Book Charts Unlikely Friendship Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull

In “Blood Brothers,” UC Riverside professor Deanne Stillman explores the complicated relationship between two icons of American mythology

"Blood Brothers" by Deanne Stillman

In “Blood Brothers,” UC Riverside’s Deanne Stillman explores the complicated bond between Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — One was a revered horseman who rode for the Pony Express and served in the Civil War; the other, a Lakota Sioux chief and holy man whose role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn made him an American legend.

The unlikely alliance that developed between two icons of Western mythology, Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, is at the heart of a new work of narrative nonfiction by the University of California, Riverside’s Deanne Stillman.

Stillman, a member of the core faculty at UCR’s Palm Desert Low-Residency M.F.A. program, spent eight years crisscrossing the Great Plains to conduct the research and develop the manuscript that would eventually become “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill,” published in October by Simon & Schuster.

Her account focuses on the moment the two men’s paths crossed in 1885, the year Sitting Bull appeared in Cody’s popular Wild West show for four consecutive months. The experience allowed Sitting Bull temporary relief from the relative imprisonment he and other Native Americans faced at Fort Yates, an isolated military post in the Dakota Territory under the control of Major James McLaughlin.

At the time, going “Wild Westing,” or performing in themed traveling shows such as Cody’s, was one of the few ways Native Americans achieved relative liberation from the heavily monitored reservations to which they had been relegated.

“Launched in 1883, the Wild West — minus the word ‘show’ — was a touring extravaganza that crystallized the frontier experience through a parade of moments and acts that had come to signify American history,” Stillman wrote. “It was cooked up by Cody, along with two partners. He was its figurehead and driving force.”

Cody had previously earned fame for his hunting skills; while working to help feed the construction crews building the Kansas Pacific Railway, he boasted that he had killed 4,280 buffalo over a span of 18 months. Simultaneously, buffalo hides had also become coveted commodities, leading to the decimation of the animal that historically was considered a sacred symbol of strength and endurance among Native American communities.

“Throughout American history, greed and lust has led to wildlife extermination,” Stillman wrote, emphasizing the destructive impacts of Manifest Destiny. “All manner of other creatures disappeared from their lands because we’re bored, we’re hungry, we need to make way for roads and rails and stores, and in our free country we can do what we want.”

Cody’s equine extravaganza was a glorified retelling of the newcomers’ experiences on the American frontier. The showman’s pursuit of Sitting Bull, Stillman explained, served to satisfy a hunger among audiences for “communion with Native Americans,” particularly members of the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes, who were considered “the holdouts, the rebels, the ‘last ones to come in.’”

Sitting Bull, who had been incorrectly blamed for killing Custer after the Little Bighorn, was an especially sought-after performer.

“Everyone wanted him for their shows, and the two superstars would wind up together — partly because of Annie Oakley, who was traveling with Cody when Sitting Bull joined up,” Stillman said. “They had already met and the two had struck up a friendship; in fact, Sitting Bull gave her the nickname of ‘Little Miss Sure Shot.’”

Sitting Bull’s contract with Cody made him the highest-paid performer in the spectacle; it also provided for an interpreter of Sitting Bull’s choice, and gave Sitting Bull — at his request — the right to sell his own photographs and autographs.

Deanne Stillman

Deanne Stillman
Photo credit: Cat Gwynn

“Warrior to warrior, Sitting Bull and Cody seemed to respect each other,” Stillman said. “During interviews, they spoke to reporters about each other with words of praise, although of course they were interviewed together while touring because they were celebrities and former adversaries — ‘foes in ’76 and friends in ’85,’ as the publicity slogan referring to them in a series of iconic photos stated.”

Years after the two men’s collaboration, the Wild West show began to suffer financially, leading to Cody’s descent into bankruptcy; Sitting Bull, meanwhile, had returned to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to live a relatively quiet life. But his loose affiliation with the growing Native American Ghost Dance movement intimidated his long-time nemesis McLaughlin, who ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest.

Believing that Sitting Bull might consent to surrendering himself to Buffalo Bill, Gen. Nelson Miles asked Cody via telegram, “to secure the person of Sitting Bull, and deliver him to the nearest Commanding Officer of U.S. Troops.” Yet in one of history’s great near-misses, Cody was waylaid by Sitting Bull’s enemies while traveling to his cabin, and tribal police assassinated the fabled Lakota figure on Dec. 15, 1890.

Just outside, a horse that Cody had given Sitting Bull when he returned to Standing Rock is said to have danced as the bullets were flying, trained to perform at the sound of gunfire in the Wild West show. It was this image of the dancing horse that inspired Stillman to write “Blood Brothers.”

More than 100 years later, Standing Rock is just as likely to be recognized as a different kind of battleground. It famously served as the backdrop for 2016’s Dakota Access pipeline protests, a connection Stillman, who has written extensively about the American West, is quick to explore.

“What divided Indians and the white man is still in play,” she wrote. “Perhaps the brief time that Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill were together can serve as a foundation upon which that rift can be repaired.”

As she recounted in “Blood Brothers,” last year at Standing Rock, descendants of soldiers who served at the Little Bighorn — themselves army veterans — asked Lakota elders for forgiveness in the white man’s role in the treatment of Native Americans in their homeland.

“To me, that ceremony marked a profound shift in our national story,” Stillman said. “Perhaps we are beginning to reconcile America’s original sin — the betrayal of Native Americans.”

“Blood Brothers” received a starred review in Kirkus, was cited by various publications as a “must-read for fall,” was named by Barnes & Noble as a “best new history book,” and historian Douglas Brinkley called it “a landmark achievement in American history.”

Stillman’s other books include “Twentynine Palms” (2001; updated edition, 2008); “Joshua Tree” (2006); “Mustang” (2008); and “Desert Reckoning” (2012).

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