Sitting Bull is perhaps the most famous of all North American Indians. His photograph has been distributed world-wide. Numerous books have been written about him, moves made of his life. He was an extraordinary man, an orator, a leader and an always fascinating human being.
He led and inspired those Sioux who remained hostile to the whites, climaxed by the great victory the Sioux won at the Little Big Horn in June of 1876. When the Army pressed him too hard, Sitting Bull took his people into Canada, but the winters proved too cold there and he eventually returned to the United States, where he was penned up on a scrubby reservation in South Dakota. He went on one tour with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, where he became a performer, doing tricks on a white circus horse provided by Buffalo Bill.
Sitting Bull decided to abandon the circus and return to his people, where he lived quietly until 1890 when he became a leader in the Ghost Dance craze that hit the Sioux. As the whites on the frontier became increasingly worried about where this strange new religion might lead, the Washington bureaucracy sent out orders to arrest Sitting Bull.
That attempted arrest is the subject of Douglas Jones' second novel (his first, "The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer," was a huge success last year). Jone stick very close to the events; as a piece of historical fiction, it is much more historical than fictional, o scrupulous is Jones, in fact, that one wonders why he chose to write a novel; with few major changes, "Arrest Sitting Bull" could stand as a work of straight history.
The story itself is dramatic enough. Jones felt no need to invent events in order to excite his readers. Sitting Bull, cunning, a manipulator of men, a potential volcano of trouble, is determined to stir up the Ghost Dancers.
Even thought he himself cannot believe that an Indian Messiah will truly come and drive away the white man, he is nevertheless willing to encourage the believers just because it maintains the illusion that the Indians are still the free Lords of the Prairie. Sitting Bull, whose pomposity and irresponsible hostility to the whites leads a whole people into disaster.
The heroes are the senior white men on the reservation, most of all the Army commander, Col. Drum, and the Indian Agent, James McLaughlin. They are the strong, steady, men who act responsibly for the good of the Sioux nation as a whole. Most of the story, however, is told through the eyes of a love-struck but star-crossed couple: the man an Indian, the woman a white schoolmarm who is teaching Indians how to read. It is rather an old choice of main characters, since neither is at center stage, during the climax, and since such a union never had a chance in the Old West (nor in Jones' novel; the closest they come to a consumation is when the Indian touches his teacher's arm).
Despite the best efforts of Drum and McLaughlin, in the end the Indian police, acting as agents of these white authorities, have to shoot Sitting Bull dead while attempting to arrest him. Others die in the shoot-out that follows. Sitting Bull's murder sets off other Ghost Dancers and leads directly to the much greater massacre at Wound Knee. Jones' novel ends rather abruptly with Sitting Bull's death, but the publisher was announced that there will be a sequel next year, dealing with the Wounded Knee massacre.
Jones is very good at evoking place and time; and he has made a real attempt to get into the heads of his Indian subjects (although his sympathies are clearly with the Army officers - he himself is a retired career officer).
Jones is reliable as to the facts of what happened. But I fear I found no really fresh insight in his book, no new truth about what happened to Sitting Bull or to the Sioux Nation. For my taste, at least, the subject has been written to death, and dramatic as it is, the death of Sitting Bull cannot be retold in such a way as to demand our interest or command our attention.