity. It gave us the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a people. Indian raids on white settlements? Step right up! Buffalo stampedes? Here they come! Cowboys and Indians shooting it up on the range? Let’s rock! Of course the Wild West did not portray the dark side of this — the forces that led to the raids; the wholesale hunting of buffalo; the government-authorized massacres of Indian ponies; the stealth attacks on tribes that had just made peace, and so on. Yet strangely, as I write in my book, Cody made a film about Wounded Knee after that horrific incident. After many years of telling millions of people to revel in Old Glory, he wanted to present the rest of the story. He staged a reenactment on site, using actual Native American survivors of that event, and white soldiers who had participated. Some of the Indians thought that preparations for filming were so real that another massacre was coming and had to be convinced that it wasn’t. The film was a flop and Cody’s attempt to correct or revise the record failed. This seems to have been a disappointment to him (on a commercial level as well). To this day, the film is a kind of grail, having mostly vanished, except for a few seconds of it in an archive at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming (the town he founded).
In terms of parallels to what’s going on today, what I see is this strange alliance that Cody and Sitting Bull made for the purposes of show business and other things (Sitting Bull was hoping to get to DC for a meeting with “the grandfather,” a.k.a. the president, for instance, and talk to him face to face about the failure to honor treaties). But also, here were the red and white man, traveling the country in tandem, many of them, cowboys and Indians alike, inside this strange dreamscape in which everyone was free again. I’m not saying a love-fest was underway; Native Americans inside the show were essentially prisoners of war — it was a way to leave the reservation. But cowboys — and Indians — had been locked out of time; the frontier was closing, and this was a last hurrah.
Let me also add that in its own way, the Wild West show is kind of an underpinning of what’s going on today … consider Standing Rock. Last year, during the protests, descendants of soldiers who fought at the Little Bighorn came to support the Lakota. That was a complete reversal of what used to happen when the cavalry showed up. Moreover, they apologized to Lakota elders for what happened during the Indian wars, as I talk about in my book. Regardless of what happens with the pipeline, there is a spiritual shift underway, and it’s quite a significant one in my opinion. “Foes in ’76 and friends in ’85” was the slogan used in publicity for Sitting Bull and Cody; in a way it can still be used today, with a change in numbers … or can it? We are at a turning point right now. There are still some minerals left in the ground! The unraveling of all protections for wilderness, for wildlife, the non-stop assaults on land, air, and sea is the end game of the war against Native Americans. The last gasp of Manifest Destiny. Or not, as the ceremony at Standing Rock suggests …
Are you familiar with the recent Bialosky plagiarism scandal? As I was reading your carefully annotated book, I was thinking about the challenges of doing research like this. How do you ensure that you don’t accidentally absorb the syntax or language of those you read for research? How do you make a story like this uniquely your own?
I am familiar with that scandal. I think that any writer faces the challenges you mention, regardless of research. We all absorb syntax and language of other writers; it’s part of forming your own voice, which one day comes into its own after years of trying things out and becoming comfortable with your own way of saying what you have to say. In terms of making a story like the one I tell here my own, others have come before me on this trail. One of them, Bobby Bridger, wrote a book about Sitting Bull and Cody years ago, and even has the same book cover that I do, which I found out after my editor and I decided to use the image. But as Bobby told me recently, “What other picture is there to use?” There weren’t many of the two men together, and they were all from the same series taken in Montreal. Back to your question: I cite all of my sources in my bibliography and quote some in my book. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes over the years and into the present — very hard not to, with so much research involved. But what I write is my vision — and that’s the only way any writer can make a story his or her own.
How much do you allow yourself to editorialize? How important is the author as narrator, say, when the historical record is silent on a part of the story?
I do speculate in my work, and it’s clear when I do. Also, I write plays and have written for film and television, and I am very much involved with my characters, whether they are living or not. In fact, I often think of my characters as a kind of cast, on a stage, which happens to be the land, and sometimes, certain scenes come to me after a while … I sometimes imagine inner monologues for characters, whether or not the monologues are actually used in the end, and these monologues all derive from what I know about the characters.
In terms of a silent historical record, the author is always important as narrator, regardless of what’s “officially” known. In what frame are you presenting what’s on the record? What parts of what’s on the record are you using or leaving out? Also, regarding Native American history, there are many oral histories, some recorded, some ignored by white historians, and some known only to Native Americans. In Blood Brothers, one of my key sources was a book by Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, called Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, published in 2009. This was years after major works about Sitting Bull had been written by prominent white historians. LaPointe’s book contradicts the accepted portrait of Sitting Bull in a couple of big ways; I rely on his account in these instances rather than the others — and say so in my book.
Blood Brothers does an excellent job of balancing Buffalo Bill’s side and the story of his family with that of Sitting Bull and his people. What does it mean to tell a story like this where each side has a stake in the bias of the author, and where the historical record is tainted in favor of the controlling power? Did you keep anything in mind as you were writing?
This was all very much on my mind as I was writing. In addition to my earlier comments on sources, I did consult with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, about the dancing horse outside Sitting Bull’s cabin. He said something to me that really opened up that image even further, only adding to the great mystery of what happened in that moment, and it sent me further down the trail. It’s almost too unbearable to repeat, and I don’t want to give it away here. It’s in the introduction to my book …
What — besides the interpretation of “Little Sure Shot” — do you think people get wrong about Annie Oakley?
She was a voracious hunter — even as a child. She fed her large family by hunting small game, a very common practice at the time, especially among poor families such as hers. In her teens, she began supplying a restaurant with game — lots of it — and even the owners remarked on how much meat she was bringing in. At some point, she was told to put a lid on the killing; there were no regulations then about “takes” and so on, but hers was, even for that time, noteworthy. I should also mention that she was the first white woman in Cody’s show, and also, throughout her career, made a point of making sure that women knew their way around firearms. She thought it was important that girls and women knew how to shoot, and was a role model for many, not just because of that, but for her clean living — and devotion to her husband, fellow sharpshooter and manager Frank Butler.
What’s next for you? Did your research for this project yield another idea?
Thanks for asking … I never talk about works in progress. When works are in the seedling stage, there they must remain, protected from the world … I will say this: it’s a play … the California desert is involved.