NONFICTION: Drawing on original documents, including Red Cloud’s own autobiography – missing for 100 years – the authors paint a full and vivid picture of the Oglala Sioux leader.
Of all the Indian leaders who resisted white encroachment, only the Oglala Sioux Red Cloud could claim victory over the U.S. Army in a war, a war that ended on terms he dictated.
The treaty signed on Nov. 6, 1868, followed Red Cloud’s annihilation of troops sent out from forts encroaching on his Powder River territory. It forced the United States to concede 740,000 square miles, from the Canadian border to Colorado, from western Minnesota to Idaho, including the Black Hills, called by the Sioux Paha Sapa — the heart of everything that is.
It would not last, of course.
The story of Red Cloud is presented here with all the tension and excitement of a good Western novel, with sketches of greater and lesser Indian fighters, mountain man Jim Bridger, the Pony Express and the Oregon trail, diminishing buffalo herds and spreading cholera. The authors show how the U.S. Civil War affected how the military dealt with Indians, and how broken promises and massacres of Indian women and children hardened many Indians and encouraged them to see unified resistance under Red Cloud as their last best hope for cultural survival.
The narrative is gripping but not sentimental, and it is well-sourced, drawing, for example, on Red Cloud’s autobiography, lost for nearly a century, and the papers of many others who knew Red Cloud’s War.
It tells of the migration of the tribes that would become known as the western Sioux, from eastern woodlands to the prairies and beyond. And it tells the remarkable story of a boy who, shamed by an alcoholic father and forced to build his status among his people himself, by age 4 “was sitting at council fires emulating the gravity of his elders.”
Sioux who rode with Red Cloud recalled in later life that he was brutal in war but walked and rode with the grace of a panther. He built a coalition of the often fractious Sioux plus Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone and other tribes, holding Crazy Horse and other young, impetuous braves together with older, more cautious warriors.
Red Cloud’s diplomatic history is as remarkable as his military achievements, but the results were as ephemeral. In June 1870, he visited Washington, where he met with President Ulysses S. Grant. In New York, he spoke at the Cooper Institute, and the New York Times covered the speech, describing him as “a man of brains, a good ruler, an eloquent speaker, an able general and a fair diplomat.”
Red Cloud made several more trips to Washington, the last in 1897, when he was 76, to plead for better conditions for his people, especially the young. He had vowed not to fight anymore, but in language that still haunts, he lamented the “dry, dusty, infertile soil” of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where his people had been assigned. “I have the same feelings as all the white men have for their families; they love their children, as I do mine, and I would like to raise my children well.”
Chuck Haga is a former Star Tribune reporter who now lives and writes in North Dakota.