The Wild West of Yester-Year

Luther Standing Bear
By Rachel Kovaciny

Though raised in the traditional way of the Lakota on the Great Plains, Chief Luther Standing Bear died on the set of a Hollywood movie. In between, he was a teacher, a spokesman, an author, an actor, and a chief. Much of what we know about traditional Lakota ways of life comes from his writing.

His parents, Chief Standing Bear and his wife Pretty Face, gave birth to him in 1868, at the Spotted Tail Agency, part of the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory. His Lakota name was Ota Kte. He spent his childhood on the reservation, learning their traditional ways. His father knew it was important to teach his son these practices, but also wanted Ota Kte to learn from and about white people, so he sent his eleven-year-old son to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Because little Ota Kte’s name translated to “Plenty Kill,” which might frighten the white people, the boy and his father agreed he should use his father’s name, Standing Bear, instead.

When young Standing Bear arrived at school, they told him to pick a new first name. The school had a list of choices on a chalkboard, but he could not read yet. He pretended he was a warrior counting coup on an enemy and touched a pointer to a name at random. Fittingly, he chose Luther. Like the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Luther Standing Bear would help reform the excesses and oppression of an overbearing authority.

Luther Standing Bear excelled at school. He was a model pupil in every way except one: he refused to give up speaking his native language, even though he became fluent in English. This made him an excellent and valuable translator who often interpreted for new students and for adults who visited the school. Chief Standing Bear visited his son several times and sent some of his other children there as well.

After finishing his schooling, which included working at a department store in downtown Philadelphia, Luther Standing Bear returned home. He took a job teaching at a reservation school and married Nellie DeCrory. They had six children. A dozen years later, he took a second wife, Laura Cloud Shield, and had one child with her as well. In the meantime, he worked as a teacher, storekeeper, rancher, missionary’s assistant, and even as a postmaster. Eventually, he grew restless with reservation life and the kinds of jobs available there. In 1902, he signed up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as an interpreter for the Lakota performers. The show went to Great Britain, where he met King Edward VII. While on tour, he realized that most white people’s concepts of American Indians and their ways of life were vague and erroneous. He began pondering how to educate outsiders about Lakota culture but, before he could do more than that, a terrible accident struck.

While en route to meet up with the rest of the Wild West Show for the 1903 tour, another train struck the one carrying the Lakota performers. It killed three of them and injured a dozen others, including Luther Standing Bear. He suffered a broken arm, leg, collarbone, and nose, several broken ribs, two dislocated hips, and various other wounds. It’s miraculous he survived. Once he recovered enough to travel, Luther Standing Bear returned to his family, now living in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The Oglala Lakota chose him as a chief on July 4, 1905. But life on the reservation still dissatisfied him. He sold his allotment of land and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he worked as a shipping clerk and rodeo performer for a few years before moving again in 1912, this time to California.

Early Hollywood movies used white performers in every role, regardless of the ethnicity of the characters being portrayed. Most portrayals of American Indians were clumsy or stereotypical, and they were often the villains or comic relief characters. Real American Indians in Hollywood helped change that. Director Thomas H. Ince quickly hired Luther Standing Bear because of his previous show-business experience working for Buffalo Bill. Together with a handful of other American Indian performers, such as Jim Thorpe, he eventually helped create the Indian Actors Association to help protect and promote native performers and try to change the way the film industry portrayed them. Luther Standing Bear appeared in a dozen films, sometimes playing Indians and sometimes not. He worked closely with actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, and William S. Hart.

Meanwhile, Luther Standing Bear began writing and publishing books about his life and the Lakota. His writings preserved the Lakota heritage and challenged misconceptions about American Indian cultures. His four critically acclaimed bestsellers helped his reform efforts gain popular support. Alongside others in the Indian Rights Association, he convinced the government to change many of their policies regarding reservation life and Indian rights.

Luther Standing Bear died of the flu while making the movie Union Pacific in 1939, a western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. The Indians in this movie speak actual Lakota, not made-up nonsense passed off as a native language, and receive a sympathetic portrayal. Not only had Chief Luther Standing Bear changed the treatment of his fellow natives in the real world, he had helped change their portrayal in fiction as well. We owe much of our current knowledge, understanding, and perception of American Indians to this one man.