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The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas, by Robert M. Utley, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2020, $24.49

“The Sioux chief Sitting Bull,” Robert Utley writes in the preface to The Last Sovereigns, “is arguably the greatest Indian chief of all the tribes that roamed the American West in the 19th century.” This isn’t new ground for the writer considered the dean of Western historians. Utley’s best-selling The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (Henry Holt & Co., 1993) was a History Book Club main selection, earned a rave review from The New York Times and received a Spur Award from Western Writers of America.

In The Last Sovereigns, however, Utley focuses on events after the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which Lakota and Cheyenne warriors wiped out the main command of George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry. At the time white Americans reviled Sitting Bull as the man who killed Custer and demanded the Army bring him to justice. That’s what prompted him and roughly 1,000 of his followers to flee to Canada, where they remained at peace before surrendering to U.S. authorities in 1881 and returning to their Dakota Territory homeland. Sitting Bull was ultimately killed by his own people on South Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation on Dec. 15, 1990. Utley details the complex relationships between Sitting Bull and James Morrow Walsh, a major in Canada’s North-West Mounted Police who befriended the Lakota leader, and Jean Louis Legaré, Walsh’s replacement, who pressured Sitting Bull to return to the United States.

This is a nonfiction work from an academic publisher, but Utley writes with conviction about human beings. A slim book (166 pages, including notes, bibliography and index), The Last Sovereigns is an informative and enlightening narrative told by a master (for more about Utley see Wild West’s interview with him in the February 2021 issue).

—Johnny D. Boggs

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