Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Q&A with Deanne Stillman

Deanne Stillman is the author of the new book Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Her other books include Twentynine Palms, Desert Reckoning, and Mustang. She writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books and and teaches at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

Q: You write that this book’s inspiration came from a story about a horse that Buffalo Bill had given to Sitting Bull. Can you say more about that?

A: When Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock after traveling with Cody for four months in 1885, Cody gave him a horse. That was symbolic because the horse had been stripped from the tribes during the Indian wars. It was not enough to deprive them of the buffalo; they had to be dismounted. 

Five years later, while Sitting Bull was being assassinated in his cabin doorway, the horse was outside and started to dance as the bullets were flying. That was because it had been trained to do so at the sound of gunfire in the Wild West show. 

Sitting Bull’s murder and the dancing horse that echoed it happened at the height of the ghost dancing frenzy  - an apocalyptic call for a return to the old ways and the resurrection of the buffalo. So here was this horse joining in, a ghost horse really, a representative of the Wild West and all that came with it. 

While I was working on my book, I called Chief Arvol Looking-Horse, a prominent Lakota spiritual figure, for his insight into this matter.  What he said stunned me, beyond what I already felt, and I talk about all of this in much greater detail in my book. 

By the way, I couldn’t shake the image of the dancing horse for years, and it led me to write Blood Brothers. I wanted to know what forces converged in that moment, and how did they lead there.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two men, and what does it say about the history of the American West? 

A:  It was complicated and interesting; they had an unspoken bond, in my view, borne of a bloody history on the Great Plains, on two sides of the buffalo coin.

They were both fathers, husbands, warriors; both were charismatic and influential; both were celebrated men among their people, surrounded by fans, hangers-on, envious people, wives and close female associates (in Cody’s case, many girlfriends).

Each was a superstar, an icon, and in that regard, they represented qualities that each culture revered. In Cody’s case, he was fearless and self-mythologizing, yet at the same time he wasn’t kidding, most of the time. Moreover, he was friends with kings and cowboys – a man who knew who he was and everyone wanted to know him. 

Sitting Bull was a true representative of the Lakota – humble, an accomplished warrior, a man who made a point of not standing out, but was well-versed in his strengths. In today’s parlance, you could say he was “comfortable in his own skin.” 

Yet we white folk really don’t have the words to describe who Sitting Bull was and what he meant to his tribe. This becomes very apparent in an interview Sitting Bull did in 1877 with a reporter from the New York Herald, which I recount in my book. The reporter keeps pressing him for labels – “are you a chief?” “a medicine man?” and so on. Sitting Bull just says no….

In his hiring of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill allied with the only Native American who was his equal in terms of fame, respect, and stature among his own people…although on a side note, “fame” was not something the Lakota sought in the way that white people did…nevertheless, in coming together for the purpose of show business, they were crossing a cultural barrier – “foes in 76 and friends in 85” as the advertising slogan accompanying a poster of them together in Montreal (on the cover of my book) – indicates. 

The 76 refers to the Battle of the Little Bighorn; Sitting Bull was blamed for killing Custer, though that was not the case. Cody was an army scout during those years and after Custer was killed, he avenged his death by scalping an Indian – and then re-creating the act on the stage back east, wielding the actual scalp – to the dismay of some.

The coming together of these two men - Cody and Sitting Bull – was of course sensational, but very resonant. On the road, Cody tried to deflect the hostility towards Sitting Bull as the perceived killer of Custer, saying that Sitting Bull was “the Napoleon of his people” and a warrior, fighting a good fight – just like the white man. And that he had been wronged by the white man. 

Their first meeting in, of all places, Buffalo, is truly remarkable. What this all says about the American West is loaded – but we see it playing out today at Standing Rock.

Last year during the protests, descendants of soldiers who fought at the Bighorn, themselves army veterans, came to support the Lakota – and in a ceremony that was not widely covered, seek forgiveness for certain activities carried out by the white man in the conquest of American Indians.   
This was a 180 from the old days, and it’s the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in years, in my opinion. Maybe we are finally starting to reconcile America’s original sin – the betrayal of Native Americans.

Cody gave them their due in his spectacle, but that was limited – Indians in the cast were essentially prisoners of war, and traveling with the Wild West was a way off the reservation. But many Indians came to Cody’s funeral, along with the cowboys who were able to continue living an unfettered life inside the confines of the Wild West, even as it was being closed out in the real world.

In its own strange way, Cody’s show inscribed our history forever – and the Wild West is America’s address.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: To write this book, I did what I always do, which is traveling to various locations in my story, talking to people on all sides of this equation, reading all sorts of source material (listed in an extensive bibliography in my book), and then spending years sifting through everything and letting it all percolate. 

Also, place is a player in this story, as it is in all of my books, and I love traveling across the Great Plains and coming across its secrets and treasures.

In terms of what surprised me, there was the above-mentioned dancing horse (which some think is a legend, but I believe the tale).

There was also the fact that Buffalo Bill was dispatched by the army to Sitting Bull’s cabin shortly before he was killed, in the hope that Cody could convince his friend to surrender to authorities and thereby quell the ghost dancing, one more thing he was blamed for. Cody was waylaid en route – one of history’s near-misses, as I recount in greater detail in my book. 

Later, after Wounded Knee, the final, tragic act of the Indian wars, Cody made a film about it, re-enacting that with actual surviving participants and victims. At this point in his life, he wanted to tell the truth about what had happened – not the literally white-washed presentation of his show.

But the film was a flop; no one wanted to see the dark side – and talkies were upon us. The days of the Wild West show were over, and in case that wasn’t clear, America’s first traffic jam happened at Cody’s funeral.

Q: What would you say is each man’s legacy today?

A: Each man is revered around the world; they are two of the most famous men ever, but they are not famous for being famous, like so many people today. They meant something and they still do, each representing a way of life that is long-gone but desired, and in some ways existed only in a dream. 

Yet it cannot be denied that Sitting Bull was the last of his people to “come in,” a “rebel” who fought for his homeland for many years, until he could do so no longer, and wanted to come to terms with the white man and forge a world where his children could flourish. 

And Buffalo Bill – hunter, showman, trickster  - conjured the national scripture, the thing that keeps the dream of America going. And let’s not forget that the Wild West was an “equestrian extravaganza” – a description officially attached to the show. Galloping horses, flying manes and tails, cowboys and Indians astride – it’s the American pageant in all its glory. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I also write plays, and I’m working on a new one, and that’s all I’ll say at this point; I rarely talk about works in progress, especially in the seedling stage.  But thanks for asking!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. It’s time for a message! Let us speak about the unraveling of protections for wildlife and the land and the sea. This is the end game of the Indian wars, the last gasp I hope of manifest destiny. But it’s in full effect at the moment, and should not be seen as something that is apart from our frontier history – a thing borne of, after all, the great wide open.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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