Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota Chief
Another of the pieces from Portraits of Honor, my August 5, 2010 one-man show at Legacy Gallery
Oglala Lakota (~1819-1909)
“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.
As a child I was taught that to find favor with the Great Spirit, I had to be kind to my people and brave before my enemies; to tell the truth and live straight; to fight for my people and their hunting grounds. When the Lakotas believed these things they were happy and they died satisfied. What more than this can that which the white man offers us give?”
-Red Cloud, July 4, 1903
Red Cloud’s youthRed Cloud was born about 1819 near the forks of the Platte River. He was one of a family of nine children. His father, an eminent and respected warrior, reared his son under the old warrior ethos.
The young Red Cloud is said to have been a fine horseman, of proud bearing and staunch courage, yet gentle and courteous in everyday life. This last trait, along with a musical and agreeable voice, would characterize Red Cloud his whole life.
A brave and blooded warrior, Red Cloud lived uneventfully among his tribe until he was twenty-eight, when General Harney called all the Western Lakota together at Fort Laramie, in Wyoming, to secure right of way through their territory.
The Oglala were resistant to the proposal, until Bear Bull, one of the Oglala chiefs, having been plied with whiskey, decided he spoke for the clan, and announced they would submit to the General. When the tribe disagreed with him, he became enraged, and fired on a group of his own tribesmen, killing Red Cloud’s father and brother.
According to custom, Red Cloud was required to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, and he calmly shot and killed both Bear Bull, and his son. After that, he attained certain standing in the tribe, recognized as one who not only defended his people against their enemies from outside, but also from aggression and injustice within. After this, Red Cloud began to quickly grow in influence and authority.
Union Pacific seizes buffalo country
In 1862, the surveyors for the Union Pacific Railroad began laying out the proposed route for their new railroad line, which led straight through the heart of buffalo country, the ancestral rendezvous for Oglala, Brules, Arapaho, Comanche and Pawnee tribes, who depended on the buffalo for their livelihood.
Red Cloud was uncompromising in his resistance to submission to the US Government, and argued against it with conviction. Said Red Cloud at a council meeting in 1863:
“Friends, 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?”
War against the invaders
Red Cloud’s next recorded speech was made just before the attack on Fort Phil Kearny. There was now no dissent in the council, when all-out war against the invaders was proposed. Red Cloud was aware of the significant numerical advantage of the US Army, but he was prepared to die than submit to the rape and pillage of his ancestral lands.
“Hear ye, Dakotas! 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!”
-Red Cloud, 1866
Less then a week after this speech was given, the Lakota attacked Fort Phil Kearny, led by the brilliant young war leader, Crazy Horse. In less then half an hour, they had taken the fort, and killed over 100 men.
Instead of a reprisal, the US government sent an envoy to treat with the Lakota, resulting in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Red Cloud was the last to sign, refusing to do so until all the forts within the Lakota territory were vacated. He also demanded that the new roads be abandoned, the garrisons withdrawn, and the Black Hills be declared off-limits to all whites, set apart for Indian occupancy only.
The prospectors arrive
The ink was hardly dry on the treaty however, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. White prospectors began to pour into the Lakota territory. The US government made some small protest, but there was no serious attempt to prevent the white prospectors from violating the treaty.
“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.”
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 military attempted to establish control and force all the Indians onto reservations, ending in Custer’s ignominious defeat at Little Big Horn.
Red Cloud is surrounded
Eventually, in the fall of 1876, Red Cloud was surrounded by United States troops, who disarmed his people and brought them into Fort Robinson, Nebraska. They were removed to the Pine Ridge agency, where Red Cloud lived for more than thirty years as a “reservation Indian.”
Red Cloud’s legacy
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, 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 close to an end.
Red Cloud is remembered as a quiet man, simple and direct in speech, a brave warrior, a lover of his country and his people.
About the Portraits of Honor by James Ayers show
This show opened August 5, 2010 at Legacy Gallery’s Jackson, WY location. Please follow the link to read more about Portraits of Honor by James Ayers.