“I was born a Lakota and I shall die a Lakota…”
Red Cloud was born to the Sioux tribe near what is now North Platte, Nebraska. Much of his life was spent at war, first against the neighboring tribes and then against the whites. Sioux oral tradition, here transcribed by Charles Eastman, states that In 1841 Red Cloud killed one of his uncle’s rivals, an event which divided his tribe for years. Nevertheless, he gained enormous prominence within the Lakota nation. Respect grew steadily as he showed great leadership in territorial wars against other plains tribes. Then something happened that changed everything…
Charles Eastman writes:
“In 1862… the surveyors of the Union Pacific were laying out the proposed road through the heart of the southern buffalo country. 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, believing the white man’s emissaries’ statements 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 (Eastman) 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…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?” (end Eastman)
In 1866, Red Cloud masterminded one of the greatest tactical victories against the US cavalry ever. The army had begun to construct forts along the Bozeman Trail, running smack through the heart of Lakota territory in present-day Wyoming, Montana, and northern Colorado. As wagon trains and groups of miners and settlers began to encroach on Lakota land, Red Cloud feared his people could be driven out. There was precedent: the Eastern Lakotas had been forced from Minnesota just a few years earlier. So Red Cloud decided to launch a series of assaults on the forts, most notably the crushing defeat of eighty cavalrymen just outside Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming, in December of 1866. The attack was led by Red Cloud’s legendary accomplice Crazy Horse and was joined by warriors of the Cheyennes.
Charles Eastman’s account:
“Red Cloud’s speech was made 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 me, 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 for war!” (end Eastman)
In 1868, after two years of violent struggle, Red Cloud’s strategies were so successful that the government relented and agreed to the Fort Laramie Treaty. Even then Red Cloud was stubborn, refusing to sign unless all of the forts within their territory were vacated. All of his demands were met. The treaty’s remarkable provisions mandated that the US abandon its forts along the Bozeman Trail and guarantee the Lakota their possession of what is now the Western half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills, along with much of Montana and Wyoming. Wording in the new treaty 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.
The peace, of course, did not last. Gold interfered. Though the government had guaranteed the Lakota a land free from white settlers, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills caused a constant stream of white miners and explorers willing to brave hostility in search of riches. In 1874, Gen. George A. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry arrived and began the Black Hills expedition, plunging the Plains Indian nations into war with the US government once more– a war that would mean the end of the independent Indian nations. In 1876 an important military campaign against the Sioux was launched, ending in Custer’s famous defeat at Little Big Horn. Even in victory the tide was clearly against the Indians.
Charles Eastman: “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 government control.” (end Eastman)
One morning in the fall of 1876 Red Cloud was surrounded by US troops, who disarmed his people and marched them to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. From there they were moved to the Pine Ridge agency, where he lived for more than thirty years as a reservation Indian, ultimately surviving the army’s occupation of his people. During those twilight years he continued to fight for tradition and against leasing of Lakota lands to whites. He died in 1909.
Red Cloud speaks:
“I was born a Lakota and I shall die a Lakota. Before the white man
came to our country, the Lakotas were a free people. They made their own
laws and governed themselves as it seemed good to them. The priests and
ministers tell us that we lived wickedly when we lived before the white man
came among us. Whose fault was this? We lived right as we were taught it
was right. Shall we be punished for this? I am not sure that what these
people tell me is true”
3-3-2008: First Sioux Receives Medal of Honor
(www.pbs.org/weta/thewest)Charles Eastman’s account: (www.indigenouspeople.net/redcloud) (www.custerslaststand.org)