By now, it is widely known that Daily Show host Trevor Noah pulled a fast one on the Oscars audience Sunday night by mistranslating a phrase in the South African Xhosa language to make it seem like a traditional platitude, rather than an expression of disdain.
What most people probably don’t know, however, is that not only was he not the first non-white celebrity to stage this sort of stunt with a white audience as the target, but the most renowned example was executed by the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull — in 1883, before a high-profile audience that reputedly included former President Ulysses S. Grant.
First, let’s give Noah his due. In his Oscar-night stint introducing “Black Panther” as one of the films up for Best Picture, he noted that people on the street kept shouting the movie’s catchphrase “Wakanda forever” at him. (Wakanda is the African homeland in the movie.)
“Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda,” Noah joshed, “I would see King T’Challa flying over our village, and he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase: ‘Abelungu abazi ubu ndiyaxoka,’ which means, ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.” Noah is a South African native whose mother is part-Xhosa.
The audience on hand at the Dolby Theatre applauded obligingly, not understanding that the Xhosa phrase actually means, “White people don’t know I’m lying.”
Slate.com quotes film historian Peter Labuza of USC observing that the tradition of foreign-born movie stars slipping hidden messages into their dialogue is an old one.
But the stunt may actually have originated with Sitting Bull, who used it to commit one of the most subtle acts of defiance in American history.
In 1883, Sitting Bull’s great victory over George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was disappearing into the mists of history. The battle had occurred seven years earlier, in 1876, but had failed to stave off the ultimate surrender of the Sioux nation and its relegation to a reservation in the Dakotas.
That was when Sitting Bull was dragooned into a public spectacle being staged by the railroad tycoon Henry Villard, who was celebrating the completion of his Northern Pacific’s route to the West Coast.
Villard scheduled two weeks of galas in August and early September as his ceremonial train made its way across the continent from the East Coast, culminating in festivities Sept. 8 in Montana, where it would meet a train from the West and Villard would pound a ceremonial spike into the track to mark the conclusion of work.
The cars carried leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, governors of the seven states crossed by the line, more than one hundred newspaper reporters, former President Grant, and “the whole diplomatic corps…as well as several score of prominent Englishmen and Germans” — the latter representing Villard’s foreign investors.
Sitting Bull’s great moment came on Sept. 5 at Bismarck, N.D. The occasion was the laying of the cornerstone for the capitol of the Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull had been brought there “from his place of captivity,” Villard recalled in his memoirs, to make an address “in the presence of a great multitude,” including Grant.
The chief’s speech had been prepared jointly by Sitting Bull and a young U.S. Army officer who understood the Sioux language. It was to be delivered by the chief in his native tongue while the officer offered a translation.
As the chief began speaking, the officer realized to his horror that his words bore no resemblance to the gracious message of amity they had written together. Instead, Sitting Bull declared, “I hate all the white people.”
He halted for applause from the uncomprehending crowd, bowed and smiled at President Grant and the other dignitaries, and proceeded: “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.”
The officer then read out the original speech, resulting in a standing ovation for the Sioux chief.
Historians eventually uncovered the truth. But in the meantime, the impression that Sitting Bull had spoken up for friendship between whites and American Indians helped make him such a popular pet that he was soon invited to join the Wild West Show of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
As Dee Brown reported in his book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Sitting Bull “drew tremendous crowds” on tour. “Boos and catcalls sometimes sounded for the ’Killer of Custer,’ but after each show these same people pressed coins upon him for copies of his signed photograph.”
Sitting Bull later told Annie Oakley, the Wild West Show’s sharpshooting star, that “he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor,” Brown wrote. “‘The white man knows how to make everything,’ he said, ‘but he does not know how to distribute it.’”