My history hero: Sitting Bull (1831–90)

Screenwriter Steven Knight chooses Native American leader Sitting Bull as his history hero

Native American leader Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull was a warrior who fought against US forces in Red Cloud’s War (1866–68). He played a key political and strategic role in the Great Sioux War of 1876, and fought at the battle of the Little Bighorn. As settlers encroached on the northern plains, slaughtering buffalo herds and irrevocably disrupting traditional nomadic life, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Viewed as a leader by his people until the end, Sitting Bull died when an attempt to arrest him ended with his being shot in the chest and head.

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How did you first hear about Sitting Bull?

I was an odd child and obsessed with Native American history from the age of nine, especially the Plains Indians – of course Sitting Bull is very prominent in that history. As a teenager, I had pen friends in South Dakota who were descendants of him. I don’t know why I had this obsession. I lived on a housing estate in Birmingham.

He filled his pipe – bullets whizzing all around him – smoked it, emptied it, and walked back. Not a single bullet hit him

What kind of person was he?

He was born at a time when the Sioux were dominant on the northern plains of America. It was very much a warrior society and he rose to the top purely because of his courage and bravery. He was very insightful. He went to Chicago and saw the poverty there, and he said: “The white man can make everything, but he just doesn’t know how to distribute it.”

What made him a hero?

This one man is the thread going through an entire period of history. He was adaptable but maintained his belief in his own way of life. Now, more than 100 years have gone by, and his view of the world is becoming the view of the world – that it needs to be sustained; that you can’t damage it; that you can’t go around wiping out entire species; that you can’t plough up the earth without consequences.

What was his finest hour?

Sitting Bull’s own proudest moment was when he walked into no man’s land with a pipe in his mouth, mid-battle. He filled his pipe – bullets whizzing all around him – smoked it, emptied it, and walked back. Not a single bullet hit him. That was the moment, among the Native Americans, when he was considered holy, that he was chosen. While it was this act of bravery – or foolishness – that he deemed to be his finest hour, for me personally it was his defence of the [Great Sioux] Reservation in the years after fighting with US forces had stopped.

Is there anything about him you find difficult?

A thousand things because he’s from a totally different culture. He killed a lot of people with his own hands. I can’t imagine doing that and then not being destroyed by that for the rest of your life. But that was the society they lived in.

If you could ask him one question, what would it be?

Was it worth it? It’s a bigger question than it sounds. If someone does all that he did with his life and fails, and is given the chance again, would he say, “No, I’m not going to do that because it fails in the end”, or would he decide, fail or not, that he has to do it the way he did? I suspect he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Steven Knight is the writer/creator of Peaky Blinders, which is due to return to BBC One soon. He was talking to Jonathan Wright

Listen again: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine