Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill - Deanne Stillman


I particularly enjoy reading history books that manage to put a more human face on figures from the past, books that offer the reader more than the usual dates and a dry regurgitation of a version of the “facts” we all suffered through as public school students. I know that not everyone is happy with what some have come to call “pop history,” but I enjoy being reminded that major historical figures were not so different from all of us today. Keeping that thought in mind makes what happened in the past all the more real and memorable to me. And that’s precisely the approach that Deanne Stillman takes in Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. 


Indian Chief Sitting Bull and scout Buffalo Bill Cody would seem to have had little in common other than being on opposite sides of the fighting that would eventually result in the near extermination of America’s indigenous population. After General George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a battle in which Chief Sitting Bull was mistakenly credited with having personally killed Custer, the US government would settle for nothing less than confining every Native American to one of the country’s ever-shrinking reservations. No one in their right mind could have predicted shortly after the 1876 routing of Custer’s troops by those of Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse that Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, a scout who helped soldiers chase Sitting Bull out of the country, would become close friends in just a few years. But that’s exactly what happened. The caption of a publicity photo the pair took together in Montreal in 1885 capitalized on that unlikelihood by putting it this way:


Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.


As it turns out, both Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody were national icons of their day. The men were among the earliest of America’s national celebrities, and they were treated as such by the media and the general population. Both were well aware of their images and, by the second half of their lives, both were comfortable (for different reasons) with the showmanship required to maintain those images. However, what began as a business partnership turned into what seems to have been a genuinely deep friendship that lasted right up to the moment of Sitting Bull’s cowardly assassination at the hands of Indian policemen and American calvary. Cody, in fact, was looking for Sitting Bull, hoping to talk him into peacefully surrendering to authorities, when the chief was killed by a shot into the back of his head. The premise that Sitting Bull’s life may have been saved if only Cody had not been purposely misdirected by a cavalry officer to follow the wrong trail is a haunting one. We will never know what could have been.


Bottom Line: Blood Brothers uses short biographies of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the woman that Bull saw as a daughter and Bill as a sister, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, to explore the remarkable friendship they had together and how each of them made the others better during a remarkable period in American history. It all seems to have happened so long ago, but then Stillman reminds us that these were just people doing their best with the hand that life dealt them, just like all of us are doing today. I still find it amazing that in the same decade my own grandparents were born, some in the US government still considered Sitting Bull to be so dangerous that they wanted him dead. They got their wish and we all know what happened next. 


Deanne Stillman

10 comments:

  1. Stories told via narrative nonfiction or historical fiction always stick in my head better than just dry facts. The unfortunate caveat being, I might remember details that weren't exactly true.

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    1. That can be a problem sometimes because, I think, of the way that avid fiction readers learn to "add" details to the picture in their minds to make fiction seem real. I do sometimes wonder if I'm doing the same thing with nonfiction written in a more narrative style.

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  2. It's always been Annie Oakley that's fascinated me the most among this group, but how all their stories entwine together is so interesting. I'll have to look for this book. Happy Thanksgiving, Sam! :)

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    1. Annie is featured quite prominently in the book from about the middle on. The first half focuses more on the earlier days of Bill and Bull when they were trying to kill each other.

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  3. The three really are iconic, and I think I'd enjoy this one!

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    1. It's really well written, Jen. It's in a style that I find very readable, and it includes pages and pages of references and citations that can lead to a whole lot more reading.

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  4. I've always been fascinated by the life of Sitting Bull. I think I might enjoy this one.

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    1. I loved the way that the book includes some things about Sitting Bull's personality and his sense of humor. For instance, he took great delight in giving very negative speeches to white audiences that he knew his interpreter was going to have to clean up on the fly. That made me laugh.

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  5. This is right up my alley. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. I do think you'd like this one, Cathy. All happening pretty close to your part of the world.

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