There are some public figures who become iconic over time (think Lincoln, Churchill, Queen Victoria or Charlie Chaplin). Instantly recognizable in their unchanging images, forever locked into their easily remembered narratives, to the general public they are known but unknown.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody certainly fits this category as does the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Everyone knows their names and images, but the real people behind their public facades are less famous.
Deanne Stillman has produced an excellent dual biography of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, who spent decades on opposing sides of the genocidally-motivated “Indian Wars” before appearing together for four brief months in 1885 in Buffalo Bill’s carnivalesque “Wild West” show alongside hundreds of “cowboys and Indians” on horseback re-enacting recent events from America’s frontier past.
Cody hired real Native Americans, many of them recent survivors of battles or massacres — such as Wounded Knee — to play themselves in warpaint and buckskin. Of course, they were always defeated and died night after night to the delight of the spectators in the bleachers.
“It was through these performances that the American dream time was amplified, advanced, and came to live forever,” says Stillman.
The image of the brave and noble white man vanquishing the savage Indian became reality to the big city audiences in America and across Europe in Buffalo Bill’s spectacular re-imaginings.
By 1885 Cody was a megastar living a rockstar life, constantly on the road away from his wife and children and often in the arms of a starstruck young woman fan.
Between shows, he still took part in the activities that brought him his first fame. He went back to work as an Army scout and buffalo hunter. (In his early days he killed buffalo in such prodigious numbers that even other hunters became queasy.)
The slaughter of the buffalo on the American plains was of course part of the policy of eradicating the Native Americans by depriving them of their main source of food, shelter and spiritual sustenance.
Sitting Bull (who’s Lakota name “Tatanka Iyotake” means “Buffalo Bull Lies Down”) watched his way of life being destroyed by the white settlers.
“Imagine being born into a world where your tribe was the most powerful in all the land and within that being born at the climax of its power,” writes Stillman.
“Imagine that in your lifetime, you witnessed a thing that consumed nearly everything you loved and were nourished by and that nearly everyone you cherished or parlayed with was destroyed, altered, killed, or locked up.”
After the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where Sitting Bull was thought to have killed General George Custer (although he was not involved in that part of the battle) Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa tribe went into exile in Canada. After he returned to the United States in 1881 and surrendered he became a virtual prisoner on a reservation at Standing Rock, in what is now North Dakota.
Cody knew that Sitting Bull was as famous as he was and badly wanted him for his Wild West show. Sitting Bull eventually agreed, negotiating very favourable terms and employment for his people in the show. He calmly endured four months of parading around on horseback as the audience jeered and spit at him.
They were billed as “enemies in ’76, friends in ’85” and there is some truth to that. Sitting Bull had become so used to being lied to by white men that he came to admire Cody for his honourable dealings with him and both men came to feel a mutual respect and indeed friendship, even beyond the four-month tour together.
When Sitting Bull was facing the hostilities of the Indian Police in 1890 over his controversial support of the Ghost Dance ceremonies Cody rushed to Standing Rock to defend him, but arrived too late. Sitting Bull was assassinated on December 15, just weeks before the Wounded Knee massacre.
Cody continued his Wild West shows for years but he made some bad investments and became a heavy drinker. He suffered a messily public divorce and tried in his later years to re-invent himself in the new medium of motion pictures. He died in 1917 at the age of 70.
Stillman, who has written extensively about the American West, uses the lives of these two very different men to tell a larger story about what she calls America’s “original sin — the betrayal of Native Americans.”
She makes strong parallels between events in the 19th century and how colonialism is still working today, specifically at Standing Rock, Sitting Bull’s own reservation, the present day site of massive gatherings of native anti-pipeline protesters. She shows how the past is always present.
Stillman’s writing is clear and evocative and she makes logistically confusing events, such as Sitting Bull’s assassination, understandable.
She is also excellent at bringing many of the secondary characters, especially the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, friend to both men, vividly to life.
Blood Brothers is a well written, sensitively presented history that goes well beyond the biographies of two specific individuals, placing them securely in their not so distant time and place. It is a lively and endlessly informative book.
Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill by Deanne Stillman, Simon & Schuster