Sitting Bull and the Government Shut Down

A photo I snapped while in D.C. in August 2013. It is of the National Archives. The inscription at bottom-right of the photo reads, "Study the Past."

A photo I snapped while in D.C. in August 2013. It is of the National Archives. The inscription at bottom-right of the photo reads, “Study the Past.”

Today, October 1st, 2013, the United States Government momentarily halted its business. Perhaps the best story I’ve read on this comes by way of Joshua Keating of Slate.com, and it takes the shut down as an opportune moment to describe how American media would report on this if the shut-down happened in a non-American, or non-Western, nation-state. It is enlightening. This is the first installment of the article. An excerpt from it, and a direct link if you click right here:

The capital’s rival clans find themselves at an impasse, unable to agree on a measure that will allow the American state to carry out its most basic functions. While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards…

…The current rebellion has been led by Sen. Ted Cruz, a young fundamentalist lawmaker from the restive Texas region, known in the past as a hotbed of separatist activity. Activity in the legislature ground to a halt last week for a full day as Cruz insisted on performing a time-honored American demonstration of stamina and self-denial, which involved speaking for 21 hours, quoting liberally from science fiction films and children’s books. The gesture drew wide media attention, though its political purpose was unclear to outsiders.

This story is fascinating for a number of reasons. To historians, it reminds me of how we are disciplined to develop histories of past societies by using the individual words of the people we are talking about. So, for example, yesterday around the graduate seminar table we got to talking about how the British mounty Walsh characterized Sitting Bull during the Hunkpapa chiefs short tenure north of the 49th parallel in Canada. Sitting Bull was thinking things over, and the Anglo-North American Walsh decided to refer to the chief as “Mohommet.”

I’m not sure how Walsh meant it, but it caused me to speak up and note that when Walsh called Sitting Bull “Mohommet,” it said more about Walsh than it ever could say about Sitting Bull: of course Sitting Bull was not Mohommet. Walsh hailed from Prescott, Onterio, though, and that was part of the St. Lawrence Seaway and The Atlantic World, and that world indeed was privy to imaginings of European Christiandom, and so on. This is why Walsh’s analogy is the most non-analogous attempted analogy in the history of analogies (okay, I’m exaggerating, but sometimes a person gets sucked into the amplified media craziness which, in turn, speaks to the point of this blog). Sitting Bull is Sitting Bull. He was by and for the Hunkpapa, the Seven Council Fires, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, and the northern Great Plains. Period.

A gratuitous government shutdown photo, this snapped before the shutdown was known or talked about during a DC site visit in August 2013.

A gratuitous government shutdown photo, this snapped before the shutdown was known or talked about during a DC site visit in August 2013.

This is easily the same for today’s media, though, where reporters are given a couple minutes or hours to cobble together something on a non-American or non-Western topic, and make it vaguely intelligible for a news-absorbing public. Then we can all sit in our living rooms and either nod in approval or shake our heads in disagreement about what country we need to consider invading next. In the second half of the 19th century, this is what a reading public did on the east and west coasts of North America as they read about the actions taking place on the North American steppe. “What could possibly go wrong here!?” Right.

An aside on how Keating of Slate.com describes Ted Cruz, with addition: certainly Ted would be described this way if he were the reverse operating in Mesopotamia and Persia and the Levant (in a kind of opposite world, though). But the media would also say something like, “Ted Cruz is from the adjoining Christian country of Canada.” Then listeners of that media would sit in their living rooms and be mind-boggled at how one Christian could have different ideas in North America from another Christian. “Honey, get this: they don’t all think the same way! At least that’s what the news is saying… Should we order pizza tonight? Or go for Chinese?”

Anyhow, happy government shut down. I’ve rolled up my sleeves to get through it all.


4 responses to “Sitting Bull and the Government Shut Down

  • Joey G

    This is darned good.

  • Ken Smith

    Here are the relevant paragraphs in Utley’s book:

    “As the ceremonies concluded on December 17, McLaughlin opened the cemetery gate and walked slowly to Fort Yates. At the post cemetery he joined three army officers who stood beside another open grave. On the bottom rested a rough wooden box that contained the canvas-wrapped remains of Sitting Bull. As “pagan,” he did not qualify for burial in the Catholic cemetery, and besides, the Indian police objected. A detail of four soldiers—prisoners from the guard house—shoveled dirt into the hole.

    The reservation equivalent of a pauper’s grave, combined with the grief and honor showered on the slain policemen, afforded a final touch of the irony and the poignancy that had dogged Sitting Bull’s last years.

    One of the few people equipped to appreciate this truth had once worn the scarlet tunic of the North-West Mounted Police. After reading the Winnipeg newspaper on December 16, James M. Walsh sat at his desk in the Dominion, Coal, Coke and Transportation Company and scrawled his musings on sheet of company stationery:

    “I am glad to lean the Bull is relieved of his miseries even if it took a bullet to do it. A man who wields such power as Bull once did, that of a King, over a wild spirited people cannot endure abject poverty slavery and beggary without suffering great mental pain and death is a relief. . . . Bull’s confidence and belief in the Great Spirit was stronger than I ever saw in any other man. He trusted to him implicitly . . . . History does not tell us that a greater Indian than Bull ever lived, he was the Mohammat of his people the law and king maker of the Sioux.” (Utley, The Lance & The Shield, 306-307)

  • Aaron Barth

    Joey G., thank you as well.

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