Saturday, May 14, 2016


Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of S. D. Nelson's Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.


Nelson, S.D., Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015; grades 3-6 (Hunkpapa)

A basic criterion for good historical fiction is that facts about people who actually lived and events that actually happened must be accurate, and any deviations must be clearly pointed out. This is especially important in books for young readers. Fictionalized biographies and autobiographies must contain the same facts and the characters must be portrayed as if the books were nonfiction. All illustrations must accurately reflect the time and place as well.

In neither text nor art does Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People meet these basic criteria. Rather, there are distortions of history and factual errors on just about every page.

Tatanka Iyotake (Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down) was a father and grandfather, Sun Dancer and holy man, warrior and leader. He did not refer to himself as “Sitting Bull,” because that was not his name. Only at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he spent a short time in 1885, did he autograph picture postcards as “Sitting Bull,” in the cursive writing he was taught to sign his name. Yet here, Tatanka Iyotake consistently refers to himself as “Sitting Bull,” rather than his actual name:[i]

“Later I would earn the name Sitting Bull—he who, like a mighty buffalo, would not back down.” (page 4) “Forever after I was known as Sitting Bull, symbolizing a powerful buffalo that holds his ground and never backs down.” (page 6)

LaPointe (pages 26-29) tells a different story: After having a vision while he was part of a small group scouting for buffalo, young Jumping Badger’s father, Returns Again, had taken the name, Tatanka Iyotake. When Jumping Badger was 14, he joined a raiding party on an encampment of Crow and counted first coup. In recognition of his son’s bravery, Jumping Badger’s father had a giveaway of horses to those who needed them. And then he took the name, Jumping Bull, and bestowed his own name, Tatanka Iyotake, on his son. LaPointe’s version substantiates Utley’s story (pages 14-15). Although Utley ascribes symbolism to this name, LaPointe does not.

Towards the beginning of his narration, “Sitting Bull” talks of his own people in the past tense, thereby prompting young readers (and their teachers) to relegate Indian peoples to the past. On page 3, for instance:

My band of people called ourselves the Hunkpapa. We were one of seven Lakota tribes that lived on the Great Plains of North America. Outsiders called all of us the Sioux. We believed that there is a living spirit in all creatures and things. We called this sacred spirit Wakan Tanka, or the Great Mystery. Into this land of mystery I was born. (emphasis mine)

Further, Tatanka Iyotake would not have described his home territories as the “Great Plains of North America.” And “Sioux” was not just a convenient term for outsiders; rather, it’s derived from the pejorative, “nadouessioux” (adder snakes), by which their Ojibwe enemies referred to the Lakota/Dakota peoples. In addition to these errors, fanciful language such as “into this land of mystery I was born” is not the way that Indian oral autobiographies from the 1800s were dictated—even before they were recorded and translated into English.  

Then there’s the bragging. It’s everywhere, and unlike how Tatanka Iyotake, who was known to be a humble person, would have spoken of himself.[ii]

From an early age, I sensed that I would be a strong warrior. My arrows flew more swiftly and true to their mark than those of the other boys. My weapons seemed to have “medicine power” that gave me added strength. (page 4)

The heading quote on page 2 reads:

Wakan Tanka . . . Wherever the sun, the
moon, the earth, the four points of the wind,
there you are always. —Sitting Bull

This heading quote, a fragment of a prayer, is set at the beginning of “Sitting Bull’s” narrative of his early life, above an illustration of three boys riding their ponies and facing a description of Jumping Badger’s childhood. Nelson cites the quote to Utley (page 144), but Utley’s complete version of Tatanka Iyotake’s prayer is: “Wakantanka, pity me. In the name of the tribe I offer you this peace pipe.[iii] Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there you are always. Father, save the tribe. I beg you. Pity me. We want to live. Guard us against all misfortunes and calamities. Pity me.” According to Utley, this was an offering and appeal for the wellbeing of his people—on the day before and at the same place that Custer and his men fell. It was a prayer uttered by a grown man for a specific reason, and did not have anything to do with Jumping Badger’s childhood. 

In the section in which “Sitting Bull” describes his first kill (page 5), the narrative reads:

In 1841, when I was ten years old, I killed my first buffalo. I galloped my horse alongside the young horned animal, loosing my arrows into his ribs. My pounding heart thrilled with excitement and fear. When the buffalo fell, I howled like a wolf in triumph. And yet, as I stood over the fallen creature, I also felt sadness deep inside me. I knelt close to my first kill, and whispered into his ear, “Thank you, Brother Buffalo, for giving your life so that my people will live.” (emphasis mine)

Although it’s expected that this young person would thank his kills as he’d been shown, the way that Tatanka Iyotake later told his story is fundamentally different from this version: no heart pounding with excitement and fear, no howling like a wolf, no deep sadness. Rather, Tatanka Iyotake’s story forefronts generosity, one of the core values. In LaPointe’s biography (page 15), the young Jumping Badger chose and downed a particularly large bull, ate a portion of the liver to thank the spirit of the buffalo as he had been instructed to, and told his mother to take some of the choice portions of the meat to a widow and her children. (And Tatanka Iyotake would not have used a numbered year as a reference point—this appears to have been inserted for the benefit of non-Native readers.)

On page 6, “Sitting Bull” describes his first coup, which earned him his adult name. Here, he relates (for the benefit of young readers) information about his people:

My Lakota people were warriors, feared and respected. We needed to be fierce in order to survive. We constantly struggled with other tribes over the use of hunting grounds. Our enemies…were always trying to steal our horses. So we did the same to them.

At fourteen years of age, I earned my first eagle feather during a raid against our Crow enemy. On horseback, yelping and shrieking, I closed in on a mounted warrior and chopped him with my tomahawk. (emphasis mine)

Terms such as “feared,” “fierce,” “yelping” and “shrieking” are not how Tatanka Iyotake would have described himself or his people. Rather, they are derogatory terms frequently used by outsiders.

And on page 6, accompanying the text about “warriors,” is a photograph of eight Lakota men standing together. The caption is “A Sioux war party, c. 1880,” but there doesn’t appear to be anything in the photo that would identify them as a “war party.” When the photograph was taken, appending this kind of stereotyped caption was done to promote sales; here, the author perpetuates the stereotype rather than questioning it.

On page 8, “Sitting Bull” narrates:

Many years before I was born, strangers began to come to our land. Their pale skin was curious, so we called them wasichus [sic], or white men. At first they were few in number and said they only wanted to pass through the territory. They claimed they came in peace to trade for furs and buffalo robes. The wasichus [sic] offered amazing treasures and wondrous trinkets in exchange—horses, guns, wagons, kettles, knives, beautiful glass beads, coffee, sugar, and much more. Sometimes my people traded buffalo robes. Other times, we raided the wagons of the intruders and took what we wanted!

As the story goes (Marshall, 2007), when a group of Sicangu Lakota hunters along the Missouri River encountered two starving white men digging up a cache of tallow, they were dubbed Wasin icupi, or “they took the fat.” “It’s entirely likely,” Marshall writes, “that the Lakota word for whites—wasicu—evolved from that tongue-in-cheek description of two hungry white men.” But the word does not refer to pale skin or whiteness as suggested here.

Both Marshall and LaPointe, fluent Lakota speakers, refer to the word, “wasicu,” as spelled the same way in singular and plural forms. I’ve also heard the plural pronounced as “wasichun,” with a slight nasal “n” at the end. But not “wasichus.”

By the use of the terms “amazing treasures” and “wondrous trinkets” to describe the items the emigrants offered to trade for the valuable buffalo robes, the Lakota people appear wide-eyed, childlike and easily scammed. The Lakota people indeed welcomed European goods that were useful for everyday life—such as guns, knives, needles, iron pots and pans, tin plates, and wool blankets. But coffee, sugar and glass beads were not essential and none of this was seen as “amazing” or “wondrous.” It seems unlikely that the Lakota people at that time, who successfully used camp dogs and pony drags to haul their belongings, would have had use for heavy, cumbersome covered wagons that could not be taken apart at camp, with their huge wheels that dug into the trails. And it’s unlikely that the emigrants would have wanted to trade them anyway.

People raided the intruders’ wagons for a number of reasons, not just to “take what [they] wanted.” Rather, they saw the wasicu disrupting and endangering the buffalo herds, spreading infectious diseases (such as smallpox and cholera), trampling grasslands and cutting timber.
Thousands upon thousands of heavy, overloaded wagons rutted the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail, which the people sarcastically dubbed the “Holy Road.” The emigrants littered the area with all kinds of detritus—including discarded household goods, rotting food and dead horses, mules and oxen; and even dead humans, hastily deposited into shallow graves all along the way. And the ruts, which were 50- to 60-feet wide and five- to six-feet deep, frightened away the game animals and disrupted age-old migration patterns.

The heading quote on page 10 reads:

You are fools to make yourselves slaves
to a piece of bacon fat, some hardtack,
a little sugar and coffee. —Sitting Bull

Here, the author cites Marrin (page 92), but this quote does not appear to be in Marrin’s book. It’s actually in Utley (page 73), and the context, which Nelson omits, is that it was Tatanka Iyotake’s challenge to a group of Assiniboines:

“Look at me. See if I am poor, or my people either. The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to a make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.”

As a challenge, above, Tatanka Iyotake, as a representative of his people, makes a political point. But in the abbreviated quote, “Sitting Bull” just throws out a taunt.

The text on page 10 has “Sitting Bull” describing the whites’ slaughter of entire herds of buffalo, (which occurred between 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed; and the mid-1870s). But in the text on page 11, Nelson supports the quote on page 10, a reaction to the US’s “insistence” (see next section) that the Lakota sign “treaty papers that would allow their people safe passage through our land” in exchange for which they would receive “rations of food—flour, bacon, sugar, and such.” To add to the confusion, all of a sudden, “Sitting Bull” is taking up his lance and leading “our people in many battles against the wasichus [sic].”

On page 11 (first paragraph of text) “Sitting Bull” says,

The United States government said that we Lakota must sign treaty papers that would allow their people safe passage through our land. In exchange, the government would give us rations of food—flour, bacon, sugar, and such. I refused to sign any treaties. We heard stories of terrible battles being fought between the U.S. soldiers and distant tribes. We were told that great forces were marching toward us. Their intention was the complete conquest of our people. (emphasis mine)

At that time, the Lakota were in a position of power, and the wasicu were pleading for them to sign papers ensuring the emigrants safe passage. At that time, the US government was not yet a threat with “great forces marching” toward the Lakota, with “the intention of complete conquest,” so for Tatanka Iyotake to be thinking in those terms would be more the author’s futuristic projection than Tatanka Iyotake’s prediction.

Here, the author spends more text and illustration on “Sitting Bull’s” description of battle gear:

In preparation to fight, we warriors always prayed to Wakan Tanka for strength. We tied feathers in our hair and painted our bodies and our horses for combat. We believed doing so gave us medicine power. Often I painted my face red and my body yellow. I painted my horse with lightning bolts and hailstones.

In the art that accompanies the second paragraph of text (on page 11) are three young men readying themselves and each other for battle. “Sitting Bull” says, “I painted my horse with lightning bolts and hailstones.” And on page 18, Nelson depicts Tashunke Witko (His Horse is Crazy) as being painted with lightning bolts and hailstones. Tashunke Witko’s battle paint did indeed include a lightning bolt on his face and blue hailstones on his chest and shoulders, but there is nothing to suggest that Tatanka Iyotake’s war pony was painted with a similar design; it’s more likely that the author just made it up, based on Tashunke Witko’s battle paint.

The heading quote on page 12 reads:

We must act with vindictive earnestness against the
Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and
children. —General William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army, 1866

Nelson correctly attributes this quote. However, the text that follows (page 13) describes the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, a deadly offensive led by Brigadier General Alfred Sully two years earlier, in 1864.

In describing the aftermath of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, “Sitting Bull” narrates:

The U.S. Army won the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, but it takes many battles to win a war. I did not plan to surrender. Instead, I intended to teach the wasichus [sic] a lesson. Later that summer, I led an attack against a wagon train of white settlers heading west under military guard. On horseback and in close combat, I tried to push a soldier from his mount. He pulled his pistol and shot me through the hip. I was the one who learned a hard lesson. (page 14)

What “hard lesson” did “Sitting Bull” learn? Don’t get too close to a soldier? And why is he using the terms “wasichus” [sic], “white settlers,” and “trespassers” interchangeably?

On pages 16-17, “Sitting Bull” discusses the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. “Great conflict,” he says, was caused because “the wasichus [sic] did not understand” that the Lakota “did not have one leader who represented all our different tribes.”

[T]hey picked Indians who favored their intentions and declared them to be chiefs. These so-called chiefs signed treaties, but they did not represent the will of all the Lakota people. This caused great conflict, because many Lakota refused to honor the treaties, and the U.S. government then claimed we were in the wrong. We were not in the wrong. We had not agreed to their invasion.

Of course, the US government “understood” very well Lakota political organization. This was no “misunderstanding”—it was a divide-and-conquer political manipulation, forced on the Lakota peoples. Tatanka Iyotake understood this well—he, along with Tashunke Witko and others, were astute leaders, not easily scammed.

“Sitting Bull” continues:

The agreement created the Great Sioux Reservation (in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska). On this reservation the U.S. government would teach my people a new way to live—to farm, to speak English, and to follow the ways of the Christian religion. In exchange, the chiefs promised to end the violent fighting among tribes and stop all raiding against white settlers. They agreed to allow settlers safe passage on wagon roads and new railroads to be built through what had once been Indian territory. (emphasis mine)

Here, “Sitting Bull” abruptly switches time spans: In a discussion about an event that took place in 1868, he mentions South Dakota, which became a state in 1889; and Nebraska (which had already become a state), in 1867. And the Treaty of Fort Laramie was far from an “exchange” of cultures, as “Sitting Bull” implies here—it was the enactment of a massive land grab that devastated the Lakota peoples.

The heading quote on page 18 reads:

I will do to the Americans as they have done
to me. It is not my wish to go to war, but I must.
I never told you before that I was a chief;
today I tell you I am one. —Sitting Bull

Nelson’s correctly cites this quote to Utley (page 205), but cuts off the important first part of what Tatanka Iyotake said. What he actually said was this:

I wish you to tell the Grandmother that I will do to the Americans as they have done to me. It is not my wish to go to war, but I must. I never told you before that I was a chief; today I tell you I am one.

In the midwinter of 1878-79, there was a crisis in which Tatanka Iyotake attempted an alliance with the Crows, who then were allowed to cross the border into Canada and launch a successful horse raid that ran off nearly 100 Lakota head. Humiliated and infuriated, Tatanka Iyotake saw the Crow as surrogates for the Americans and poured out his indignation to the Queen through Major James M. “Long Lance” Walsh.

By editing out the first eight words of what Tatanka Iyotake said, and by not providing the historical context, Nelson implies an incorrect historical link between this quote and the text on the next page.

Also on page 18, “Sitting Bull” narrates:

One of Chief Red Cloud’s warriors resisted and continued to live free on the prairies with a band of Oglala. His name was Crazy Horse. In battle, he painted a thunderbolt down his face and hailstones on his shoulders and chest. He fought like a thunderstorm. I liked that man.

Tashunke Witko (His Horse is Crazy) was a Thunder Dreamer who, just before battle, painted a thunderbolt on his face and hailstones on his chest because he had received these instructions in a vision when he was young. “[Fighting] like a thunderstorm” has nothing to do with Tashunke Witko’s battle paint. And the relationship between Tatanka Iyotake and Tashunke Witko was more than mere friendship; they were staunch allies, warriors and leaders who always had each other’s back.

In the accompanying illustration, lightning bolts are going through Tashunke Witko and his horse while both are in motion, and there’s an iconic image of a Thunderbird in the upper right corner. Tashunke Witko is wearing an eagle feather—which he was instructed never to do. Rather, he wore the tail feathers of a red-tailed hawk. And his hair was not black, it was brown.

On page 19, “Sitting Bull” narrates:

Leaders from our seven different bands agreed that we needed one leader to help unite our people against the wasichus[sic]. Many times those leaders had seen my success in battle. They had heard my songs of prayer to Wakan Tanka. They believed me to be a Wichasha Wakan, a holy man who would always put his people first and save them from destruction. A respected man named Four Horns turned to me and made the proclamation: “For your bravery on the battlefields and as the greatest warrior of our bands, we have elected you as our war chief, leader of the entire Sioux nation. When you tell us to fight, we shall fight; when you tell us to make peace, we shall make peace.” Hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho also joined us. Together, we would be strong—like a herd of buffalo that never backs down![iv]

Four Horns—the “respected man” to whom “Sitting Bull” refers in Nelson’s version—was actually Tatanka Iyotake’s uncle. As the most respected Hunkpapa leader, he was concerned that, with white encroachment growing daily, his leadership needed to be passed on to another strong Wichasha Wakan—his nephew—whose reputation was above reproach. According to LaPointe (page 50), both Tashunke Witko and Gall were in agreement with Four Horns that a strong new leadership was necessary.

According to Utley (page 87), this kind of office had never existed and, in fact, was “alien to Sioux thinking about political organization.” And, although not everyone supported this idea, Tatanka Iyotake’s leadership—along with Tashunke Witko as second in command (until his assassination in 1877)—was able to hold the people together who stood against US depredation of their lands for 23 years. Nelson oversimplifies this difficult and contentious, yet necessary, political reorganization as occurring because leaders had “seen [his] success in battle,” “heard [his] songs of prayer to Wakan Tanka,” and “believed [him] to be a Wichasha Wakan…”

In his artwork on this page, Nelson depicts three men, sitting on the ground, cross-legged. “Sitting Bull,” in the center, is dressed in full regalia. He is holding a Calf pipe in one hand and a braid of sweetgrass in the other, together reminiscent of the imperial sword and scepter. To “Sitting Bull’s” right, a painted warrior offers him a bow and four arrows; and to his left, Tashunke Witko, in full battle paint (and with black hair and eagle feather), offers him a rifle.

To Four Horns and the other leaders who joined him, this move was about unity and strength. Nelson’s interpretation—in text and artwork—is that this move was all about “Sitting Bull,” the individual.

The heading quote on page 20 reads:

I am tired of being always on the watch for
troops. My desire is to get my family where
they can sleep without being continually in
the expectation of an attack. —Red Horse

After having defeated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Greasy Grass Battle, people were exhausted and many—demoralized, looking into the future—broke off and began to head toward the agencies (reservations) set up by the US government. At Cheyenne River in 1877, Red Horse explained why he was leaving. But, accompanying Red Horse’s comment—without context—are photos of Custer’s camp in the Black Hills in 1874, as well as portraits of Custer and the other generals. And the text leads up to the battle in 1876—all before Red Horse’s comment. The next few pages of text as well describe the Sun Dance camp before the Greasy Grass Battle and the battle itself. This is all, at the least, confusing.

The heading quote on page 23 reads:

I will give my flesh and blood that I may
conquer my enemies! —Lakota Sun Dance vow

Nelson cites this generic “Lakota Sun Dance vow” to Marrin (page 39), who does not attribute it. According to LaPointe (page 44), the Wiwang Wacipi (Gazing at the Sun as You Dance) “is a ceremony an individual performs for the health and welfare of the people. It is also a fertility ceremony for the continued existence of the Nation.” LaPonte also describes Tatanka Iyotake’s prayer the day before Greasy Grass Battle:

He selected a place to pray and put his offerings in a circle. He filled his Cannupa, sang a Thunder song, and prayed for the large gathering of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho camped just below. He prayed and asked that the people might live and that the spirits would protect and have pity on them. He finished his prayers, smoked his Cannupa, and then returned to camp. It was the evening of June 24, 1876.

For the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota peoples, it’s unlikely that the Wiwang Wacipi, one of seven sacred rites given and taught to the Nation by White Buffalo Calf Woman, would be an attempt to strike a bargain with the Creator. Nor would it be about what one would do to people; rather, who one is in relationship with people.

Sundance continues today with every detail intact. Although old photographs can be found and a few disreputable people who call themselves “Sundance Chiefs” allow outsiders to witness and even participate in Sundance, traditionalists do not allow this sacred ceremony to be photographed or illustrated. Here (on page 22), the author has painted his version of Sundance for all—including children—to see. And he doesn’t mention White Buffalo Calf Woman.

In this book, “Sitting Bull” explains Lakota beliefs and ritual to the child reader in a way that Tatanka Iyotake never did and never would have.

On pages 24, there’s a brief account of the advance—and quick retreat—of General George Crook and his soldiers, accompanied by some Crow and Shoshone, at the Rosebud Creek, where Tatanka Iyotake’s people were encamped. Here, “Sitting Bull” says, “My arms were so swollen that I could not join in the fight. Crazy Horse led our warriors in a daylong battle that routed Crook and his bluecoats.” Actually, it had not been Tatanka Iyotake’s role to lead this battle, and no “excuse” was necessary. He had already fulfilled his role.

On page 25, “Sitting Bull” says,

Some asked if the battle was the fulfillment of my Sun Dance vision. Regretfully, I had to tell them that a greater assault was to come. Still, the feeling of victory filled everyone’s heart. Our thundering drums and our deep-throated songs echoed the valley.

“Thundering drums” and “deep-throated songs” notwithstanding, Crook’s defeat left more than a “feeling” of victory and there were no regrets. According to LaPointe (p. 65), “Tatanka Iyotake told the people this was a great victory, but it was not the vision he had received at the Wiwang Wacipi.”

On pages 26-28, “Sitting Bull” describes the Greasy Grass Battle:

The screaming horses, yelling men, and hail of bullets raged like a thunderstorm. Arrows filled the dust-choked air. The fearless Crazy Horse yelled out, “Ho-ka hey! It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts, to the front!” More than one thousand Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho swarmed over the bluecoats like angry ants.

Purple prose notwithstanding, one might wonder how Tatanka Iyotake would have known what “the fearless Crazy Horse yelled out.” Tatanka Iyotake wasn’t there. As “Sitting Bull” narrates:

I rode among the tipis, shouting encouragement. “Brave up, boys. It will be a hard time. Brave up!” As the people’s chief, I directed all warriors toward the fight.

Actually, LaPointe writes that Tatanka Iyotake’s role was different. As he was preparing for battle, Tatanka Iyotake’s mother told him that he would better serve the people by defending the camp and letting the younger warriors prove their worth. “The wisdom of women was much respected and admired,” LaPointe writes (p. 69), so Tatanka Iyotake, “who had the ultimate respect for his mother’s advice…accepted her wisdom and bowed to her wishes by not participating in the battle. Instead, he guided the vulnerable noncombatants to a safe place.”

Tatanka Iyotake’s vision had predicted victory, and, indeed the Greasy Grass Battle was a rout. Gall’s arrival, writes Marshall (pp. 53-55), “probably turned Custer’s offensive pursuit into a defensive action.” Warriors surrounded the bluecoats, some of whom dismounted to form ineffective skirmish lines. Breakaway troops who ran for the high ground found themselves pursued from the rear. And other disorganized troops panicked and were cut down. “Between Crazy Horse’s thunderous charge and Gall’s sharpshooting riflemen,” Marshall writes, the battle was quickly over. As LaPointe points out (p. 70), “The fight with the Long Knives lasted as long as a hungry man eats his meal.” 

“Sitting Bull” continues:

Warriors expect fierce combat. But it was wrong for Custer to attack a group including so many women and children. As our enraged fighters overwhelmed his, Long Hair realized too late that he had made a terrible mistake. Many Lakota believe that Custer saved one last bullet for himself; that would explain the hole in his left temple. He knew what awaited him if he fell into the hands of the people he had wronged!

Of course it was “wrong” to invade a camp of thousands of people, most of whom were noncombatants. But it happened all the time. There was the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, for instance; and the Washita Massacre (by Custer’s own Seventh Cavalry) in 1868. So, it would be difficult to believe that, in a sudden realization that “he had made a terrible mistake,” Custer shot himself. Yet, on page 29, right in the center, Nelson depicts Custer, with long hair, in his famous buckskin jacket, shooting himself in the head.

Only that’s not what happened. We know that Custer was among those shot and killed at the Greasy Grass. We know that he had cut his hair short and had not worn his usual buckskin jacket because he did not want to be recognized.

In June 1976, Smithsonian Magazine published an article by artist Eric von Schmidt, who investigated in detail the battle and its aftermath.[v] Von Schmidt’s work didn’t determine who killed Custer, but it sheds light on the way that he was killed: 

“Custer was not killed by arrows,” von Schmidt writes.

According to Lieutenant Godfrey, “He had been shot in the left temple and left breast. There were no powder marks or signs of mutilation.” This emphasis on the lack of powder burns and mutilation was meant to dispel rumors that Custer had committed suicide and had been horribly mangled by the Indians.

Elsewhere in the article, von Schmidt writes,

Mention of suicide among the troopers is almost as taboo today as 127 years ago. But one old Western cavalryman has said, “It was understood by every soldier, trapper and mountaineer, who knew the habits of the wild Indians that he should save the last shot for himself and take his own life rather than be captured.”

So this “saving the last bullet for himself” business was not, as “Sitting Bull” says, what “many Lakota believe[d].” Rather, it’s drama more worthy of dime novels and 1940s Hollywood movies than actual history.

Years later, when interviewed by historians, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who had participated in the Greasy Grass Battle were circumspect about their own participation. They feared reprisals. But, according to a Winter Count, this coup clearly belonged to Rain-in-the-Face. And, according to Utley (page 240), it was “Rain-in-the-Face, whom everyone supposed to be the Indian who killed Custer.”

On page 34 (first paragraph), “Sitting Bull” describes his steamboat passage down the Missouri River:

The soldiers put us on a steamboat and sent our little band of Hunkpapa down the Missouri River. I had never been on a steamboat before. The great machine had a fire burning in its belly and could go anywhere it wanted on the water. I was confounded—where did the washichus [sic] get such power?

No, Lakota adults did not think like naïve children. They had seen machines, including railroad trains, and did not think of them “going anywhere they wanted.” Indeed, they had even seen their children—in trains—being taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879. No, they were not easily “confounded.”

In the second paragraph, “Sitting Bull” begins to describe his surrender at Fort Buford and submission to reservation life. Narrating yet more broken promises, “Sitting Bull” says:

Instead of letting us join our people as promised, they sent us farther downriver and confined us at Fort Randall (in South Dakota) for the next two years. We received food rations and lived in a little village of tipis west of the fort. Soldiers kept guard over us. I had become the thing I loathed the most—a Hang-Around-the-Forts. (page 33)

No. Tatanka Iyotake well knew that he and his people were prisoners of war. Under armed guard, they were confined at Fort Randall. They were not free to leave. And yet, here, “Sitting Bull” calls himself a “Hang-Around-the-Forts”—a term used even today among Indian people to denote “loafers” or “sell-outs.”[vi]

The heading quote on page 34 reads:

I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or
railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to
move in the open country, and live in our own fashion.
—Sitting Bull, at Fort Randall

Comparing houses and railways and clothing and food to moving in the open country, this last portion of a longer piece, cited to Utley (p. 246), offers nothing critical for children to consider. Rather, what Tatanka Iyotake actually said compares the difference between two cultures; between, as he saw it, slavery and freedom:

White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo like their fathers did. White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their tepees here and there to the different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion.

On page 34, below Tatanka Iyotake’s partial quote, is a photo of an Indian man with two horses and a makeshift plow. The caption reads, “On the reservation, the Lakota were given plots of land to farm.” And on page 35, “Sitting Bull” describes poor farming conditions and the meager rations at Standing Rock, while the photo below is captioned: “The Lakota line up to receive food and other rations.” (emphasis mine)

“We had little choice in the matter,” “Sitting Bull” says, “for the buffalo were all gone now. I was bewildered—how was it possible for the great herds to vanish in my lifetime?” (emphasis mine) Of course, the Lakota people were “given” nothing. They “received” nothing. And the great herds did not “vanish.” The US had stolen Lakota land, slaughtered the great buffalo herds, and imprisoned the people. And Tatanka Iyotake was not “bewildered.” He knew exactly what the US had done to his people. That’s why he fought them for much of his adult life. That’s why they feared him.

On page 37, “Sitting Bull” describes his participation in the summer of 1885 with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, traveling throughout the eastern US and into Canada:

People came by the thousands to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. They seemed to think I was the Indian who had personally killed Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. I was booed with catcalls by some spectators, but cheered on by others. To them, I was a celebrity!

People “seemed to think” that Tatanka Iyotake killed Custer because that was how he was presented. “When he was invited to speak,” James Welch writes,

[H]e spoke of peace, of his people’s lives, of his desire to get along with America. But what came out of the “translator’s” mouth was a blood-curdling account of savagery at the Little Bighorn. (page 263)

What Nelson doesn’t describe—and what would be important for child readers to know—was that, while Tatanka Iyotake made lots of money appearing at the shows and selling autographs and photos of himself, he gave most of it away to the orphan children he met on the streets. He once told young Annie Oakley—the famed “Little Sharpshooter” whom he adopted as a sister—that he didn’t understand how white people could be so uncaring about their own poor. (Brown, page 427)

“The white man knows how to make everything,” he said, “but he does not know how to distribute it.”

On pages 38-39, Nelson’s version of Meadowlark’s message occurs just after “Sitting Bull” returns home to Standing Rock from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He’s depressed, dazed and confused:

The gray horse rode the train with me back home to the Standing Rock Agency on the Indian reservation. My thoughts were confused with all I had seen and heard. My world had been turned on its head. How could my people adapt? I was an old man and tired. Sometimes I would ride the gray circus horse on the prairie. Together we wandered here and there beneath the great blue sky. I prayed for answers. And the answer came. In the last days of summer, Sister Meadowlark sang her song. She sounded lovely, but her words were terrible and sad: Your Lakota people will kill you. My troubled heart did not understand. Everything in this new world now seemed to have two different faces—beautiful and cruel. (emphasis in text)

The actual incident occurred, not in 1885, but five years later. Tatanka Iyotake had realized that the Ghost Dance was taking over his people’s lives. According to LaPointe,

He went out on the prairie to pray and to receive inspiration from Wakan Tanka. As he was returning to his cabin, he encountered a Tasiyagnupa (meadowlark), one of his special winged messengers. The meadowlark spoke a warning to him, saying, “The Lakota will kill you.”

That was on August of 1890. Despite the meadowlark’s warning, Tatanka Iyotake felt he could not abandon his people. He had to try to get them to realize that the dance could not provide what it promised; he had to try without throwing them back into despair and hopelessness. (page 93)

In the first passage, Nelson places Meadowlark’s warning in a different time and for a different reason, and gives Tatanka Iyotake no option. Nelson’s vision appears to be exactly the opposite of Tatanka Iyotake’s vision.

The heading quote on page 40 reads:

I will remain what I am until I die, a hunter, and
when there are no buffalo or other game I will send
my children to hunt and live on prairie mice, for
where an Indian is shut up in one place his body
becomes weak. —Sitting Bull

This comment, cited in Utley (page 206) is from a political discussion Tatanka Iyotake had had with his friend, Major James M. “Long Lance” Walsh—in Canada—in 1879, before he and his people had surrendered at Fort Buford and were imprisoned at Fort Randall (1881) before they were relocated to Standing Rock (1883), and before he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (1885).

But Nelson’s illustration below the comment—is of Tatanka Iyotake, arguing with James McLaughlin, the agent in charge at Standing Rock, 11 years later, in 1890. And worse is that, in the background, are Lakota people—Ghost Dancing—a circumstance that would never have happened. Tatanka Iyotake wouldn’t have had an argument—with anyone, much less a representative of the United States—on sacred ground, during a Ghost Dance.

On page 41, “Sitting Bull” describes the Ghost Dance:

In the winter of 1890, in a last-ditch effort, hundreds of Lakota gathered at different places across the reservation for the Ghost Dance—a new ritual to reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and to bring peace and prosperity. Many came to my little settlement on the Grand River. In their prayers and dancing, they appealed to Wakan Tanka. But their pounding drums and chilling songs terrified the wasichus [sic], who feared there would be an Indian uprising. (emphasis mine)

The Ghost Dance first circulated among the Paiutes and California nations (and the Mormons as well) around 1870. In Nevada in 1889, Wovoka, a Paiute holy man, taught his vision, a mixture of Christian doctrine and Indian ritual and belief, to delegates from several Indian nations. Among them were Kicking Bear and Short Bull, who brought Wovoka’s teachings back to the Lakota. Wovoka taught them that, by embracing his faith and dancing the Ghost Dance,

Indians could live in a land without white people, “a land inhabited by all the generations of Indians that had gone before, a land bounteous in game and all the other riches of the natural world, a land free of sickness and want, a land where all tribes dwelt in peace.” (Utley, page 282)

It wasn’t “pounding drums and chilling songs” that “terrified the wasichus [sic].” Rather, as the Ghost Dance and its prophetic vision continued to spread, reservation officials saw this non-violent religious movement—a spiritual display of Indian unity—as a threat to US Indian policy. Everything the people did together was a threat to US Indian policy; the Ghost Dance became a convenient excuse to interrupt this unity—and an excuse to get rid of Tatanka Iyotake.

While Tatanka Iyotake maintained his traditional beliefs and did not participate in the Ghost Dance, he allowed Kicking Bear to teach about it, and he defied all government efforts to compel him to shut it down.

Probably the eeriest part of this “fictional autobiography” is the narrative on pages 42-45, where “Sitting Bull” describes his own assassination, and then the next few pages, where he opines about where his body may or may not be.

In the end, my own people came for me wearing the blue coats of American policemen. Can you believe it? Not only had they adopted the white man’s clothing, but they had become a new kind of Indian. Perhaps they understood the way of things more than I did. Change was upon us, so they were changing….

They stuck a pistol in my back and pushed me out into the yard….Anger began to stir in my heart. I pushed back and accused the policemen of having some nerve to come into my home in such a manner….Hearing the commotion, more Lakota appeared to defend me. Heated arguing and pushing followed. A shot came from the crowd, and one of the Lakota bluecoats tumbled to the ground.

More flashes of gunfire erupted. In the gunfight that followed, I took one bullet in the ribs and another Lakota policeman put a bullet in my head. It ended for me that way. My handsome son Crow Foot and six members of my band fell dead with me. Another six Lakota policemen lay dying, along with two fallen horses.

So, just to be clear in case young readers won’t “get” this part: While he’s describing the tribal police’s assassinating him, “Sitting Bull” is making excuses for them: “Perhaps they understood the way of things more than I did.”

The real story of how Tatanka Iyotake was assassinated is different, in many ways, from the distorted version above. Ernie LaPointe, Tatanka Iyotake’s great-grandson, relates the events of Tatanka Iyotake’s assassination, as passed down to him by his relatives:

[A]ccording to his stepsons, the police knocked on the door and asked him to come out. They waited for him while he got dressed, putting on his shirt and leggings…. When Tatanka Iyotake walked toward the door of the cabin, [his 17-year-old son] Crowfoot jumped up and picked up his weapon. He told his father he would protect him. “I will stand with you.”

At the door, Tatanka Iyotake paused, then turned around and sang a farewell song to his family. He sang, “I am a man and wherever I lie is my own.” As he turned and stepped out the door, Crowfoot walked behind him carrying his weapon. Those inside the cabin said it seemed like forever when gunfire erupted. Tatanka Iyotake fell in front of the door, and a few seconds later Crowfoot fell next to his father. Six Silent Eaters of the Midnight Strong Heart Society died along with their friend, chief, and Sun Dancer that cold December morning. (pages 193-195)

And, “[a]s the US Army unit assigned to back up the Indian police moved into the camp,” LaPointe writes, “the family and other residents fled for their lives.”

The heading quote on page 46 reads:

He should have been buried in the old way—on a
scaffold, safe from hungry wolves, in that high place
reaching up to the stars of night.  —Flying Cloud

The citation for this quote in the Endnotes (page 54) reads, “Quote by S.D. Nelson.” In his Author’s Note (page 52), Nelson writes, “My given Lakota name is Mahpiya Kiny’An, or Flying Cloud.”

And. On page 46, there are two photographs. One is of some of Tatanka Iyotake’s relatives—Lodge in Sight, Four Robes, Seen By Her Nation, and Standing Holy—shortly after his assassination. (I have seen this photo many times. These women look miserable, probably in shock.)

The second photograph is labeled “A traditional Lakota burial platform.” It’s actually “A burial platform—Apsaroke,” by Edward S. Curtis, 1908. The Apsaroke people, also known as Crow, were bitter enemies of the Lakota/Dakota people. Their traditional burial scaffolds may or may not have been similar, but they are not interchangeable.

And finally, on page 47, the last page of “Sitting Bull’s” narration, there is this:

Some claim I was buried in one location, while others say my remains were taken elsewhere. In truth, no one knows where I sleep the long sleep. I should have been buried with my lance and my shield. But it makes little difference.

This is incorrect. And it makes a big difference. According to LaPointe, relatives of the slain Lakota policemen had mutilated Tatanka Iyotake’s body, which was then taken to the cemetery at Fort Yates, where it was unceremoniously buried in a plain pine box. Later, under cover of night, Tatanka Iyotake’s relatives and friends found the bodies of Crowfoot and the six Silent Eaters, and “changed their clothing to make them presentable for their journey to the Spirit World.” A week later, they were buried by agency Indians—for pay—without ceremony, in a mass grave.

Tatanka Iyotake’s bones were moved to and remain in a burial site on free land in Mobridge, South Dakota. There, according to LaPointe, “it has become a party place for the youth from Standing Rock and Mobridge,” a trash dump of beer cans, cigarettes and used condoms.  Everyone knows where Tatanka Iyotake’s gravesite is. His direct lineal descendants have been fighting the Mobridge Chamber of Commerce and the Standing Rock Sioux for many years to have the bones of their beloved ancestor moved and reburied with proper ceremony, at a place of their choosing.

But here, “Sitting Bull” continues:

What matters is that my people fought the good fight. We are not ashamed that we lost. We remain warriors, for the ways of the world are mysterious and fierce.

To my people I say: Brave up! There will be hard times ahead. Strong hearts to the front! Look, do you see? The buffalo are returning! Bury bitterness, for the wrongs of the past cannot be changed. Remember to honor those traditions that still serve our people. Share them with all who seek understanding. Go forth with a good heart.

In the end, everyone’s spirit joins with the stars. Look for me there—riding my gray painted horse with feathers tied in his windblown mane.

Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People misrepresents Tatanka Iyotake, Tashunke Witko, and the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota peoples and the history of the Indian struggles for survival and sovereignty. It is little different from anything else ever published that perpetuates the Lakota peoples as “relics of a tragic past.”

Nelson’s misrepresentations aren’t solely relegated to his text and artwork. There are also numerous errors of fact, interpretation and omission, both in the frontispiece map and in just about all of the back matter as well. Massacres are called “battles,” genocidal attacks are called a “clash of cultures,” information about the Lakota people in general and the role of women in Lakota society are rife with errors, and generally, the implied subtext is that the Native peoples of the Plains were doomed from the beginning.

A glance at the bibliography may provide a clue as to why this material is so faulty. Of the 25 titles listed, only three are reputable Native sources (and two are by the same person). The rest of them are a mix of Time-Life books and the usual collection of non-Native archeologists, anthropologists and Indian experts. Nelson seems to rely most on three titles: John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (which has been roundly criticized both by critics and Black Elk’s family); Albert Marrin’s egregious Sitting Bull and His World[vii]; and Stanley Vestal’s Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Although the latter is cited in many published histories, it’s inherently problematic in that it’s based solely on interviews with people who have been described as Tatanka Iyotake’s “betrayers and murderers.”[viii]

But, given the accolades this book has received, it will probably be widely read by youngsters and their teachers, who will think that they’re reading real history. They are not.

Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt, 1970.
LaPointe, Ernie, Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy. Gibbs Smith, 2009.
Marrin, Albert, Sitting Bull and His World. Dutton Children’s Books, 2000.
Marshall, Joseph M. III:
The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn: A Lakota History. Viking Penguin, 2007.
The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. Viking Penguin, 2004.
Utley, Robert M., The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. Henry Holt, 1993.
Welch, James, with Paul Stekler, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. Norton, 1994.

—Beverly Slapin

[i] Where the name, “Sitting Bull” is encased in quotes, it refers to the “Sitting Bull” in Nelson’s book. In all other places, he is referred to by the name Tatanka Iyotake, which was his name and how he referred to himself.

[ii] The core cultural values of traditional Lakota society (and of other traditional Indian societies as well) include honor, respect, humbleness, and compassion. Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson and one of four living linear descendants of Tatanka Iyotake’s, repeatedly stresses these and other core values in his book, Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, which became my primary source of information here.

[iii] It’s doubtful that Tatanka Iyotake would have used the term “peace pipe.” More likely, he would have referred to it as the Calf Pipe. This may have been an inaccurate translation.

[iv] Although this event took place in 1869—the year after the disastrous Fort Laramie Treaty was signed and enacted—Nelson doesn’t mention its significance within this important historical context.

[v] This article can be found at

[vi] The terms, “loafers” or “hang-around-the-forts,” were originally used to describe those Indian people who had become dependent on the whites at Fort Laramie—fur traders, soldiers at the fort, emigrants along the trail and the Indian agent—for food and clothing.

[vii] See an full critical review of this title in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (AltaMira Press, 2005, pp. 331-334)

[viii] See a discussion of the author and his work in Ernie LaPointe’s Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy (Gibbs Smith, 2009, pp. 16-17).