Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Buffalo Bill. Sitting Bull. And Annie Oakley! Deanne Stillman talks about the extraordinary relationship between the three and her book BLOOD BROTHERS.
I love history, which means I worship the books of Deanne. Her latest, BLOOD BROTHERS, is about the incredible relationship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill--and yes, Annie Oakley, as well.
Deanne Stillman is the author of Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder.
Thank you so much for being here, Deanne!
What was haunting you when you wrote this book?
When Sitting Bull went home to Standing Rock after traveling with Buffalo Bill in the Wild West show for four months in 1885, Cody gave him a horse. Five years later when Sitting Bull was assassinated, the horse was outside his cabin and “danced” as the bullets were flying. This was because it had been trained to perform at the sound of gunfire in Cody’s show. Sitting Bull was killed at the height of the Ghost Dance frenzy – the apocalyptic movement which swept through the tribes of the Great Plains when their empire was fading. It began with a prophet – or a con man, take your pick – named Wovoka, a Paitue Indian in Nevada. If you danced with great intent, he said, the buffalo would return and the time before the white man would be reinstated. Some of Sitting Bull’s people made a pilgrimage to Nevada and met with Wovoka, returning with his teachings. Many Lakota started to dance – to the dismay of army officials.
It was one more thing Sitting Bull was “blamed” for, in addition to killing Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But he didn’t kill Custer and nor did he incite the dancing. Nevertheless, it was time for him to go, and newspapers picked up the call. Tribal police were enlisted to make his arrest, which led to his killing, and there was this horse – a Ghost Horse as I imagined it – joining in as Sitting Bull walked on, to use the Native American term for death. Or so went the legend. That image haunted me for years, and I had to go inside it and find out what forces led to that moment in which a horse from Buffalo Bill was outside Sitting Bull’s cabin responding to his passing – and the end of an era. I knew that some day, it would become a book, and that’s where Blood Brothers comes from. Why do you think the story of the friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill isn’t so widely known? Does it take away from Wild West mythology?
I think a lot of things about the frontier era, specifically many important elements of the Indian wars, both before and after the Civil War, aren’t widely known. But that only adds to the myth. The Wild West is mysterious and alluring and exciting, but behind that is another story.
I would say that mainly, a lot of people are aware of “Custer’s Last Stand.” America lives inside that famous moment of defiance, whether or not it actually happened the way that it’s often conveyed. Think about all of the jokes about Waco when that went down, at least in certain quarters. “We ain’t comin’ out” is what people said it stood for, and we heard it in the recent TV series about that incident. It’s a rebel yell, it’s what drove the invasion of Malheur. The spirit of “go fuck yourselves” is really a primary component of our DNA. When Custer was killed, someone had to be blamed, and that was Sitting Bull, already a notorious figure. Although he didn’t pull the trigger, he was nearby. As I write in my book, his medicine was all over the battlefield.
After the Bighorn, he became Public Enemy One, and when he returned from exile in Canada a few years later, everyone wanted him for their road shows. He ultimately signed on with fellow superstar Buffalo Bill, a fated alliance in my view, two sides of the buffalo coin. They were interviewed together from time to time as they criss-crossed the country, and praised each other in front of each other to reporters – a show business moment which we have no equivalent of today - and of course Cody was very much a man of his own mythology. But what went on between them was not tracked for the most part; people weren’t watched and scrutinized like they are now, and certainly men were not “sharing” their feelings in public announcements. The main thing was the symbolism of their alliance, as publicity for the show said: “foes in 76 and friends in 85” and the fact that these two former enemies crossed a bridge under the banner of show business and inside of that, other things happened. Again, I get back to the dancing horse. The moment outside Sitting Bull’s cabin speaks volumes.
In my book, I explore lesser known aspects of their time together, and speculate about some of that. They were two larger than life figures with much in common – fathers, sons, influential, charismatic, revered among their own people yet trapped in a bloody history and personas which threw them together. Appearing as co-stars served to compound their fame, and heighten mythology of the Wild West - which Cody was presenting in his show, from the white man’s point of view. I call it the national scripture; Cody and his cast were re-creating episodes of Manifest Destiny moments after they had happened, using some of the actual players.
And this was happening as the frontier was closing, a strange portrayal of a world that was on its way out. The Indians in the Wild West were essentially prisoners of war, joining the show as a way off the reservation. As for cowboys, although the show was an equestrian extravaganza, the age of the horse was nearly over and outside of the show, they were out of a job. At Cody’s funeral in Denver in 1917, America had its first traffic jam. That’s how many people came to mourn him – and it says a lot about the end of an era. But that’s the era that lives forever in the American heart, for better and for worse.
What surprised you the most about your research?
A most surprising thing was how critical Annie Oakley was to the coming together of Cody and Sitting Bull. In fact, Sitting Bull may not have joined the Wild West had it not been for Annie. Shortly before signing with Cody, he was in St. Paul, Minnesota with a reservation official, touring the area to meet local dignitaries and familiarize himself with aspects of the civilization which were displacing the Lakota. Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler, also a marksman, were giving a shooting exhibition, and Sitting Bull evidently was quite taken with Annie’s skills. After the show, he sent her a note “backstage,” or to her hotel room, kind of a fan note apparently, and said he’d like to meet her. So they met and became fast friends, and soon he gave her the nickname of “Little Miss Sure Shot,” although that was a mistranslation.
I can’t give away the real meaning here, but the main thing is that here was Sitting Bull essentially branding Annie Oakley, to use today’s parlance. I’ve often wondered if she would have attained the same level of fame without that nickname, and in any case, she joined up with Cody shortly before Sitting Bull did, and when Cody was trying to convince Sitting Bull to come aboard, one of the things that made him feel more comfortable in doing so was the presence of Annie Oakley. He seems to have regarded her as a surrogate daughter. Cody himself was quite taken with her, in love with her I would say, yet their affair was not physical - unlike his numerous others over the years, although he was married.
And so you could say that a woman runs through the story of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, and that woman was Annie Oakley.
I love that Annie Oakley is a character. What misconceptions do you think people have about her?
People don’t realize that she was a voracious hunter and that she supported her family from the time she was a little girl and until she became a traveling sharpshooter by way of her knowledge of the woods. Her family was poor, like many on the frontier, and she provided them with supper that she herself had killed. At some point, she began selling game to restaurants in Cincinnati, and making quite a good living. In fact, she was killing so many animals that she was told to put a lid on it. For that era, when there were few regulations about anything, especially something like hunting, that was a big deal.
Of late, there’s been a retelling of what the old West was like. I saw and loved Hostiles, a nuanced film about what we did to the American Indians—and how they fought back. Can you talk about the Old West here, please?
Yes, it’s a very good film, and it has some parallels to the story I tell in Blood Brothers. Of course the term “hostiles” refers to Indians who refused to turn themselves into reservations as the frontier wars were winding down. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and a number of others were such figures. After Crazy Horse was killed following his surrender and betrayal, Sitting Bull and some Lakota who travelled with him into the protection of the “Grandmother”- or Canada – were the last “hostiles” to return to their lands south of the Medicine Line, meaning the Dakota Territory.
I recount the return of Sitting Bull and his people in my book, and it’s some of the most difficult material I’ve written. You would think there would have been a lot of fanfare marking the return of this great figure, especially since many army officials viewed Sitting Bull as a premiere military tactician, a general for all time. Really, there was none – among white folk, that is. But others of his tribe who had already surrendered lined the riverbanks as the steamer carrying him arrived. Later, in a ceremony at Fort Buford, he instructed his young son to surrender his rifle. I’ve wondered what the soldiers who were in attendance were thinking. They were witnessing one of history’s great and most tragic reversals of fortune. Not surprisingly, soon after Sitting Bull had laid down his arms, his captors sought his autograph, his company, his medicine – everyone wanted a piece of him, and he loaned himself to Buffalo Bill for a brief time. According to a newspaper account of the first time that the two men met, amid a show in Buffalo, of all places, Cody actually seemed to shrink in stature as Sitting Bull approached. It was a fleeting moment – but that’s how cataclysmic it was.
As the movie ads say, “We are all hostiles,” and as I mentioned, the coming together of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull was billed as “Foes in 76 and friends in 85.” Who better to make peace than former enemies? We saw this happen at Standing Rock during the protests over a year ago. Army veterans, themselves descendants of soldiers who had fought at the Little Bighorn, apologized to Lakota elders in a ceremony that was not widely covered, acknowledging the American betrayal of the Indian nations on the plains. To me, this marked a spiritual shift that is now underway, and it was a profound and necessary moment. I try to stay focused on that as the country seems to be coming apart at the seams.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The government assault on land, sea, and air, and on wildlife. It’s not new, but it’s a ratcheting up of this American schizophrenia that we have, this worship of freedom and simultaneous urge to wall it up and destroy it. What’s going on now is the end game of the Indian wars, and now is the time to continue what began at Standing Rock in 2016 and what red and white men tried to do in their own ways long before that, even in that strange piece of living theatre called the Wild West show.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I think you’ve covered it. Thank you!