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Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux

(1997, by RobertW. Larson)

 This compelling biography of one of the most fascinating 19th-century Indian leaders is suited to both Wild West scholars and the general reading public. Red Cloud is arguably as significant a figure in Lakota history as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, although the latter two have eclipsed him in terms of name recognition. That’s due in large part to the fact they were in on the Little Bighorn slaughter of Lt. Col. George Custer’s command, and each died a violent death. Red Cloud (1821–1909) won Red Cloud’sWar in 1868, but by 1876 he was well settled in at the Red Cloud Agency, and the press had dubbed him“the best of his race.” Larson, though, points out that Red Cloud was giving at least moral support to his more defiant tribesmen to the north and“either questioned or challenged almost every major federal policy that affected his people.” In Red Cloud’s later years, his compromising and peace efforts sparked some resentment among his tribesmen, but, as Larson demonstrates, the old warrior used delaying tactics, stalling tactics and obstructionism to hold on to Sioux traditions and rights. Once a warrior without peer, Red Cloud became a skilled political leader. “Without resorting to rebellious or self-destructive actions,” writes Larson, “he strove to preserve as much Sioux culture as he could.”

Autobiography of Red Cloud:War Leader of the Oglalas

(1997,edited by R.Eli Paul)

 In 1893 Red Cloud gave an account of his early years that Mari Sandoz, who became a noted Western writer, typed up in 1932 at the Nebraska State Historical Society. But the manuscript mostly languished until“rediscovered” by R. Eli Paul. It seems Red Cloud enjoyed telling about his rise to power and glory days but did not wish to talk about fighting white men. So his narrative ends with the events of 1864. Red Cloud had shared the stories with friend Sam Deon, who in turn relayed them to Charles Allen, who recognized their commercial potential. But Allen made the mistake of rendering Red Cloud’s words into a third-person account, and Sandoz cast Red Cloud as a power-hungry villain in her book Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942). “Perhaps the publication of this narrative will begin to restore Red Cloud’s reputation,” Paul writes in the introduction. Though not an exhaustive life history, as Paul points out, “It certainly adds to our understanding of the life of a notable individual and provides rare firsthand information about Plains warfare and Lakota warrior culture.” Paul supplies minimal annotation, explaining, “Red Cloud has suffered enough from editors.”

Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail, 1866–1868, Vols. I and II

(2010, by John D. McDermott)

Too bad Red Cloud never told the story of his own war. But this 651-page, two-volume work is the next best thing and a most impressive follow-up to John McDermott’s Circle of Fire: The Indian War of 1865. Red Cloud was the Oglala Sioux strongman who led resistance against the Army’s emplacement of military posts to keep the Bozeman Trail open through Lakota lands. Red Cloud did win the day, but, as the author reminds us, by agreeing to the 1868Treaty of Fort Laramie, Red Cloud lost the respect of many young warriors, who eventually turned to Sitting Bull for guidance. McDermott concludes the United States underestimated Red Cloud and its other Indian adversaries.“The government,” he writes, “did not provide sufficient numbers of troops, supplies, armament, training or the strategies to wrest victory.” Not that the U.S. Army didn’t register a couple of big victories (the Wagon Box and Hayfield fights, for example) after William Fetterman’s disaster in December 1866. McDermott does a masterful job of detailing these engagements, as well as showing how Red Cloud’s resistance made the government eager to end the hostilities.

Red Cloud’s Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians

(1937, by George Hyde)

 While author George Hyde provides some information on warrior Red Cloud here, his focus, as the title suggests, is the sweep of Oglala Sioux history. Hyde also offers plenty of material about the U.S. government’s treatment of the Sioux in general over the centuries. Red Cloud’s people had a tradition of sweeping aside adversaries, from the Arikaras to the Crows, before Red Cloud made a name for himself. But certainly between 1865 and 1876 he stood out as the greatest of all Sioux fighting men. Hyde says that in 1866 “for the first time both the whites and the Indians began to speak of Red Cloud as the big man among the Sioux of Powder River….The reason for the rise of Red Cloud is obvious. He was a popular war leader and had now taken a strong stand in favor of fighting the whites if they invaded the Sioux hunting grounds.” Red Cloud biographer Robert Larson calls Hyde’s book“essential for the years before the Little Bighorn.”

Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem

(1965, by James C. Olson)

This 375-page book picks up where Hyde’s Red Cloud’s Folk left off, focusing on Red Cloud’s later role as a negotiator during the uneasy Sioux transition from being the dominant warriors on the Plains to reservation residents. The author, a former director of the Nebraska State Historical Society, acknowledges his debt to Hyde while adding he doesn’t always agree with him. One of Olson’s chapters deals with the clashes between Red Cloud and Indian agent Valentine McGillycuddy over assimilation policies. (For more on that see Candy Moulton’s 2011 book Valentine T. McGillycuddy: Army Surgeon, Agent to the Sioux.) McGillycuddy’s successor, Captain James Bell, could be just as strict, but Red Cloud got along better with him, saying the new agent “adopted the just and manly course of treating all Indians alike, without regard to former cliques and clans.”When Red Cloud visited Washington, D.C., the U.S. government tried to demonstrate the power of the white man’s world, but the chief was never too impressed to speak his mind. And he was able to do that until 1909, almost two decades after the death of Sitting Bull and more than three decades after the death of Crazy Horse.

The Indian Fighter

(1956, on DVD and VHS,MGM)

Actually, Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is a former Indian fighter who has returned West after the Civil War as a scout and in due time becomes intent on making peace with Red Cloud (Eduard Franz) and whoopee with Red Cloud’s fetching daughter Onahti (Elsa Martinelli). Two whiskey traders in search of gold on Sioux land—Wes Todd (Walter Matthau) and Chivington (Lon Chaney)—stir up trouble by murdering Red Cloud’s brother. Settler Susan Rogers (played by Diana Douglas, Kirk’s wife) has Hawks in her sights but settles for sturdy Will Crabtree (Alan Hale Jr.). Red Cloud has gold to buy horses and blankets, but when Hawks tells him he is rich, the wise Lakota replies: “Will it bring back the buffalo your people will kill? Will it clean the streams your people will fill with filth as they search for the yellow iron? Will it bring back the beauty of the land? I’m already rich, and the only wealth I want is that which you see above us.”

The Great Sioux Uprising

(1953, on VHS, Questar)

Joan Britton (portrayed by Faith Domergue) is an Army horse trader who tries to make an honest deal with horse-rich Red Cloud (John War Eagle). But the Lakota leader turns her down, saying, “Sioux horses are sacred,” and unleashing clichés like, “White man always speaks with two tongues,” and, “We don’t listen to forked tongue.” Unscrupulous horse trader Stephen Cook (Lyle Bettger) steps in to take the horses without asking. He has understandably made Red Cloud fighting mad. What’s more, the Cherokee Stand Watie (Glenn “Long Branch bartender” Strange), a Confederate general (in real life, too) has come to Wyoming Territory (it didn’t actually form until 1868) to get the Sioux to rise up against the Union (pure fiction). Army Captain Jonathan Westgate (Jeff Chandler) saves his friend Red Cloud’s horse and admits: “I do not say that all the people on my side are good. I do not pretend that we have always treated you justly.” The captain adds that he can’t promise eternal brotherhood, explaining, “I was taught by a wise man, by Chief Red Cloud, not to promise that which is not in my power to keep.” In the end, though, there seems to be a solid peace, and Red Cloud states, “When there is justice, there will always be peace.”


(1951, on DVD andVHS, Universal Studios)

Two years before he played Red Cloud in The Great Sioux Uprising, John War Eagle played Red Cloud in Tomahawk (aka Battle of Powder River). A Yankton Sioux, War Eagle (1901–91) appeared in 28 films, including the 1958 Disney classic Tonka (he played Sitting Bull in that one). In this movie, as in real life, Red Cloud is opposed to the building of forts on the Bozeman Trail. Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) is a friend to the Indians (and thus labeled a spy for the Indians), but he is forced to kill Red Cloud’s favorite son in order to save lovely Julie Madden (Yvonne De Carlo). Earlier, Bridger’s Cherokee wife and her infant son died in a massacre carried out by the Colorado Volunteers (think Sand Creek). Indian-hating Lieutenant Rob Dancy (Alex Nicol) was there, and now, in 1866, he is advising Captain William Fetterman (Arthur Space) to disobey orders and pursue a band of Sioux. Big mistake, as Indian wars historians already know. It’s a trap, and the Sioux wipe out Fetterman’s command. Colonel Henry Carrington (Preston Foster) soon gets revenge and a victory, thanks to newly acquired breechloaders, and Jim Bridger gets Julie Madden. Red Cloud, though, gets the ultimate victory (as in real life) when the Army abandons the trail and its forts.

The Gun That Won the West

(1955, on DVD, SPHE)

No, gun fans, the title refers neither to a Winchester (or Henry) repeating rifle nor the Colt Peacemaker revolver. At least according to this Western, it was the Springfield that did the trick, and that rifle is the star of this show. Jim Bridger (this time played by Dennis Morgan) is back in action, guiding, along with “Dakota Jack” Gaines (Richard Denning), the Army into Sioux country to build a chain of forts. Bridger is a friend of Sioux leader Red Cloud (Robert Bice) and hopes for a peace treaty, but Red Cloud’s second in command, Afraid of Horses (Michael Morgan), has other plans. Bridger must share star billing with the Springfield Model 1865 breechloading rifle, whose rate of fire was at least twice that of the rifled muskets used in the Civil War. In his book The American West in Film, Jon Tuska mentions the success of the Springfields in this William Castle–directed picture and then comments,“Apparently this Red Cloud had not seen Tomahawk from a few years before.”

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

(2007, on DVD, HBO Home Video)

Like Dee Brown’s influential 1970 book of the same name, this HBO rendition details the injustices and betrayals that the U.S. government (and the Army) inflicted on the American Indians. But the screen version focuses on what happened to the Sioux before, during and after the December 29, 1890, tragedy at Wounded Knee, S.D. The main characters are Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), whom Indian police shot down several weeks before Wounded Knee; Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a conflicted Sioux doctor; and Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), whose namesake land-allotment act does not work out so well. In a smaller role, Gordon Tootosis, who was born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, stands out as Red Cloud. The film does make the mistake of showing Red Cloud visiting the bloody field at Wounded Knee, something he did not do, though he wasn’t far away. In the 1860s Red Cloud won a war against the Army, but by 1890 he was more into compromise and did not endorse the Ghost Dance, which led to the Wounded Knee tragedy. Still, in the film, when Dawes reminds the uncooperative Sitting Bull about how Red Cloud surrendered and made peace with the U.S. government, Red Cloud responds: “I say today for all ears within hearing that if Sitting Bull had spoken the way he speaks today, I would not have touched that pen. I will not touch your pen to your paper. I will not touch it to your red paper. I will not touch it to your black paper. The white man will not see my mark again on his paper for the rest of my days on this earth.”


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