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Book review: The Sitting Bull Affair

From the book Notman: Sitting Bull, 1885. Wm. Notman & Son / McCord Museum

Less than a decade after Confederation, the Lakota Sioux who wiped out General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn crossed the border in the southwestern part of the region that would become the province of Saskatchewan.

Chief Sitting Bull sought protection for his people — hungry, harassed and relentlessly harried by the vengeful Americans — north of what they called the Medicine Line. There he met Major James Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police, one of the 300 men in red coats sent west by the Canadian government to keep peace on the prairies.

The relationship of these two men is at the heart of The Sitting Bull Affair, but the documentary novel also features vignettes of Queen Victoria and her prime minister, American president Ulysses S. Grant, his successor and their cabinets, many American soldiers, other Indian tribes and some Métis, including Louis Riel.

All were trying to deal with the problem created by the Sioux. Some powerful Americans took a vindictive, genocidal approach; others believed their escape across the border might make it possible to annex the mostly empty Canadian west. The government in Ottawa did not want responsibility for more Indians when buffalo were becoming scarce; the British government wanted Canada to protect its territory so it could complete a rail connection to the Pacific, without war with a U.S. focused on Manifest Destiny. The tiny RCMP had to maintain the law and the peace.

James Walsh — Long Lance to the Lakota — came to respect the man he called Bull, even as he compelled the Sioux to live by the laws of the White Mother, Queen Victoria, as the price for living in Canada instead of being forced onto a reservation in the Dakotas. They were forbidden to cross the border, but each man was allowed two or perhaps three bullets for hunting in Canada, and could replace those he used when he turned in the empty shells. They were constantly urged by Walsh to return south.

For the late Robert Stewart of Montreal, author of Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier, Walsh was another of this country’s unheralded heroes. He was passionate about for our history and determined to help us know and celebrate such national heroes. (Full disclosure: I knew Bob Stewart years ago in Toronto and Montreal.)

It’s a challenge for a writer to base a novel on history that many of us know at least a little about, and history cannot be changed to improve the story. There was to be no happy ending for Sitting Bull, who in 1880 followed his starving people back to the U.S., where food and tools were promised on a reservation. He would be killed, he told Walsh, and in 1890 he was shot down in his log house by native policemen seeking to arrest him, while two cavalry regiments waited outside.

Although he was a popular hero in Canada, the Macdonald government reprimanded Walsh for being too friendly with Sitting Bull and the Lakota and obstructing government policy that they should return south. He was transferred to the Fort Qu’Appelle post shortly before Bull left Canada, soon took health leave and three years later reluctantly resigned from his beloved police force.

The book is strengthened by using actual dialogue that Walsh and other NWMP officers recorded in reports and diaries, especially because the Sioux spoke so eloquently. Here is Sitting Bull at his first meeting with Walsh:

“We have come to find shelter here under the Grandmother’s blanket. We know that the Grandmother will be gentle to us, because we are her children…Her grandfather said, ‘When you are in need of help, you may come to us.” And he showed Walsh long-treasured medals bearing the image of King George III.

Stewart did his homework. Here is General William Tecumseh Sherman in a meeting with newly inaugurated U.S. President Rutherford Hayes: “We can’t have a lot of insubordinate savages calling the tune for us. We must act with relentless vindictiveness against them, because that is what they understand.”

The U.S. newspapers were as vindictive towards the Sioux as the army was, and every little lying rumour was blown up into big headlines. Walsh was often in those headlines.

There is so much about this book that makes one angry and dismayed, but that is the fault of history, not of Robert Stewart. The racism that existed as white Americans forced their way west on to lands promised to Indians, protected by an army that killed Indian men, women and children, may be less today, but still exists, there and in Canada. We need more people like James Walsh and Sitting Bull, Long Lance and Bull.

The Sitting Bull Affair

A Documentary Novel

By Robert Stewart

Archway Publishing, $50.95 (sc)

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