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Authors Tell Untold Story Of Sioux Warrior Red Cloud


Not long after the Civil War, America waged another war, one that's almost been lost to history. It was 1866. Settlers were pouring westward in wagon trains to farm or mine for gold, pushing onto the land of the American Indians. That's when the great Sioux warrior Red Cloud decided: no more. His territory had already shrunk. At one point, it had spanned what is now Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and the sacred Black Hills, known to the Sioux as Paha Sapa, the heart of everything that is. In a stunning turn, the Sioux leader would battle and ultimately defeat the U.S. Army - two years of fighting - until the government appealed for peace on Red Cloud's terms.

The story of this remarkable man is told in a new biography. When authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin joined us, Bob Drury began the tale at the dawn of what would become known as Red Cloud's War.

BOB DRURY: General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was in charge of the army of the West, he issued an order. He said kill Red Cloud. Kill every Indian male over the age of 12. And, of course, Red Cloud knew about this, and he just said, OK, enough. He not only was able to unite the fractious and bickering Sioux bands and clans and tribes, but it was extraordinary that he got the Arapaho to become part of his union. He got the Cheyenne. He got some Shoshoni. Red Cloud had enough foresight to know if I'm going to fight the United States, I need every American Indian on my team, so to speak.

MONTAGNE: And the backdrop for this was something that Red Cloud had proclaimed. And go ahead, if you would, and read that quote.

DRURY: (Reading) The Great Spirit raised both the white man and the Indian. I think he raised the Indian first. He raised me in this land, and it belongs to me. The white man was raised over the great waters, and his land is over there. Since they crossed the sea, I have given them room. There are now white people all about me. I have but a small spot of land left. The Great Spirit told me to keep it.

MONTAGNE: One of the most important and dramatic battles in Red Cloud's War came just before Christmas, in 1866. The Bluecoats, as the U.S. soldiers were known, they were veterans, many of them, of some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. But it turned they were out of their element with the Sioux.

DRURY: It was a guerrilla war. And the irony, I suppose, is we had become a nation by fighting a guerrilla war against the British, and we forgot what a guerrilla war was. And the American Indians, they knew the land. So they could fight from Butte to Coulee, from ravine to stream. The American generals were just stunned. They didn't know how to deal with this. And, for the first time, Red Cloud was able to coordinate attacks at the same time hundreds of miles apart. So, here's Red Cloud. He's drawn out the largest force, to this point, that has ever gone against an American army: 81 men and officers. And he's got 2,000, a multi-tribal army, coming behind them and he wipes them out, to a man - 81 men. It doesn't sound like a lot to us now, but back then, in 1866, it just rocked the Department of War, and it rocked the White House.

MONTAGNE: One thing you do not shy away from in this book is describing how vicious these battles could be. There were atrocities on both sides.

DRURY: Oh, Renee. That was one of the things that I think surprised us the most. Now, the Indians practiced this among themselves, in their own wars. The cliche, the happy hunting grounds, well, the Plains tribes actually believed that there was a happy hunting grounds, and that when you died, you went to this afterlife, so to speak, and it was full of clear-running streams and game and buffalo as far as the eye can see. And they believed that you went to this heaven in the same shape that you left this Earth. So, if you went there without eyeballs to see how beautiful it was, that was your disadvantage. If you went there without arms, so you could not pull back a bowstring, well, that was to your disadvantage. And when the white soldiers got out there, they could not believe how gory the Indians were.

TOM CLAVIN: Just as a footnote to what Drury just said, it didn't take the white soldiers and even some of the white settlers very long to adapt some of these techniques themselves. By the time of Red Cloud's War, there were quite a few of the white pioneers, mountain men, soldiers, they had become pretty expert in the ways to inflict torture and to mutilate bodies.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about Red Cloud himself. For one thing, he was not, as you might think, born into the role of a great warrior.

CLAVIN: A huge drawback that Red Cloud had was that his father died of alcoholism when Red Cloud was only five years old. And so that was a huge disadvantage, because with being a patriarchal society where you were able to advance thanks to your father's position and anything your father did that was of a heroic nature, Red Cloud had to go it on his own. He had to show that he was braver than everybody else, that he was stronger than everybody else.

DRURY: These myths sprang up around Red Cloud, where he could be at two places at once, where he could speak to the animals, where he could see in the night. And he knew this is only going to make the image, the myth, the cult of Red Cloud larger. He was a man ahead of his time when it came to politics. He knew that as the son of an alcoholic who had no great connections to warrior societies, he needed a leg up in Sioux society. And he married a woman whose father and brothers had that leg up.

MONTAGNE: This is quite a surprising part of his story, because there is a tragic love story at the center of his early life. Pretty Owl is the match that was going to help him politically. And then there was Pine Leaf, who was very much in love with him. Tell us that story.

CLAVIN: Pretty Owl had a father and brothers with many horses. But, you know, it wasn't like he was discarding Pine Leaf. The Sioux warrior leaders at the time could have up to five wives. After a certain amount of time, his intention was he would then marry Pine Leaf also, and bring her into his family. But the feelings that Pine Leaf had were so deep, that when the ceremony took place that married Red Cloud and Pretty Owl, Pine Leaf could not bear it anymore. And when he emerged the next morning after their honeymoon, basically, he found Pine Leaf hanging from a tree. It was a devastating loss for Red Cloud.

DRURY: He went back to his mother's teepee and just threw himself down. It was the only time in his life he didn't know what to do about a situation.

MONTAGNE: And, finally, great a warrior as Red Cloud was, the push west by settlers, the arrival of the railroad, there is this inevitable bad end. Read us the very top of your epilogue, which is a heartbreaking quote from Red Cloud.

CLAVIN: (Reading) The white man made me a lot of promises, and they only kept one. They promised to take my land, and they took it.

MONTAGNE: To this day, descendants of Red Cloud still live on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, one of America's poorest places. That's where the great Sioux leader is buried, between the Badlands and the Black Hills. Thank you very much for joining us.

DRURY: Thank you, Renee.

CLAVIN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Bob Drury and Tom Clavin are out with a new biography, "The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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