Today at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), Ernie LaPointe, the last surviving great-grandson of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, spoke about his great-grandfather’s legacy and the ways in which Sitting Bull’s life has been distorted and mythologized in official histories. LaPointe, speaking to an audience of well over one-hundred students and faculty, told the GVSU community that while there have been a number of books written about Sitting Bull, most have gotten the story of Sitting Bull’s life wrong. Traditional histories have not related Sitting Bull’s human characteristics–his compassion, his generosity, and his humility–nor have they gotten even the simplest of facts right–the year and place he was born–according to LaPointe. Sitting Bull’s story has been preserved in his family’s oral history and stories of his life have been passed down to LaPointe with extraordinary detail. Yet, despite this, no scholars have ever approached him or anyone in his family when doing research on Sitting Bull.
One of the most famous distortions of Sitting Bull’s life is his murder, according to LaPointe. LaPointe explained that when Sitting Bull returned from Canada, he was seen as held as a “political prisoner” for two years and was then closely monitored by the United States who feared his influence. At this time, the Lakota people were badly fractured and split between those who supported the US government and those who had converted to Christianity, with few promoting the traditional way of life that Sitting Bull continued to advocate. The authorities at Fort Yates continually tried to get Sitting Bull to renounce his traditional ways and buy into the system, but Sitting Bull refused and consequently became a target for “elimination” according to LaPointe. In his account, LaPointe argues that the authorities viewed Sitting Bull as a “nuisance” and began to plot against him. However, rather than using the military to crush Sitting Bull, the authorities convinced the tribal police and some of Sitting Bull’s own relatives to turn against him. The “official” story of Sitting Bull’s murder argues that Sitting Bull either participated in or allowed the Ghost Dance movement to take hold on the reservation. However, LaPointe argues that Sitting Bull never supported the Ghost Dance–a fusion of Christianity and native spirituality–because he was a traditionalist. LaPointe claims that Sitting Bull had come to view the Ghost Dance movement as a problem after initially allowing it, and was attempting to meet with another chief–Red Cloud–when he was murdered by the state. In Lapointe’s version of Sitting Bull’s death, Sitting Bull was murdered on his way to discuss the Ghost Dance with Red Cloud after the authorities prohibited Sitting Bull from leaving.
LaPointe had several criticisms for anthropologists, archeologists, and other “PhDs” whom he accused of frequently distorting Lakota culture for their own gain. He explained that anthropologists often come into native cultures without respect and have very little consideration for the wishes of native peoples. For example, LaPointe described how anthropologists do not respect native spirituality and frequently write about ceremonies that they observe in books, despite LaPointe’s assertion that the ceremonies should stay where they are and should not be discussed in books. Similarly, the skepticism which some anthropologists report from “traditionalists” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota comes from the fact the “traditionalists” remember what happened to their people during the colonization of the continent. However, LaPointe argues that if one approaches them with respect and in a humble manner, they likely will share their culture. Still, anthropologists continually miss the essence of native spirituality, isolating ceremonies and taking things out of context without relating the fundamental fact that native spirituality is a way of life. LaPointe had similarly harsh words for the “archaeologists [that] come to native areas like bees on honey… or roaches on bread” with no respect for native cultures.
Conditions remain very harsh for the Lakota people, with LaPointe articulating many problems that continue to face the Lakota nation. LaPointe asserted that South Dakota is one of the most racist states in the union with the white population being extremely hostile to native peoples. The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States and unemployment is widespread. Even those with college degrees often remain unemployed, because many Lakota college graduates have strong family bonds and ties to their homes and are unwilling to trade those ties for jobs. This underscores one of the many ways in which many Lakota people are unable to accept American society, as its ways of thinking are radically different from the Lakota ways. As an example, LaPointe contrasted views of warfare in the two cultures, explaining that in traditional Lakota warfare the goal was to disrespect or humiliate an opponent by hitting him on his head (“counting coup“) in front of his peers, not the annihilation practiced by this culture. his has driven many Lakota people to alcohol and it is such a serious problem that if a Lakota man lives to be 48 he is considered an elder because such a great number die from either liver disease or drunk driving accidents. Illegal drugs–especially meth–have also taken hold in recent years. Competition between individual Lakotas is a major problem as well, with competition undermining the sense of the Lakota as a “people” with common interests.
Despite the dismal conditions, the Lakota nation continues to survive and LaPointe’s work to correct Sitting Bull’s legacy is part of a larger native resistance to more than 500 years of conquest. In addition to talks like the one LaPointe delivered at GVSU, he is completing a two-volume DVD of his family’s oral history, is actively collecting materials pertaining to Sitting Bull’s life for an exhibit at the Little Big Horn battlefield, and is working to have Sitting Bull’s body moved from an unkempt gravesite rapidly becoming surrounded by development to a permanently protected spot on the Little Big Horn battlefield. LaPointe explained that these are just some efforts by natives to carry on their legacy, and briefly mentioned efforts by Crazy Horse’s relatives to get land that was promised to him.