Letter from Wild West – April 2012

By Gregory Lalire
2/5/2012 • George Custer, Ronald Reagan, Sitting Bull, Wild West Editorial

When Historians Recall Lakota Sioux Greats, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse Are in the Fore
But don’t forget that outstanding Oglala warrior-statesman Red Cloud

My first awestruck viewing of a “Custer’s Last Stand” painting at age 7 piqued my curiosity, so I cracked the World Book Encyclopedia to learn something about the brave “victim,” George Armstrong Custer, and the two fearsome Indians—Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—most responsible for the “massacre.” As the years flew past like arrows, those two catchy names stuck in my head: Crazy Horse, the ultimate Sioux warrior; Sitting Bull, the ultimate Sioux leader. Even when I stopped seeing Custer as a massacre victim, I still viewed the pair as the foremost Lakotas. At some point I heard the name Red Cloud, but he had been on a reservation instead of at the Little Bighorn, so I dismissed him. Yes, the name was kind of cool, but it also called to mind a much-advertised commercial product. In my TV-addled brain I figured Red Cloud was a softie like White Cloud, the “ultra soft” toilet tissue introduced in 1958.

My tune changed somewhat in the 1960s when I learned Red Cloud had been tough enough 100 years earlier to defeat the U.S. government. Still, Red Cloud’s War did not impress me as much as Custer’s Last Stand. The 1866 Fetterman Massacre (later called Fetterman’s Fight) couldn’t hold a candle to what happened a decade later at the Little Bighorn. Besides, wasn’t Crazy Horse the clever warrior who made Captain William Fetterman pay the ultimate price for underestimating the fighting Sioux? Other Red Cloud tidbits filtered into my head, but they suggested an old, weakened villain of the Indian wars, bickering and compromising with Indian agents and his own tribesmen.

I knew nothing about Red Cloud’s early years until 1997, when I read his autobiography, edited by R. Eli Paul. Red Cloud’s shooting of fellow Lakota Bull Bear—which Red Cloud recounted, and which Paul writes about in this issue—was more than just a pivotal event in Red Cloud’s own life. “It is difficult to appreciate today just how important the killing of Bull Bear was to Lakota politics,” Paul says. “Imagine if Ronald Reagan had shot fellow Republican George Bush during the 1980 race for the presidential nomination rather than making him his running mate.” Like the autobiography, Robert Larson’s Red Cloud bio came out in 1997. “Together,” Paul says, “they helped present the ‘real’ Red Cloud, not the stereotyped villain found in Mari Sandoz’s popular Crazy Horse novel….Bob and I were present at the Nebraska Capitol in 2000 when Red Cloud was finally inducted into the state’s hall of fame. What a gratifying moment for us and for his descendants.”

While Red Cloud was the foremost Oglala Lakota warrior until surpassed by Crazy Horse, Paul contends that Red Cloud’s later years “may have been his finest hour,” contrary to those who contend he was “weak and compromising and desperate to cling to his rapidly dissipating power.” Paul explains: “The bravest thing a Lakota warrior could do was fight a rearguard action against overwhelming odds, holding back the enemy so that the women and children could escape. This is what Red Cloud did (metaphorically) for decades as he tried to confront the damage that U.S. officials inflicted on his culture.” He was the most photographed Indian of the 19th century and, unlike Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull, made the transition from war leader to political leader. “And not just for his people,” Paul adds, “but becoming the face of the ‘Sioux problem’ to the U.S. government.” Red Cloud lived until 1909. “As he aged, becoming an old, shrunken, blind shadow of his younger, energetic and immensely powerful self,” says Paul, “this one man almost came to symbolize the sad fate of an entire people.” No, Red Cloud did not fight Custer, but he was a formidable warrior and statesman. “I rank Red Cloud as first among equals,” says Paul. I agree. Heck, even old White Cloud was soft but strong.

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