Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud (1821 – 1909) ranks historically in the top tier among the greatest Native American leaders. He was a courageous warrior, supreme military strategist, eloquent spokesman, and masterful statesmen in protecting his peoples’ rights and homelands.
Red Cloud was born in 1821 near the confluence of Blue Water Creek and the Platte River in what is now western Nebraska. His father was Brule Sioux and his mother was Oglala. His father died when Red Cloud was very young and he was raised by his mother’s uncle, Old Smoke, who was an Oglala headman. Like other young boys in the tribe, Red Cloud was trained to hunt and fight and proved very capable at both.
As a young warrior, he gained recognition for his courage and leadership in battle against the Crow and Pawnee Tribes – both bitter enemies of the Sioux – and in skirmishes with the military along the Oregon Trail.
In 1851, tribes from across the Great Plains were invited to Fort Laramie to negotiate peace treaties among themselves and with the U.S. Government. It was hoped that such agreements would secure peace among the warring tribes, and assure safe passage of emigrants over the Great Platte River Road. Despite solemn promises made in that treaty, the U.S. military failed to stem the encroachment of white settlers on Indian lands.
Interview with Charles Trimble, Native scholar and author “Who was Chief Red Cloud?”
In 1864, the Bozeman Trail was blazed through the Powder River country in northern Wyoming to the new gold fields in Southwestern Montana, and three military forts were built along the way and manned by the U.S. army to protect a new surge of settlers, prospectors and business men. This Trail, unfortunately, was across Indian lands, and worse, it was directly through the tribes’ best hunting area. This began what is known to historians as Red Cloud’s War, from 1866 to 1868.
It was his leadership in the several battles of this war that gained him far-reaching recognition as a military leader; and historians agree that Red Cloud was the clear victor. The U.S. Government sued for peace and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was negotiated and signed, conceding to the Sioux a massive reservation that encompassed much of Western Nebraska, all of Western South Dakota, and significant tracts in Northern Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. Further, the Bozeman Trail was closed and the military withdrawn. As the forts were abandoned by the military, Red Cloud’s warriors put them to the torch.
But peace would prove to be fleeting, and the great war-chief found himself leading his people in a new war of attrition against wilier foes: greed, deception and broken treaties. In the late 1800s, the Western frontier saw surge after surge of settlers and a burgeoning military force to protect them. The tribes were disarmed, immobilized, and confined to smaller and smaller reservations.
In his later years Red Cloud dedicated himself to advocating for his people’s rights and needs, and struggled to hold the tribes together in the face of Indian “agents” assigned to the reservations to disassemble the tribes’ traditional governments, and to forcibly assimilate the people into the American mainstream.
Red Cloud, often with the help of sympathetic organizations in the East, travelled several times to Washington to seek help from the President, and to New York and Philadelphia to make his case with the public. He was an imposing figure and a favorite of the photographers and newspaper reporters, and he learned to play the media to get the attention of Washington politicians for the cause of his people.
Throughout the course of his life, Red Cloud observed the transformation of the West, and realized that his people needed to understand the ways of the imposing dominant cultures. Thus he insisted on treaty provisions for schools and the means of self-sufficiency for his people in a new world so alien to them.
Red Cloud died in 1909, at the advanced age of 88 years, and is buried in a cemetery on a mesa overlooking a school that bears his name, Red Cloud Indian School.