The boy known as Plenty Kill followed a lively path.
Plenty Kill of the Oglala Lakotas was born too late for the first round of the Plains Indian wars, but he won his warrior name, Standing Bear, like a true akicita (“soldier”)—by counting coup, albeit on his name.
Plenty Kill (Ota Kte) was born on the Great Sioux Reservation (present-day South Dakota) in late 1868 and raised as a traditional Lakota by his father, Chief Standing Bear, and his mother, Pretty Face. In the wake of the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, the United States clamped down on the Plains Indians, ending the free-roaming ways of the Lakotas. Three years later Standing Bear enrolled Plenty Kill in the first class of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt’s new Indian school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“I was leaving the reservation and going to stay away long enough to do some brave deed,” Plenty Kill later recalled thinking. He and his father concurred that Plenty Kill was not a prudent name for a Lakota to use east of the Mississippi in the aftermath of the Little Bighorn. By the time the boy arrived in Carlisle in 1879, he had already taken his father’s less-menacing name, Standing Bear.
Administrators at Carlisle gave their bewildered young Lakota wards drastic haircuts—a sort of soft scalping—and forced them to swap out their Indian clothing for European-style dress. An instructor then called up each student before a blackboard chalked with Anglo first names and told him or her to point out a first name. “When my turn came,” Standing Bear remembered, “I took the pointer and acted as if I were about to touch an enemy.” The pointer fell on the name “Luther,” and thereafter he became Luther Standing Bear of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The Protestant reformer was a fitting namesake for the spirited Lakota warrior who spent a lifetime protesting the demeaning attitude so many whites had toward the Indians.
A veteran of the Civil War and Indian wars, Pratt (1840–1924) adopted a policy at Carlisle he later summed up, “Kill the Indian to save the man.” He regarded the Plains Indians as fine material for education and assimilation but considered their warrior culture a crippling anachronism. Building on the model of Reconstruction-era schools for freed slaves, Pratt urged the Indians to learn fluent English and vocational skills in order to support themselves.
True to his tribe—and to his namesake—Luther Standing Bear was stubborn about retaining his own language, as he wrote to his father in early 1882:
[Colonel Pratt] asked me who wanted to speak only English every day and said, “Hold up your hands, boys and girls.” So the boys and girls hold up their hands, but I did not do it. But what is the reason I did not do that? I will tell you: When I forgot it one word, then I asked somebody in my language and I get it, that is reason I want try both.
The elder Standing Bear visited his son several times while he was enrolled at Carlisle, and school officials encouraged Luther to serve as his father’s interpreter —noting it would be good for the Lakotas to have more than one interpreter per reservation. The elder Standing Bear was so pleased he sent three of his other children to Carlisle, although Luther sometimes lectured his father about the “Indian way” in a manner that made traditional Lakotas frown.
“We had a funeral this evening,” Luther wrote to his father after a classmate’s death. “You think we felt sorry and cried, walked around and killed horses and gave them away the things which we have? Or cut ourselves and crying for him every day because we love him?…You know it is not right to do that way if we are truly civilized.…You must go with us in the white’s road.…Dear Father, think of this: There [are] only about 250,000 Indians in all. In just one state, in New York, there are 5,000,000 people. Now, if they don’t take care of the Indians, how can we live if we are not civilized?”
Luther took care of himself admirably. He learned tinsmithing, worked on farms during the summer and in 1884 took a full-time job at John Wanamaker’s department store in downtown Philadelphia. He returned home to the reservation in 1885, married a half-blood girl and worked stints as an assistant teacher, a rancher, storekeeper, an agency clerk and a missionary’s assistant at the Episcopal Church. His first child, a daughter, was born in 1887. A son, the junior Luther Standing Bear, followed a year later.
The December 1890 Wounded Knee tragedy shattered Luther’s dreams of peaceful assimilation and mutual respect. He was not a Ghost Dancer, but the aftermath of the armed exchange at Wounded Knee Creek, in which soldiers rode down Lakota men, women and children and shot them at point-blank range, made his blood boil. “I was ready myself to go and fight then. There I was, doing my best to teach my people to follow in the white men’s road—and this was my reward for it all! The very people I was following—and getting my people to follow—had no respect for motherhood, old age or babyhood. Where was all their civilized training?”
Luther kept at his work, remained in the church and eventually became a school administrator, but he also looked for ways to foster understanding without absorption. In 1902 he signed on as an interpreter for Lakota performers during a tour of the British Isles with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. There he met King Edward VII and realized that while Europeans and Americans seemed to admire Indians, they knew very little about Indian culture. Back home in 1903 Luther signed on for a second tour, and he and the other Lakotas again headed east by train to meet the boat for England. Near Maywood, Neb., a mail express smashed into their train, killing three Lakotas and injuring 15 others, including Luther. When he recovered, he set out on a lecture tour. “If I could only get the right sort of people interested,” he later explained, “I might be able to do more for my own race off the reservation than to remain there under the iron rule of the white agent.”
Standing Bear received a 640-acre federal allotment in 1907, but he wasn’t about to settle down. He promptly sold the land, married a Mohawk girl and worked as a shipping clerk in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1912 the bored, overworked clerk jumped to Hollywood to become an actor. In the silent film era, directors used white actors to portray Indians, whom they either villainized or less often sentimentalized. In his memoir William Red Fox, an early film actor and 1970s talkshow celebrity who claimed to be a 101-year-old Oglala Lakota chief, gleefully described belting white cowboy actors with a rubber tomahawk that squirted blood—and for once he was probably telling the truth. But things had changed in Hollywood by the time Luther Standing Bear hit town. The 1905 Broadway stage melodrama The Squaw Man, by Edwin Milton Royle, featured white actress Adrienne Morrison as the noble Ute Indian maiden Nat-u-ritch—an allegorical name if ever there was one. Nine years later Cecil B. DeMille adapted The Squaw Man into the first-ever feature-length Hollywood film and cast as Nat-u-ritch the mixed-blood Winnebago actress Lillian Red Wing St. Cyr.
Standing Bear appeared in nearly a dozen films and later wrote books about Lakota customs and culture—My People the Sioux (1928), My Indian Boyhood (1931), Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933) and Stories of the Sioux (1934). In 1936 Luther and other Indian celebs, including famed athlete Jim Thorpe, formed the Indian Actors Association to urge Hollywood to cast only them in Indian roles.
Luther Standing Bear himself died in 1939 while on the set of DeMille’s Union Pacific, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. In that film, when a playful Indian boy races his pony against a train full of gamblers and prostitutes, one of the gamblers shoots the Indian boy for target practice. Later the angry Indians deftly haul down a water tower right onto the locomotive for a spectacular boiler explosion. As the Hollywood Indians loot the boxcars, they actually speak plausible lockjaw Lakota. The real villains this time are not understandably vengeful Indians but white speculators, labor agitators and criminals. Standing Bear contracted pneumonia and died while making the picture, but the version of history portrayed was a sublime epitaph.
“The white race today is but half civilized,” Luther Standing Bear said during his Hollywood years. “I had tried to live a peaceful and happy life; tried to adapt myself and make readjustments to fit the white man’s mode of existence. But I was unsuccessful. I developed into a chronic disturber. I was a bad Indian.”
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.