Friday, 10 October 2014


Sitting Bull with his mother, Her Holy Door, his daughter Many Horses
and his grandson in 1885. William Cody Archives.
Look for pictures of “Sitting Bull” and you’ll find dozens of images of the iconic Lakota holy man, known for uniting the contentious aboriginal tribes of the northern United States into a doomed resistance against the U.S. government in the late 1800s. Renowned as a martyr who lost his life in the battle against U.S. colonialism, Sitting Bull was a holy man and a leader, a singer, dancer and artist- and a man renowned for his wisdom. Sitting Bull is a hero not only to the first peoples of the United States, but also to those who seek inspiration from those who stand up for what they believe in against impossible odds. His story has been featured in books and movies. His place in history is secure.

But look at the original photo from which the well-known image of Sitting Bull was cropped. An image of a family man, seated with his mother, daughter and grandson. Not much is known about Her Holy Door and Many Horses. What role did his mother play in raising her son to fight for his people? Why is there no wife in the picture? What happened to the beautiful Many Horses and her son? What is their place in history? Aside from one or two speculative references in Sitting Bull's story, a few genealogical records and a handful of photos, their story is unknown. Like hundreds of aboriginal women today, they are invisible and voiceless.

What do we choose to know about the past? How much is chosen for us? Who decides what matters in the sweeping narrative of history? Historians and archivists and politicians and the croppers of photographs have their own story to tell. They have their own narratives in which characters such as the brave and proud Sitting Bull figure prominently while women like his fierce, noble, nurturing mother disappear into nothingness.

My parents both passed away recently and I find myself the bearer of their history. As I sift

through their photos and letters and documents, I find myself wondering why certain things were saved while others were discarded. I have my dad’s love letters to my mom, but not her letters to him. I have all the letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother- from the Front during World War One, from far flung northern outposts where he relieved for bank managers on holiday-yet I have not a single letter written by my grandmother. The narratives are told by the men in my family's past, secured by their female counterparts, their archivists. These primary source documents tell the story of their lives, but is only part of the story. Like the photo of Sitting Bull, part of their story stands out while the rest has been cropped away, leaving me with only one perspective on their shared story, an unclear version of the past. 

As a Social Studies teacher, I wonder what part of history we share with our students and how much we leave out. Adam Smith is known for the concept of the invisible hand, yet do we teach our students he was an absent minded fellow who lived with his mother, a woman whose own invisible hand fed him and cared for him when he sometimes forgot to eat? We know Karl Marx was one of the most influential thinkers in modern history, but what do we know of his wife Jenny and their housekeeper Helen? Do we teach our children that Jenny was an educated and political woman in her own right who gave up an aristocratic lifestyle to pursue the rights of the underclass, living in poverty and witnessing the death of most of her children? Or that Helen, after most probably fathering Marx's child, continued to live with the Marx family for her entire life and now lies buried in their family plot? Or that two of his three daughters committed suicide? How does that knowledge colour our understanding of Marx's statement "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? We teach our students that Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers, but what do they learn of Francoise-Louise de Warens, his mistress and benefactor? Would his ideas have seen the light of day without her financial support and commitment? And did Rousseau's own dependence on an older woman at an early age lead him to his belief that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains"?

I think about my own daughters. Who will tell their story? Will they be the archivist or the narrator? Will they have the right to choose the role they will play?