WASHINGTON (Nov. 16) -- Has anyone told President Barack Obama lately that he will never catch a break?
Today, as his first book for children was released, Fox News ran this headline on its website: "Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General."
The newspaper notes in passing, "His most controversial choice may be Sitting Bull, who defeated Custer at Little Bighorn."
Obama writes that Sitting Bull was "a medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises. It is fine that we are different." The book, whose royalties will go to help the children of fallen or disabled service members, also says that the Lakota chief "spoke out and led his people against many policies of the United States government. He is most famous for his stunning victory in 1876 over Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn."
That caused a storm of derision in the blogosphere as defenders and opponents of the president and Fox traded politically laced barbs about historical revisionism and political correctness. One sympathetic commentator sarcastically called the book "Obama's newest anti-American crime."
It was enough to make one wonder whether the man who ran on "hope" realized the irony that his book shares a name with perhaps the greatest American political satire ever written, a 1931 musical about a politician who runs for president on a platform of "love."
There is a certain bit of audacity in Obama's eclectic and ethnically diverse list of Americans.
Besides perennial heroes like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, there are those selected for being kind (social worker Jane Addams), strong (Helen Keller) and inspiring (farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez). Vietnam Memorial architect Maya Lin is included for honoring the sacrifices of others, singer Billie Holiday because "you have your own song."
So far, no one has criticized Obama for including a singer whose heroin addiction and alcoholism led to an early death. Or asked whether artist Georgia O'Keeffe, whose paintings evoke female genitalia, should be part of a book for children as young as 3 years old. And maybe the president should get points for including "explorer" Neil Armstrong, who blasted Obama for canceling NASA's back-to-the-moon mission.
"If President Obama patted a child on the head, Fox News would probably accuse him of assault," Indiana University historian Ed Linenthal said. "It certainly sounds like what Obama has done is ... expand our sense of who counts in our own history. ... America has always been a mosaic of communities in which individuals become heroes and heroines and role models and tragic figures and controversial figures."
The 'Greatest Chief'
That Fox would single out Sitting Bull for condemnation illustrates how the wounds inflicted during the settling of the American West remain raw long after the "closing of the frontier" more than a century ago. Yet historians say the Native American holy man earned his place in Obama's slender 31-page book.
The Lakota Sioux chief belongs among the pantheon of American heroes, said Robert Utley, author of the definitive biography, "Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot."
"He was probably the most Indian Indian, the most devoted to his particular culture, and he practiced it on a daily basis and had the political and spiritual influence to lead his people as their greatest chief," Utley said. "He is as American as they come."
Utley called the Fox headline "a vast oversimplification." Sitting Bull was already too old to fight at the time of the standoff with Custer, he said, and was back with the women and children when Crazy Horse led the war party at the Little Bighorn.
"I'd brush Fox News off," he said. "They don't know what they're talking about."
This isn't the first time controversy has erupted over a chapter of history immortalized in movies, books and re-enactments as "Custer's Last Stand."
In the 1990s, the National Park Service removed Custer's name from the site in Montana and renamed it Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, adding a monument to the Indians who died there. The move sparked a bitter debate over historical revisionism in which one traditionalist compared it to ''handing the Vietnam War memorial over to the Vietnamese.''
Though emotions have cooled since then, the current controversy isn't unexpected, said University of New Mexico historian Paul Hutton, author of more than a dozen books on the American West and military history. While he called the Fox headline "outrageous" and "provocative," he said Obama's book is reflective of young people's literature since the 1970s "when Custer was sort of erased from the children's book universe."
Hutton argues that Sitting Bull is an outlier on Obama's list of forward-looking role models. He calls him a "conservative spiritual leader" who fought to "live on the plains, hunt buffalo and live in tepees at a time when the telephone was invented" and the modern industrial world was dawning.
"I don't know what broken hearts and broken treaties he mended," Hutton said in reference to Obama's prose. "I don't believe he was a progressive leader by any stretch of the imagination. He was not fighting for the future, he was fighting for the past. He brought death, destruction and poverty to his people" by not seeking peace with the white man in a struggle Native Americans were doomed to lose.
"He never was an American," LaPointe said in a phone interview from his home in Lead, S.D. The author of his own biography of his ancestor, LaPointe notes that indigenous people were not granted full citizenship until 1924.
"I don't think he should be included in any book about Americans," LaPointe said. "He was a Lakota."
But Utley disagrees.
"He's a very good role model" for children, he said. "This book will introduce them into another culture from which they have been reared. I think it is a good inclusion."