Red Cloud, whose Oglala name Makhpiya-luta literally means "Scarlet Cloud," was a major leader of the Oglala Lakota during the late phases of the Plains Indian wars. His name refers to an unusual formation of crimson clouds that hovered over the western horizon as he was born. At one point, during the 1860s, Red Cloud and his allies forced the United States to concede considerable territory in and around the Black Hills. The Sioux reservation at that time was defined in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
When he was born, about 1820, the world of Red Cloud's people was largely independent of non-Native immigrants. When he died, in 1909, his people had been pushed onto a tiny fraction of their former land and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Born into the heyday of the Plains horse culture, Red Cloud died in the era of the "vanishing race."
As a young man, Red Cloud learned like most other Sioux boys to fight and hunt. Very quickly, he proved himself adept at both. Red Cloud was especially known as a fierce warrior who was always ready to take an enemy's scalp. He had five children and possibly as many as six wives.
In 1865, Red Cloud and his allies refused to sign a treaty permitting the passage of immigrants across their lands from Fort Laramie, along the Powder River, to the gold fields of Montana. Red Cloud was angered by the rapid and ruthless encroachment of non-Natives on the lands of his people. In the first Fort Laramie Treaty (1851), the United States had promised to "protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States." However, while non-Natives were swarming onto the northern Plains and committing depredations and treaty violations, the energies of the U.S. Army were being directed not toward protecting the Indians but toward fighting the Civil War.
Following the war, the Army turned its attention to protecting not the Indians, according to the treaty obligation, but the invading non-Natives. In December 1866, Captain William J. Fetterman bragged that he could ride with eighty men across the whole of Sioux country. He set out with eighty-one men and high ambitions, only to be led into a deadly ambush by Crazy Horse and a dozen warriors, who killed all of them. Still, at this time the Sioux dominated the northern Plains. When U.S. Army troops built forts without the Indians' permission, war parties cut off food supplies to Fort Phil Kearney in northern Wyoming and laid siege to the outpost for two years. In 1868, with the wagon road still closed, the government signed a treaty at Fort Laramie that caused the forts to be dismantled. According to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the Powder River country and the Black Hills were reserved for the Lakotas forever.
Red Cloud advised trading with whites but otherwise avoiding them. His valor as a warrior was legendary. He had counted more than eighty coups (strikes against an enemy), and once returned from battle against a contingent of Crows with an arrow through his body. In the late 1860s, Red Cloud was about forty-five years old. Once a trader at Wolf Point asked him why he continued to pursue the diminishing herds of buffalo rather than settle on a reservation. "Because I am a red man," he said. "If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man, he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows. Now we are poor but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die, we die defending our rights" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 313).
Despite the best efforts of Red Cloud and other patriots, however, by the mid-1870s, most Plains Indians knew they could not persevere against the invaders. As the Plains wars ended, Red Cloud settled at Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska. He counseled peace and was even accused of "selling out" by some younger Oglalas. He later was moved to the Great Sioux Reservation where, in 1881, Indian Agent V. T. McGillycuddy stripped Red Cloud of his chieftainship.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Red Cloud fought the Army's regulations and opposed the reservation system, but at the same time he provided aid to Yale Professor Othniel C. March, who was searching the area for dinosaur bones. In exchange, March said he would take Sioux allegations of mistreatment "to the highest levels" of government (Milner, 1990, 387). March investigated Red Cloud's complaints of rotten food and unmet promises. The Yale professor uncovered massive profiteering by Indian Rings in the Grant administration, sparking a congressional investigation and several newspaper exposés. At one point, March confronted Grant personally. March and Red Cloud became friends for the rest of their lives. Red Cloud said that he appreciated the fact that March did not forget his promise after he got what he wanted.
Red Cloud's biographer George E. Hyde characterized him in old age as "wrinkled, stooped, and almost blind" (Hyde, 1967, 336). Red Cloud was sometimes given to ironic bitterness over what had become of him and his people: "I, who used to control 5,000 warriors, must tell Washington when I am hungry. I must beg for that which I own" (Hyde, 1967, 336). Red Cloud spent his final years in retirement, having little to do with his people's affairs. He died on December 10, 1909.
Bruce E. Johansen
Armstrong, Virginia Irving, comp. 1971. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Books.; Brininstool, E. A. 1953. Fighting Indian Warriors. New York: Bonanza Books.; Hyde, George E. 1967. Red Cloud's Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.; Milner, Richard. 1990. "Red Cloud." In The Encyclopedia of Evolution, 387–388. New York: Henry Holt.; Olson, James C. 1965. Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Powers, William K. 1969. Indians of the Northern Plains. New York: Putnam.