There had been lots of Wild West theatricals and full fairground shows before the great Lakota Indian Chief Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West in 1885. Cody had done a dozen or more over the years. Sitting Bull had even spent the previous year on the road with his own “Combination,” playing 25 cities from Minneapolis to New York City.
But the four months the great chief and the king buffalo hunter worked the fairgrounds circuit together offered to author Deanne Stillman, a focal point for her new book Blood Brothers, and for defining the transition from Wild West — the reality, to Wild West — the performance piece….or as one banner for the described the 2 superstars: “Foes in ’76, Friends in ‘85.”
The Bull and Bill show, as one newspaper called it, offered, in addition to what were already becoming familiar cowboy rodeo stunts and exotic Indian costumes, drums and dances – an emblem of something precious: reconciliation. The 2 men, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill together enacted a kind of 2-man summit conference of Western forgiveness.
“The man who stands before you today is a great warrior,” said Buffalo Bill introducing his co-star at their first joint appearance in – wouldn’t you know it—Buffalo, NY. “He, from his standpoint,” Cody continued, “fought for what he believed was right and made a name for himself to be known forever.“
This is magnanimity Sitting Bull had demonstrated at his own formal surrender just 4 years before his new partnership with Buffalo Bill, when he said to US Army Major David Brotherton: “I surrender this rifle to you through my young son, whom I now desire to teach in this manner that he has become a friend to the Americans. I wish him to learn the habits of the Whites and to be educated as their sons are educated. I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”
Behind the noble words and invocations of harmony, these “Blood Brothers” had lots of spilled blood between them, on Sitting Bull’s side, the slaughter at the Little Big Horn, on Bill Cody’s side, the eradication of the American Buffalo and the double-genocide it predicated, of an animal species and a whole Native American way of life.
What they literally made a show of was putting all this behind them.
Their time together may have been short, but there are indications it was intense, with lasting emotional effects on both sides.
When he heard, 5 years after they had worked together, that Sitting Bull was dying, Buffalo Bill traveled for days to get to his bedside. That he failed, and why, show that their very popular personal reconciliation remained surrounded by a world of mistrust.
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books of narrative nonfiction are place-based stories of war and peace in the modern and historical West. Her latest book is Blood Brothers: The Story of the strange friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Her prior book is Desert Reckoning, which is based on her Rolling Stone piece, “The Great Mojave Manhunt,” a finalist for a PEN Center USA journalism award and published in Best American Crime Writing. Desert Reckoning won the 2013 Spur Award for best western nonfiction, contemporary, the LA Press Club Award for best general nonfiction, and was named a Southwest Book of the Year. It received excellent reviews in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tucson Weekly, and Oregonian.
Her book, Twentynine Palms, was an LA Times bestseller and “best book of the year.” Hunter Thompson called it “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer,” and it was reissued in a new, updated edition by Angel City Press in 2008, with a foreword by T. Jefferson Parker and a preface by Charles Bowden. The conclusion of a ten-year journey, the book explores the brutal murders of two young girls in a scenic Southern California military town by a Marine shortly after the Gulf War.