While preparing for this week’s show on Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull, we hoped to find audio recordings of this legendary Lakota leader talking or singing. We reached out to historian Bill Yenne and Alexandra Shadid, an archivist at the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collections, which houses the papers of Walter Stanley Campbell — better known by his pen name, Stanley Vestal, one of the earliest biographers of Sitting Bull whose source material is the foundation for much of the current research being published on Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull’s signature from a pictograph he drew in 1882. (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
Both scholars informed us that they weren’t aware of any audio recordings in Sitting Bull’s own voice, but Ms. Shadid did offer up the transcripts of Vestal’s interviews and songs by Sitting Bull. She also referred us to a recording housed at the Minnesota Historical Society, just a five-minute walk from our offices in downtown Saint Paul. Here, on Christmas day 1946, Mary P. Hunt tells the story of living in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation (in what was the Dakota Territory) and her encounter with Sitting Bull, who was, in her words, being held prisoner with members of other tribes. She recounts how she sat with him for a couple of days teaching him how to sign his name in English script, which he then sold in exchange for a 50-cent piece.
I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of Ms. Hunt’s story; Bill Yenne writes about Sitting Bull’s time at Fort Randall as such:
“Sitting Bull submitted quietly, albeit not happily, to his life at the post. He certainly knew that things could have been worse. The Fort Randall complex — more a campus than a stockade — was his forced residence, but ironically it gave him his first ever-known, fixed address. Because of this, Sitting Bull suddenly started receiving fan mail. Bags of it began arriving from all over the world. Having learned to write his name in wasichu script, he relished signing autographs for people who wrote to him, or who made their way up the Missouri to visit him.”
Nevertheless, delightful anecdotes like Ms. Hunt’s are some of the gems that we’ve stumbled upon time and again while doing this work. Unfortunately, most people will never get to hear all this wonderful archival material that is part of the oral lore of a legendary figure, which only adds to the complexity of verifying what’s fact and fiction, and somewhere in between. I’m glad we could give her story a stage.