Red Cloud, Sioux Chief
Every age, every race, has its leaders and heroes. There were over sixty distinct
tribes of Indians on this continent, each of which boasted its notable men. The names and
deeds of some of these men will live in American history, yet in the true sense they are
unknown, because misunderstood. I should like to present some of the greatest chiefs of
modern times in the light of the native character and ideals, believing that the American
people will gladly do them tardy justice.
It is matter of history that the Sioux nation, to which I belong,
was originally friendly to the Caucasian peoples which it met in successionfirst, to the
south the Spaniards; then the French, on the Mississippi River and along the Great Lakes;
later the English, and finally the Americans. This powerful tribe then roamed over the
whole extent of the Mississippi valley, between that river and the Rockies. Their usages
and government united the various bands more closely than was the case with many of the
During the early part of the nineteenth century, chiefs such as
Wabashaw, Redwing, and Little Six among the eastern Sioux, Conquering Bear,
Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse, and Hump of the western bands, were the last of the old type.
After these, we have a coterie of new leaders, products of the new conditions brought
about by close contact with the conquering race.
This distinction must be borne in mindthat while the early chiefs
were spokesmen and leaders in the simplest sense, possessing no real authority, those who
headed their tribes during the transition period were more or less rulers and more or less
politicians. It is a singular fact that many of the "chiefs", well known as such
to the American public, were not chiefs at all according to the accepted usages of their
tribesmen. Their prominence was simply the result of an abnormal situation, in which
representatives of the United States Government made use of them for a definite purpose.
In a few cases, where a chief met with a violent death, some ambitious man has taken
advantage of the confusion to thrust himself upon the tribe and, perhaps with outside
help, has succeeded in usurping the leadership.
Red Cloud was born about 1820 near the forks of the Platte River. He
was one of a family of nine children whose father, an able and respected warrior, reared
his son under the old Spartan regime. The young Red Cloud is said to have been a fine
horseman, able to swim across the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, of high bearing and
unquestionable courage, yet invariably gentle and courteous in everyday life. This last
trait, together with a singularly musical and agreeable voice, has always been
characteristic of the man.
When he was about six years old, his father gave him a spirited
colt, and said to him:
My son, when you are able to sit quietly upon the back of this colt without saddle or
bridle, I shall be glad, for the boy who can win a wild creature and learn to use it will
as a man be able to win and rule men.
The little fellow, instead of going for advice and help to his
grandfather, as most Indian boys would have done, began quietly to practice throwing the
lariat. In a little while he was able to lasso the colt. He was dragged off his feet at
once, but hung on, and finally managed to picket him near the teepee. When the big boys
drove the herd of ponies to water, he drove his colt with the rest. Presently the pony
became used to him and allowed himself to be handled. The boy began to ride him bareback;
he was thrown many times, but persisted until he could ride without even a lariat, sitting
with arms folded and guiding the animal by the movements of his body. From that time on he
told me that he broke all his own ponies, and before long his father's as well.
The old men, his contemporaries, have often related to me how Red
Cloud was always successful in the hunt because his horses were so well broken. At the age
of nine, he began to ride his father's pack pony upon the buffalo hunt. He was twelve
years old, he told me, when he was first permitted to take part in the chase, and found to
his great mortification that none of his arrows penetrated more than a few inches. Excited
to recklessness, he whipped his horse nearer the fleeing buffalo, and before his father
knew what he was about, he had seized one of the protruding arrows and tried to push it
deeper. The furious animal tossed his massive head sidewise, and boy and horse were
whirled into the air. Fortunately, the boy was thrown on the farther side of his pony,
which received the full force of the second attack. The thundering hoofs of the stampeded
herd soon passed them by, but the wounded and maddened buffalo refused to move, and some
critical moments passed before Red Cloud's father succeeded in attracting its attention so
that the boy might spring to his feet and run for his life.
I once asked Red Cloud if he could recall having ever been afraid,
and in reply he told me this story. He was about sixteen years old and had already been
once or twice upon the warpath, when one fall his people were hunting in the Big Horn
country, where they might expect trouble at any moment with the hostile Crows or
Shoshones. Red Cloud had followed a single buffalo bull into the Bad Lands and was out of
sight and hearing of his companions. When he had brought down his game, he noted carefully
every feature of his surroundings so that he might at once detect anything unusual, and
tied his horse with a long lariat to the horn of the dead bison, while skinning and
cutting up the meat so as to pack it to camp. Every few minutes he paused in his work to
scrutinize the landscape, for he had a feeling that danger was not far off.
Suddenly, almost over his head, as it seemed, he heard a tremendous
war whoop, and glancing sidewise, thought he beheld the charge of an overwhelming number
of warriors. He tried desperately to give the usual undaunted war whoop in reply, but
instead a yell of terror burst from his lips, his legs gave way under him, and he fell in
a heap. When he realized, the next instant, that the war whoop was merely the sudden loud
whinnying of his own horse, and the charging army a band of fleeing elk, he was so ashamed
of himself that he never forgot the incident, although up to that time he had never
mentioned it. His subsequent career would indicate that the lesson was well learned.
The future leader was still a very young man when he joined a war
party against the Utes. Having pushed eagerly forward on the trail, he found himself far
in advance of his companions as night came on, and at the same time rain began to fall
heavily. Among the scattered scrub pines, the lone warrior found a natural cave, and after
a hasty examination, he decided to shelter there for the night.
Scarcely had he rolled himself in his blanket when he heard a slight
rustling at the entrance, as if some creature were preparing to share his retreat. It was
pitch dark. He could see nothing, but judged that it must be either a man or a grizzly.
There was not room to draw a bow. It must be between knife and knife, or between knife and
claws, he said to himself.
The intruder made no search but quietly lay down in the opposite
corner of the cave. Red Cloud remained perfectly still, scarcely breathing, his hand upon
his knife. Hour after hour he lay broad awake, while many thoughts passed through his
brain. Suddenly, without warning, he sneezed, and instantly a strong man sprang to a
sitting posture opposite. The first gray of morning was creeping into their rocky den, and
behold! a Ute hunter sat before him.
Desperate as the situation appeared, it was not without a grim
humor. Neither could afford to take his eyes from the other's; the tension was great, till
at last a smile wavered over the expressionless face of the Ute. Red Cloud answered the
smile, and in that instant a treaty of peace was born between them.
"Put your knife in its sheath. I shall do so also, and we will
smoke together," signed Red Cloud. The other assented gladly, and they ratified thus
the truce which assured to each a safe return to his friends. Having finished their smoke,
they shook hands and separated. Neither had given the other any information. Red Cloud
returned to his party and told his story, adding that he had divulged nothing and had
nothing to report. Some were inclined to censure him for not fighting, but he was
sustained by a majority of the warriors, who commended his self-restraint. In a day or two
they discovered the main camp of the enemy and fought a remarkable battle, in which Red
Cloud especially distinguished himself.
The Sioux were now entering upon the most stormy period of their
history. The old things were fast giving place to new. The young men, for the first time
engaging in serious and destructive warfare with the neighboring tribes, armed with the
deadly weapons furnished by the white man, began to realize that they must soon enter upon
a desperate struggle for their ancestral hunting grounds. The old men had been innocently
cultivating the friendship of the stranger, saying among themselves, "Surely there is
land enough for all!"
Red Cloud was a modest and little known man of about twenty-eight
years, when General Harney called all the western bands of Sioux together at Fort Laramie,
Wyoming, for the purpose of securing an agreement and right of way through their
territory. The Ogallalas held aloof from this proposal, but Bear Bull, an Ogallala chief,
after having been plied with whisky, undertook to dictate submission to the rest of the
clan. Enraged by failure, he fired upon a group of his own tribesmen, and Red Cloud's
father and brother fell dead. According to Indian custom, it fell to him to avenge the
deed. Calmly, without uttering a word, he faced old Bear Bull and his son, who attempted
to defend his father, and shot them both. He did what he believed to be his duty, and the
whole band sustained him. Indeed, the tragedy gave the young man at once a certain
standing, as one who not only defended his people against enemies from without, but
against injustice and aggression within the tribe. From this time on he was a recognized
Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse, then head chief of the Ogallalas, took
council with Red Cloud in all important matters, and the young warrior rapidly advanced in
authority and influence. In 1854, when he was barely thirty-five years old, the various
bands were again encamped near Fort Laramie. A Mormon emigrant train, moving westward,
left a footsore cow behind, and the young men killed her for food. The next day, to their
astonishment, an officer with thirty men appeared at the Indian camp and demanded of old
Conquering Bear that they be given up. The chief in vain protested that it was all a
mistake and offered to make reparation. It would seem that either the officer was under
the influence of liquor, or else had a mind to bully the Indians, for he would accept
neither explanation nor payment, but demanded point-blank that the young men who had
killed the cow be delivered up to summary punishment. The old chief refused to be
intimidated and was shot dead on the spot. Not one soldier ever reached the gate of Fort
Laramie! Here Red Cloud led the young Ogallalas, and so intense was the feeling that they
even killed the half-breed interpreter.
Curiously enough, there was no attempt at retaliation on the part of
the army, and no serious break until 1860, when the Sioux were involved in troubles with
the Cheyennes and Arapahoes. In 1862, a grave outbreak was precipitated by the eastern
Sioux in Minnesota under Little Crow, in which the western bands took no part. Yet this
event ushered in a new period for their race. The surveyors of the Union Pacific were
laying out the proposed read through the heart of the southern buffalo country, the
rendezvous of Ogallalas, Brules, Arapahoes, Comanches, and Pawnees, who followed the
buffalo as a means of livelihood. To be sure, most of these tribes were at war with one
another, yet during the summer months they met often to proclaim a truce and hold joint
councils and festivities, which were now largely turned into discussions of the common
enemy. It became evident, however, that some of the smaller and weaker tribes were
inclined to welcome the new order of things, recognizing that it was the policy of the
government to put an end to tribal warfare.
Red Cloud's position was uncompromisingly against submission. He
made some noted speeches in this line, one of which was repeated to me by an old man who
had heard and remembered it with the remarkable verbal memory of an Indian.
"Friends," said Red Cloud, "it has been our misfortune to welcome the
white man. We have been deceived. He brought with him some shining things that pleased our
eyes; he brought weapons more effective than our own: above all, he brought the spirit
water that makes one forget for a time old age, weakness, and sorrow. But I wish to say to
you that if you would possess these things for yourselves, you must begin anew and put
away the wisdom of your fathers. You must lay up food, and forget the hungry. When your
house is built, your storeroom filled, then look around for a neighbor whom you can take
at a disadvantage, and seize all that he has! Give away only what you do not want; or
rather, do not part with any of your possessions unless in exchange for another'.
"My countrymen, shall the glittering trinkets of this rich man, his deceitful
drink that overcomes the mind, shall these things tempt us to give up our homes, our
hunting grounds, and the honorable teaching of our old men? Shall we permit ourselves to
be driven to and fro to be herded like the cattle of the white man?"
His next speech that has been remembered was made in 1866, just
before the attack on Fort Phil Kearny. The tension of feeling against the invaders had now
reached its height. There was no dissenting voice in the council upon the Powder River,
when it was decided to oppose to the uttermost the evident purpose of the government. Red
Cloud was not altogether ignorant of the numerical strength and the resourcefulness of the
white man, but he was determined to face any odds rather than submit.
Hear ye, Dakotas! [he exclaimed] When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief
soldier [General Harney] to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron
road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass
through our country, not to tarry among us, but to seek for gold in the far west. Our old
chiefs thought to show their friendship and good will, when they allowed this dangerous
snake in our midst. They promised to protect the wayfarers.
Yet before the ashes of the council fire are cold, the Great Father is building his
forts among us. You have heard the sound of the white soldier's ax upon the Little Piney.
His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our
ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Dakotas, I am
In less than a week after this speech, the Sioux advanced upon Fort
Phil Kearny, the new sentinel that had just taken her place upon the farthest frontier,
guarding the Oregon Trail. Every detail of the attack had been planned with care, though
not without heated discussion, and nearly every well-known Sioux chief had agreed in
striking the blow. The brilliant young war leader, Crazy Horse, was appointed to lead the
charge. His lieutenants were Sword, Hump, and Dull Knife, with Little Chief of the
Cheyennes, while the older men acted as councilors. Their success was instantaneous. In
less than half an hour, they had cut down nearly a hundred men under Captain Fetterman,
whom they drew out of the fort by a ruse and then annihilated.
Instead of sending troops to punish, the government sent a
commission to treat with the Sioux. The result was the famous treaty of 1868, which Red
Cloud was the last to sign, having refused to do so until all of the forts within their
territory should be vacated. All of his demands were acceded to, the new road abandoned,
the garrisons withdrawn, and in the new treaty it was distinctly stated that the Black
Hills and the Big Horn were Indian country, set apart for their perpetual occupancy, and
that no white man should enter that region without the consent of the Sioux.
Scarcely was this treaty signed, however, when gold was discovered
in the Black Hills, and the popular cry was: "Remove the Indians!" This was
easier said than done. That very territory had just been solemnly guaranteed to them
forever: yet how stem the irresistible rush for gold? The government, at first, entered
some small protest, just enough to "save its face" as the saying is; but there
was no serious attempt to prevent the wholesale violation of the treaty. It was this state
of affairs that led to the last great speech made by Red Cloud, at a gathering upon the
Little Rosebud River. It is brief, and touches upon the hopelessness of their future as a
race. He seems at about this time to have reached the conclusion that resistance could not
last much longer; in fact, the greater part of the Sioux nation was already under
We are told, [ said he] that Spotted Tail has consented to be the Beggars' Chief. Those
Indians who go over to the white man can be nothing but beggars, for he respects only
riches, and how can an Indian be a rich man? He cannot without ceasing to be an Indian. As
for me, I have listened patiently to the promises of the Great Father, but his memory is
short. I am now done with him. This is all I have to say.
The wilder bands separated soon after this council, to follow the
drift of the buffalo, some in the vicinity of the Black Hills and others in the Big Horn
region. Small war parties came down from time to time upon stray travelers, who received
no mercy at their hands, or made dashes upon neighboring forts. Red Cloud claimed the
right to guard and hold by force, if need be, all this territory which had been conceded
to his people by the treaty of 1868. The land became a very nest of outlawry. Aside from
organized parties of prospectors, there were bands of white horse thieves and desperadoes
who took advantage of the situation to plunder immigrants and Indians alike.
An attempt was made by means of military camps to establish control
and force all the Indians upon reservations, and another commission was sent to negotiate
their removal to Indian Territory, but met with an absolute refusal. After much guerrilla
warfare, an important military campaign against the Sioux was set on foot in 1876, ending
in Custer's signal defeat upon the Little Big Horn.
In this notable battle, Red Cloud did not participate in person, nor
in the earlier one with Crook upon the Little Rosebud, but he had a son in both fights. He
was now a councilor rather than a warrior, but his young men were constantly in the field,
while Spotted Tail had definitely surrendered and was in close touch with representatives
of the government.
But the inevitable end was near. One morning in the fall of1876 Red
Cloud was surrounded by United States troops under the command of Colonel McKenzie, who
disarmed his people and brought them into Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Thence they were
removed to the Pine Ridge agency, where he lived for more than thirty years as a
"reservation Indian." In order to humiliate him further, government authorities
proclaimed the more tractable Spotted Tail head chief of the Sioux. Of course, Red Cloud's
own people never recognized any other chief.
In 1880 he appealed to Professor Marsh, of Yale, head of a
scientific expedition to the Bad Lands, charging certain frauds at the agency and
apparently proving his case; at any rate the matter was considered worthy of official
investigation. In 1890-1891,during the "Ghost Dance craze" and the difficulties
that followed, he was suspected of collusion with the hostiles, but he did not join them
openly, and nothing could be proved against him. He was already an old man, and became
almost entirely blind before his death in 1909 in his ninetieth year.
His private life was exemplary. He was faithful to one wife all his
days, and was a devoted father to his children. He was ambitious for his only son, known
as Jack Red Cloud, and much desired him to be a great warrior. He started him on the
warpath at the age of fifteen, not then realizing that the days of Indian warfare were
well-nigh at an end.
Among latter-day chiefs, Red Cloud was notable as a quiet man,
simple and direct in speech, courageous in action, an ardent lover of his country, and
possessed in a marked degree of the manly qualities characteristic of the American Indian
in his best days.
by Charles A. Eastman