About the Work of Art:

David F. Barry (1854–1934)
Sitting Bull, ca. 1886
Collodion-chloride print
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas


David F. Barry (1854–1934),Sitting Bull, ca. 1886, collodion-chloride print, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, P1967.466





Photographed outdoors in natural light, Sitting Bull (1834–1890), the famous Sioux medicine man, appears in a formal, oval-framed portrait format. Barry presented many of his important subjects in this fashion. Photographers needed strong sunlight to take photographs and often used canvas backdrops to block out ambient distractions. Sometimes the canvas backdrop had a painted scene.

Many Native Americans believed that photographic likeness diminished their spirit, and they avoided having their photograph taken. Others liked photographic portraits. Sitting Bull realized the power of photographs and was willing to have Barry record his confident likeness for posterity.

Sitting Bull wears everyday clothing. This image was probably taken in the spring, so the light cotton shirt was appropriate. Sioux wore their hair in different styles: two braids with a center part were common for both men and women. Braids were wrapped with otter fur, trade cloth, or narrow quill bands and were sometimes lengthened with added strands of human or horse hair. Feathers represented tokens of a significant event or commemorated a heroic act or deed of great courage.

The photograph dates from around 1886. It may have been taken at a reunion ten years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the 1876 conflict on the Little Bighorn River in southeast Montana when Sioux and Cheyenne forces defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. Barry recorded his thoughts about the chief in his diaries:

Sitting Bull was a peculiar Indian, very religious and a wise counselor. He believed in medicine and no doubt at the Custer Battle thought he could do more to defeat the soldiers by making medicine than he could by actual fighting. He always had the interests of the people at heart and wanted to protect them. Personally his word was gold.

As a boy, Sitting Bull was called Hunkesni (“slow”) but proved himself a hunter and warrior, killing his first buffalo at age ten and counting his first coup, in battle against a Crow, at fourteen. During that same period, he completed his vision quest. He was soon accepted into the Strong Hearts, a warrior society of which he became leader when he was twenty-two years old. Sitting Bull also gained a reputation among his people for his medicine.

When gold was discovered in the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills, white prospectors violated the U.S. Treaty of 1868 to seek their fortunes. Native retaliation resulted in battles at Rosebud Creek and the Little Bighorn River in 1876. Refusing reservation life, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn, but he and his band of about 200 faced starvation during a harsh winter and returned south to the United States. They arrived at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, in July 1881. Instead of sending him to the Hunkpapa Agency at Standing Rock, the government again broke its promise to pardon him and sent him to Fort Randall (in what is now South Dakota) as a military prisoner for two years. In an interview Sitting Bull said:

If the Great Father gives me a reservation I do not want to be confined to any part of it. I want no restraint. I will keep on the reservation, but I want to go where I please. I don’t want a white man over me. I don’t want an agent. I will keep the white man with me, but not as my chief. I ask this because I want to do right by my people. I cannot trust anyone else to trade with them or talk to them.

Even though the Indian agent who controlled his existence periodically farmed him out to public events, such as the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Sitting Bull would not accommodate white culture and was defiant to the end. Continued problems adapting to reservation life and growing resentment by Native Americans led to increased U.S. military presence in Dakota Territory. On the morning of December 15, 1890, U.S. military and Indian police killed Sitting Bull outside his cabin on the Grand River. Shortly thereafter, the military contained the Sioux Nation at Pine Ridge Reservation, as a reaction to a religious movement that became known as the Ghost Dance. This resulted in the subsequent massacre of more than 300 native people at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.


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