Born in what is now South Dakota around 1831, Sitting Bull is given the name of Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull). He distinguishes himself early in life, killing his first buffalo at ten and taking part in skirmishes at fourteen. He continues to excel in bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom. By the 1850s Native Americans begin to feel the pressure of white expansion into the western United States. Some tribes begin to resist. Although there have been many skirmishes and battles throughout the 1860s, there are also many attempts at peace. All of them fail. The discovery of gold in Indian sacred ground, the Black Hills, causes continued tension. Emissaries are sent on the pretext of bringing about a peaceful resolution yet the intent is to get Indians to sign worthless treaties and release more of their land.
In the summer of 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and a regiment of the Seventh Cavalry attack members of the Lakota Nation and other tribes along Montana’s Little Bighorn River. An estimated two thousand warriors defeat Custer, killing him and about two hundred fifty of his men. Sitting Bull does not take part in the fight but is there as spiritual leader. Shocked by this devastating defeat, the American people demand retribution. Now with even greater force and conviction, the U.S. government begins a relentless pursuit of the Indians in a concentrated effort to drive them into reservations. Sitting Bull and his followers flee to Canada, beyond the reach of the U. S. Army, where they are offered asylum by the Canadians. Sitting Bull remains defiant until the near starvation of his people forces him to return four years later and surrender. He is taken to Fort Randall where he is held as a prisoner of war for two years. Upon his release he is sent to Standing Rock Reservation where he is forced to work in the fields and denied any special privileges that a chief of his standing would normally be accorded.
In 1885, hoping that exposure to the white man’s world will "civilize" him, he is temporarily released from Standing Rock and allowed to perform in a tour of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His travels and experiences in major eastern cities give him a new perspective. When Sitting Bull returns to Standing Rock, he begins to assert a degree of independence from the Indian agent in charge. Sitting Bull is no longer permitted to perform in any more shows. For a time, he settles into a quiet life with his family.
Hopeless and oppressed, many Indians on the reservation become followers of a Paiute holy man who started a movement called the Ghost Dance. The ritual is perceived as anti-white by the government and efforts are made to discourage reservation Indians from participating. Although Sitting Bull does not taken part, he does not discourage others from doing so. Fearing that he might incite rebellion, the Indian agent orders the Indian police to place Sitting Bull under arrest. On December 15, 1890, they break into Sitting Bull’s cabin. The chief’s followers intervene and a gunfight takes place. Sitting Bull is killed.
WHY THIS FILM
I have always loved film and grew up on a steady diet of Western movies. It didn’t take long for me to see the painful truth that most Hollywood westerns were one sided and the Indians were more often than not portrayed as the bad guys and the white men were always the good guys. As I became older my interests matured and I focused on the history of the American West.
Many excellent books have been written such as Dee Brown's masterful 1971 book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which tells of the unbelievable suffering inflicted on native peoples. And movies like Little Big Man in the early 1970’s and later, Dances with Wolves with their earnest and successful effort at portraying the lives of Indians as they struggled in the face of their changing world. I found myself looking for information on the subject of Native Americans and their stories. Certain historical personages come up often and the more I became involved with the subject the more I wanted to know.
Life has a way of moving us from one road to another. It was not until a trip to Montana in 2002 and a visit to the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn with its silent and somber white crosses that I decided with renewed energy to continue my work and research into the area of Native American history.
I was fortunate to find Robert M. Utley’s landmark biography of Sitting Bull, The Lance and The Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. This biographical account of the great chief had a tremendous impact on me and I knew then that I wanted to make a film on the life of Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull’s life is emblematic of what happened to most indigenous people in the United States.
My wife, Grace, who co-produced and co-wrote the project shared my interest and together we scoured every possible source for historical information. The script was written with our commitment to make it historically correct in every possible detail. Mr. Robert M. Utley agreed to be our historical consultant and so did Dr. Donald L. Fixico, from the University of Arizona. The film covers the period from1832 to 1890. We needed to rely on photographic images to tell the story. Through various sources including the Library of Congress the Smithsonian Institution, Denver Public Library, Yale University among many others, we acquired over 600 archival images.
Our next challenge was to find an actor to portray the voice of Sitting Bull. It was crucial to find the right voice since Sitting Bull narrates a substantial part of the film. Our plan was always to use a Native American actor to give voice to Sitting Bull and finding Adam Fortunate Eagle was an answer to our prayers. Adam, an artist, ceremonial pipe maker and lifelong activist in the cause of Indian rights exceeded our expectations. We recorded him in Reno, Nevada, near his home at the Fallon Indian Reservation. We then proceeded to record William Theobald, our narrator, in Santa Barbara, CA.
With all our images and voice recording completed we embarked in a year-long process of editing and post production. We believe that we have created a film that honors the memory of Sitting Bull and tells in depth the true story of this important figure in American history. Stanley Vestal, the first comprehensive biographer of Sitting Bull wrote the following, attesting to the great chief’s stature in history:
Sitting Bull, leader of the largest Indian nation on the continent, the strongest, boldest, most stubborn opponent of European influence, was the very heart and soul of the frontier. When the true history of the New World is written, he will receive his chapter. For Sitting Bull was one of the makers of America.*
I hope that this film will help people gain a further understanding and appreciation of Sutting Bull and that of this tragic period in human history.
John Ferry, October, 2006