Reading Deanne Stillman’s recently published book “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” stirs a dispiriting sense of reverse déjà vu. Celebrity worship, inequality, homelessness, governmental disregard for wildlife and treaties with Native American tribes: they all figure in a complex narrative winding from America’s 19th-century Western frontier up through 2016’s dramatic protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the Trump administration’s recent moves to open wilderness areas to mining and drilling.
“Trump’s war on the wilderness didn’t start with Trump. It’s a last attempt to completely take over the land, take whatever’s there,” Stillman says. “The tribes have been removed and sent to reservations, and now the move to eradicate wild horses and undo all these wilderness protections. I believe this is the endgame in a war against Native Americans. … This is just a continuation of the dark part of the American story.”
“Blood Brothers” covers earlier pages in that tale. Revolving around two historical icons whose names still signify a kind of outlaw independence, it expands on themes in the author’s previous books: 2001’s “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murders, Marines, and the Mojave,” 2008’s bestselling “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” and 2012’s award-winning “Desert Reckoning.” All deal with what she calls “the promise and failure of the American dream.”
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull were two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) celebrities of post-Civil War America, and their rarified positions seeded their unlikely bond. Cody, a charismatic, velvet jacket-wearing ladies’ man, worked as a Pony Express rider, railroad buffalo hunter and Army scout, then performed in and eventually produced “equestrian extravaganzas” that re-enacted cowboy-and-Indian battles and other sensational events. Former scouts, cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley (whom Sitting Bull regarded as a daughter) all performed in Cody’s immensely popular show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. It was a huge “get” to book Sitting Bull, who had defiantly led his people to Canada for four years before starvation forced them to surrender their ponies, guns and freedom to US Army demands and reservation rule. Brisk ticket sales measured the public’s fascination with the warrior once cursed as Public Enemy Number One.
The book alludes to male bonding over ritual and blood shed in hunting and soldiering. But after the Army’s vicious campaign to eradicate Plains tribes so white farmers could settle their land, how was working together possible for onetime enemies shoved aside by America’s rapid industrialization — namely Sitting Bull, Cody and his cast? Per Stillman, traveling shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West offered the only way off the reservation: “They got to hit the road and be free again, within a limited frame of reference. … Cody was spinning out this American scripture and permitting cowboys and Indians to live inside this world that was being obliterated on the outside.”
By the time he signed on with Cody, after ventures with other shows that did not treat him well, Sitting Bull was fascinated by American technology and wanted his children to “flourish in the world that had overtaken them.” But he could not understand how a culture whose weapons had defeated his people could not take care of its own; according to Stillman, he would “sometimes give away his salary” to orphans he encountered on the street.
Sitting Bull emerges as a compassionate leader of integrity with a wily business sense; the highest-paid member of Cody’s show, he asked for a signing bonus, and insisted on ownership rights to photographs of him so he could raise money for his family. Were he alive today, he’d likely exhibit a rock star’s branding savvy. Cody paid high tribute when he told a Minnesota reporter that “no white man could convince his people to follow him as they starved” as Sitting Bull had done.
Stillman also presents Sitting Bull as a very intuitive “spiritual force to contend with,” recounting his lifelong affinity for wild creatures, especially wolves and birds; in a vision he was warned by a meadowlark that he would be “assassinated by some of his own people.” Throughout the book, Stillman weaves stories of individual animals with those of human characters, including Annie Oakley’s dogs George and Dave, a horse named Comanche (who developed a taste for booze after famously surviving Custer’s rout at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn), and the horse Cody gave to Sitting Bull — a gift that speaks volumes about their respectful friendship. The horse reportedly began doing his Wild West dance steps when Sitting Bull was shot in 1890; that story moved Stillman to write “Blood Brothers.”
As she had for “Mustang” and “Desert Reckoning,” she conducted some of her research at the Huntington Library: “They have one of the foremost Western collections in the country … old cavalry and Native American accounts — Custer, Cody, Sitting Bull, muster rolls from the Little Big Horn.”
Calling betrayal of Native Americans “America’s original sin,” she says it’s at the root of the nation’s ongoing troubles with gun violence: “It’s why we can’t relinquish our guns. Because we know what happens when people give up their guns, and it’s not pretty.” Stillman hopes raising readers’ awareness of history will inspire reconciliation. She traces a line from Sitting Bull to a “profound” ceremony that took place in December at Standing Rock: Military veterans descended from soldiers who’d fought earlier generations of Native Americans arrived to protect Dakota Pipeline protesters, and knelt and asked forgiveness of Lakota elders. The episode is key to the relevance she reaches for with “Blood Brothers.”
“Like Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, can we cross this vast chasm and come together even for a brief time and reconcile our past? Can the Wild West serve as a foundation for reconciliation, circus though it was? What happened at Standing Rock last year needs to happen on a national level, more often and at more places.”
The Huntington-USC Institute on California & the West’s brown bag luncheon series presents Deanne Stillman in conversation with historian William Deverell at the Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center, Room Seaver 1-2, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, noon-1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 27; free with museum admission. Info: (626) 405-2100. Deannestillman.com, Huntington.org