By D. B. Woodling
Red Cloud Reservation-Nebraska
Red Cloud sat in the dirt that served as groundcover for the majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Twelve children, mostly boys and mostly Lakota-Sioux, completed the circle. His wife Pretty Owl shook her head, a nearly indiscernible smile softening her typically sober expression. He knew what she was thinking. He also knew the story belonged to the children, too, and for the most part, it was a good one.
The former great tactical warrior waited for the children to stop squirming. “Our ancestors crossed the great divide many, many suns ago.”
“How many suns, great-grandfather?” Walks with a Stick asked.
“Long before the first of many Great Fathers in the east spoke his lies and many winters before the large White House defiled the beauty of the river nearby.” Red Cloud pushed a palm the boy’s direction, fending-off another question. “There were many dust storms, many blizzards, many enemies pretending to be brothers.”
“The washichus?” a nine-year-old girl with frightened eyes asked.
“No, my child. It is not the whites of whom I speak but the Omaha, Otoes, and Iowas. These tribes came with tomahawks raised after our people took the land from the northern Cheyenne. Then these tribes were no more.” The sixty-five-year-old paused, lifted his chin and squinted into a harsh sun. “The coming of the white man with his disease made easy work of the Arikara.
Many suns rose on our hunting grounds from Nebraska to Wyoming as the white man lied and stole. My lodges were many and then they were few, and I told your fathers and your grandfathers ‘the white man must fight and the Indians will die where his fathers died’. The white men came like grasshoppers, covering our lands with castoffs and the bodies of animals too weak to follow.” He listened as the children whispered and figured more explanation was required. “The washichus knew nothing of the long journey, and they had filled their wagons with things that would not warm them on cold nights, things that would not quiet an empty belly. When their mules protested a heavy burden, the white man discarded his possessions like a tree discards its leaves.”
“Tell us of Crazy Horse!” a few of the older boys called out.
“Was his horse crazy?” Walks with a Stick asked.
Red Cloud threw his head back and laughed. “A brave’s horse is all that he wishes it to be.”
Another boy leaped from the ground, his face flush with excitement. “My father said Crazy Horse would race his pony in front of the white man’s guns like this!” The child charged around the circle while many of his cousins fired at him with imaginary weapons.
The exuberant chatter continued until Red Cloud raised both hands in the air and lowered them. He didn’t speak again until a gentle breeze blowing from the south was the lone sound. Sitting cross-legged, his thighs began to cramp. The story was much more difficult to unfold then he had anticipated, as many children on the reservation had yet to witness the slaughter of both washichus and their own people firsthand. Perhaps certain accounts required thoughtful suppression. The proud warrior scanned the circle of children and thought to send the smaller ones away. Instead, he covered his ears and instructed them to do the same.
“It was then we traveled many paths to collect the white man’s promise of payment.” Red Cloud shook his head emphatically and stern eyes flew to his lap. “We should have insisted the Miniconjou remain behind for many in the tribe had hands that did not obey their heads. One Miniconjou killed a settler’s lame cow, and the White Chief Grattan came with the big gun and twenty-nine soldiers. His heart would not allow him to accept the atonement of Chief Conquering Bear and the washichus killed many warriors, women, and children.”
“Vae Victis,” the little one with frightened eyes muttered.
“Woe to the conquered,” several of the others mimicked in English and covered gapped-toothed smiles with dirty palms.
“Vae Victis,” Red Cloud muttered. He remembered the retaliation clearly: after his many warriors had launched arrows, so many they obscured the sun like a swarm of locust, others raised tomahawks and sliced white skin and bone. As the blood from the soldiers colored the grasslands of the North Platte, Red Cloud’s warriors counted thirty coup.
Red Cloud swept his long hair over his shoulders and waited for the group of older children to join the circle, which had grown twofold its original size. He had spent the better half of four days deciding which things better left unsaid and, in the end, decided he would not play the cowardly historian.
“There were many Sioux,” Red Cloud said waving his right arm in all directions, “the Oglala, Miniconjou, Brulé, Sans Arc, Blackfeet, Two Kettles, and Hunkpapa. You see we decided there was great safety in numbers, and the Wakan Tanka – the Great Spirit ? told me it was our duty to protect the Black Hills. But after the passing of many winters, the prairies became barren because of the ponies’ appetites and the tribes went their own ways, each staking its own hunting ground. I chose the Powder River for the Oglala.
All along the Oregon Trail, the white armies marched, forcing our tribal enemies closer: the Crows, Shoshones, the Nez Percé, and the Arapahos from the north. But the wicasa wakan – the holy man – need not tell us when washichus were nearby.” The aged warrior touched his nose and scrunched it. “I have never known a people in need of so little who gathered so much. The land could not support their great herds of cattle and sheep, yet more came, many driven until they dropped, left to die and rot under an unforgiving sun.” Red Cloud shook his head. “The white man wastes and still asks for more.”
Running Mouth jabbed his brother Snow Follows with an elbow and interrupted the chief’s introspection. “Snow Follows’ heart bleeds for the Cheyenne and Arapaho,” he whined exaggeratedly. “Because he has heard the story of Sand Creek.”
“There is no humor in the washichus’ senseless slaughter of Indians, particularly those who seek only peace,” Red Cloud admonished.
“I am sorry,” Running Mouth said deceptively and stole a mischievous sideways glance at his brother.
The old chief sighed long. This was a story still painful to recall. “The White Chief Colonel Chivington sent many men to Black Kettle’s lodges. Although the Cheyenne Chief waved his white flag to signify peace, the washichus attacked. Black Kettle escaped, but two-hundred Cheyenne women and children did not. But the washichus would soon learn this unprovoked attack was their greatest mistake because the Indians of the Plains united as one.”
“But your actions caused a great retaliation! It is said the White Chief General Dodge ordered the extermination of all Indians!” Snow Follows shouted.
“It is also said the washichus called this land by another name,” Running Mouth said slyly.
Red Cloud knew Running Mouth was referring to Red Cloud’s Country and fixed hard eyes on the pitiful menace. “A man who brags has little reason. You of all people should know this as truth.”
The boy not only quieted but also sulked away.
Snow Follows sullen eyes followed his brother. “Our mother will not dry his tears of anger.”
Red Cloud chuckled to himself. If he knew Walks Behind, Snow Follows was right; she would instead give her younger son a valid reason to cry. A harsh sun nearly overhead, the chief briefly entertained the notion of disbanding the children and relishing a long nap. “By this time the Great Father’s intentions were clear: The annihilation of the Kiowa and Comanche making war on those washichus ignorant enough to pass through Bozeman Trail. But this would prove very difficult for the soldiers as the trail spans many miles. Soon I will tell you of the days when the white man’s blood reddened the snow on Lodge Trail Ridge.”
“Now! Please tell us now!” the children chorused, the young ones and the old as well.
Red Cloud squinted and trained his eyes on Walks Behind’s cabin. Just as he’d suspected, Running Mouth stood near the opening with angry eyes locked on the circle. The old chief smiled to himself and debated what to share next. “On a day when the trees stood naked, I sent the Cheyenne-Chief Roman Nose, Crazy Horse and Young Man Afraid of His Own Horses away with two-thousand braves on their heels,” he told the children. “But they had no ears for my teachings and resorted to the old ways of fighting. Because of this and the snow with fierce winds, there were no conquerors on either side. Soon after, the Great Father grew tired of wasting bullets, realized our number, and hollowed-eyed men with forked tongues came to us with another promise of peace. But my ears were tired of the washichus lies. I cannot say the same for the others.
Near the mouth of the Cheyenne River, the Hunkpapas, Yanktons, Blackfeet Sioux, San Arcs, Two Kettles and the Brulés of the Missouri River came together to smoke the pipe of peace. There the white man promised more land, tools for farming and seed, and protection from other tribes that would not pass the peace pipe.”
“Were they lies, Great-Grandfather?” Walks with A Stick asked.
Red Cloud smirked and flicked his wrist. “Just another trick from the white snake.” Then, deep in thought, the old chief tipped his head back: a few evenings after the other tribes had signed the treaty, he remembered he was sitting around the campfire at the back of his tepee, cross-legged and surrounded by his braves, particularly the Shirt Wearers – Crazy Horse and Young Man Afraid of His Horses. As they inhaled a mixture of tobacco and bearberry, his dark eyes locked on Crazy Horse’s hazel ones and the Shirt Wearer shared his typical long sideways glance. Red Cloud was stunned, as he usually was, by the dejection emanating from the young man’s soul because few warriors were as fierce. Crazy Horse’s quilled, fringed, fleece shirt with its 250 locks of hair testified his bravery, each lock representing a coup counted, whether it be a scalp taken or a comrade rescued. Yet the young warrior seldom held another man’s eyes.
Even now, so many years after, Red Cloud remembered extending the long red pipestone toward Crazy Horse and telling them all, The White Chief Sherman appeases us with this new promise of peace while he prepares cunning soldiers. If the white men come into my country again, I will punish them again.
His great-grandson interrupted the crisp recollection. “The Ridge, Great-Grandfather! What of the Ridge?”
Red Cloud was about to begin when Walks Behind timidly approached, Running Mouth nearly on her heels. “Forgive my son’s words. They often bring him great misfortune.”
The old chief scowled and attempted to lay eyes on the boy hiding behind her. “I see no Lakota with you. I see only a burrow creature afraid of its own shadow. These legends of the brave Sioux are not for the ears of cowards.” Red Cloud flicked his wrist the woman’s direction, dismissing her. Walks Behind nodded solemnly, turned, and ushered her youngest son toward their cabin.
The old chief studied Snow Follows until the boy’s eyes met his. “If your heart lies only with your brother, not your people, go and follow him.”
The young man jutted his chin. “My heart is big enough for all.”
Red Cloud smiled, closed his eyes, and prepared for a difficult oration. Several more minutes passed before he spoke. “One-thousand, eight-hundred, and sixty-six years after the Great Spirit gave us his Son I warned the washichus again that I would fight them for the last hunting grounds. And, again, they would not listen. Not long after the snows flowed into Piney Creek and the chole cherry bloomed, a traitor was among us; a Cheyenne called Black Horse. He had the White Chief Colonel Carrington’s ear and told him of my plan to ‘cut off the body of the trespassing white snake.’ Not so long after, I persuaded Black Horse to tell me of the White Chief’s plan. Upon learning of the white’s intention to build three forts on our lands, I prayed to the Great Spirit for guidance.
Many Lakota, fearful their people would starve now without the gift of the buffalo, surrendered to the washichus. They left their broken souls on sacred land and dragged their shells of flesh to the reservations.” Red Cloud punched the air with his index finger. “But this was not the path for many like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and they came to me —Blotahunka Ataya—for guidance and protection. Many brave warriors followed them, some from faraway lands, and from many tribes: Miniconjou, Sans Arcs, Brulés, and Arapahos. Even our enemies the Crow lay down their weapons and traded with their Indian brothers; our pelts, buffalo robes, and horses for their guns that shoot many times.
Long before the snow stopped falling, the scouts’ many eyes saw the long cavalry dotting the trail. As the moon waited in the sky, the white men set their trap. But we were too smart to steal their waiting mules. The soldiers gave up and returned to their soft beds made for soft men. We waited until the sun was nearly awake and stampeded their cattle.” Red Cloud’s eyes sparkled in the sunlight. “So it was the washichus destiny to eat mule meat the long winter or nothing!”
“Did this not anger the Little White chief, great-grandfather?”
Red Cloud met Walks with a Stick’s gaze and shrugged. “Perhaps his heart, but his backbone thought it a small price to pay for another day of life.”
Walks Quietly wrung her hands, as she searched the perimeter for her mother. When Red Cloud reached out to her, she asked, “Will you soon tell the story of the bloody bluffs?”
He nodded and, seeing the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, he too searched the perimeter for her mother while several of the boys quietly chorused, “Yes, Yes!”
“While the creeks flowed beneath the ice blanket, I mounted my finest war pony, the wind stinging my face like a hundred angry hornets. In the flat valley, carved by Peno Creek, I led many hundred warriors whose hearts had grown hot with rage. While some heartless palefaces dreamed of gold and those with more intelligence woke in a cold sweat, the war cries of our people still drumming their ears, our ponies danced on the bluffs of Lodge Trail Ridge. From there half of our braves and their ponies skittered west, circled behind the ridgeline, and hid like ghosts in the timber surrounding Piney Island. Then they attacked the wood train. Soon after, the Big White Chief’s scouts alerted him and Little White Chiefs Fetterman and Bingham and fifty soldiers pursued us.” Red Cloud smiled, remembering the day he had outsmarted the whites at nearly every turn.
“I watched from the hillside as White Chief Carrington and his little chief Grummond galloped their tired horses from the fort with twenty-four infantrymen. Their plan was to trap the warriors in Piney Creek Valley. But as their horses crawled up the south bank of Big Piney Creek, many of our warriors waited at the top. Running scared, Big White Chief signaled his men to cross Big Piney and, with their horses dancing the dance of death, they somehow managed to climb the steep, icy slope where four more of our warriors waited to welcome them.”
Red Cloud grinned menacingly and Walks Quietly squeezed her eyes shut tight.
“Carrington fired his gun that shoots twice and four braves evaporated like spirits. Warriors hiding in the thick stands of scrub oak galloped from the timber. Just as planned, the Little White Chiefs had fallen for our trick. Many braves heard the Big White Chief order his men to stay together, but one, much like the Miniconjou with hands that do not do the head’s biding, decided to make his own destiny and rode hard to fulfill it. The Big White Chief thought he had left his sorrows in the timber, but he was wrong.” Red Cloud smiled and shook his head repeatedly. “It was like catching fish in a puddle. Knowing the washichus would pick the thin trail for their escape, the warriors soon cornered them. But we forgot about the shiny metal that makes noise . . . and more soldiers came running.”
“Vae Victis!” the children chorused.
Red Cloud clapped his hands once and attained silence quickly.
“Our people were not ready to lay down our crossbows or temper our arrows’ rage,” Red Cloud went on, “for too many had waved the flag of peace yet the blind soldiers refused to see and cut our people down one after the other . . . men, women, children. It was time the washichus knew of our sadness. And we taught him well. When the ice blanket freed the creeks and river, the Great Father in the house of white had had enough and sent more forked tongues to Fort Laramie who pleaded with the Indians to come back and smoke the pipe of peace.”
“My grandfather speaks of the white general,” one boy said. “He came with offerings of peace and talk of the good trades. But my grandfather tells no more.”
Red Cloud nodded, his finger etching a crude map of Fort Laramie and Fort Randall and the large expanse between. “Our people traveled here for the necessities of winter,” he told them and scrawled a trench around his depiction of Fort Laramie. “The general told them they must now go here,” he said, dramatically demonstrating the distance between the two forts. “But I had a plan of my own.”
The author of Shannon’s Land, Final Claim, Write Off, Slices, The Turning of Nick Torok, and Shannon’s Revenge, D.B. Woodling currently resides in Missouri with one dog, two cats, two horses, and a husband who often resents a keyboard. Prior to embarking on her writing career, the author was a celebrated entertainer throughout the Midwest.