Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sitting Bull Prisoner of War: A Review

Dennis C. Pope seeks to elucidate a little known time in the life of Sitting Bull in Sitting Bull: Prisoner of War. Concentrating on the years 1881 to 1883, what scholars have up to now either ignored or glossed over, Pope addresses Sitting Bull’s surrender and his imprisonment at Fort Buford, Fort Yates, and Fort Randall. Using newspapers, government documents, and manuscripts, Pope provides Sitting Bull’s words and his interactions with the American government, particularly the Army, and those civilians who sought to interview and befriend the aging chief. Arguing that Sitting Bull “learne[ed] how to deal with the white men who now controlled his life and his people,” Pope lets the evidence illustrate what Sitting Bull learned during his imprisonment, principally his using letters, interviews with reporters and the ethnographer Alice Fletcher, and direct negotiations with the Army until he got what he desired for the Hunkpapa. Pope ultimately concludes that “Sitting Bull remained faithful to his heritage until the end of his life” and that he “continued to exemplify the virtues of generosity and courage and to fight for what he thought was best for his people.” This book provides a focused examination on Sitting Bull at this time of his life and brings together the primary sources that had been scattered in various places on the Internet and in government archives. One weakness occurs when Pope attempts to provide Sitting Bull’s own thoughts after his surrender at Fort Buford in 1881. Pope speculates, for example, that “Sitting Bull’s thoughts were not just for himself and his family, but of his band as well.” Pope adds that Sitting Bull was “honor-bound to look after them. As much as he detested the fact that the old free days were gone forever and that reservation life was now inevitable, he intended to look after his people in the best way possible. Would the whites let him?” These passages seem unnecessary and interfere with Pope’s writing of history.