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Oglala warrior Red Cloud rose to prominence after killing his rival, only to face the inherent perils of leadership in the win-or-die Lakota culture.

“Politics,” to quote humorist Finley Peter Dunne from an 1895 newspaper column, ain’t beanbag,” which is an understatement when applied to the reality of Lakota tribal politics in the 19th-century American West. The cutthroat competition among Lakota (or Teton Sioux) leaders, their followers and the tribal factions they formed resembled that portrayed in the present-day HBO series Game of Thrones, the tagline of which reads: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” During the political rise of Chief Red Cloud this description proved all too true, and the famed Oglala Lakota war leader could speak intimately on the subject from personal, cold-blooded experience.

Red Cloud became a tribal leader through merit not birth, although his maternal uncle was Chief Smoke of the Bad Face band of Oglalas. Born along Blue Water Creek in western Nebraska in 1821, the young Red Cloud followed from his teen years the standard template for Plains warriors to achieve success. High status came primarily through battlefield exploits, and Red Cloud boasted of many that brought him recognition throughout the Sioux Nation. His efforts on horse-stealing forays and war parties against his people’s enemies—the Arikaras, Crows, Pawnees, Shoshones and other tribes— dramatically illustrated his skills as a leader and tactician. These successes, as well as his practice of generously sharing the spoils, translated into power and influence among an ever-widening circle of followers, friends and allies. When he burst on the national scene in post–Civil War America by winning Red Cloud’s War (aka the Bozeman War) and bringing a whipped United States to Fort Laramie for peace talks in 1868, his reputation among the Lakotas and notoriety among the whites reached unprecedented levels for an Indian chief.

People knew generally little, though, about the man himself. He was a blank slate to most observers, but this no longer holds true. We now know many intimate and previously unrecorded details of Red Cloud’s early life and career from his autobiography, a document rediscovered, authenticated and published almost a century after the great man’s death.

In 1893 Red Cloud shared a series of personal stories with Sam Deon, a trader friend who had married into the Sioux tribe. Unbeknown to Red Cloud, at least initially, Deon recounted the tales to Charles W. Allen, the postmaster at Pine Ridge Agency, S.D., who in turn wrote them down. The result, an as-told-to autobiography, traced Red Cloud’s early life story, abruptly ending before the wars with the whites in the 1860s.

For later historians Red Cloud provides virtually the only details of events now lost in the annals of Lakota history. He told to a friend his early life story— frankly, clearly and devoid of personal embellishment. Here is the great leader, warts and all. Often as not, accounts of remarkable personal accomplishments share chapters with examples of stinging failures, poor judgment and ruthless motives. Somewhere along the line of moral ambiguity lies the story to follow, Red Cloud’s shooting of Chief Bull Bear, which draws from the Western classic Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas.

Reliable historical sources date this memorable event to about 1841. Rufus Sage, a self-educated fur trapper and author of the invaluable narrative Scenes in the Rocky Mountains (1846), traveled through the area and dated the event to late 1841. American Horse and Iron Crow, 19th-century Oglala tribal historians who recorded the major events in their people’s history, separately and independently placed Bull Bear’s demise during the winter of 1841–42.

No less a travel writer than Francis Parkman Jr., the eminent American historian and author of the classic travelogue The Oregon Trail (which first appeared in book form in 1849 under a different title), heard the story during his Western sojourn in 1846 and wrote that it had occurred “five or six years earlier.” Although Parkman’s sources were members of Bull Bear’s family, his retelling casts a critical eye on that chief. “He had a fearless spirit, and a most impetuous and inflexible resolution,” Parkman wrote. “His will was law. He was politic and sagacious, and with true Indian craft he always befriended the whites, well knowing that he might thus reap great advantages for himself and his adherents.” Here may be a clue to the Bull Bear–Smoke conflict, the often-acrimonious debate based on a simple political position: Should the Oglala tribe befriend or oppose the encroaching Americans? In the 1840s, when the Lakotas still held numerical superiority in their part of the world, this was a question of strategic importance.

These cited sources of historical documentation bolster Red Cloud’s reputation as an accurate and reliable chronicler. Unlike Parkman and Sage, who recorded secondhand sketches based on hearsay, Red Cloud, a central participant, presented a rare eyewitness account of a pivotal event in Sioux history. The story opens on Chugwater Creek in what would become eastern Wyoming (in the neighborhood of Fort Laramie, then known as Fort John) with the return of a Red Cloud–led party of warriors to their Bad Face village after a successful raid against a Ute tribe to the west. Camped nearby is the rival Koya band of Oglalas. The following is from the “Shooting Bull Bear” chapter of Red Cloud’s autobiography, which was written in the third person:

Red Cloud had not been home long until he saw and heard enough to convince him that considerable animosity had sprung up between his band and the Koyas. Little private bickerings had been multiplied and magnified until they sometimes wore a serious aspect, but these usually passed off, as family troubles are wont to do. The Koyas were in the habit of displaying their insolence to the other bands, for the reason that they were numerically stronger than any of the others, the Bad Face being the only band that came near being equal in strength. And again their self-importance was somewhat intensified by the fact that the most prominent chief of the Oglalas at that time was Bull Bear, and he belonged to the Koya band. Yet the Bad Faces had never been subjected to annoyances from any of their neighbors, on account of numbering among their warriors such men as Red Cloud and his numerous and powerful relations. But one misunderstanding followed another until the climax was reached.

A young Bad Face, who was very much disliked by Chief Bull Bear and others of the Koyas, stole a Koya woman, a perfectly legitimate way of obtaining a wife, according to one of the Indian customs, provided all the parties interested are friends; otherwise it is looked upon as an insult to the bride’s relatives. Upon this occasion they were seriously opposed to the young man in question, and as the girl was related to Chief Bull Bear, it was decided to have her back and chastise the young man.

One serious obstacle that presented itself to Chief Bull Bear’s mind was the fact of the presence in the Bad Face village of an old Indian by the name of Trunk, or Box. He was known to be one of the bravest of the brave among all the Indians. He was no chief, but his stubborn fighting qualities caused most of the Indians to fear him. He was an uncle of Red Cloud, but Bull Bear did not take the latter into consideration. Trunk was the man he wished to be absent from the village when they should go down to execute their bluff, and, as he was managing the affair, he concluded to wait until such an opportunity presented itself.

But as time passed, some of his people who had been out to the south toward the [South] Platte River came in bringing some whiskey that they had obtained from some traders or travelers. This hastened a climax in which Chief Bull Bear met his fate.

As they had plenty of liquor and were more or less under the influence of it, they conceived the idea of inviting Trunk over to have a time with them. When he should be sufficiently drunk, they would proceed to execute their plans without his interference.

Trunk accepted the invitation but failed to get very drunk; at any rate when Chief Bull Bear and his party started for the Bad Face village, Trunk was there almost as soon as they were. When the Koyas reached the Bad Face village, they met several Indians, one of whom happened to be the father of the young man who had stolen the Koya girl. Being under the influence of liquor, they shot him.

About this time the voice of Trunk was heard hallooing as he approached the place, “Are you going to lay there and be killed? Where are all the young men? Where is Red Cloud? Red Cloud, are you going to disgrace your father’s name?” This harangue and the unexpected shot had raised the Bad Faces, and many young men rushed out to meet the insolent intruders, Red Cloud among them.

They opened fire on the Koyas at once, and one of the shots struck Chief Bull Bear in the leg and brought him to the ground in a sitting position. Red Cloud, rushing toward him, shot him through the head, exclaiming as he did so, “You are the cause of this!”

Following up their advantage, the Bad Faces dashed on to the Koya village, but excitement and terror had preceded them, and they found it nearly deserted. Their ardor having cooled a little by this time, they contented themselves with gathering up a lot of women, children and ponies and taking them back to their camp.

The death of Bull Bear and the capture of the women, children and ponies terminated the difficulty with the Koyas, who, after treating with their conquerors for the return of their families, moved over to the South Platte River, where they held a council for the purpose of electing a new chief. At this council the name of the little band was also changed. Several names were proposed, and there was much discussion, but at last an old man, seeing a little garter snake wriggling through the grass, caught it up and, holding it by the head and tail, bit it in two in the middle, exclaiming, “This shall be our name, Ki-ya-ksa [Kiyuksu], meaning literally “bitten in two.” The general translation, however, is incorrectly “Cut-off” by which name the band has ever since been known. The son of Bull Bear was elected to his father’s place and assumed his name.

Red Cloud’s account concludes with a paragraph probably more in the words of editor Charles Allen than his own. Interjected Allen:

On the death of Bull Bear the younger, the band remained without a chief until after the Sioux treaty of 1868. Red Cloud was then recognized chief of the Sioux and empowered by the U.S. commission to select subchiefs. At the suggestion of his friend Nicholas Janis, then one of the interpreters, Red Cloud appointed Little Wound, nephew [actually the son] of the first Bull Bear, to the subchieftancy and by this stroke of policy extinguished the last smoldering embers of resentment in the Cut-off band.

Or had he? Could time ever cool such passions? Some historians believe that the rift apparently settled in the 1870s had begun as early as the 1820s. In 1825 the United States sent the Atkinson O’Fallon Expedition, a large contingent of military and diplomatic envoys, up the Missouri River to treat with the Indians. The treaty councils with the Sioux revealed two major factions: a protreaty “Bear” division and an anti-treaty “Smoke” division.

Red Cloud’s autobiography, though, holds no further clues about the antecedents of or fallout from the Bull Bear killing. The document survives as a typescript in the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society [www.nebraska], having languished for almost a century after Red Cloud’s death and a half-century after Allen’s. Nevertheless, other chroniclers and historians, none more important than William “Billy” Garnett, have confirmed that this one event cast a shadow on Lakota history for generations.

Garnett, who figures so prominently in Thomas Powers’ tour-de-force The Killing of Crazy Horse (2010), gave an extensive interview that bears on these questions. On January 10, 1907, he spoke to Judge Eli Ricker at the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D. Garnett, the mixed-blood son of an Oglala woman and 1st Lt. (later Confederate Brig. Gen.) Richard Brooke Garnett of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge fame, possessed a wealth of information on Lakota history. He had lived it.

Although the Bull Bear killing preceded Garnett’s birth by more than a decade, historians consider him a reliable source, and his account largely confirms Red Cloud’s remembrances. Garnett recalled and Ricker recorded:

The origin of the Cut-off…grew out of a drunken row in the Oglala camp. Some of Red Cloud’s relatives were killed, and he and friends of his avenged themselves by killing several on the other side. Red Cloud killed Bull Bear, and the Indians composing Bull Bear’s band separated from the rest of the Oglalas and went off among the Cheyennes down on the Platte and the Republican….In 1871 the Cut-offs came back up to Fort Laramie…and the necessities of intercourse led to the resumption of amicable relations between Red Cloud and the Cut-offs.

These “necessities of intercourse” were political in nature, and their handling and resolution by Red Cloud illustrated his maturity as a Lakota leader. Continued Garnett:

The government was desirous to move the Cut-offs from the Republican and the lower Platte off from the line of overland travel and assemble the Oglalas together, so Red Cloud was advised to make Little Wound, the son of Bull Bear, a chief of his band as a reparation for the killing of Bull Bear….Red Cloud had been in Washington in 1870, and this scheme had been worked on him as a device agreeable both to the government and himself; so in 1871 there was a big council held near Fort Laramie, and in the transaction of business, Little Wound, on the politic suggestion of Red Cloud, was made a chief to succeed Bull Bear, and from that date they had their headquarters with the rest of the Oglalas.

Lest we see the Bull Bear killing as a solitary incident, other notable examples with similar outcomes mar Lakota history. Together they reveal that political rivalries—and outside forces—often resulted in the violent ends of Indian leaders. Chief Bull Bear in the early 1840s was hardly the exception. Bloodshed stained every decade of the 19th century thereafter.

The 1851 Horse Creek Treaty council saw the greatest congregation of Plains Indian tribes recorded to date. Representatives of nine tribes, along with whole villages and representatives of the federal government, cautiously gathered to settle their many differences and avoid new conflicts. Most of the attendees were Lakotas, and one of the last orders of business during the multiday spectacle was their selection of the Brulé Lakota Conquering Bear as lead tribal representative.

Conquering Bear, of the Wazhazha band, professed great alarm at being placed in such an untenable position and initially rejected it. The notion of all the Lakotas having one leader was preposterous within their political structure, with good reason: How could he, one man, speak for and satisfy all the competing interests of the many Lakota groups and family alliances? Such a position of power did not exist in the Lakota Nation and came with great personal peril. Nevertheless, council members prevailed upon him to assume this new role, although he remarked, “I must be a Big Chief…or in a few moons I will be sleeping [dead] on the prairies.”

Three years later at Fort Laramie, Conquering Bear was called on to settle a minor dispute between a white overland traveler and a Lakota man who had killed the emigrant’s cow. Add to this mix a young West Pointer and upstart of a lieutenant, a drunken interpreter, a woefully outmanned command, poor judgment and fiery words, and the unfortunate result was the Grattan Massacre. Serving as the intermediary between these interested parties, Conquering Bear fell mortally wounded in the first soldier volley. He lingered a while before dying, placing blame on the whites for foisting the leadership position on him.

That 1854 fight begat the 1855–56 Sioux Expedition, led by the notoriously ill-tempered Colonel William Selby Harney, which climaxed with the annihilation of Little Thunder’s Brulé village at Blue Water Creek on September 3, 1855. Its formal end came the following spring at Fort Pierre on the Missouri River when Harney commanded the presence of all the Lakota tribal leaders for a peace conference. Few dared ignore the order. Once again a lone Sioux leader became the nation’s chief representative to the U.S. government. This time, though, Harney and not the Lakotas themselves made the choice, and the “winner” was Bear’s Rib, a Hunkpapa.

The reign of Bear’s Rib lasted only a few years longer than his predecessor’s. Harney’s punitive expedition, followed by a treaty never ratified by Congress, left the region in political turmoil, further exacerbated by the onset of the Civil War and the unceasing encroachment of whites on Sioux lands. Bear’s Rib opposed the drift toward war, wished to live at peace and paid dearly for his stance. In 1862 two Sans Arc Lakota men, Mouse and One That Limps, sworn to kill the “government chiefs,” encountered Bear’s Rib at Fort Pierre on the Missouri River and shot him dead, losing their own lives in the process. Supporters of the assassination claimed that after “notifying” Bear’s Rib earlier to cease accepting government annuities, “We gave him ears by killing him.” A successor, they swore, would meet the same fate. The death of Bear’s Rib left a vacancy that went unfilled for several years.

The Sioux wars along the Platte River and Bozeman Trail in the 1860s drew national attention to those “patriot chiefs” who dared stand before westward expansion. Red Cloud, of course, drew the lion’s share of the publicity, but this also became the decade of Spotted Tail, the distinguished Brulé leader. An accomplished warrior, Spotted Tail had survived the Blue Water fight and later military imprisonment; his band had burned the town of Julesburg in 1865 during a post–Sand Creek retaliatory raid. By 1868 his fighting days were over, and he was among the signatories of the landmark Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This did not mean his association with violence had ended.

A year later troubles erupted at the Whetstone Agency, home of Spotted Tail’s Brulé Lakotas. Dewitt Clinton Poole, the somewhat bewildered Indian agent at Whetstone, recorded he had “endeavored to obtain from Spotted Tail an account of his affair with [agency rival] Big Mouth, but he would not talk about it.” Poole pieced together that Big Mouth had been entertaining Spotted Tail in his lodge but could not persuade the latter to join him in drinking whiskey. This one-sided activity continued for hours until Spotted Tail, in company with other men, departed. Big Mouth followed, threatened him with a loaded revolver and snapped the trigger several times. But it misfired. Spotted Tail calmly raised his revolver in self-defense and put a bullet in Big Mouth’s brain. Later storytellers whispered that someone had removed the caps from Big Mouth’s old percussion revolver, essentially rendering it useless.

What really transpired in October 1869, we will probably never know, but overindulgence in liquor must have been only one factor. Poole never cared to figure it all out, although his writings indicate that the ambitious Big Mouth had made no secret he wanted to replace Spotted Tail. Poole, not the most sophisticated observer of Indian behavior, simply chalked it up to the evil effects of “firewater.” The real story was undoubtedly more nuanced than that. Whatever the causes, Spotted Tail paid a requisite number of horses to the family to settle the affair —at least for the moment.

By the 1880s Spotted Tail had an agency named for him and was master of the Rose- bud Reservation in present-day South Dakota. On August 5, 1881, that mastery ended when Crow Dog, a Brulé subchief, shot and killed him. The reasons remain a source of controversy. Was it a long-simmering feud or a quarrel over a woman? Since Spotted Tail was considered something of a womanizer by whites and Indians alike, the latter seemed a reasonable explanation. Others, from Luther Standing Bear, a Brulé author and national figure in the 1930s, to best-selling author Dee Brown in the 1970s, were not so sure. They suggested a plot cooked up between a crop of rivals and the government. Whatever the reasons, Crow Dog survived and became a cause célèbre. Tried in a Dakota Territory court, he was sentenced to hang for murder, but lawyers appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark decision the justices overturned the conviction, ruling that only federal courts had jurisdiction over Indian reservations. Crow Dog lived to be an old man.

Red Cloud likely did not mourn Spotted Tail. They had fought their own political battles in the 1870s, each vying for the crown of “head chief,” which may have become moot with the death of Crazy Horse at the Red Cloud Agency in 1877. Red Cloud understood the inherent dangers when one held the reins of power. Charles Eastman, the mixed-blood grandson of an Army officer with a background similar to that of Billy Garnett, knew Red Cloud as an old man in the 1890s and understood all this, too. In a 1919 book on Indian leaders, Eastman wisely reflected on the young Red Cloud, the warrior who had faced Bull Bear, killed him and continued from that point on his inexorable political rise: “He did what he believed to be his duty, and the whole band sustained him. Indeed, the tragedy gave the young man at once a certain standing, as one who not only defended his people against enemies from without, but against injustice and aggression within the tribe. From this time on he was a recognized leader.” And so was Red Cloud recognized right up to his death in 1909 at the venerable age of 88.


R. Eli Paul is head of the Missouri Valley Special Collections of the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library. He is editor of the 1997 book Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas, which is recommended for further reading along with Robert W. Larson’s biography Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.