Manitoba History: Review: Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull

by P. D. Elias
Faculty of Management, University of Lethbridge

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993, 413 pp., illus. ISBN 0-345-38938-7.

Readers interested in the central and western plains of North America may have wondered why a biography of Sitting Bull has not been written earlier. One of the legendary figures of the West, surely he has long deserved a book of his own. Utley’s effort in this volume gives us least one reason why such a book was not written long ago—there is simply not enough recorded and known about the man to make a creditable story. Utley, faced with the challenge of making a little history go a long way, has mixed sparse data liberally with his own sentiments and impressions to come up with enough bulk to fill 5 cm. on a bookshelf. Not all this bulk is reading material, however. There are only 314 pages of history followed by 100 pages of acknowledgments, references, notes and an index. The result is a very interpreted history, relying more on Utley’s belief of what happened than on the record of what happened.

Utley begins by describing the sparse historic resources bearing on Sitting Bull’s life, and the conflicting image the resources present of the man, his actions and thoughts. Utley, however, is committed to making Sitting bull a hero and to do that he must continuously force unflattering information into line with his understanding of how a Lakota hero of the last century would behave. For example, Utley is convinced Sitting Bull occupied a unique position in Lakota history and culture—an individual who broke from the ranks to become a singularly adept political, religious, and war leader. This image was far more popular in the American press than it was amongst Sitting Bull’s contemporaries, and Utley consistently grasps the words of the former while diminishing those of the latter.

Sitting Bull, 1880s
Source: Glenbow Archives

Utley’s need for additional words to add bulk to the volume leads him into some rather unusual and dated statements. In Chapter 8, for example, war with the Crow is described as a Lakota “pastime,” and in Chapters 10 and 17 are stereotyped discussions of “Indian time.” Similarly, Sitting Bulls’ suspicions and fears of the United States Army’s activities on the north plains after Custer’s defeat are described as idiosyncratic and “irrational,” even though the Lakota had every reason to believe the military would seek revenge.

Like other Americans writing on Dakota history, Utley possesses only a slight knowledge of Canadian history in general and the history of the Dakota in Canada in particular. After Sitting Bull defeated Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, he led his followers north to Canada. Once there, according to Utley, Sitting Bull wandered the vicinity of Fort Walsh vacillating between defiant insistence he would remain in British territory and abject capitulation to the North West Mounted Police and the United States Army urging him to go to the reservations set aside for them near the Missouri River. Utley could not understand why Sitting bull rejected the “wise” advice offered by the police and the Hudson’s Bay Company that he return to the United States. Utley suggests Sitting Bull had no alternative but return and go onto a reservation. In fact, Sitting Bull did have alternatives. As is well-known in Canada, at least, Sitting Bull spent almost three years travelling amongst the Isantee Dakota bands that had been in Canada since 1862. Those bands had fled Minnesota Territory in circumstances very similar to those faced by Sitting Bull, yet they had the Queen’s protection, reserve lands, and considerable respect throughout the Canadian Northwest. According to my sources, Sitting Bull was awaiting information and circumstances that would enable him to exact similar conditions for his Lakota. He or his emissaries visited most of the Dakota communities in Canada, where he found encouragement if not an invitation to settle. Over those years, many followers gradually returned to their friends and relatives in the United States as, finally, did Sitting Bull. Not all went with him, and Wood Mountain reserve in Saskatchewan is still home to those Lakota who followed the Isantee lead and refused to return south. A few other families quietly took up residence near Prince Albert and Saskatoon in Saskatchewan and Fort Ellice in Manitoba, where there descendants live today. These events and their significance are not mentioned at all in Utley’s book.

Utley, though eminently qualified as a historian, writes in a popular vein and readers wishing for a glimpse of Sitting Bull’s life may be satisfied. Serious scholars, however, will tire of the numerous small irritations that crop up throughout the text: on page 237, Utley records that Sitting Bull could easily write his name, but on page 239, he has him labouring over a simple autograph; in Canada, they are called “reserves,” not “reservations”; Crowfoot’s name is not written as “Crow Foot”; the uncritical crediting of Sitting Bull with the sentiments of middle America; according to the author, Sitting Bull’s elevation to superleader was more difficult for the Lakota to accept than was the move to reservation life in the early 1870s!

Serious scholars will find his very lengthy inventory of literature and sources interesting except, of course, little of the Canadian literature is mentioned. Otherwise, we will have to wait at least a little longer before the definitive biography of Sitting Bull is before us.

Page revised: 11 April 2010