Thursday, December 13, 2007


[This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin of Oyate.]


Turner, Ann, Sitting Bull Remembers, illustrated by Wendell Minor. HarperCollins, 2007. Unpaginated, color paintings, grades 3-5; Hunkpapa Lakota

The text of Sitting Bull Remembers is vaguely reminiscent of Eve Bunting’s awful Cheyenne Again, in which a Cheyenne youngster at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School draws in a ledger book and, in his heart, is home again. Here, “Sitting Bull,” incarcerated at an unnamed place that is probably Fort Randall, remembers his life of freedom.

In this dark room,

in this place of fences, strange smells,

and men with yellow eyes

where finally I am caught

and cannot get free,

I close my eyes and am home again….

The name of the revered Hunkpapa visionary, philosopher and war leader was Tatanka Iotanka. When he autographed picture postcards during his gigs with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he signed his name “Sitting Bull,” and his signatory pictograph shows a buffalo bull sitting on his haunches. Although he has come to be known as “Sitting Bull,” that was not how he referred to himself. Tatanka Iotanka was not a “chief,” although the whites called him that, and his people were not the “Sioux,” although the whites called them that. Turner’s historical note at the end of the book is full of inaccuracies.

Tatanka Iotanka was beloved by his people and respected by his enemies. As Doris Seale wrote about another author of another book dealing with the same people and the same time period, “Assigning thoughts, feelings and motivations to one biographee is risky business, especially when writing about someone who essentially inhabited a different universe.” Doing this in a picture book is doubly risky, because fewer words have to tell a larger story, and pictures have to convey a larger meaning. There aren’t too many people who can successfully bring this off, and Turner and Minor can’t either.

The problems they were unable to—or unwilling to—deal with include cultural markers that they don’t recognize, but apparently think they do. An example: Turner’s “Sitting Bull” narrates an episode to demonstrate to the young reader the important attribute of generosity. This is how it comes out:

Once, chasing buffalo, an older man’s

bow broke and he could not shoot.

Another hunter lost his horse early in the chase.

That day I shot four buffalo and gave away two,

so no one would go to his tipi empty-handed.

Minor’s painting here shows a solitary Sitting Bull shooting a solitary buffalo. Neither text nor painting contains any internal logic. Where, one might ask, is the rest of the hunting party? Where, one might also ask, is the rest of the herd? And what on earth, one would most probably ask, did Sitting Bull do with the other two buffalo? Eat them himself? He would’ve had to be very hungry.

Minor’s art integrates double-page watercolor and gouache paintings with two-dimensional colored pencil ledger-style illustrations. While some of the pictographs have been copied almost exactly from Sitting Bull’s visual autobiography (see, for instance, counting first coup at age fourteen), others are outrageously flawed. For instance, the pictograph representing Sitting Bull’s vision before the Custer fight of “blue soldiers riding upside down into our village” came straight out of Turner’s and Minor’s imaginations, rather than Sitting Bull’s experience. Sitting Bull actually recounted his vision of “soldiers falling upside down into camp” as a gift from the Creator, who told him, “I give you these, because they have no ears.” Minor’s painting of Sitting Bull sitting alone on an ammo box and holding a Calf Pipe is taken from a photo of him with Seen-by-the-Nation, the elder of his two wives, when they were prisoners at Fort Randall in 1882. And Minor’s representation of a monarch butterfly perched on Sitting Bull’s hat both on the cover and the first interior spread (implying that it has some spiritual significance, maybe a spirit guide?) was actually a dead butterfly pinned to his hatband in a well-known portrait.

There is more just like this, in word and picture. Turner’s “Sitting Bull” is incredulous at the “noise and smoke and greed” of the white people. “I do not understand such ways,” he says. “They are not the way of the Sioux.” And elsewhere, he asks, “How could they break their word for the sake of a yellow rock?” Tatanka Iotanka was a military genious and a diplomat as well. He was not ignorant and he was not blindsided by the ways of the enemy.

After Turner’s “Sitting Bull” has surrendered, he says,

Here I am—the one they wanted—

the medicine man, the war leader,

caught like a bear in a trap

without claws (they took my weapons)

and with only some of my people left.

Now the white men give us food,

and the once proud warriors are like toothless old ones,

dependent on gifts.

It is doubtful that Tatanka Iotanka ever felt sorry for himself. And it is doubly doubtful that he would have disrespected elders in this way. Yet this dreadful dirge-like account of his life continues all through this story.

In the final two-page spread, a meadowlark sits on a piece of deadwood in a barren meadow, and Turner’s “Sitting Bull” says,

But when I open my eyes

it is all gone,

and only my voice is left,

telling of how it used to be.

But Sitting Bull’s voice is Turner’s voice. It’s clear she doesn’t know anything about Sitting Bull or anything about the land he and his people inhabited and fought to keep. A Lakota friend said about this book, “What arrogance, what hubris, to put words in Sitting Bull’s mouth.” And another Lakota friend remarked, “This is kind of pathetic.”

The author’s and artist’s caveats nothwithstanding (Turner’s, that her work is an “imaginative exploration of the side of history that the facts cannot always give us” and Minor’s, that “artistic license has been taken to create the strongest visual story”), there is no excuse for what they have done. Sitting Bull Remembers is no better than Turner’s atrocious The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita.—Beverly Slapin

No comments: