Taming the Sioux of Standing Rock: The lessons of a 100 year old book

A grey, rainy day in Amsterdam. I find shelter in the window of a photo gallery. While rain drips into my collar, I stare through the glass and look into the face of a dark man, who’s skin is leathery and who’s eyes are turned away. Animal fur is wrapped around his shoulders and various types of majestic feathers, adorn his head. I’m standing face to face with a Native American Sioux of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, or so the gallery says. In his eyes, I see absence and harshness and the realness is striking.

Who is this man?

Who took the photo?

According to the gallery I’m looking at ‘One Bull’. The photographer is called Frank Bennett Fiske and the photo is taken over a century ago at the Standing Rock Reservation.

Over a hundred years ago… This presents an interesting perspective. Steamboats, wagons pulled by horses, and silver pocket watches have long since disappeared. Yet, the battle of the Sioux people at Standing Rock, continues.

Daily, the name of the reservation hits news channels worldwide, but what do I really know about Standing Rock? Sadly, very little.

I decide to investigate the history of Standing Rock, using mr. Fiske’s book (he was quite an eloquent writer) that carries the awkward title ‘The Taming of the Sioux’.

The book is unlike anything I’ve read. Through the perspective of the superior white-man, I witness the breaking of a culture. It makes a grim bedtime choice. Frank’s descriptions are vivid, visual, wretched and soaked in blood. ‘The Taming of the Sioux’ has a body-count that far exceeds the last 6 seasons Game of Thrones. Most importantly, it doesn’t have an ending…

The Taming of the Sioux

In 1889, the young boy, Frank Bennett Fiske arrives at the small settlement of Winona on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Winona on the Missouri River is stereotypical with its saloons and brothels and lays opposite Fort Yates, a US Army post founded to oversee several indigenous tribes.

Young Frank Fiske

While Frank’s father works as a civilian wagon master, young Fiske attends school together with the children of the Native Americans of Standing Rock. During his young years of living closely together with the indigenous, Frank Fiske develops an affection for the Sioux people and their culture.

Frank studies to be a photographer and makes the Sioux his primary interest, which they remain his entire life. Next to being a photographer, Fiske is a good storyteller. He writes several books dedicated to the tale of Sitting Bull and the Dakota Sioux.

Chief Sitting Bull is a fierce Sioux leader and medicine man who’s body is delivered at the Fort Yates mortuary a year after Frank’s arrival. The US army was frightened by Sitting Bull’s ‘Ghost Dance’ rituals and during his attempted arrest, the Chief was shot by the Standing Rock Agency police. Young Frank witnesses the delivery.

The Taming of the Sioux by Frank Fiske

According to Fiske, the beginning of the end of Sitting Bull starts with a young Paiute Indian from Nevada. The boy receives a vision with a message of redemption for all the natives in all the regions of the continent.

“Grandfather says when your friends die, you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everyone may eat.”

While the peaceful Paiute message travels the continent, tribes of all regions answer the boy by organizing dancing ceremonies. Meanwhile the US army is held in a deep fear.

“The religious fervor into which these people were at once thrown was unparalleled and beyond all rational explanation. They were simply laboring under some strange psychologic influence not susceptible of explanation.”

Soon after spreading, the ‘Ghost Dance’ is sentenced by the US military and during the arrest of Chief Sitting Bull, his tribe members rebel. As a consequence, the shaman is killed.

Tatanka-Iyotanka / Sitting Bull

Without their leader, a part of Sitting Bull’s camp surrenders to the Standing Rock agencies while others find refuge in the camp of the Sioux Chief Big Foot. Not long after, Big Foot’s tribe is forced by the US army to surrender but during the disarmament a bloodbath erupts. The entire tribe dies at the infamous ‘Battle of Wounded Knee’.

Frisk’s observations of the bloodshed are vivid:

“As these guns poured in 2-pound explosive shells at the rate of fifty a minute, it may be observed that they did very good execution. In a few minutes two hundred Indian men, women and children lay dead and dying on the field, and those who were still alive were running panic stricken for the shelter of the ravine, pursued by hundreds of maddened soldiers.”

“Following the battle a heavy blizzard had set in, which lasted three days, and the bodies were found frozen beneath the new snow. Several women and children were found still alive, but so badly wounded and frozen that most of them died after they were brought in to the agency.”

“They surrendered, on January 16th. Thus ended the last real unpleasantness between the Dakota Sioux and the whites.”

Frank was wrong. It wasn’t the last unpleasantness. The story didn’t end.

Today, in the year 2016, a governmental Treaty of 1889 is violated. It’s not the first time; this very treaty, breaks a previous one. Frank Fiske’s exact words:

In 1889 a treaty was made in which the great, original Sioux reservation was broken up. All the land lying between the Cheyenne River and the White River in South Dakota being thrown open to white settlement for which the Indians were to receive $1.25 an acre. Many of the old Indians and chiefs were bitterly opposed to the treaty.

Today, something is different. Today, the Sioux people don’t stand alone. About 280 different tribes gather at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during what the New York Times calls ‘The largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century’. These tribes survived a brutal genocide and in 2016, they still can’t live in peace. At Standing Rock there are over 20 unauthorized agencies deployed to arrest indigenous protesters. We all know why they are there. If you haven’t understood it yet, go back 100 years.

In 1917 Frank Bennett Fiske says:

“They had surely lost all of their old time childlike confidence in the white man and his promises.”

In 2007, under the Bush administration, the USA refuses to promise the United Nations that it won’t commit another genocide, as MSNBC reports:

In 2007 the United Nations passed a resolution on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It said: The Indigenous Peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace, and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any genocide or any other act of violence. The vote on resolution was 144 in favor and 4 against. America was one of the four countries that shamed themselves, by voting against the rights of indigenous peoples.”

In 2010 President Obama changes the vote.

Today, the whole world is watching the Standing Rock Reservation.

Look into the eyes of the Native Americans captured by Fiske’s camera. Would the people in the pictures have expected that over a century later, their grandchildren would still face the same threats as they did?

Let’s remember the past. Let’s remember Sitting Bull and lets realize that this story involves everyone. As we speak, fascism and hatred are rising and right-wing parties collect unprecedented numbers, both in the USA and in Europe. Trump is elected president… Trump hates immigrants, yet his brain doesn’t make enough connections to see that he’s part of one of the most bloody immigration waves this earth has ever known.

Sitting Bull was killed for dancing. Can we show today that not just the steamboat, but also the people coming with it, evolved?

Stand with Standing Rock.

“And now, after twenty-five years have passed, it is beginning to look as though the Messiah should have to come in order to straighten out the wicked world, or else destroy it altogether and make a new one for the Indians who, at least, had sonic respect for Him.”

Frank Bennett Friske (1883–1952)