The Authentic History Center Your current position is:
History on the Net > Authentic History > diversity > native > background: sitting bull in captivity

Native Americans & American Popular Culture

native banner
1881: The End of "The Indian Threat": Sitting Bull In Captivity
In the July 1891 edition of Century Magazine, an article appeared written by Major George W. Baird, in which he recounts his glory days as an Indian fighter under the command of General Nelson A. Miles. Illustrated with engravings by Frederic Remington, the article covers Mile's career from its beginning at Fort Dodge in 1874 to its conclusion six months earlier at Wounded Knee, where armed troops opened fire on a group of Big Foot's band of Lakota people killing 200-250 men, women and children who were illegally performing the Ghost Dance. Already by July 1891, Baird recognized that Wounded Knee represented the climax of what he called "the battle of civilization," and that the Indian threat in the West was now over. With White hegemony secured, Baird was now in a position to offer a more magnanimous approach to what remained of the "Indian problem":
There are but two goals for the Indians--civilization or annihilation...I feel for the Indians, not only friendly feeling but admiration for many of their qualities...The American people, those who really wish and hope to save the Indians from extinction and degradation, must be prepared to use great patience and summon all their wisdom.
The signal that a new day had come in the history of the West elicited two public responses. There was a new wave of reform, most evident in the creation of Indian boarding schools designed to civilize the Native through forced assimilation. And there was an acceleration of efforts to re-characterize this "battle of civilization" in the public imagination; to cast the Indian as an "other", distinct from Euro-American civilization and deserving of displacement to make the wilderness safe for the civilized farmer. Ever since 1881, when Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, every generation has recreated this historic conflict with the Plains Indians dramatically; in photographs, Wild West Shows, Victorian Adversing, dime novels, paintings, early cinema, pulps, literature, comic books, movies, radio, and on television. That the Western genre of entertainment still thrives reflects the dominant culture's need to dramatize its history and to believe in the righteousness of that history's outcome.
Sitting Bull In Captivity
The beginning of America's need to dramatize its conflict with the Plains Indians in popular culture can be traced back at least as early 1881, when Sitting Bull surrendered to authorities at Fort Buford. Five years after the fiasco at Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull was a living representation of the Indian resistance. The Indian leader subsequently spent two years in captivity at Fort Randall, where newspaper reporters and tourists flocked to see him. At this time, photographers also took advantage of Sitting Bull's physical captivity to capture his image on film. Most noteworthy was the work by a Nebraskan photographer named William R. Cross, who assembled a series of twenty-four photographs in such a way as to chronicle the story of Sitting Bull's capture and incarceration. Twenty-one of these were published as stereoviews, a popular media format in the later Nineteenth Century. They were successfully marketed by Joshua Bradford Bailey, Dr. George P. Dix, and John L. Mead, an indication of the public's hunger for a popular cinematic construction of the Plains Indian. The photographs contain all the major elements of what would later comprise the traditional Western movie plot: Savage Indians, Euro-American agents of civilization in the form of (often victimized) settlers, guardians of civilization in the form of the American military, and a moral message in the form of the inevitable and
Cabinet Card of Sitting Bull (1882)
Cabinet Card of Steps (1882)
Cabinet Card of Steps (1882) view 1 view 2 view 3 view 4
Cabinet Card of One Bull (1882)
righteous triumph of civilization over savagery. In these images, the Noble Savage is hardly evident. With the Plains conflict ongoing, the Noble Savage was put on hiatus until such time as the Indian threat had passed. In the Cross photographs, the Indians are generally depicted as subdued and defeated, now reliant on civilization for their very survival. This theme surely provided much needed reassurance to the general public that Euro-Americans were in control. With Sitting Bull safely ensconced at Fort Randall, news reports and interviews with him quickly confirmed his celebrity status. Sitting Bull himself was reported to have taken advantage of the attention by selling some of his personal artifacts and his autograph for outrageous sums. Cross chose the stereoview as his format for publication doubtless because he knew it would appeal to a wide audience and maximize profits. The chronicle begins with an autographed cabinet card of Sitting Bull. Printed at the bottom of the card is an anglicized spelling of his Indian name, followed by the autograph. Below that is
the dramatic caption, "The above is a true Photo and Autograph of 'Sitting Bull', the Sioux Chief at the Custer Massacre." On the reverse are printed personal statistics about him such as his height, weight, and the number of wives he had, followed by the declaration that although the infamous Sioux admits to no wrongdoing, he and his band are nevertheless "prisoners at Fort Randall." On Sitting Bull's lap are staged two symbolic items, a weapon and a peace pipe. The suggestion seems to be that the Indian is now at a crossroads. The Indian can choose peace and become civilized, or he can choose futile resistance. The other two images that are not stereoviews are also cabinet cards, and likewise they are of other Indian leaders who represent contrasting futures for the Indian. One is a portrait of Steps, a "Nes Perce Indian" who "lost his feet above the ankles, also his right hand while being frozen, having been caught in one of the severe snow storms, 21 years ago." The other is an image of One Bull, Sitting Bull's defiant nephew, shown brandishing a weapon. On the reverse is printed, "had to be knocked down and carried

aboard the boat to be brought as a prisoner to the fort." Image number 4 begins the stereoviews, and the depiction of Sitting Bull's captivity. Four views of the iconic Indian tepee are shown, with the explanation on the reverse that an effort was made to show the scene in a manner more attractive than is actually found in reality. Other Indian objects are the subjects of other stereoviews, likewise displayed in a romanticized manner. These images of the vanishing Plains culture included animal skins, totem poles, and tools employed by the Indian medicine man. Cross was careful, however, to not overly romanticize the Indian.

In one image titled "Women's Rights," women are shown working, accompanied by the following explanation. "Two squaws sitting beside their tepee, resting after carrying the wood seen beside them on their backs, as seen in view No.19, for half a mile, while their liege lords and master (the noble red men), are smoking." This satirical description was part of a growing theme in American popular culture in which the Indian male was singled out for negative stereotyping as being lazy.

Stereoview, "Women's Rights" (1882)
The civilizing force in Cross's narrative is represented by the Twenty-fifth Infantry, a unit of black "Buffalo Soldiers" commanded by White officers. One stereoview titled "Battalion Drill" emphasizes the orderly conduct of soldiers, and thereby of the force of civilization. Another image titled "Issuing Rations" emphasizes the growing dependence of the Indian on Euro-American taxpayers. The caption reads, "An Indian with a pipe in his hand in the foreground watching the artist, some officers and their families with Indians standing and squating around them." On the back are listed the specific rations allotted to these dependent former nomads. Another image emphasizes the humaneness of treatment these Indians received by listing all of the goods the Indians were issued, from paper to combs to handkerchiefs. Following the introduction of the military and the assurance that the Indian was subjugated but treated humanely, the sequence of photographs concludes with scenes that introduce the Euro-American settler to the narrative. Most telling is the image of Sitting Bull sitting before his tepee with members of his family in a
Stereoview of Sitting Bull & Family (1882)
Stereoview of Sitting Bull & Family (1882) image 1 image 2
posture suggesting submission to a social hierarchy. Sitting Bull and his family are at one end, closest to the ground. Next to them, but higher up, sits a White female, representative of the settler for whom the West is being made safe. She can sit safely next to the Indian "savage," now that he's been tamed. At the top of the hierarchy, in the background, a military soldier, the Indian tamer, sits astride his mount, keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Sitting Bull was charged with, but acquitted of being the person who killed General Custer. He was in May 1883 to the Standing Rock Agency to be with his people. His notoriety saw him become an Indian spokesperson at public ceremonies and events, including the one marking the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Bismarck in 1883. In 1885 he was recruited by Buffalo Bill Cody to be a star in his traveling Wild West show, where he was paid enormous sums of money to represent the "bloodthirsty savage" in front of adoring crowds. After declining to follow the tour to Europe in 1887, Sitting Bull took on the cause of trying to stop White encroachment of Sioux lands. He was assassinated on December 15, 1890, during the days leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Gallery: Other photographs of Indians from this time period

Cabinet card of Sitting Bull
Cabinet Card of Sitting Bull
Cabinet card of Running Antelope
Cabinet card of Running Antelope
Cabinet Card of Steps
Cabinet Card of Steps
| top |
Creative Commons License
Last modified July 20, 2012