By Stanley Vestal (The Civilization of the American Indian; V.46,
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. xiii-315pp. $25.00)
The author of Sitting Bull, Stanley Vestal, was born in Severy, Kansas back in 1887 and Walter Stanley Campbell is his full name to where Stanley Vestal is his pen name. Vestal came to Guthrie, Oklahoma with his family in 1898 and then moved to Weatherford where his step-father James Campbell served as the first President to Southwestern State College. Vestal graduated from Oxford University of England with a Bachelor’s in the English language and literature and four years later earned a Master’s in the same subject. One year after Vestal received his Master’s degree, he became an English instructor at the University of Oklahoma. Through Vestal living most of his life around Native American Reservation on the Plains there is now doubt of the reasons why he had much interest in them. Vestal first wrote Sitting Bull in 1932 and in 1957 the University of Oklahoma Press made an extended version and reprinted the book the same year. The main point of the book is to give the true story of Sitting Bull’s life without the white man’s perspective only as in the past; but both sides of the story.
The book is divided into three parts and thirty-nine chapters within. The first part which is the first thirteen chapters is over Sitting Bull’s birth which happened in 1831 (Vestal 3) and over his days as a warrior before becoming chief. Many descriptions of the lifestyle that the Sioux lived, especially Sitting Bull’s tribe being the Hunkapapa, such as what the people wore for clothing, how the each person was named, and also how warfare was conducted and how they counted “coups.” A “coup” is when a warrior strikes their enemy with a basic stick that cannot kill their enemy. The coup is considered to be the Sioux’s way of bravery because this “tag” made to their enemy is to be braver than killing the enemy. (Vestal 10) Sitting Bull was first named “Slow” when he was a child and in his teenage years had his named changed by his Father after Sitting Bull’s first coup in a battle he volunteered for. After getting back to their camp, they held a parade around the tipi circle and his Father, Jumping Bull, renamed him Sitting Bull.
The next two parts and twenty-six chapters speaks of how Sitting Bull came into the special warrior society, the Midnight Strong Hearts, of the Hunkapapa; his connection to all animals of the plains with how Sitting Bull could communicate with them, his marriages, all of the adoptions he made of enemies and strangers into the tribe, the visions of the future that he had, his battles with both Indians and the U.S. Army, description of his immediate and extended family, how he became chief of all the Teton Sioux, and his death. In all three parts of the book, Vestal speaks of why he uses the knowledge he has gathered from the elderly of the Indian nations with the Hunkapapa especially and why he does not acknowledge the all the stories that was also given by white soldiers, commissioners at the agencies, and officials in Indians Bureau. The last part of the book is named “Captive” which speaks of the time that Sitting Bull lived on the Sioux Reservation and his difficulties that he still had amongst the Commissioners and officials of the Indian Bureau. (Vestal 237-315) The chapter over Sitting Bull’s death, Chapter 38-“The Fight in the Dark,” speaks of how Sitting Bull died by the hands of fellow Sioux and not at the hands of white soldiers.
I had mainly two questions in reading this book. The first question is over Sitting Bull taken as prisoner. He was taken to Fort Randall and kept as a prisoner of war but is said that “he little to complain of.” (Vestal 237) It says on this page that the soldiers and the group with Sitting Bull got along fine without any forms of trouble but yet they moved Sitting Bull to a more difficult fort such as Fort Yates and agency and the question is why? The second question is if Major McLaughlin knew that Sitting Bull and his group would come in to the agency for anything if the white troops requested and night fight, why did he send the Indian police? He said that this was “to avert bloodshed” but a huge fight happened and many were killed so where do his thoughts come into play? (Vestal 303) Was this the only way to get Sitting Bull killed without the blame going to the U.S. Army? Still, in the next chapter it speaks of how the press brings up how this was an assassination.
The book was very interesting and informative compared to many of the history books that I have read in the past for History Survey classes. I would recommend this book to anybody wishing to learn of the Plains Tribes because it does not just speak of just the Sioux but many other tribes too. Vestal gives many reasons to his decisions on how he wrote and what he wrote along with much evidence to back it up. The main roughness that I see with the book is that it does not read in a full straight line. Vestal will speak of a battle and tell of a person in the battle who does not die but speak of his death in a later year in that same sentence and then in the next chapter speak of what he is doing with Sitting Bull in that occasion. This confused me somewhat. The best part of the book is that it gives both sides of the story and not just of the white man’s perspective along with great description of the happening to where I can visualize them in my head.