This biography serves as a companion book to Nelson’s previous biography, Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. It is written in the imagined voice of Red Cloud, born in 1821, who was a member of the Oglala tribe – one of seven Lakota tribes, known by non-Natives as the Sioux.
Red Cloud’s people were warriors who had fought against other tribes to establish their homeland in the Black Hills. But then “strange people with pale skin came up the rivers into our country.” At first, the whites (called wasichus by the Lakota) just wanted to trade.
The traders were followed by throngs of whites headed to California in search of gold. They in turn were followed by the U.S. Army, sent west to protect settlers crossing Lakota lands. As the author writes in Red Cloud’s voice:
“It became clear to me and other Lakota that the wasichus planned to devour the land and conquer us.”
Nelson summarizes the conflicts between the U.S. Government and the Native Americans, many of which arose over deceitful manipulation and broken promises by the U.S. He reminds readers, inter alia, of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when the U.S. Army led a force of 700 against a sleeping Cheyenne village in Colorado and gunned down two hundred men, women, and children. He writes:
“Afterward, they went on to Denver in triumph, brandishing the scalps, severed fingers, and other body parts of the slain innocents.”
[Nelson omits details of rape and of the exact and gruesome nature of body parts gathered for “souvenirs.”]
Sand Creek served to unite the Plains Indians more than any other event. Many looked to Red Cloud as the war chief. He ordered a series of raids in an attempt “to push the intruders out of our country once and for all!”
The U.S. Army came back trying to negotiate another treaty, bringing gifts and whiskey, which seduced some of the Native Americans who signed the papers. But as with previous treaties “negotiated” in the same bad faith, “those leaders who signed did not represent the desire of all our people.” Red Cloud and the Oglala resolved to fight. Red Cloud was recorded as saying:
“The riches that we have in this world . . . we cannot take with us to the next world. I wish to know why commissioners are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us?”
It was difficult, however, for the Native Americans to prevail over the might and resources of the U.S. Army, led in the West by William Tecumseh Sherman, who stated that Indians were “the enemies of our race and of our civilization,” and vowing in 1866 that “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”
A significant battle on December 21, 1866 pitted the U.S. Army against 2,000 Native warriors. Eighty-one army soldiers died and the battle was considered a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne. But Red Cloud knew that their triumphs would be few and far-between: they were outnumbered and outgunned. In addition, Sherman initiated a policy of killing off the buffalo to deprive Native Americans of food and clothing. Red Cloud saw it was time to surrender and accept rations from the U.S. Government, saying “We must think of the women and children and that it is very bad for them. So we must make peace.”
A new treaty in 1868 granted the Black Hills to the Sioux (albeit inside a reservation), but of course, even that turned out to be temporary when whites discovered gold in the Black Hills. In 1876 U.S. Army General George Crook deposed Red Cloud and appointed a more conciliatory head chief and negotiator for the Lakota Sioux, and confiscated the Black Hills.
Red Cloud died in 1909 and is buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The illustrations, by the author, are done in ink and colored pencil in the style called Ledger Book Art. When Natives were forced onto reservations, the only paper they could get was in the form of bound ledger books no longer of use to the white man. The Plains Indians used the books to create the art they previously painted on buffalo robes, tipis, etc. The bound books of lined paper were turned into beautiful testimonials to Native life and memory.
There are also a number of reproductions of historical photos included in the book. Historical quotes are included periodically, offset from the text.
At the back of the book, there is an extensively annotated time line, Author’s Note, a select bibliography, and index.
Evaluation: This excellent combination of biography and history tells a riveting and tragic story. Such books as these can enhance the ability of young people to see the plight of others from different races and religions, and would make an invaluable addition to any classroom. (The intended audience is ages 8-12, but I myself found it to read like a page-turner.) Telling the story in the voice of Red Cloud helped add immediacy and emotional heft to the story.
The book also serves as a correction to the omission from contemporary history of the mass murders of Native Americans by the American Government.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017
Note: For more information about what happened to Native Americans that is also told in the form of ledger art, you may want to check out the stunning book The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman. (See my review, here, for a preview of what the book is about, and a look at some of the stunning artwork by Adam Cvijanovic.) The hand-calligraphed text purports to be a journal kept by Thomas Blue Eagle, a fictitious boy from the Sioux tribe who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School at the end of the 19th Century.