Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People written and illustrated by S. D. Nelson

After seeing all the references to Sitting Bull while reading In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III, I decided to to read S.D. Nelson's Sitting Bull biography.  Unlike most biographies narrated by a third person, Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People is told to us by the spirit of Sitting Bull himself.

Born in 1831, a member of the Hunkpapa band, one of the seven Lakota tribes of the Great Plains, Sitting Bull's was originally named Jumping Badger.  At age 10, he killed his first buffalo, and at 14, he earned his first eagle feather after a successful raid on their Crow enemy.  That's when his father gave him the shield and lance of a Lakota warrior, and the name Sitting Bull, "symbolizing a powerful buffalo that holds his ground and never backs down." (pg 6)

By the mid-1800s, wasichus, or white men, were beginning to cross through Lakota territory heading west.  It didn't take long for them to begin taking over the Great Plains.  But, Sitting Bull tells us, the white man came to [their] land with two faces - talking about peace, but taking whatever they wanted.  Fighting started to break out between Lakota warriors and white soldiers.  It became clear that the seven Lakota tribes needed a leader, and, as their greatest warrior, Sitting Bull was asked to lead his people against the wasichus, who were then joined by Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors

But as the land and the way of life of the Lakota tribes was impinged on more and more by armed soldiers, by settlers in covered wagons heading to Oregon, by steamboats on the Missouri River and later railroads from east and west bringing trade, and by the discovery of gold on tribal land, many bands of Lakota were forced to live on reservations created by the US government, who said they would be taken care of, but again spoke with two faces.

After their victory over Lt. Colonel George Custer at Little Bighorn, a battle Sitting Bull did not take part in, people wanted revenge.  Sitting Bill and his band of Hunkpapa fled to Canada for safety.  But starvation drove them back to the Great Plains, where they were considered  to be hostile Indians by the US government and were eventually forced to submit to living on a reservation.  Sitting Bull found himself and his family at the Standing Rock Agency in the Indian reservation with his freedom gone, his failures at farming and guarded by armed Lakota police, what must have felt like the ultimate betrayal.

Little wonder, Sitting Bull decided to travel with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in 1885, remaining with the show for one summer, before returning to the reservation.  This brave warrior was assassinated by Lakota who were now American policemen, and worse, probably denied a proper Lakota burial, though no one really knows what became of Sitting Bull's body.

Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People is a fascinating look at the life of an American Indian whose name I was familiar with, but whose actual life I knew nothing about.  And I knew even less about Lakota culture and traditions, such as why a warrior paints his body and his horse with symbolic designs before going into battle.

S.D. Nelson, who is himself a tribally enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of the Dakotas, has created a narrative voice of Sitting Bull feels so authentic as he recalls the pivotal and terrible life-changing events that he lived through, you almost believe he is there speaking to you directly.

Laced through this picture book for older readers are archival photographs and large print quotations from different Lakota sourced heading some pages.  But most striking of all is the artwork.  Using a ink and colored pencils in a soft but colorful palette, the illustrations were then digitally reproduced to capture all the details, because Nelson has done the book in what has come to be known as ledger book art style.  When American Indians were in military base jails, they were given old used ledger books to draw on.  At first insulting that American Indians weren't worthy of clean sheets of paper, their designs were so extraordinary that ledger book art stands as an art form in its own right for telling "a people's story and...stand as splendid visual testaments."

S.D Nelson's images done in ledger book style
Back matter includes a Select Time Line of Lakota history, an Author's Note (always a reading must), end notes and a select Bibliography.  There is a map of detailed map of the Great Plains on the front end papers that will also help situate the reader.

Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of his People is a book that should be read by everyone interested in Native American history and in those parts of American history not usually included in textbooks.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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