Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is Sitting Bull an American Hero?

The mouthbreathers are going crazy that President Obama included Sitting Bull in his book of American heroes he dedicated to his daughter. While FoxNews' coverage of this fits perfectly with their almost openly racist norm, they are right about one thing in covering this part of the culture war: Obama's list is a window into who Americans, and especially our children, are looking up to at a given time. Most of Obama's list is precisely who'd you expect: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson. I was glad to see Billie Holliday included. And I'm surprised that conservatives didn't throw a fit over Cesar Chavez, as the exclusion of Chavez from textbooks is a primary goal of the Texas Board of Education.

Instead, they focused on Sitting Bull. Why? Because he played a part in killing someone conservatives really think is an American hero, George Armstrong Custer! Custer isn't a hero, not only because he was evil and a lover of massacring defenseless women and children, but because he was an idiot who led his men into a trap that cost all of them their lives.

I'm more interested though in thinking about Sitting Bull. Obama's book clearly reflected 21st century multiculturalism. Every major racial group is included in this short book. For example, Maya Lin represents Asians (personally I'd go with Minori Yasui but a lot more people know who Lin is and her impact is unquestionable). So Obama clearly was going to select a Native American leader. The question had to be who to select.

And of course, they went with Sitting Bull. Is Sitting Bull a hero worth emulating? I don't  know. Sitting Bull led his people in a desperate fight against the United States to hold on to their land. If Custer (and the entire United States really) is a villain in this story, does this make Sitting Bull heroic? I think we'd all like a leader of Sitting Bull's stature if aliens or Russians or whoever tried to force us off our land.

But what message does Sitting Bull provide for today's kids? I can't really think of a particularly compelling one. Too often, we think of Native Americans as people who disappeared in 1890. Maybe they've reappeared as casino operators, but that's about it. Americans have romanticized Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph since almost the day we wiped them out. Usually this has operated within a framework of longing for a simpler past. I don't think that's a valuable lesson by any means. Sitting Bull was a deeply religious man and I suspect this helped his inclusion in a book celebrating multiculturalism--we celebrate religion too, but not just Christianity. Also, the story of whites screwing over Native Americans have become pretty standard within schools; even students from relatively conservative places who attended public schools have a pretty good idea of this. And of course that history is always worth remembering. So I think Sitting Bull is on this list more as symbol than as a man who made particular heroic decisions.

I guess these are good enough reasons to include Sitting Bull. However, it would also be useful to find a Native American who lived within the last century to remind everyone that they are still around.