It was the legend of the dancing horse that led me into the story of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, for it symbolized so much. As I thought about the steed outside Sitting Bull’s dwelling as his killing was under way, a portal into something else opened up—exactly what, I was not sure of at the time, other than the fact that here was my next story, and it was calling and at some point I would head on down its trail. Later, as I was well along this path, I came across another image. It’s now on the cover of this book, and it too captured my attention. It was taken for publicity purposes while Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill were on tour in Montreal, and its caption was “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.” I began to imagine these two men on the road, Sitting Bull on that horse, crisscrossing the nation, visiting lands that once had belonged to the Lakota, appearing as “himself” on crowded thoroughfares that were built on top of ancient paths made by animals and the people who followed them, with William F. Cody, another mythical figure of the Great Plains, reenacting wartime scenarios that had one outcome—the end of the red man and the victory of the white-leading the whole parade in a celebration of the Wild West that became the national scripture.
And behind the myths, the projected ideas in which they were preserved, who were they in day-to-day life? Theirs was certainly an unlikely partnership, but one thing was obvious on its face. Both had names that were forever linked with the buffalo (“Sitting Bull” refers to it, something that is not readily apparent from the name itself), and both led lives that were intertwined with it. One man was “credited” with wiping out the species (though that was hardly the case) and the other was sustained by its very-life. They were, in effect, two sides of the same coin; foes and then friends, just as the photo caption said. So this image too entered my consciousness; here were two American superstars, icons not just of their era and country, but for all time and around the world. What story was this picture telling and how was it connected to the dancing horse outside Sitting Bull’s cabin?
What divided Indians and the white man is still in play. Out on the Great Plains, a staging ground for the original cataclysm, there is a face-off in North Dakota at a place called Standing Rock, where Sitting Bull was essentially a prisoner when the land became a reservation and before that lived in its environs as a free man. An oil company wants to force a pipeline through sacred lands on Indian territory and those who first dwelled there saying no. They fear a spill that would contaminate the waters which flow nearby—the lifeblood of us all. They have been joined by thousands of Native Americans from across the country, who arrived on foot, by canoe, and on horseback. It has been the largest such gathering of the tribes in one place in America’s recorded history, and many of these tribes are historic rivals. Regardless of the outcome at Standing Rock, one thing is certain: a shift is under way.
Launched in 1883, the Wild West—minus the word “show”—was a touring extravaganza that crystallized the frontier experience through a parade of moments and acts that had come to signify American history. It was cooked up by Cody, along with two partners. He was its figurehead and driving force. Already a major celebrity who was shuttling back and forth between the frontier (where he was known for his exploits) and Broadway (where he reenacted them), he provided employment for cowboys and Indians who were soon to be locked out of time itself. This almost instant theater—born of a history that did not even span a single century—was magic, a mesmerizing spectacle that was lie and truth, fable and news, a thing that inscribed the American story for the ages. But the magic behind the magic was horses, as Cody made a point of saying from the very beginning. Such deference was in the show’s founding literature and programs; the presentation was essentially an equine drama, for without the flying manes and tails of the national saga, the show would not go on. To that end, Cody hired the premier centaurs of the era—Native American warriors who embodied the spirit of freedom with their painted faces and feathers astride fast-stepping painted ponies. By 1884, the Wild West was on its way to becoming the premier frontier spectacle of its time—of all time—and it was only fitting that sooner or later, for many reasons, Sitting Bull would join Buffalo Bill on the mythology road.
After his career with the Pony Express, Cody was chief of army scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, “mastering the accomplishment of riding bareback and leaping off and on his horse while the animal was galloping at full speed,” reports Agnes Wright Spring in Buffalo Bill and His Horses.
Eighteen months after Cody began working for the railroad, he boasted that he had killed 4,280 buffalo. Around this time, people started calling him Buffalo Bill—unbeknownst to him or any who used that nickname, a shadow version of the names accorded Native Americans for whom the buffalo was an ally, pathway to the Creator, font of rebirth if bearing a coat that was white, source of sustenance and shelter and clothing and warmth, symbol of strength and endurance.
To understand the blood purge that was unfolding on the Great Plains, we must look past numbers and ammunition categories and nicknames for people and guns. Throughout American history, greed and lust has led to wildlife extermination, including birds whose feathers looked good in hats; beaver and bear for their pelts; wolves and bobcats because they were in the way; and all manner of other creatures disappeared from their lands because we’re bored, we’re hungry, we need to make way for roads and rails and stores, and in our free country we can do what we want. Alas, for the buffalo, it offered not just a beautiful coat, but its end was the Indians’ end, as stated in government policy and as Native Americans such as the Cheyenne chief Yellow Wolf predicted after observing the wasichu as far back as 1846. He had even tried to hire an army herder to teach the Cheyenne to grow the white man’s cattle, according to Mari Sandoz, so the Indians need not die when the buffalo vanished. “His prediction received only laughter,” she noted, “and now he was dead, killed in the Sand Creek fight in 1864”—a most brutal massacre in which a chief named Black Kettle and his tribe were mowed down and mutilated after the chief raised an American flag in a gesture of peace.
And so the assaults unfolded. “The hide boom only lasted a dozen years before the buffalo ran out,” wrote Steven Rinella in American Buffalo. There were probably about fifty million buffalo on the range when the pursuits began, consisting of four great herds—the Republican, the Arkansas, the Texas, and the Yellowstone, but the exact number is not known; the buffalo seemed endless and the idea that an animal could be completely “hunted out” was not known or considered, except to some of those who had lived with the buffalo for generations. “The first big hunting push was in the vicinity of Dodge City,” wrote Rinella.
In 1871, the hide hunters killed so many animals so close to town that residents complained about the stench of rotting carcasses. That winter, a half-million buffalo hides were shipped out of Dodge. The hunters spread out from there, organizing their hunts along the east-flowing rivers of the Great Plains. They hunted out the Republican River, near the Nebraska-Kansas line. Along the south fork of the Platte River, hundreds of buffalo hunters lined fifty miles of riverbank and used fires to keep the buffalo from getting to the water at night. In four daytime periods, they gunned down fifty thousand of the thirst-crazed animals. . . . By 1878, there weren’t enough buffalo on the southern plains to warrant the chase.
Amid all of the tumult of the era, Buntline continued writing, penning hundreds of short novels, earning the nickname “Father of the Dime Novel,” and blazing the trail for many others from Owen Wister to Zane Grey to Louis L’Amour. Yet in terms of sheer word count and impact, Buntline’s literary output perhaps remains unmatched considering that such tales influenced many young boys to hit the trail and reinvent themselves where the buffalo roamed. When he himself finally headed westward and met Buffalo Bill, the pair of self-promoters formed a natural partnership. Buntline clearly recognized that there was much to be gained. While the men had a lot in common, Cody possessed certain attributes that Buntline lacked. Both figures may have been larger than life, but Cody was actually large in stature. And his feats were associated with the West, which was different from hanging out with Seminole Indians, or even surviving a lynch mob. Cody had battled those who were portrayed as the demons of the era, recognizable figures of menace in war paint and animal skins and streaming rivers of feathers, facing them down in man-to-man combat, and, like many a great warrior, absorbing some of their characteristics along the way. His life itself was a kind of frontier victory dance, or as Buntline put it, he was “a compendium of clichés.” And thus was a literary alliance born.
The After his westward journey, Buntline returned to New York and penned the serial Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men for New York Weekly. The serial included epic tales of buffalo massacres and battles with Indians, and Buntline kept churning out the episodes, capturing the fancy of both high-and lowbrow readers across the land. Capitalizing on the popularity of Cody’s dramatized adventures, Buntline went on to write The Scouts of the Prairie, a play that opened on Broadway in 1872. It starred Buntline and famous scout Texas Jack Omohundro as themselves. It also featured Buffalo Bill, who periodically dropped in to play himself as well, literally “just in from the Indian wars.” The critics loved him, and he appeared in the play for eleven seasons.
Imagine being born into a world where your tribe was the most powerful in all the land and within that being born at the climax of its power. Imagine that in your lifetime, you witnessed a thing that consumed nearly everything you loved and were nourished by and that nearly everyone you cherished or parlayed with was destroyed, altered, killed, or locked up. Imagine being a person who lived through such a thing, sought to head it off directly and softly, was both celebrated and hated for doing so, and yet, because of an alliance with the natural world and it with you, saw the whole thing coming—even your own end. And then, finally, imagine embracing life with all of your might and force, your generosity and joy, trying to contain the wellspring of sorrow and blood that was flooding your world and drowning it, knowing that a river cannot be stopped but that there are many different ways to ride it. This was Sitting Bull’s fate and condition, and this is how it unfolded.
Sitting Bull’s band was the Bad Bow of the Hunkpapa tribe, and, like the other bands among his people, and of the Indians across the plains, its members traversed the vast terrain in pursuit of buffalo, sometimes crisscrossing the paths of their enemies, engaging in battle, and sometimes, after the wasichu arrived, encountering settlers and soldiers and mountain men and miners, engaging in battle on new fronts, and commingling with the new pilgrims. They did not want war with the interlopers; they sought to defend their territory, waging offensive moves when it became clear that the newcomers did not intend to honor agreements, preferring to acquire or seize what was valuable, at any cost. Quite simply, the light-skinned arrivals were greedy—and, in fact, the term wasichu originally meant “those who take the fat,” and was used by the Lakota to describe the kind of person who takes all of the buffalo fat, a desirable part of the buffalo that the Lakota shared.
Before Sitting Bull headed for the Dakota Territory, Buffalo Bill took him aside. There was something he wanted to give him. It was a horse—the one that he had ridden during the four months that Sitting Bull had been in the show. For a man who had to give up his horses when he returned to the land of his birth, this was a most symbolic gesture. The tribes had been stripped of their ponies during the wars against them; there were massacres in which thousands had been gunned down in cavalry attacks. The ponies represented freedom, and on foot the tribes were at a disadvantage—at war and on the hunt, as they well knew. Without the thundering four-legged, they were diminished. Somewhere during the course of his time in the Wild West, Sitting Bull had given Cody a gift as well. It was a bear claw necklace, a presentation that was also of significance. It symbolized might and strength, for the bear was an ally of the greatest warriors, the first animal to be the object of shamanic adoration. There was little if any fanfare around either of these gifts, for in the end Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill knew that they were joined in ways that could not be publicized or spoken of. They shared something that was written in their blood perhaps, in the blood of the buffalo, whose name was linked to theirs; in the Wild West, they were brothers in arms and now as the frontier was closing, had closed, they were brothers as they went their separate ways.
And then there are those in which mysterious forces, the hand of the Creator perhaps, necessity, desire, brings two people together, even former enemies, in an alliance that seems unlikely, and in the end, not at all. Such was the join-up of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85,” as a photo caption would say of the pair, each an icon to himself, together a powerhouse of mythology and might and sparks.