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Indian Lives Illuminate History

New books about native Americans include biography, fiction, and personal narrative

By Terry P. Wilson. Terry P. Wilsona member of the Potawatomi tribe, is professor and former chair of Native American Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include ``Teaching American History.'' / September 3, 1993



THE LANCE AND THE SHIELD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SITTING BULL By Robert M. Utley. Henry Holt & Co., 413 pp., $25

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BLACK ELK: HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA By Michael F. Steltenkamp. University of Oklahoma Press 211 pp., $19.95

ONCE THEY MOVED LIKE THE WIND: COCHISE, GERONIMO AND THE APACHE WARS By David Roberts. Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $24

BRAVE ARE MY PEOPLE: INDIAN HEROES NOT FORGOTTEN By Frank Waters. Clear Light Publishers 189 pp., $24.95

NEARLY a quarter of a century has passed since Dee Brown's ``Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' (1970) set off a publishing avalanche of books about American Indians. Earlier works, often of dubious distinction, were refurbished with fresh dust jackets and contemporary forewords to vie with new writings for the attention and dollars of a mostly non-Indian readership. As a result of 1960s and 1970s demonstrations of red power at Alcatraz (1969) and Wounded Knee (1973), some readers had become guiltily aware of their government's and society's past injustices to native Americans. Others sought portents and visions in treatises on native-American spirituality and belief. Many simply desired more information about the cultures and histories of the nation's indigenous peoples.

Among the more difficult tasks faced by scholars and popular writers alike who hope to illumine our understanding of Indian America has been the crafting of biographies of individual native Americans. Historical members of many tribes will likely remain obscure, because insufficient research material exists to frame a book-length portrait. And what about the problem of ``the other''? How can a non-Indian biographer penetrate alien tribal worlds to uncover the motivations, goals, and desires of individuals shaped by dimly perceived belief systems and lifestyles? Can an outsider even grasp what was significant to tribal peoples of a century or two ago, a necessity if a person's life is to be discerned and evaluated.

The books reviewed here reflect four distinctly different approaches to meeting the formidable challenges of Indian biography. Most satisfying of the efforts is ``The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull.'' Robert M. Utley, a former chief historian of the National Park Service and author of numerous publications in Western history and biography, has produced a superlatively written and researched life of Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader. Born sometime between 1831 and 1837, this Lakota warrior came to embody his people's four cardinal virtues - bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom - as he led the resistance of the tribe to the wasichus (white men) until his death in 1890.

Utley manages to impart an astonishing array of facts about Sitting Bull's Lakota world to inform the reader about the man. He explains the reasons behind intertribal warfare as well as the defensive strategies of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse against the advance of the Anglo-American frontier. Drawing on the memories of the chief's contemporaries recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s, Utley reveals Sitting Bull's wisdom, spiritual power, and foibles so that a man emerges, a Lakota personage significant within his own tribe and in the history of the nation that subdued his people.