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What makes a ‘blood brother?’: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill’s unlikely friendship

“Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Deanne Stillman
“Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Deanne Stillman
Simon & Schuster 2017

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When imagining Buffalo Bill, people might picture a showman riding horseback, handling a lasso. In short--he represented the the Wild West.

But prior to his fame, William F. Cody was a young, midwestern man, serving in the army. During that time, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux defeated General Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

While Sitting Bull, who led the Lakota for years in resistance against the U.S. government, wasn’t a part of the battle, he was blamed for Custer’s death.

Years later, in 1883, Buffalo Bill Cody was formulating a plan for his “equestrian extravaganza.” He had the idea to feature cowboys and Indians, portraying Western culture for the rest of America. The show even had a short stint in Europe.

Enter Sitting Bull, this time, as a performer. He and a group of Sioux men joined the cast for four months in 1885.

During their partnership, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody developed a friendship despite coming from different worlds. Annie Oakley, known for her sharpshooting skills, was also part of the team.

Mutual respect contributed to their friendship. The new book, “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill,” recounts the relationship between the two men.

Larry spoke to the book’s author, Deanne Stillman, to learn more about what contributed to their unlikely friendship.

Here are some interview highlights:

What was Sitting Bull's role in Custer's Last Stand?

STILLMAN: Sitting Bull did not kill Custer as he was blamed for doing. Sitting Bull was nearby. He, in fact, probably saved General [Marcus] Reno the next day after Custer had been killed. Some of his warriors were talking about finishing off Reno, and [Sitting Bull] said no, he deserves to live. After Custer was killed and the cavalry suffered this embarrassing defeat, somebody had to be Sitting Bull became enemy number one.

How did Bill Cody concoct the idea to do mini recreations of battles?

STILLMAN: [Buffalo Bill Cody] was the original 'ripped from the headlines' guy. Even before he and a partner cooked up this idea for the Wild West [show] in this bar in Brooklyn, he was recreating adventures he had on the plains in theaters back East. For instance, after Little Big Horn, he scalped an Indian to avenge Custer and he took the scalp back to use in performances. Some people were outraged, others loved everything he did. But he had a reputation already, before he started the show....

Horses were involved [in the show]. Cody insisted on calling it and 'equestrian extravaganza'. That was officially a part of the show's title, and made it this glorious pageant.

What was the slogan for the Wild West show when Sitting Bull was brought in?

STILLMAN: It was one of America's first ad slogans:'Foes in '76 and Friends in '85' and it went with a photo that they posed for in Montreal. It's on the cover of my book. And part of the reason why [Sitting Bull] teamed up with Cody was that Annie Oakley was already in the show. [Sitting Bull] admired Oakely's marksmanship skills and sent her a note...after a show. And they really struck up a friendship.

As events were portrayed, did Buffalo Bill try to be authentic to what physically occurred in the Wild West?

STILLMAN: Essentially, the Indians who were in the show were really prisoners of war, because there were only a couple of ways they could leave the reservation. One way was to participate in Cody's show. That being said, they were aloud to do things [in the show] that they weren't able to do in the reservations. They were having powwows, buffalo stampedes...They were living a life of a confined kind of freedom.

What did Sitting Bull say about why he was willing to do the show?

STILLMAN: He wanted to get to Washington D.C. and meet the grandfather A.K.A. the president and talk to him face-to-face and ask, why did you betray my people? And he did get there. And [Sitting Bull] and some members of his tribe did have a meeting with the state department officials and they were inside a room on Capital Hill with a lot of Western art and paintings of buffalo which caused a lot of laughter, but apparently, Sitting Bull remained silent. According to most reports, he never did get to meet the president....

Sitting Bull also wanted to see how the white man was living. And he was very impressed with our technology and knew we had superior gun power...He was amazed by electricity, but he was also distressed by the fact that there were a lot of homeless kids. And he thought, how could this culture with all this superior technology treat its kids this way?

What was Sitting Bull's role in the show?

STILLMAN: He was Sitting Bull for real. He wasn't pretending to be himself. He didn't participate in any of these recreated milestones in our history. He would come out in the beginning of the show and gallop once around the arena fully bedecked in warrior regalia and then that was it. Prior to joining Cody he was demeaned in a lot of presentations.

The Huntington Library will host a conversation with Deanne Stillman on her new book from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 27. See details here.


Deanne Stillman, writer and author of the new book, “Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill” (Simon & Schuster, 2017)