In the spirit of White Bull

March 19th, 2011

A story I read last month in Thomas Powers’ wonderful history, The Killing of Crazy Horse, has been vibrating in my mind ever since.  The book is characterized by exhaustive research, adherence to ascertainable fact, scrupulous refusal to romanticize or demonize anybody, globally comprehensive perspective, beautiful sense of proportion, and willingness to offer humane and reasonable interpretation but only with a dignified sense of restraint.  It is the best attempt I have read to depict the tangled relations among Indians and whites on the frontier during the period of the Sioux wars of the 1870s.  Powers does justice (in all meanings of the phrase) to people on both sides and the many people in between.   It is history written as if history were about human beings in all their multi-dimensionality.

The story that has stuck with me so vividly has to do with a battle that occurred in August, 1872, near the Yellowstone River.  About five hundred U.S. soldiers and civilians were camped on the north bank, in territory from which whites were excluded by the Treaty of 1868.  Coincidentally, a large war party of Sioux and Cheyenne was camped near by, on their way to fight the Crow.  Indian scouts discovered the soldiers.  Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse counseled against antagonizing them, but some of the younger warriors could not resist their own bellicosity and attacked.  Several hours of inconclusive and not very bloody skirmishing ensued.  To assert control over the situation, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other chiefs joined the attackers.  The tactical position was such that nothing could be achieved by direct assault upon the soldiers, but, as Powers puts it,

to do nothing would further sap the authority of the chiefs.  Now Sitting Bull demonstrated why he had been chosen a leader of all the northern Sioux.

It was still well before eight in the morning.  Followed by friends… the chief started down the face of the bluffs toward the white soldiers, calmly walking until he reached the flat and found a comfortable spot several hundred yards from the woods where the soldiers had taken cover.  He sat down.  The others sat also.  Sitting Bull opened his pipe bag and began the slow and methodical process of preparing a pipe, cutting the tobacco and then tamping it down with a small stick into the bowl of the pipe.  It was important to take your time.  When the pipe was ready the right way was to light it with an ember, then with slow recital of many prayers offer the pipe to Grandmother Earth – Unci – and Grandfather Sky – Tunkashila – and the four directions.  Only then would the pipe be handed around to the left for each man to take a puff or two until the bowl was empty.

That was the right way.  Whether Sitting Bull stuck rigorously to protocol was recorded by none of the Indians who smoked with him that day.  But according to White Bull, they smoked until the pipe was empty while the soldiers fired at them without cease.  The seated Indians could hear bullets zipping through the air.  The ground was kicked up by bullets nearby and one of the Cheyenne was cut by a bullet in the shoulder.  The .45/.70 cartridge of the trapdoor Springfield makes a big sound – a cracking boom.  The thunder of the guns from the woods must have been terrifying.  “Our hearts beat rapidly,” said White Bull, “and we smoked as fast as we could.”

A moment came when White Bull was overcome with tension; he shut his eyes and dropped his head onto his knees, waiting for the inevitable.  But eventually the bowl was smoked down.  Sitting Bull cleaned it with his stick, emptied the ashes, put the pipe back in his bag, and then got up and without hurry walked back up the cliffs out of range of the soldier guns.

(Powers, The Killing of Crazy Horse, p. 66.) This, and a spectacular but I imagine somewhat anticlimactic exhibition of bravery by Crazy Horse, ended the battle without further fighting.

I can’t get this story out of my mind.  It is one of those narratives that carries its own universe of meanings.  Its significance could only be diminished by any attempt at exegesis.  Superficially, it could be seen as an example of heroic intransigence.  But I cannot rid myself of the image of Sitting Bull calmly placing himself between the lines of young men, so many of whom might have died uselessly otherwise, and smoking the pipe of peace all the way to the end.  He gave them an act nobody could have topped.  To look at it as a comment on the leadership of our society today, our politicians with their cosseted lives and facile talk of courage, is almost irresistible.  But many of us have felt the living impact of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Aung San Suu Kyi, to name only the most famous of contemporary leaders in this mold.  The spirit of Sitting Bull is not as rare or alien as it may seem.  It manifests in a quality of character that is seemingly beyond emulation – one is tempted to say, you either have it or you don’t.  But then one remembers White Bull, right there next to Sitting Bull, heart pounding, taking his puffs until the pipe was done.  To me, White Bull is the secret hero of the story, and he could be you or me, if we had found a leader worthy of having us as companions.

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