Most Americans have some vague idea of who Sitting Bull was - some image that can be dredged up out of memory of a solemn man, sitting very upright, with all the cares of a people written across his face.
But most of us do not have any comprehensive sense of what his contributions were to his own people or to the American nation as a whole. Robert Utley helps fill in the gaps in our collective memory with The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. The book is an example of what is often called "new history" in that the style is quite literary. Utley has also written, at least to some extent, from the perspective of the Lakota Sioux: This is not an entirely objective portrait of Sitting Bull. However, this should not be interpreted to be a criticism of Utley because the thoroughness and depth of his scholarship give one faith that his version of the story of the life of Sitting Bull is both fair and accurate.
The title of the book comes from what Utley sees as Sitting Bull's wise - if in the end unsuccessful - attempt to protect his people using both defensive means (represented by the shield of the title) as well as offensive ones (represented by the lance of the title). Sitting Bull pursued these offensive and defensive strategies in both military and economic terms. This metaphor of defense combined with offense runs throughout the book, and Utley describes both why Sitting Bull chose the strategy he did at various points in his life as well as why this twinned strategy was ultimately unsuccessful in saving more of Sioux culture - as well as why it was successful in salvaging some of this nation's heritage.
In addition to the metaphorical conceit of the shield and the lance that Utley writes about in this book, he also writes continuously about the four central "virtues" of Sioux life as a way of demonstrating the most important cultural influences on Sitting Bull. These Lakota Sioux values are: wisdom, bravery, fortitude and generosity. Sitting Bull tried to incorporate these virtues into each of his actions, recognizing that if he failed to do so - if he acted in a way that was not in accordance with his culture's values - then even though he might be more militarily or politically successful in the short-term then he would have undermined the very culture that he was seeking to uphold.
Life of Sitting Bull
Although he is known as Sitting Bull to most Americans, this was not (of course_ the name given at birth to the Lakota warrior and leader who was born (in present-day South Dakota) around 1831 and died in 1890. Tatanka Yotanka, as he was called in his own language, helped to lead the Lakota Sioux in their resistance against the United States when the federal government moved to seize their lands and remove the Sioux to reservations.
Sitting Bull is probably best known today for his leadership of that group of Sioux and members of other Indian nations that in June 1876 fought against George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Sitting Bull fled to Canada after his victory, but returned to the United States under a guarantee of amnesty in 1881. That promise was broken by the United States government, which jailed him for two years and then confined him to a reservation. He was shot to death in 1890 - perhaps by accident, perhaps intentionally.
The history of relations between the Sioux and the U.S. government had not always been so perilous. Although the Sioux had fought against the Americans during the Revolutionary War (when many American Indians had sided with the British), during the second and third decades of the 19th century the Sioux and the U.S. government signed treaties with each other.
However, this period of peaceful co-existence came to an end as the European-American population pushed farther and farther West and began to settle in the lands that the U.S. government had granted to the Sioux. The first deadly encounter between settlers and the Sioux occurred in 1854 near Fort Laramie, Wyoming - a clash that left 19 U.S. soldiers dead. In retaliation for this attack, the next year American troops killed about 100 Sioux (not all…