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Sitting Bull: A Stone in My Heart

Lillimar Pictures,Santa Barbara, Calif.,(www.sittingbull,83-minute documentary,2006, $20.98.

Sitting Bull, as portrayed by August Schellenberg, made his strong presence felt in the recent HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but its worth taking another look at him and a listen, too (Adam Fortune Eagle is the voice of Sitting Bull), in this Jerry Ferry–produced documentary. The film, which premiered in 2006 at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and is still being shown on PBS stations in South Dakota and Montana, presents a three-dimensional portrait of the great Hunkpapa Sioux (or Lakota) leader best known for being on the winning side at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.

The documentary opens with two strong quotes about Sitting Bull—much praise from Major James A. Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police, and much criticism from Standing Rock Indian agent James McLaughlin—that set the tone for the informative program. Ferry’s primary inspiration for this project was Robert M. Utley’s excellent 1993 biography The Lance and the Shield:The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. Ferry got Utley to be an historical consultant on the film, along with Donald L. Fixico, a professor of American Indian history at Arizona State University.

Hearing the words of Sitting Bull in the extensive first-person narration is the best part of Sitting Bull: A Stone in My Heart, even if one sometimes wonders which of these words were really his words (certainly, he couldn’t have narrated his own death at the hands of Indian police). The film’s general narration is handled well by William Tehobald. Some 600 photographs are displayed, and traditional Indian songs by the Wild Horse Singers liven up the educational messages. Among the interesting tidbits are Sitting Bull’s hearing from a meadowlark (yes, a bird) that his own people were going to kill him, and Sit ting Bull’s sharing his cabin with Brooklynite widow Catherine Weldon, representing the National Indian Defense Association, and her 14-year-old son. Sitting Bull was a complex figure, as much a spiritual leader for the Lakotas as he was a great warrior, and there are few better places to go to get a spirited picture of his life (early 1830s to December 15, 1890). Early in life he was known as “Slow” before he earned his more famous name (Tatanka-Iyotanka, or Sitting Bull) from his own father—one suggestive of a buffalo planting itself on its haunches to fight on to the death. In the end, Sitting Bull said he didn’t really believe in the religious movement known as the Ghost Dance but that it did serve a good purpose, to unite the Lakotas and give them hope. He did not live to see the Wounded Knee tragedy (and this documentary doesn’t show a recreation of it, either). The meadowlark was at least technically correct.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here