This book is written in the imagined voice of Sitting Bull, born in 1831, who was a member of one of seven Lakota tribes, known by non-Natives as the Sioux. Sitting Bull was one of the greatest Lakota/Sioux warriors, resisting for over twenty-five years the efforts of the U.S. Government to move the tribes to reservations (where the land was less desirable so the whites could have the better land – especially in the Black Hills – and also not have to worry about retribution by the Native Americans).
As the author writes:
“The wasichus [white men] were looking for the yellow metal that made their hearts crazy with greed. Gold! It didn’t matter that the gold was on Lakota land. Wasichus began to arrive in huge numbers.”
The army also announced that those who refused to give up the land would be considered “hostile Indians.”
Sitting Bull, trained from childhood to be a warrior, was at the battles of Killdeer Mountain and the Little Bighorn. Along with Crazy Horse, he became the last of the Lakota/Sioux to hold out against the U.S. Government. He said in 1881: “A warrior I have been. Now it is all over. A hard time I have.”
His tragic story is told with passion, and in a way that will be understandable to young readers. He also tells about his own death in 1890 at the Standing Rock Reservation, when many Native Americans were engaging in the religious ritual known as “The Ghost Dance.” It was a rite involving drums, dancing, and prayer, and made the whites very nervous. They feared the dance was just a precursor to an Indian uprising. They killed Sitting Bull, as well as his son and six members of his band who were trying to defend him. [The Ghost Dance was also the “excuse” for the 1890 massacre by the U.S. Army of mostly old men, women, and children, at Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.]
Historical quotes are periodically offset from the text, not only by Sitting Bull, but by others important to his life and times, such as this infamous 1866 vow from General William Tecumseh Sherman:
“We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”
The illustrations, by the author, are done in ink and colored pencil in the style called Ledger Book Art. When Natives were forced onto reservations, the only paper they could get was in the form of bound ledger books no longer of use to the white man. The Plains Indians used the books to create the art they previously painted on buffalo robes, tipis, etc. The bound books of lined paper were turned into beautiful testimonials to Native life and memory.
There are also a number of reproductions of historical photos included in the book.
At the back of the book, there is an extensively annotated time line and Author’s Note, a select bibliography, and index.
Evaluation: This excellent combination of biography and history tells a riveting and tragic story. Such books as these can enhance the ability of young people to see the plight of others from different races and religions, and would make an invaluable addition to any classroom. (The intended audience is ages 8-12, but I myself found it to read like a page-turner.) Telling the story in the voice of Sitting Bull helped add immediacy and emotional heft to the story.
The book also serves as a correction to the omission from contemporary history of the mass murders of Native Americans (and arguably of course the rightful owners of the land) by the American Government.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of ABRAMS, 2015
Note: For more information about what happened to Native Americans also presented as ledger art, you may want to check out the stunning book The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman. (See my review, here, for a preview of what the book is about, and a look at some of the stunning artwork by Adam Cvijanovic.) The hand-calligraphed text purports to be a journal kept by Thomas Blue Eagle, a fictitious boy from the Sioux tribe who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School at the end of the 19th Century.