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Old News, Fake News: The Many Deaths of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull in 1881, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing front, holding calumet.

On this week’s episode of BackStory we are looking at “fake news.” The term has been used alternatively to describe the mainstream media; false stories which proliferated on Facebook over the 2016 election cycle; and even stories which extend beyond the political sphere into issues like vaccinations and celebrity gossip. But while the phrase itself might be new, the phenomenon is not. American newspapers have long been publishing stories that fail to accurately reflect reality. The Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull died in 1890, but he had died in the newspapers many times before that.

Sitting Bull had become a national figure, known for his raids on U.S. forts and survey parties conducted to defend Lakota and other Native American lands from seizure by the U.S. government. The Great Sioux War of 1876 saw these tensions come to a head, as the government felt increasing pressure to open the Black Hills to gold mining. The Lakota coalition became the primary target of the federal government’s pacification campaign, which culminated with the Battle of Little Big Horn. Here, in 1876, Lt. Col. Custer found himself badly outnumbered, and after a retreat, he and his troops were annihilated by forces ostensibly led by Sitting Bull.

Newspapers had been mistakenly reporting of Sitting Bull’s death for years before this event. After the battle, there was a blossoming of articles featuring accounts of Sitting Bull’s death, followed by other articles which dismissed these claims. On July 15, 1876, “The Cairo Bulletin” of Cairo, Illinois reported a rumor which was attributed to military scouts in an article entitled “Is Sitting Bull Dead?” The July 21 edition of “The Peabody Gazette-Herald” of Peabody, Kansas ran the same article. The next day, “The Boston Globe” featured an article entitled “The Indians Admit That Sitting Bull Is Dead.” This increasing certainty of the death continued through July, until on August 8 “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch” contradicted these claims, and by September 7, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania paper wryly remarked that it was “the fourth time he has died, and he invariably turns up a very lively cadaver.”

What are we to make of these accounts, and this spread of “fake news” articles across the nation’s newspapers? It is tempting to think that the misinformation did little harm, since someone’s being not dead is a simple fact to prove. But after looking at the tone of the articles, it becomes clearer why they were printed in the first place, and perhaps why Sitting Bull had died so many times already. In these accounts, Sitting Bull “is dead as a no. 1 mackerel,” his voice is “generally for war,” and the newspaper is “devoutly hoping that it may be true.” Even the accounts that differ on the facts agree in their characterization of Sitting Bull as a danger to the U.S., his death desirable. That he and the Native Americans more broadly have no justification in these conflicts is taken for granted by the newspapers.

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