Indian Lives Illuminate History

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

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

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


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.

Native-American spirituality is the overriding theme in Michael Steltenkamp's ``Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala.'' Initially I was dismayed at receiving a slim volume about one of the most famous Indians in United States history. What was left to discuss after such books as ``Black Elk Speaks'' by John G. Neihardt and ``The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux,'' edited by Joseph E. Brown? These accounts of the the Oglala medicine man's spiritual teachings and other literature that touches on American Indian topics have become staples of native-American studies courses and classes in history. Surely Raymond J. DeMallie's masterly ``The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt'' (1984) had uncovered the deficiencies of these earlier writers and added any relevant information worth recovering.

Happily I was wrong. Rather than focusing on Black Elk's first three decades in which he witnessed the defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn, survived the slaughter of nearly 200 of his tribe's people at Wounded Knee in 1890, and became a shaman, Steltenkamp looks at the later years when he rejected his heyoka status and the yuwipi ceremony to become a Roman Catholic catechist.

Through Neihardt's and Brown's writings, Black Elk has come to epitomize traditional native-American spirituality. True believers, romanticists, and some Indian activists will not enjoy reading this ``add-on'' biography, based largely on interviews with Black Elk's daughter, Lucy Looks Twice, and Oglala co-workers. They will continue to reject this ``sullying'' of a traditional life and fail to perceive the dignified reality of an individual Indian's survival and cultural extension.

David Roberts's eighth book, ``Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars,'' is a life-and-times dual biography of two Chiricahua Apaches. Cochise, popularized by the 1951 movie ``Broken Arrow'' and the spinoff television series, was more significant historically as a leader of his band, but Geronimo, last of the prominent Apache warriors to surrender to US forces (1866), symbolizes Indian resistance. Graced with a superb photograph collection, Roberts's narrative moves the reader along rapidly, adroitly balancing passages on Apache lore and military campaigns with discourses on Indian-white morality, or the lack thereof. The author used most of the published authorities on the Apache wars and has committed no egregious errors of fact or interpretation; on the other hand, he has not really added any new information or interpretation.

Frank Waters, among whose two dozen books are the superb novel ``The Man Who Killed the Deer'' (1942) and the creditable ``Book of the Hopi'' (1963), has unfortunately been persuaded to allow an early manuscript, ``Brave Are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten,'' to be published at this late date. Approximately 20 Indian leaders from Deganawidah, the Peacemaker, to Chief Seattle are fleetingly limned in a half-dozen pages each. Even a novice reader of Indian history can complete this compendium in a short afternoon. Waters's prose is as smooth as ever. The brief bibliography contains only four references published after 1980. During the past 12 years many worthy book-length biographies on many of his subjects have appeared.

If it had been published 30 years ago and designated as an introduction to native Americana, the volume would have been rightly heralded; now it is simply a handsomely produced book with a memorable title.

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