Red Cloud, Famed Oglala Lakota Chief
Great Warrior, Leader, Diplomat and Advocate for the Lakota
Red Cloud was born in 1822 with the Lakota name, Maȟpíya Lúta, near the forks of the Platte River near today’s North Platte, in west central Nebraska near the Colorado border. As is tradition in Lakota cultures, children belong to the mother’s clan. Red Cloud was born to Oglala Lakota mother, Walks As She Thinks, and Brule Lakota father, Lone Man. From an early age, Red Cloud was mentored by his maternal uncle, Old Chief Smoke, who was a head chief, leader of the Bad Faces warriors, and a member of the prestigious warrior society, the Shirt Wearers. When Red Cloud’s parents were killed in a conflict in 1825, when he was only three, Old Chief Smoke took the toddler into his own household.
As such, Red Cloud followed Smoke’s warrior ways and at a very young age gained considerable experience in warfare, fighting the Lakota enemies, the Pawnee and Crow. In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty was struck between the U.S. government and fine independent tribes, including the Sioux (Lakota), Cheyenne, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidasta, and Arikara Nations that recognized a large area of land in the areas that would become North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska as belonging to those tribes. But, in the treaty, the signing tribes agreed to let pioneers pass through the land on the Oregon Trail and other westering thoroughfares. Red Cloud was 19 at the time.
In 1863, the Bozeman Trail had been blazed through Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, that had recently been taken over from the Crow. In 1866, Red Cloud, now a Lakota Chief following Old Chief Smoke’s footsteps, led a war against the U.S. Army to protect their land and the dwindling buffalo and resources. Allied with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Red Cloud led attacks on forts, wagon trains and gold rush excursions. The Army named the series of conflicts “Red Cloud’s War,” as he was the head chief that led many of the attacks.
The bloodiest of these battles was the Fetterman Fight (also called the Battle of the Hundred Slain), in which nearly 100 U.S. soldiers were killed and the U.S. Army defeated. It was the worst military defeat by the U.S. in the Indian Wars until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later.
In the conflict, Captain William Fetterman was anxious to engage the Indians. Four miles north of Fort Kearny, near Banner, Wyoming, they encountered a small band of Indians and chased a young warrior named Crazy Horse, who drew them into a trap of about 1,000 waiting Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. . Fetterman and all his troop were killed
Following this battle, a U.S. peace envoy toured the Plains in 1867 to confer with tribes about how to strike a peace deal. Finding that the Native Americans had been provoked by white encroachment and competition for resources, the commission recommended assigning definite territories to the Plains tribes. The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other bands settled for peace with the U.S. under another treaty, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. In it, the U.S. agreed to abandon its forts and withdraw completely from Lakota territory. Chief Red Cloud was the last chief to sign. The U.S. had acceded to all of his demands. The treaty, however, did establish the Great Sioux Reservation, which covered a massive area in North and South Dakota, and part of Nebraska.
In 1870, Red Cloud visited Washington D.C., and met with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely S. Parker, a Seneca and the first Native U.S. Army General, as well a President Ulysses S. Grant. That excursion would the first of several Red Cloud took to Washington D.C, to advocate for his people.
In 1873, Red Cloud settled at the agency with his band. But he soon became embroiled in a controversy with the new Indian agent, Dr. John Saville. Events continued to deteriorate when, in 1874, during Custer’s famous exploratory excursion into the Black Hills and Sioux territory, Gold was discovered in the Black Hills.
Again, in 1875, Red Cloud went to Washington to meet with President Grant and other cabinet members. But the best Grant and his cabinet would offer was another $25,000 per tribe and an agreement for them to settle in new “Indian Territory,” which was located in what is today Oklahoma. Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and other chiefs refused to sign such an agreement. Spotted Tail wrote: “When I was here before, the President gave me my country, and I put my stake down in a good place, and there I want to stay. ... You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there. ... If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.”
Although Red Cloud and the other chiefs were unsuccessful in brokering another treaty to protect their lands, Red Cloud chose not to take part in the Lakota War of 1876-1877, led by Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) and Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó). That war culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Land Stand.
Red Cloud’s trips to Washington D.C., his tours of the vast cities and an endless continent of whites and their ever-encroaching technologies had convinced him the white juggernaut could not be stopped by the small numbers and resources of his people and other Native tribes. He felt that the only way for Native people to survive was to seek peace.
He continued to fight advocate for his people, fought legislation and expansion, such as the 1887 Dawes Act, which broke up communal tribal holdings and assigned each family head a 160-acres of very poor land for subsistence farming.
Red Cloud lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 1884, he converted to Catholicism at the urging of a Yale paleontologist who had strongly advocated for the Lakota people and brought to the attention of the Washington government that "the [reservation] Indians suffered for want of food and other supplies because they were cheated out of annuities and beef cattle and were issued inedible pork, inferior flour, poor sugar and coffee and rotten tobacco.”
Red Cloud outlived all the other major Lakota leaders of the Indian Wars. He and his wife, Pretty Owl, lived to ripe old ages. He died on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1909 at age 87. Since he had converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Holy Rosary Cemetery on the top of a hill at Pine Ridge overlooking the Catholic school, K-12 named after him. Pretty Owl is buried by his side. His grave is marked by a large stone monument with a Christian cross. His wife’s grave is marked by a smaller wooden white cross.
In his old age, he famously said: "They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one -- They promised to take our land ... and they took it."
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"Red Cloud, Famous Oglala Lakota Chief" was first posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on February 27, 2021.
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