'Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill'

"Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill"

By Deanne Stillman

Sitting Bull and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody were both larger-than-life figures of the American West. And at the end of each of their lives respectively, they became prisoners of their own personas.

Author Deanne Stillman's latest book, "Blood Brothers" is the story of the strange friendship that developed between the two men as Sitting Bull became part of Cody's famous Wild West Show in 1885.

Stillman is a noted author of the West, having written on manhunts, mustangs and the Mojave Desert. In "Blood Brothers," she brings that same sense of the West — mythic, desolate and bizarre.

Her interest in the Sitting Bull-Cody friendship began when she read about Sitting Bull's horse, which was a gift from Cody. According to some accounts, the horse started prancing when it heard the gunfire that killed Sitting Bull. The dancing was apparently a trained response from its days with Cody's Wild West show. 

From there she chronicles a friendship that was built on Cody's show — a re-enactment of a rapidly disappearing place as the West continued to be settled. 

"Cody in the Wild West Show was keeping the real wild West alive in the show, inside, even as it was vanishing on the outside," Stillman said. "Even by then, cowboys — as they were portrayed — were obsolete. They couldn't have gotten the same jobs that they had in the show. They were already being pushed off the range."

Stillman continues the trend of good storytelling and solid historical research. In other words, history doesn't need to be dull or clinical to be engaging. 

And while Stillman's story is a full-scale treatment of what is essentially a historical footnote, she does an admirable job demonstrating that even a decade after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the mythic West of dime-store novels had mostly disappeared, giving way to on-stage performances and, later, movies.

One of the saddest points in the book is the missteps of Cody and Sitting Bull near the end of the legendary Sitting Bull's life in 1890. Having been blamed for Little Bighorn and later the spread of the controversial Ghost Dance, Cody was recruited to help convince Sitting Bull to conform to reservation life. Cody arrives late, is given false information by Sitting Bull's enemies, gets drunk and never connects with his old friend.

"What was their friendship all about?" Stillman asked. "If these two could come together, what does that mean now? Can it serve as some guide for reconciliation?"

And if Sitting Bull becomes a casualty of a forever-changed West, Cody becomes a prisoner to it.

"The same forces that propelled both of these men together are the same ones that doomed them," Stillman said. "Both men were playing their part, both mythologized themselves and both were racing to preserve what they knew was disappearing." 

After the Battle of Wounded Knee, Cody was determined to make a movie about the massacre, using American Indians who witnessed the battle. Because of its favorable views of Indians, it received disapproval from audiences and the government, and is now believed to be lost, even though Cody himself acted in it.

But by the time it debuts in 1914, Cody is all but a prisoner to the persona he worked so hard to create, and the myth of the Wild West he literally engineered. He and his show continue to re-enact a time that arguably never was quite like that which he projected for audiences. 

The end for Cody comes just as anachronistically as Sitting Bull. Cody's funeral is held in Denver in 1917. And for a man who yearned for and promoted the notion of a wild, open, expansive West, his funeral caused the first recorded traffic jam in the Mile High City. 

"To others, they both represented this American notion of doing what you want," Stillman said. "In the West, you can do what you want and reinvent yourself."

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Editor

Darrell Ehrlick is editor of The Billings Gazette.