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Sitting Bull's biographer finds the man behind the legend

"Sitting Bull" by Bill Yenne; Westholme Publishing ($29.95). - - - His first name wasn't exactly one that seemed destined to loom large in the history of the American West. It was Jumping Badger. Nor was his second name going to make him famous. ...

"Sitting Bull" by Bill Yenne; Westholme Publishing ($29.95).

- - -

His first name wasn't exactly one that seemed destined to loom large in the history of the American West. It was Jumping Badger. Nor was his second name going to make him famous. That one was Slow.

But call out the third name his people gave him, writes author Bill Yenne, and that one will be known almost anywhere in the world: Sitting Bull.

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Sometimes it seems, though, as if the name is all we really know about this great warrior/mystic of the Sioux. But Yenne's biography seeks new information from the source, Sitting Bull himself. And the book brings in other voices for a wide-ranging account of this leader's life.

Yenne begins his "reveal" with a quick look at the 1830s Lakota tribal world Sitting Bull was born into. It was a world the white wasichu were just beginning to invade, one of high culture for the American Indian horsemen of the Plains. That world wouldn't last.

Sitting Bull himself navigated these perilous times well, rising in prestige by fighting first the Crow and then the wasichu. His power came from his mysticism, courage and ability to recognize quickly just how bizarre, untrustworthy and absurd the white people generally were. Yenne relates one incident where Sitting Bull cut his own arm to show his tribe what would happen if they agreed to settle on a federal Indian agency. Yenne gathers this information in part from a little-known original source, the pictographic drawings Sitting Bull created to tell his own life story.

Little Bighorn

The most dramatic part of that life came, of course, on the banks of the Greasy Grass River, the Little Bighorn. It's always ridiculous to hear the old saw, "No one knows what really happened at Custer's Last Stand because all of Custer's men were killed." Of course, several thousand members of the opposing side -- the Sioux and Cheyenne -- who were there knew perfectly well what happened June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn.

Yenne returns to fascinating American Indian testimony and pictographs to reveal battlefield secrets. Sitting Bull compares the 7th Cavalry troops to the quaking leaves of an aspen. "Leaves that shake," he says, "Those were the Long Hair's soldiers. .?.?. They were tired. Too tired."

A leader's dreams

The author also reveals that Sitting Bull's actions that day may not have been exactly those of the master tactician some historians have called him. Still, Sitting Bull was one of the greatest leaders the American Indian nations ever produced. He dreamed that Custer's men would tumble into his camp, and the dream came true. Sitting Bull also dreamed that because his people mutilated Custer's troops, they would be destroyed themselves.

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Carrying the burden of that knowledge, he still tried to take his tribe down a road that would lead to their survival.

His own road took many strange twists.

Yenne uncovers several of them in this biography, including tales about the fascination Sitting Bull held for many white women (Annie Oakley reportedly had a crush on him). In one of this book's strongest sections, Yenne details Sitting Bull's stint as shaman-turned-showman, star of Buffalo Bill Cody's hokey "Wild West Show." Sitting Bull played what amounted to the Hollywood version of himself, but he loved the celebrity.

Betrayal

Still, these shows were merely another case of Sitting Bull being betrayed by the wasichu. In one of his appearances back East, Sitting Bull spoke to a white audience, telling them in Lakota about his desire to shake the hand of "the Grandfather in Washington" in peace. His remarks were falsely translated into English as a description of Custer's bloody defeat. He couldn't understand why the audience hissed him.

What chance did even a holy man have against people such as these? None. He would eventually be murdered by Indian police under the white man's orders. Even with its dark end, however, Sitting Bull's life triumphs as part of the mythos of the frontier.

Not an epic

Ultimately, it's a tale bigger than Yenne can capture. His prose style is detached and ordinary in most places. He recounts facts, but not their power. And strangely, he gives short shrift to the central episode of his subject's life, the Little Bighorn.

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Compare this book with the soul and energy in that lyric poem of the West, "Sun of the Morning Star," and "Sitting Bull" comes up dull and flat, a textbook rather than an epic.

But Yenne's research remains impressive, especially when investigating Sitting Bull's early and later years. Students of the West will appreciate his efforts. And anyone wanting to meet this American hero for the first time will find "Sitting Bull" an interesting introduction to the man and his legend.

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