“Your Friend, Standing Bear”: Coming together through repatriation

Standing Bear circa 1919. From the collection of Arthur Amiotte.

Over two years ago, the Region of Peel Archives at PAMA in Ontario discovered in our collections a document of great historical and cultural importance to the Lakota people of the Great Plains of the US. The document also bears witness to an infamous and decisive period in US history.

With the cooperation of the Oglala Lakota College Archives, we worked throughout the period of the COVID-19 pandemic to repatriate the document to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where it originated. This process was successfully concluded this past December, but what we can learn from it is only just beginning.

For this blog post, we’ve collaborated with guests who have generously offered their individual reflections on this experience. Their insights offer context for the first internet publication of the text of the repatriated document. We hope that the international audience of this blog will help spread the good news of this return: not only to help celebrate it, but to learn about a rich culture and its history.

Our blog has consistently tried to show that archives are about people and how they affect one another. This post is therefore structured as a series of individual voices. Beginning in Ontario in 2022, we’ll hear from people on the unfolding journey of this document homewards to Pine Ridge, concluding with the 1933 (and 1876) Lakota voices of those who spoke to us through it.

Table of contents:

Samantha Thompson

When I first carefully unrolled the thick pieces of paper – they wanted to spring back into their now habitual position – I was struck by the haunting sense that their contents would speak to many people. But I didn’t yet know how complicated it would be to help that to happen, or how many people it would bring together.

The Standing Bear document as it looked when found in the papers of William Perkins Bull.

I saw what looked like two undated letters, one long, the other very short. They were carefully pencilled one after the other in the same hand, yet signed by different people: the first by “Standing Bear” and the second by “Louise Standing Bear.” Aside from these names, a handful of other words were rendered in English: Custer, Rosebud River, Montana, Sitting Bull. The rest of the text, however, was written in a now disused Old German script called Kurrent.

Included with the letters was a drawing on a separate piece of the same thick paper. Vividly coloured with water-based paints, it depicted four people facing a slender tree. From its leafy branches hung small figurines of a bison and a hunter. Three people in the scene held staffs and wore feathered medallions. From their mouths protruded what I later learned were eagle-bone whistles. One of the participants – facing the others and holding a peace pipe – was labelled (in English) “Sitting Bull” in the same penciled handwriting as the letter. The drawing itself was labelled “Sun Dance.”

Even as a Canadian, I knew this legendary name from the history books, and it seemed to me I was holding in my hands something of Indigenous origin and witness. The detailed sensitivity of the drawing alone spoke of a knowledgeable participant in a sacred ceremony. And basic research revealed that works by a Lakota artist called Standing Bear resided in cultural institutions around the world, and that he had illustrated the 1930s cultural phenomenon Black Elk Speaks.

In a way, it wasn’t surprising that such a document should be found in the papers of William Perkins Bull, a local lawyer, businessman, and enthusiastic local historian particularly active in the 1930s. Among Bull’s massive body of wide-ranging research is an unpublished manuscript on the Indigenous peoples of North America, with special attention to the life of Sitting Bull.

Lawyer and businessman William Perkins Bull (1870-1948) is now largely known for the voluminous records he produced in the course of his historical research on Peel County and beyond (a portion of which is laid out in archival boxes on the right). To some extent he represents a turn-of-the-century version of the gentleman antiquarian. On the other hand, he anticipated collecting concerns ahead of his time. He vigorously pursued oral histories before intangible knowledge was lost, and commissioned surveys inquiring about minority communities such as Indigenous, Jewish, Black, and Catholic residents. While he tended to valorize both settlers and Indigenous people, in a speech to descendants of settlers, he said this: “From time immemorial, people who fought and died for their native land have been acclaimed as patriots and sung as heroes…the North American Indian will be given credit for motives similar…In their struggles to repel the invader from their homes…you old timers represent the invaders.”

But was this document what it seemed to be? On the one hand, Bull was an obsessive letter writer in the cause of his historical research, tracking people down with the tenacity of a private detective. It was therefore possible that he had written to Standing Bear and received this document back. But if so, how? There was no evidence of its having been mailed, for example. And the physical context of the document in his papers did not shed any light on how he might have acquired it (nor, so far, have any of his other papers).

On the other hand, Bull was also an obsessive copyist. In the days before photocopying, he paid scores of researchers to travel to libraries and archives transcribing interesting passages from documents and publications. Could these letters possibly be such a copy of some other original text?   

The key to finding out more was knowing what the letters said. I knew that translators for Kurrent were few and far between. As I mulled this over, I happened to overhear a friend casually mention that her mother could read “Old German letters.” I asked if I might be in touch, and in the end, Veleda Goulden (see below) generously devoted several months to painstaking scrutiny and interpretation of digital and printed copies.

Veleda sent me her draft translation in January 2020. (You can read this for yourself below). It immediately resolved the question of authenticity. Louise Standing Bear (nee Rieneck) reveals that she is taking dictation from her husband, Standing Bear – hence the same hand for both letters, in German (Louise was Austrian). The couple were evidently responding to someone (only addressed as Honoured Sir) who had contacted them to ask if “Sitting Bull was in Custer’s fight.”

Our working assumption is that William Perkins Bull was their correspondent, but whether this is the case, or whether Bull collected the document from someone else, it became clear that Standing Bear had sent this document out into the world to inform a culture beyond his own. And inform he does. Standing Bear not only answers the question put to him, but gives a detailed account from inside the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or the Battle of Greasy Grass as it was and is called by the Indigenous people who won it.

This map shows the shrinking boundaries of tribal lands belonging to the Sioux Nation or Oceti Sakowin to which the Lakota belong. The Pine Ridge Reservation is in the south west. Via wikimedia commons.

The history books have tended to glorify what became known a “Custer’s Last Stand” in this pivotal conflict in the Plains Wars (historically known as the American Indian Wars or the Sioux Wars) which wiped out Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s attacking cavalry battalions. What exactly happened is disputed to this day: the only accounts came from the surviving Indigenous side, and, as in the case of any chaotic event, they were disjointed. But what is not now in dispute is what preceded the battle: the relentless push of settlement westwards, the broken treaties, the scorched-earth extermination of the buffalo, the forced relocations, and the massacres. A tragic backlash followed the battle too, including the ongoing loss of the sacred Black Hills (a painful exile mentioned by Standing Bear in his letter), and the terrible Wounded Knee massacre in which Standing Bear lost his first wife and child.

But in his narrative, Standing Bear goes beyond describing the battle itself. He describes childhood pursuits, his family members, and the origin of his name (a highly personal revelation, as Arthur will explain below). He signs himself “Your Friend, Standing Bear.” Louise herself appends a short note to her husband’s account, apologizing for errors in her German based on 42 years of residency in the US: “I hope you can find someone to translate this,” she writes. There is no evidence that Williams Perkins Bull ever did, but almost 90 years later we finally have.

Detail from a panoramic illustration of the Battle of the Little Bighorn painted by Standing Bear on muslin, now housed in the Philbrook Museum. An online tour of this work is available on the museum’s website. To find out more about this exhibit First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn, see Resources to Explore, below.

Most generously of all, Standing Bear says he is including a picture he has created (quite a gift, given that Louise helped manage sales of her husband’s artwork). And the memory he draws on is momentous, as the translation now revealed: what he provides is nothing less than a depiction of the famous Sun Dance during which the Lakota leader Sitting Bull received a prophetic vision of the defeat of the US troops – an event that helped unite and galvanize the Plains tribes.

Once we knew what we had, our institution’s decision to offer this document to its community of origin followed naturally and unanimously. For this, we must thank the advocacy of generations of Indigenous cultural guardians who prepared the ground. Shortly after receiving the translation, I reached out to Tawa Ducheneaux, archivist at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Standing Bear family spent their married lives. After a few days of due diligence Tawa let me know that not only would she be delighted to give the document a permanent home, but that the great-grandson of Standing Bear and Louise lived nearby and was himself a noted artist and authority on his great-grandfather’s work. She had been in contact with him, and now he too eagerly awaited its return.

The next step on in the journey of the Standing Bear document was to deaccession it from our own collections. As archivists, we are stewards of collections on behalf of posterity, so when we remove anything from our permanent collections we record and justify our actions for the benefit of future inquiry. The Standing Bear document did reveal something about the interests of William Perkins Bull, but, marshaling our research, we outlined our case that the item and its community would be much better served by Indigenous caretakers in its own cultural setting.

Next, we needed an external appraisal for insurance since the document was going on a trip. It took some networking to locate the right experts; experienced appraisers develop niche areas of expertise. But eventually I was able to contact an ideally qualified team who corroborated its immense value and were willing to do so over the internet during the intensifying pandemic.

It was an enormous relief when we watched the crated document being loaded onto the fine-art delivery van. Finally it was on its way.

That was the easy part. The hard part was yet to unfold over the next two years. COVID-19 measures hit workplaces in March 2020.  Pandemic disruptions further complicated an already complicated venture, for it is no simple thing to transport a priceless cultural artifact at the best of times, let alone when employment, travel, and shipping conditions are in pervasive and unprecedented upheaval. One good thing came of the many months of frustrating delay: Tawa and I developed a great friendship based on mutual professional and personal support.

As our workplaces gradually settled into a new normal later in 2020, I once again pursued a transportation method that would be both respectful and completely secure. It became evident that a conventional premium courier would not do, especially as the shipping world struggled at the height of the pandemic. It turned out the most appropriate and cost-effective method would have been for me to hand-deliver the document. All of us on both sides of the border dearly wished to meet in person, and we constantly monitored travel restrictions for some time. But as the virus flared again and again, the possibility became more remote.

And then there was the issue of US and Canadian export and import requirements. I contacted numerous customs brokers, all of whom vanished when I explained what we were shipping. At my point of greatest frustration, I happened to speak to a couple of academics about the document and was pointed to exactly the right expert – a former museum registrar turned broker with extensive experience in repatriations (and now also a friend) – who coordinated Canadian and US fine-art shippers.

While there were still numerous forms to fill out, we now had a clear path forward. In the end, Tawa arranged to meet the delivery van at a third institution outside the Pine Ridge Reservation, as the reservation itself had recently re-established COVID-19 checkpoints: the Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City very generously hosted Arthur’s unboxing of this portion of his great-grandfather’s legacy.

Arthur Amiotte and Tawa Ducheneaux get their first look at the Standing Bear document just after its arrival at the Journey Museum and Learning Center. Also pictured (centre) is the museum’s executive director, Troy Kilpatrick, who helped host the reception of the document in South Dakota.

I hope all the foregoing gives some sense of just how many people came together to bring Standing Bear’s handiwork and voice back home. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the extreme patience and support of my coworkers and the provision of my institution’s resources. I have always said that archivists never work alone; at the very least, travelling by our sides are the voices of the people and moments we preserve. But there are also legions of other people whose services and knowledge we rely on.

Archival records are like windows. They are framed moments in time revealing another person’s experience; but as we move closer to these windows by learning from them, the world beyond the edges opens out before us. Standing Bear and Louise Standing Bear have opened their world to us. They could never have predicted that the document they sent out in friendship would foster so many other friendships. May there be many more to come.

Veleda Goulden

Veleda Goulden was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba. She received her BA from the University of Winnipeg and B.Ed at the University of Manitoba and took courses at Colorado University and at Banff School of Fine Arts including one in dialects. Over the years, Veleda taught primary school children and in later years languages at the high school and adult level in Steinbach and in Winnipeg. She has enjoyed children’s poetry from her early youth and delighted in sharing it with her students. In 2014 she published Low German Children’s Rhymes. Some of these rhymes are over fifteen hundred years old, and have been recited in her family for generations.

I grew up in a small Mennonite village who had adopted German as their religious language in West Prussia in the mid-eighteenth century. (Until then they used Dutch, their national language.) Gothic letters were taught before the Second World War, so I had some instruction in Grades 1 and 2. When I took German in High School and at University we wrote in Latin letters, and by then the Mennonite church had adopted the English language.

Both my father and mother were taught German Gothic calligraphy in the school they attended, and I was fascinated by it. Since there were many old documents, sermons, and journals in the family written in that script, my father also taught me how to read and write it so that someone in the family would be able to read the many sermons and diaries written by my forebears.

Detail of Louise Standing Bear’s writing in Kurrent script. Many of the letters in this old German script are non-Latin, that is, are letter forms not used in modern English or German.

When I received Louise Standing Bear’s letter I knew nothing of her background. All I knew was that she had married a Lakota man. I read the letter several times to get the gist of Standing Bear’s account. I also needed to get more familiar with the content, which helped me decipher some misspelled words. Sometimes I had to break up sentences to make the English version more readable.

The most difficult part in translating the “Kurrent” or German Gothic script is that, “c,” “I,” “m,” ”n,” and “u” can all look alike if the “I” is haphazardly dotted and the umlaut on the “u’ is forgotten. Every writer adopts their own style and you need to become familiar with it.

The chronological order was helpful. Louise Standing Bear’s letter was grammatically well written and it seemed to me that she was translating her husband’s story as he was telling it to her. I translated it as Louise had written it.

I was touched by the plight of the Lakotas who were assigned very poor land. I was quite enthralled with Arthur Amiotte’s book [Transformation and Continuity in Lakota Culture: The Collages of Arthur Amiotte]. It really brought Louise Standing Bear’s letter to life. It gives a very vivid account of his ancestors’ way of life and I enjoyed Amiotte’s collages as well.

Tawa Ducheneaux

Photo: Willi White

Tawa Ducheneaux is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and was raised near Verdigris, Oklahoma. After moving to Pine Ridge in 2003 to raise her family, much of her work over the last 18 years at Oglala Lakota College has furthered the expansion of the archives and tribal repository at Woksape Tipi Library. She believes that emphasizing understandings of indigenous collections management and community involvement in the preservation and access of knowledge is critical to advancing tribal research and knowledge protection protocols. During her appointment as an archivist at Oglala Lakota College’s Woksape Tipi Archives and Tribal Repository, she completed an MLIS in Management, Digitization, & Preservation of Cultural Heritage & Records from San Jose State University as a Circle of Learning scholar.

Having witnessed culturally insensitive exchanges between a museum and tribal elders in a repatriation meeting many years ago, I was already motivated to do this work and help effect change. The opportunity to communicate with Samantha and to connect over the challenges around this particular process has been so rewarding, as has sharing information about what we do, and supporting one another.

Our archival profession is often not well understood. Managing special collections often requires research skills and a significant amount of tenacity and persistence to juggle all our responsibilities as archivists. I was excited to work with another archivist to discuss the process. I will say that neither of us expected the process to take so long or be as resource-heavy due to the pandemic and the resulting shifts in plans! I am humbled and appreciative of all the work and the resulting partnership.

In fact, this experience has strengthened relationships in several ways. I’m happy to have corresponded with many First Nations individuals who have connections to the community here. We also strengthened our connection and partnership with the Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City through the process. I learned alongside Samantha the complexity of the process of working with external appraisal to satisfy requirements institutionally, nationally, and internationally; it was a good lesson.

Oglala Lakota College, located in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo via wikimedia commons.

As a tribal member and as an archivist, I am often conflicted about the roles and responsibilities of how we appropriately caretake and transfer knowledge. We are exploring what extended familial consent looks like and what community consent looks like. The most important thing here is to support indigenous scholarship, so the vast number of articles and books published about Native peoples begins to shift to being published by Native peoples.  

The largest percentage of inquiries from our community is specific to family and community histories. This document is meaningful to Standing Bear’s many descendants, and I hope to see it being written about and published by some of those descendants and Native historians and authors.

As a fellow archivist along with Samantha, I’m aware of the isolation that can occur in this field; it is inspiring and energizing to network with like-minded individuals. We have both talked about the joy of finding the needle in the haystack, expanding the story, and continually learning. We are caretakers of knowledge, and many of our understandings come from working within an institution, with the communities we serve, and with authors, artists, and researchers.

Arthur Amiotte

​Arthur Amiotte is an artist, art historian, and educator who has been called “one of the best known and most distinguished Native artists working today.” He is Oglala Lakota, born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, great-grandson of Standing Bear, grandson of Christina Standing Bear. He was educated at Northern State College, South Dakota and the University of Montana, and has in turn taught at colleges including Brandon University in Manitoba.

Steeped in the storytelling of generations of his family, in the 1980s he began to experiment with collage as his own expression of the ledger art tradition of his ancestors, particularly Standing Bear. The ledger tradition involved incorporating found materials from settler culture, such as ledger books and receipts, within a unique Indigenous expression. Likewise in his work, Arthur captures the ways of life of the reservation period of Lakota culture by combining vintage printed materials and photographs with his own paintings and with handwritten narrative text drawn from his memories of family stories.

Also in the 1980s, Arthur embarked on a decades-long systematic mission to identify, authenticate, and interpret the works of Standing Bear held in museums and galleries throughout the US and Europe. In his experience, discovering these works often involved a mysterious degree of serendipity. Arthur’s own work has been exhibited in over 200 venues, and he has received numerous awards and fellowships for his art and writing, including honorary doctorates from the Oglala Lakota College and Brandon University.

This Standing Bear document fills in another chapter in the long and serendipitous journey of discovering the art of my great-grandfather, Standing Bear. It has become part of a pattern of events across time that all seem to coalesce. 

I have always regretted never having known my great-grandparents as I was born in 1942, yet their influence has pervaded the history of my family in many profound ways among the descendants.

In reference to the name of great-grandfather: among family he was referred to as Lulu, a variation of Lala, that is a designation for grandfather (the father of one’s mother).  In the community of Lakota speakers (neighbours, associates, and those from other parts of the reservation) he was known as Mahto Najin (Standing Bear). By agency officials and by white authors who wrote about him he was called Standing Bear. Louise, his wife, addressed him as, phonetically speaking with her German accent, “Shtonding Bear.” In groups of other Lakota speakers, he was addressed by her as her husband, in Lakota, Mihingna

Standing Bear’s illustration of his name sign from Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt Trust)

Of much significance and moments of personal and almost spiritual transfiguration for me was reading the actual words of Louise’s letter and piecing together the personal story of Standing Bear as related there with the oral accounts I heard from my grandmother, the youngest daughter of Louise and Standing Bear. I was taken with his account of the origin of his name. A later account told by grandmother tells of his being severely wounded and being doctored by a traditional medicine man. While in a state of delirium during the ritual doctoring of him, a large bear appears to him standing up and embracing him, massaging his wounds, and it speaks to him saying, “long ago you spared me and my children so now I spare you so you will see your own generations grow.”

While the account in the newly discovered document (his encounter with an actual bear) may have been related in the family oral history, it somehow escaped my memory and I only recalled the second episode of the doctoring event. Now it all fits together. Growing up as I did in the telling of these things, people seldom talked about the origins of their names as a matter of traditional discreet custom. Their individual, sacred-ritually bestowed names were only used on ritual or spiritually sanctioned occasions and guarded with great discretion and only spoken off in momentous contexts.

Of note was Louise saying she had been “here” (at the Pine Ridge reservation) for 42 years. My great-grandfather and she and her mother and father arrived, he from the Wild West Show, she for the first time in February of 1891, which would date the letter 1933. Standing Bear was born in 1859, Louise in 1865. In 1933 he would have been 74 years old, she 68 years old. She died in June of 1933 from injuries suffered in an auto accident after lingering complications. He died in September of 1933 from personal distress and grief: he simply quit eating and died in mourning for her, purposely desiring no longer to live.

Arthur Amiotte, My Great Grandfather’s Days, 1988. Collection of Margaret Denton. Copyright Arthur Amiotte, used with permission.

I read another letter by Louise from the Bureau of Indian Affairs files concerning a family matter written in English. While literate, it was perfunctory, businesslike in form, and brief and idiomatic in vocabulary, stating the issue she was addressing. It may remain a mystery as to whether she was responding to a question from William Perkins Bull in this newly discovered letter. But I am inclined to believe she wrote in German (whether it was to a German- or English-speaking person) simply because she felt more adept in her first language, German, to adequately give form in another language to what she was hearing in the Lakota language spoken by Standing Bear. I believe that to express herself formally to indicate and reflect her status as a literate and learned person, she resorted to writing certain letters in German.

Arthur Amiotte, The Visit, 1995. Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Copyright Arthur Amiotte, used with permission.

Hilda Neihardt, the daughter of John Neihardt (author of Black Elk Speaks) who had met Standing Bear and Louise when her father was interviewing Black Elk and Standing Bear in 1930 to 1931 for his book, told me that Louise wrote letters to her mother and father in German while negotiating details and prices for his drawings and illustrations which were published in that book. Hilda was not able to locate any of these letters in her family’s archives.

According to family oral tradition American and German scholars were known to have visited Standing Bear and Louise since with her proficiency with language including Lakota she could translate for them as they interviewed Standing Bear and other Lakota. There must have been other communication before and after these encounters. I doubt that she had the time or materials to make copies of her own letters. I am so grateful to have received these that you have provided.

A note on some vocabulary: in the Lakota language Tatanka refers to the male bison and was also used generically to describe all bison.  The Lakota also distinguished between male bison and female bison calling the female bison Pte which would translate as bison cow. In the esoteric shamanic mythological terminology idiosyncratic to those initiated into this realm, the word Pte referred to generic beings in a mythological realm not yet distinguishable as bison or human, yet of the same sacred compositional matrix. As the mythology unfolds, these creatures become identifiable as humans and bison as they eventually find their way to the surface of the world.

Standing Bear’s illustration “Bison Hunt” from Black Elk Speaks. (Neihardt Trust)

The name of the particular river mentioned was and is to this day called the Rosebud River the name given to it by the Lakota referencing a place where the Wild Prairie Rose flourished and where its berries were gathered in the autumn as a foodstuff rich in Vitamin C. It had to be carefully processed as its fibrous pithy center could cause bowel discomfort. The Wild Rose became the source of much humor in the telling of the exploits of the archetypal trickster figure in Lakota mythology.

Please extend to the translator my ever grateful thanks, regards, and greetings, for her most valuable contribution. Please let her know her scholarship is greatly appreciated beyond sufficient expression and how what she has done has enabled a very happy old Lakota man to have a sublime encounter with his beloved ancestors. [Arthur has now been in touch with the Veleda and sent her a copy of his book Transformation and Continuity in Lakota Culture: The Collages of Arthur Amiotte.]

Standing Bear and Louise Standing Bear letters

Standing Bear and Louise Standing Bear with granddaughters Rose and Lula Two Bonnets circa 1918, detail. (Durham Museum Photo Archive)

Standing Bear (1859-1933) was Minneconju Lakota, and at 17 fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass). Beginning in 1887 he performed throughout Europe in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After an injury in the 1890 Vienna show, his multi-lingual nurse Louise Rieneck (1865-1933) began to learn Lakota from him. In 1891, news reached him of the deaths of his wife and child in the Wounded Knee massacre. He and Louise subsequently married and, with her parents, moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Standing Bear and Louise Standing Bear formed a long and fruitful partnership built on melding aspects of their two cultures in innovative ways yet deeply rooted in Lakota tradition. When Standing Bear began to paint and sell scenes of Lakota history and tradition based on the storytelling of friends and family, Louise acted as his business agent and interpreter. He favoured painting on large sheets of muslin, and his panoramic scenes are now found in museums and galleries around the world. Standing Bear illustrated John Neihardt’s 1930 book Black Elk Speaks based on interviews with the Lakota spiritual leader. Standing Bear’s testimony is also recorded in that volume.

The couple became leaders in their community noted for their generosity. They had three daughters, Hattie, Lillian, and Christina. Louise died in 1933 soon after a car accident. At her direction, most of her personal effects and papers were burned in accordance with Lakota tradition. Standing Bear died soon after. To learn more about Standing Bear and Louise, consult some of the resources at the end of this blog post.

Note on translation: Translation is an art involving interpretation and collaboration. This is especially the case when the original text itself involves dictation from one language (in this case Lakota) into a written language (here Old German script) that the writer, Louise Standing Bear, admits is rusty. The translator must also contend with interpreting the non-Latin letter forms, and grapple with the usual problems of the peculiarities of individual handwriting.

The below is therefore not intended as definitive. Scholars and others who wish to draw conclusions should consult the original text, as well as alternative translations. As an aid, and at the request of the Oglala Lakota Archives, you can view a digital copy of the original document below.

We have recently been offered a sentence-by-sentence transliteration and translation of the Old German by researcher Renate Maassen which she has very kindly made available as a PDF file. Some of her work has also been incorporated into tricky passages in Veleda’s translation in square brackets. We are sure that other translators will weigh in on their work.

Note on artwork: After extensive consultation with the Lakota community, we have opted not to post an image of Standing Bear’s illustration of the Sun Dance. Because of the sacredness of the ceremony itself, we defer to its community of practitioners to share and comment on this image.

Translation of the Standing Bear letter

By Veleda Goulden with contributions by Renate Maassen

I was born in Montana. My father died when I was four years old and so I lived with my mother and sister, my grandparents and my uncle. When I was quite young my uncles took me hunting for deer, stags, and buffalo. I think I was twelve when I shot my first buffalo with a bow and arrow and we butchered it.  But I was unable to lift the meat on to my horse so I called my uncle to help me.  He praised me highly and told me I was a good hunter which really pleased me. From then on, I brought home many deer, stags, and buffalo [to my mother and my brothers and sisters].

Once when we set out I saw a big bear coming toward me and I wanted to shoot, but my uncle called out for me to climb a tree. Not too far off a bear was standing upright before me; I wanted to shoot at it and I did. The bear came toward me, when I noticed two bear cubs come running from the hill not far off. When the bear saw them, it ran toward the cubs and we saw no more of them. From that time on they called me Standing Bear.

Frequently, when we went hunting we had to swim across the [icy] Missouri River but never did any one of us get sick. I was probably seventeen or eighteen years old when my uncle told me we would have a Sun Dance near the Rosebud River that Sitting Bull [had vowed] and many Indians would to attend. I watched them dance for three or four days without eating anything or drinking water. Some of them had sick wives or children and asked Sitting Bull to heal them. They offered him deerskins and young buffalo hides on frames [or that they attached to the pole]. When I was young we did not know about religion, [but we knew, that there was a God, to whom we did pray, and I know that what we Indians vowed, so he did].

The next day we moved from Rosebud River [to Greasy Grass River] (Little Big Horn River) where [our people had a fight with the soldiers]. Five of our people were shot but I did not see any of this. The next day we moved on and remained there for two days. The third day we moved to a river where all the others had set up their tepees. It was a large group. The following morning my mother, my aunt and my siblings got up early to look for wild turnips and many men went hunting. My uncle asked me to fetch the horses and water them. I went swimming first.

Then I heard a man shouting that the soldiers were coming. They had shot a boy that was on his way to get our horses. I ran back and saw that another man was bringing our horses, I sprang onto a horse, but I didn’t have time to dress, I had only my shirt but no shoes. I rode with my uncle in the direction toward Reno when on the hill we saw Custer advancing. Before we got closer we saw hundreds upon hundreds of our people around us. A few of them had guns and most of them had bows and arrows. I saw a few of ours bleeding, lying on the ground.

Then I saw the soldiers let their horses run to the river. I wanted to catch one of them but there were too many ahead of me. Even so, I saw some soldiers heading for the river, but they did not get too far and although they ran in different directions two of them were shot immediately. The third one had run quite a distance when one of our men cried out to let him go, but someone had already shot him. I think that they were all dead. [Likewise] I think it is a lie that a Crow Indian was ever in Custer’s fight.

After Custer’s fight we rode toward Reno. I stayed until evening; the powder dust and the blood made me sick. [I came back]. The next day we rode toward Reno, but I did not stay very long because my siblings were young and I wanted to help my mother. Toward evening we moved on because we heard that more soldiers were coming. As we arrived at the place where we had had the Sun Dance [a few days ago, we saw everything that we had offered to God lying in the dirt. The soldiers had crushed it with their horses].

I do not know if Sitting Bull was in the battle. Since his tepee was not in our area I did not see him. But I did see him in the Sun Dance and send you the picture. A year after the battle he moved to Canada where I saw him again after Crazy Horse died.

All of our people wanted to know why some of the whites wanted to drive us out of the Black Hills. We knew that there were forests, animals and gold (in the hills) and the white people wanted these riches. They attained wealth and we were in great distress. We were led in a band to a place where we could not make any headway and if we did have anything to spare we could not sell it because we were too far from the train station.

When I think back to the time when we were free and had stags, deer and buffalo, I feel very sad especially when I go to bed hungry. I could tell you much more of my youth but since you wanted to know if Sitting Bull was in Custer’s fight I cannot tell you much more than I have.

Your friend,
Standing Bear

Honoured Sir,

I have written what my husband told me and hope you can find someone to translate it. You will notice the mistakes but I have been here for 42 years and have no one to whom I can speak in German.

Louise Standing Bear

Translation CC BY-NC

Selected resources to explore

Resources and links throughout this post were selected in consultation with Tawa Ducheneaux.

Web resources:

Arthur Amiotte. “Transformation and Continuity in Lakota Culture” YouTube, William Cody Archives. 2018.
Learn more in this talk about Standing Bear and his life through the stories of his great-grandson, Arthur Amiotte.

Kaschor, Kim. “Rare Indigenous Eyewitness Account of Battle of the Little Bighorn found in Ontario.” CBC Radio Unreserved. 2022.
Hear Tawa Ducheneaux and Samantha Thompson talk about the Standing Bear repatriation in this podcast.

Laughery, Chris and Donovin Sprague. “Remembering the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” South Dakota Public Broadcasting. 2018.
Listen to an interview about the experience and the legacy of the Little Bighorn by a historian and descendent of Crazy Horse.

Philbrook Museum. “First Person: Remembering the Little Bighorn.” Philbrook.org. 2018.
Experience a guided tour of one of Standing Bear’s paintings on muslin of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Meier, Allison. “The Brutality of the Little Bighorn as Seen by Someone Who Was There.” Hypoallergenic. 2016.
Learn about the physical exhibit First Person: Remembering the Little Bighorn from a visitor and a curator.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Battle of the Little Bighorn by Standing Bear.” Metmuseum.org. Accessed June 7, 2022.
View another scene of the Battle of the Little Bighorn painted by Standing Bear.

Neihardt, John G.. “Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition.” University of Nebraska Press. 2014.
Read this critical edition of the famous interviews with Black Elk, Standing Bear, and others, which contends with the way interviewer John Neihardt shaped the text.

Little Wound School. “Heart of All Oral History Project.” Heartofallohp.com. 2022.
Listen to Lakota elders share their stories about traditional ways of being.

Print books:

Demallie, Raymond J, Douglas R Parks, and Arthur Amiotte. Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition and Innovation. Norman: University Of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
This edited volume includes an essay by Arthur Amiotte on the Sun Dance ceremony.

‌Warren, Louis S, Janet Catherine Berlo, and Arthur Amiotte. Transformation and Continuity in Lakota Culture : The Collages of Arthur Amiotte, 1988-2014. Pierre, South Dakota: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014.
This award-winning catalogue of works by Arthur Amiotte includes essays on his life and work, both by himself and other scholars. It also includes intimate biographical sketches of Standing Bear, Louise Standing Bear, and their family.

7 responses to ““Your Friend, Standing Bear”: Coming together through repatriation

  1. Wow what a fantastic trip back in time, details of such a significant event. i love the work that the team at Pama does so educational and informative , a window too the past . keep up the great work. 🙂


    • Thanks for your encouragement Chris, truly much appreciated. Wonderful to have regional folks interested and commenting.


  2. This story represents archival work at its finest. A wonderful story of curiosity, research, determination and willingness to do the right thing. Well done, everyone.


    • Thanks Diane, it always mean a great deal to hear from you. Thank you for continuing to support us.


  3. What a great discovery. German Kurrent makes Standing Bear’s testimony unique. The story around the document shows us clearly again: History lives on! There will be always something new to discover. Congratulations to the whole team!


    • Thanks for your generous insights too, Renate, and we look forward to hearing how this document helps your research!


  4. There is always something new to be found. Interesting to learn, that some of Standing Bear’s people returned to the sundance ground finding their devotional offerings destroyed. That is a valuable addition to the process.


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