Over the summer, I’ve been doing research for an upcoming program we’re producing on the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. I’ve been on board with Speaking of Faith for under a year and so far, and all the shows I’ve worked on have featured guests who are alive — people like novelist Mary Doria Russell and torture expert Darius Rejali who can speak in the first person about their life and ideas. But this upcoming Sitting Bull show is different. Here we’re trying to find the right voice(s) to illuminate an iconic historical figure. At times I’ve felt like a detective as I’ve sifted through names and followed one lead to the next, keeping my fingers crossed that someone would return my phone calls.

Sitting Bull book coverFortunately I’ve encountered some helpful and responsive guides who’ve helped steer the search. One of those is biographer Bill Yenne, author of Sitting Bull. He was nice enough to take time out of his day recently to answer my questions and offer big-picture advice.

One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures. Honestly, I haven’t resolved this as I’ve reached out to Lakota contacts in South Dakota and beyond. Being an outsider to Lakota culture, I’m still learning to find language that’s respectful and appropriate.

Bill YenneYenne (pictured here) also advised me to do more listening than talking and to get over a deadline-driven expectation that things are going to come together quickly. He recommended traveling to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in South Dakota with a willingness “to sit down and hang out.” And not just hang out but also to give people gifts of tobacco as an offering. He said the legacy of Sitting Bull is complicated and we’re not going to get the story from one person.

Coming out of that conversation I was convinced that Mitch and Trent needed to make their way west to South Dakota with tobacco in hand. But Kate, our sage managing producer, shook me from this reverie. She said the demands of our weekly program couldn’t support such a plan, one that had no guarantee of finding the voices we needed.

So, with that, I regrouped with my colleagues to figure out where to go next. I’ll be sharing more of that journey, including conversations with former SOF guest David Treuer and University of South Dakota law professor Patrice Kunesh in the coming weeks and months. Our plans are still coming together, but, with each conversation, the path forward gets a little bit clearer.

Share Your Reflection



"One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures."

Yes, a big challenge. How to relate to someone from a culture that does not compute a division between the so-called "spiritual" and the "mundane."

The "coyote" phenomenon might be a good thing to reflect on as you all begin. We Western explorers of the Spirit fool ourselves when we don't see how false our divisions are. How difficult it is for us to "have faith in everything."


I remember coming to Germany nearly 27 years ago and wondering why everyone gave the time it took to travel from one city to another as an indicator if a trip went well. In Canada, when talking about a long car journey, we talked about whether the weather was good, the traffic sparse, the coffee delicious that we pick up along the way, or the radio programs we listened to, as demonstrating how well a journey went. Maybe your journey to discover Sitting Bull’s legacy will not be in the miles you travel, but in the layers you explore of this legacy and the people who are living that can still pass it on.

Having spent a great deal of time on Cheyenne River and Rosebud (two other Lakota Reservations in SD) I suggest that if you can't do what Mr. Yenne recommended that you abandon the project altogether. You're not going to capture the "essence" of anything talking to people who are removed from the place - and place is vitally important to the Lakota. To truly capture the voices you're looking for could take years. I'm a bit disappointed that SOF would fail to "get it right" because there are no guarantees of "finding the voices" you need.

You may want to check in with the Rev. Linda Kramer at Borderlands Ranch. You can find Borderlands Ranch by googling. Linda is an Episcopal Priest but also has been "adopted" into the Lakota Sioux family. Linda leads young people and adults on Pilgrimage in the Black Hills and also on the Pine Ridge reservation. Just an idea. :)

I wonder if there might be some way of "outsourcing" some of the research, i.e., having a freelancer who's working on a documentary or something, acting as a guest contributor to the show.

Sitting Bull is more alive than most who are in bodies . He is able to come to you in dreams , vision, specific guidance/inspirations. Are you able ?

I have a comment. What new light or new story are you trying to shed on the subject? Many books have been written and the stories are already in print. In short, the story has been told. Go to the library and look them up. What really needs to be written about is the tragedies of our native youth committing suicide on all the lakota reservations. The substance abuse and the lack of federal government support in dealing with native people. The lack of opportunities and funding for my people to regain their self-respect and to regain the once majestic dignity Sitting Bull had while he was alive.
These are the true issues we as Americans need to address. Look at how the indigenous people of this country are being treated. Write about what is and what is not being done on reservations and how we can learn from the past and work to a more successful and fulfilling future for native people. Although, the past is important and should be revered. Let us look to the future and what we can do to help our people.
Thank you.