Standing Bear’s Wisdom
Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of life of the Indigenous people of the Great Plains before, and during, the arrival and subsequent spread of the European pioneers. Raised in the traditions of his people until the age of eleven, he was then educated at the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School of Pennsylvania, where he learned the english language and way of life.
Like his above mentioned contemporaries, however, his native roots were deep, leaving him in the unique position of being a conduit between cultures. Though his movement through the white man’s world was not without “success” — he had numerous movie roles in Hollywood — his enduring legacy was the protection of the way of life of his people.By the time of his death he had become a leader at the forefront of the progressive movement aimed at preserving Native American heritage and sovereignty, coming to be known as a strong voice in the education of the white man as to the Native American way of life. Here, then, are 10 quotes from the great Sioux Indian Chief known as Standing Bear that will be sure to disturb much of what you think you know about “modern” culture.
1) Praise, flattery, exaggerated manners and fine, high-sounding words were no part of Lakota politeness. Excessive manners were put down as insincere, and the constant talker was considered rude and thoughtless. Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner.
2) Children were taught that true politeness was to be defined in actions rather than in words. They were never allowed to pass between the fire and the older person or a visitor, to speak while others were speaking, or to make fun of a crippled or disfigured person. If a child thoughtlessly tried to do so, a parent, in a quiet voice, immediately set him right.
3) Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regardful of the rule that ‘thought comes before speech.’…and in the midst of sorrow, sickness, death or misfortune of any kind, and in the presence of the notable and great, silence was the mark of respect… strict observance of this tenet of good behavior was the reason, no doubt, for his being given the false characterization by the white man of being a stoic. He has been judged to be dumb, stupid, indifferent, and unfeeling.
4) We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
5) With all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. In the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them. And so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.
6) This concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave to the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all.
7) It was good for the skin to touch the earth, and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth… the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.
8) Everything was possessed of personality, only differing from us in form. Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature learns, and that was to feel beauty. We never railed at the storms, the furious winds, and the biting frosts and snows. To do so intensified human futility, so whatever came we adjusted ourselves, by more effort and energy if necessary, but without complaint.
9) …the old Lakota was wise. He knew that a man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too. So he kept his children close to nature’s softening influence.
10) Civilization has been thrust upon me… and it has not added one whit to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity
Luther Standing Bear was born in December, 1868, on the Spotted Tail Agency, Rosebud, South Dakota, the first son of George Standing Bear and Pretty Face. Luther’s father, George Standing Bear was a Brulé Lakota chief who raised him as a traditional hunter and warrior. In the late 1870‘s, George Standing Bear built a general store, the first Native American-run business on the Spotted Tail agency. In 1879, at about age eleven, his father enrolled young Luther in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Carlisle Industrial School for Indians
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was one of the earliest Native American boarding schools, whose goal was cultural assimilation of Native Americans. Luther was one of the first students to arrive when Carlisle opened its doors in 1879. Once there, he was asked to choose a name from a list on the wall. He randomly pointed at the symbols on a wall and named himself Luther, and his father’s name became his surname. Carlisle gave its students opportunities to interact and live in the white world. During the summer months students were enrolled in an “outing program” which found them in jobs with white families for which they earned their first wages.
“One evening while I was going home from work, I bought a paper, and read that Sitting Bull, the great Sioux medicine man, was to appear at one of the Philadelphia theaters. The paper stated that he was the Indian who killed General Custer! The chief and his people had been held prisoners of war, and now here they were to appear in a Philadelphia theater. So I determined to go and see what he had to say, and what he was really in the East for. I had to pay fifty cents for a ticket. The theater was decorated with many Indian trappings such as were used by the Sioux tribe of which I was a member.
“On the stage sat four Indian men, one of whom was Sitting Bull. There were two women and two children with them. A white man came on stage and introduced Sitting Bull as the man who had killed General Custer (which, of course, was absolutely false). Sitting Bull arose and addressed the audience in the Sioux tongue, as he did not speak nor understand English. He said, ‘My friends, white people, we Indians are on our way to Washington to see the Grandfather, or President of the United States. I see so many white people and what they are doing, that it makes me glad to know that some day my children will be educated also. There is no use fighting any longer. The buffalo are all gone, as well as the rest of the game. Now I am going to shake the hand of the Great Father at Washington, and I am going to tell him all these things.’ Then Sitting Bull sat down. He never even mentioned General Custer’s name.
Luther was a school recruiter for Captain Richard Henry Pratt and periodically visited reservations. He was sincere in his desire to show what we had learned, and persuaded parents to send their children to Carlisle by his appearance, language and skills. However, many children died in boarding schools and parents were fearful to let them go. Moreover, many parents were treated unfairly and had not been notified until after the children died and were buried. It was not the negligence of Captain Pratt, but rather lax Indian agents who would set aside letters from Carlisle until the parents came into the agency for something. While many parents were proud of Luther, they were afraid to send their children away fearing they would never see them again. Luther got mixed reception home on the reservation. Some were proud of his achievements while others lamented that he had, in effect, become a white man. He was happy to be home and some of his relatives aid that he “looked like a white boy dressed in eastern clothes.” Luther felt proud to be compared to a white boy. But others would not shake his hand because some returning Carlisle students were ashamed of their culture, and a few even tried to pretend that they did not speak Lakota. The difficulties of returning Carlisle students disturbed white educators. Returning Carlisle students found themselves stranded between two cultures, and not accepted by either. Some rejected their educational experiences and “returned to the blanket”, casting off white ways. Others found it more convenient and satisfying to remain in white society. Most were able to adjust at least partially to both worlds.
George Standing Bear’s visit
English was the only language permitted at Carlisle, which presented a problem for Luther when his father visited in 1880. He had to write a note to Captain Pratt for permission to speak to his father in Lakota. Pratt took such a liking to Luther’s father that he took him to visit Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. When the elder Standing Bear returned to Carlisle, visibly impressed with the power of whites, he told his son that he must study hard and learn the white man’s ways.
“Just before returning to the West, father was invited into our Chapel to listen to the service. He asked me what it was, and I told him it was the white man’s religion which was discussed in that room. He came in and sat with us boys. During the preaching he sat very reverently and listened attentively to all that was said, although he could not understand a single word. His attention to the service pleased Captain Pratt exceedingly. When my father was ready to depart, he was presented with a well-made top-buggy and a set of harness, all of which were made at the school. I was delighted at seeing my father so well treated and recognized. Other chiefs had visited us, but my father was the first Indian to receive such courteous recognition and agreeable presents.
Intern for John Wanamaker
In 1883, Luther was sent to work as an intern for John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Pratt told Luther: “My boy, you are going away from us to work for this school. Go and do your best. The majority of white people think the Indian is a lazy good-for-nothing. They think he can neither work nor learn anything; that he is very dirty. Now you are going to prove that the red man can learn and work as well as the white man. If John Wanamaker gives you the job of blacking his shoes, see that you make them shine. Then he will give you a better job. If you are put into the office to clean, don’t forget to sweep up under the chairs and in the corners. If you do this well, he will give you better work to do.” 
For a while, Luther and another Carlisle student boarded with white boys in Philadelphia. “A big wagon left the school every morning carrying several of the boys who worked out. We were invited to ride with them. After the first few mornings, however, I preferred to ride in the street carts, rather than listen to the rough, profane language which these boys used on their way to work. And these boys were supposed to be civilized, having had good teachers and good education, yet they used the vilest of language, to which I did not care to listen.” 
“About this time the whole Carlisle School made a visit to Philadelphia. A meeting was held in a large hall, and Captain Pratt spoke of the work of the school, and how all the Indian boys and girls were doing. Then John Wanamaker had me come up on the stage. He told the audience that I was working for him and that I was a Carlisle boy. He stated that I had been promoted from one department to another, every month getting better work and better money, and in spite of the fact that he employed as many as one thousand people in his establishment, he never promoted anyone as rapidly as he had me. That brought considerable applause, and Captain Pratt was very proud of me.
Back on the reservation
In 1884, following his final term at Carlisle, Standing Bear, armed with a recommendation by Captain Pratt, returned home to the Rosebud Agency, Rosebud, South Dakota, where he was hired as an assistant at the reservation’s school at the salary of three hundred dollars a year. In 1890, some time after Wounded Knee, Luther moved from Rosebud and followed his father and brother Ellis Standing Bear toPine Ridge, South Dakota. Pine Ridge provided a series of varying employment and family ventures. In 1891, Luther became principal of a reservation day school. Standing Bear also worked in his uncle’s little general store. One day they were talking about the delay in mail delivery. “I told my uncle that John Wanamaker, the man for whom I had worked in Philadelphia, was Postmaster-General, and that I would write and see if we could not have a post office established at his camp. I suggested that we call it Kyle. It was a short name and easy to spell. When Mr. Wanamaker received my letter, he replied immediately. He was pleased with my suggestion, but said that he could not appoint me postmaster, as I was an Indian. It would have to be some white man. There was a Joseph Taylor who was one of our missionaries, and we sent his name. He received the appointment, but I took care of the office.”  Later, Luther opened a dry goods store with his brother Ellis at Pass Creek and started a small ranch raising horses and cattle. Standing Bear organized public meetings at his dry goods store in Pine Ridge to discuss treaties and current events.
Carlisle Wild Westers
Many Oglala Lakota Wild Westers from Pine Ridge, South Dakota attended Carlisle. Carlisle Wild Westers were attracted by the adventure, pay and opportunity and were hired as performers, chaperons, interpreters and recruiters. Wild Westers from Pine Ridge enrolled their children at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School from its beginning in 1879 until its closure in 1918. In 1879, Oglala Lakota leaders Chief Blue Horse, Chief American Horse and Chief Red Shirt enrolled their children in the first class at Carlisle. They wanted their children to learn English, trade skills and white customs. Ann Rinaldi, author of ‘My Heart is on the Ground: the Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl’, later wrote “Those first Sioux children who came to Carlisle could not have been happy there. But it was their only chance for a future.” 
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in England
In 1902, with his wife Nellie and their children, Standing Bear joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and traveled through England for eleven months. Luther was hired as an interpreter and chaperone for seventy-five Indians, and also performed as a skilled horseback rider and dancer. 
The King of England
“One day Colonel Cody sent for me to come to his private office. Wondering what he would want of me, I knocked at his door. He invited me in, remarking, ‘Sit down, Standing Bear. I have sent for you because I want you to tell you something of importance. The Big Chief of this country, the King of England, has promised to attend a performance of our show. Now I want you to go back to your people, call them all together, and tell them all about it. Tell them to be very careful about their clothes; to see that they are perfectly clean and neat for that particular performance. If anything needs repairs, tell them to attend to it at once. We must please the King at this performance. Rehearse your Indians well so they will do their best for me. If the King likes our show, it will please the people of this country. I have observed your own costume. It is very fine, and when the King attends the show, I want you to do an Indian dance in front of his box. Will you do this for me?” “Everything worked splendidly. When it came time for the Indians to come in with their village in the center of the arena, we started the dance in which I was to appear before the King of England. I had a beautiful lance, and as the dance proceeded I worked over toward the King’s box. There I shook the lance in his face and danced my very prettiest, you may be sure. The King had been very dignified thus far, and had not even smiled. But when I got down to doing my fancy steps and gave a few Sioux yells, he had to smile in spite of himself. I saw that I had made a hit with him and was very happy. After the show, Buffalo Bill brought the King and his party around the inside of the arena. In front of him walked a big man who seemed to keep his eyes roving about all the while. I think he must have been the King’s personal bodyguard. Buffalo Bill brought the King over to me and we were introduced. We shook hands, although neither of us said a word. But I had the honor of being introduced to King Edward VII, the monarch of Great Britain.” 
Baby in Birmingham
“While we were showing in Birmingham, England, a little daughter was born to us. The morning papers discussed the event in big headlines that the first full-blooded Indian baby had been born at the Buffalo Bill grounds. Colonel Cody was to be its godfather, and the baby was named after the reigning Queen of England. The child’s full name was to be Alexandra Birmingham Cody Standing Bear. The next morning Cody came to me and asked if my wife and baby could be placed in the side-show. He said the English people would like to see the face of a newly born Indian baby lying in an Indian cradle or ‘hoksicalaa postan.’ I gave my consent, and the afternoon papers stated that the baby and mother could be seen the following afternoon. Long before it was time for the show to begin, people were lining up on the road. My wife sat on the raised platform, with the little one in the cradle before her. The people filed past, many of them dropping money in a box for her. It was a great drawing card for the show; the work was very light for my wife, and as for the baby, before she was twenty-four hours old she was making more money than my wife and I together.” 
Chief of the Oglala Lakota: Standing Bear
After returning to Pine Ridge in 1905, Standing Bear was chosen as a chief of the Oglala Lakota on July 4, 1905. There was a great celebration.
“A chief receives no salary, and at gatherings it is up to him to see that everything is done properly. We have no more war councils, but if a Commissioner is sent from Washington to make any sort of contract with the tribe, it is up to the chief to be present and investigate the matter. That is the law among the Indians. It is a great honor to receive the title of ‘Chief,’ but there is much hard work about it also.”
In 1905, Standing Bear decided to leave the confinement of the reservation, but he continued his serious responsibilities and as an Oglala Lakota chief, fighting to preserve Lakota heritage and sovereignty through public education.
From 1912 to the 1930s, Standing Bear appeared in a dozen Hollywood films, playing both Indian and non-Indian roles including Ramona, 1916; Bolshevism on Trial, 1919; White Oak, 1921; The Santa Fe Trail, 1930; The Conquering Horde, 1931; Texas Pioneers, 1932; Murder in a Private Car, 1934; Cyclone of the Saddle, 1935; The Miracle Writer, 1935; Fighting Pioneers, 1935; Circle of Death, 1935; and Union Pacific, 1939.
Chief of the Oglala Lakota: Standing Bear
Protecting Native American heritage and sovereignty
Between 1928 and 1936, Standing Bear wrote four books and a series of articles about protecting Lakota culture and in opposition to government regulation of Native Americans. Luther‘s commentaries challenged government policies regarding education, assimilation, freedom of religion, tribal sovereignty, return of lands and efforts to convert the Lakota into sedentary farmers. Standing Bear believed that white people had much to teach Indians and that Indian people had much to teach whites. He argued that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should employ Indians in positions of authority, adopt a policy of bilingual education, employ Indians to teach Indians and teach Native American history and culture in all public schools. Standing Bear argued for a change of policy in the education of Native American children:
“The Indian children should have been taught how to translate the Sioux tongue into English properly; but the English teachers only taught them the English language, like a bunch of parrots.”
“The Indian, by the very sense of duty, should become his own historian, giving account of the race, fairer and fewer accounts of the wars and more of the statecraft, legends, languages, oratory and philosophical conceptions. No longer should the Indian be dehumanized in order to make material for lurid and cheap function to embellish street stands.”
“A fair and correct history of the native American should be incorporated into the curriculum of public schools. Indians should be taught their own history, and schools created where tribal and Indian thought would be taught on the Indian pattern by Indian institutors. All American would benefit, for “in denying the Indian his ancestral rights and heritages the white race is robbing itself.”
Standing Bear opposed the Dawes Act’s policy of privatization of communal holdings of Native American tribes, and was critical of government support of missionaries who undermined Sioux religion, as did the prohibition against the Sun Dance, the most important religious and social event in the yearly cycle of Sioux life.
Between 1928 and 1934, Progressives organized and launched a national education campaign to change government policies towards Native Americans. The campaign began in 1928 with the publication of Standing Bear’s book “My People the Sioux” and the release of John Collier’s Meriam Report. During this period, Standing Bear published four books and numerous articles to educate the public about Lakota culture, and toured the forums of the American lecture circuit building critical support for an “Indian New Deal.” Luther was at the forefront of the Progressive movement and his commentaries educated the American public, deepened awareness and created popular support to change government policies toward Native American peoples. At the time, Native American authors were a rarity, and Standing Bear’s books were considered culturally significant and reviewed by the New York Times.
In 1931, Standing Bear published My Indian Boyhood, a classic memoir of life, experience and education of a Lakota child in the late 1800s. That year, after an absence of twenty years, Standing Bear visited Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He was so distressed by the desperate plight of his people that he wrote “The Tragedy of the Sioux” in American Mercurycondemning federal Indian policy for the continued destruction of the Lakota.“Land of the Spotted Eagle”, published in 1933, is an ethnographic description of traditional Lakota life and customs, criticizing whites’ efforts to “make over” the Indian into the likeness of the white race. Here, Standing Bear observed, “White men seem to have difficulty realizing that people who live differently from themselves still might be traveling the upward and progressive road of life.”  In 1933, Standing Bear also published “What the Indian Means to America”. In 1934, Standing Bear published a collection of Lakota tales and legends in “Stories of the Sioux”.
In 1933, Standing Bear wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Congress should legislate that the history and culture of Native Americans be made part of the curriculum of public schools.  The next year, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 reversed fifty years of assimilation policies by emphasizing Indian self-determination and the Dawes Act‘s policy of privatization of communal holdings of Native American tribes. Luther’s essay “The Tragedy of the Sioux” in American Mercury and his book Land of Spotted Eagle were published near the end of the Progressive campaign and had wide impact influencing Indian Bureau Chief John Collier’s Indian New Deal policies and fighting to restore tribal culture and sovereignty.
On February 20, 1939, Luther Standing Bear died in Huntington Beach, California, at age of 70 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California, far from his Lakota homeland, with his sacred pipe.
- Standing Bear “opened the reservation world and the Lakota point of view to the non-Indian.” Alida S. Boorn, “Oskate Wicasa (One Who Performs)” (hereinafter “Oskate Wicasa”), Department of History, Central Missouri State University, (2005), p.110. John R. Shook, “The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Volume 1”, (2005), p.2312. Phillip A. Greasily, “Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 1: The Authors, (2001), p.472. See http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Wisdom/ChiefLutherStandingBear.html
- Luther Standing Bear, “My People the Sioux,” (1928), p.viii. Joseph Agonito, “Lakota Portraits: Lives of the Legendary Plains People” (hereinafter “Agonito”) (2011), p.235. Donovin Arleigh Sprague, “Rosebud Sioux,” p. 40 (2005)
- Joseph Agonito, “Lakota Portraits: Lives of the Legendary Plains People” (hereinafter “Agonito”)(2011), p.237
- Witmer, p.xvi. Carlisle had developed something of a rivalry with Harvard, and though the Indians had never beaten the Crimson, they always gave them a game. The Indians both admired and resented the Crimson, in equal amounts. They loved to sarcastically mimic the Harvard accent; even players who could barely speak English would drawl the broad Harvard a. But Harvard was also the Indians’ idea of collegiate perfection, and they labeled any excellent performance, whether on the field or in the classroom, as “Harvard style.” Sally Jenkins, “The Real All Americans”, (hereinafter “Jenkins”)(2007), p.198.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.133.
- My People the Sioux”, p.xx.
- My People the Sioux”, p.vi.
- Luther Standing Bear, “Land of the Spotted Eagle”, (1933), p.232-233.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.155.
- “My People the Sioux,” p.154-155.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.184-186.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.162-163.
- Agonito. p.241.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.xx.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.149.
- Agonito. p.239. “My People the Sioux”, p.151-152.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.152.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.178.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.182.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.182-184.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.xxii.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.234.
- “My People the Sioux”, p. xvii.
- See Stevens, “Tiyospaye: An Oglala Genealogy Resource,http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mikestevens/2010-p/i61.htm#8796
- Oskate Wicasa, p.131.
- Ann Rinaldi, “My Heart is on the Ground: the Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880,” (1999), p. 177.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.254.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.viii-x.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.249.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.262-263.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.254-257.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.260-261.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.263-265.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.266-267.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.270-272. Agonito, p.245-246.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.269.
- While George Standing Bear was Brulé Sicangu, he and his family identified themselves with the Oglala of Pine Ridge. Donovin Arleigh Sprague, “Rosebud Sioux”,(2005), p.40.“My People the Sioux”, p.274-266.
- “My People the Sioux”, p. xviii.
- Agonito, p.247.
- Phillip A. Greasily, “Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 1: The Authors, (2001), p.472.
- “Land of the Spotted Eagle”, p.260.
- Agonito, p.247. Oskate Wicasa, p.112.
- Agonito, p. 248-249.
- See “Indian Actors Bury the Hatchet in Hollywood ‘War Paint Club'”, Christian Science Monitor, November 24, 1926, p.5A.
- See, Angela Aleiss, “Making The White Man’s Indian: Native Americans And Hollywood Movies”, (2005), p.54.
- “My People the Sioux”, p.x-xxvii., p.277. “Land of the Spotted Eagle”, p. 254-255.
- “My People the Sioux”, p. xxi.
- The American Mercury, (1931), p.273.
- Agonito p.250-251.
- James E. Seelye, Jr. and Steven A. Littleton, Editors, “Voices of the American Indian Experience”, (2013), p.508.
- The Meriam Report revealed the failures of federal Indian policies and how they had contributed to severe problems with Indian education, health and poverty. Prior to this time, criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been directed at corrupt and incompetent officials rather than the policies. This campaign fought against legislation and policies that were detrimental to Native Americans.
- Agonito, p. 252.
- Collier emerged as a federal Indian policy reformer in 1922 and strongly criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs policies and implementation of the Dawes Act. His work led Congress to commission a study in 1926-1927 of the overall condition of Indians in the United States. The results were called the Meriam Report. Collier served as Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933-1945.
- Agonito, p. 253. Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.xi.