Red Cloud was the most significant American Indian leader in the 19th century—and arguably in the history of the North American continent. Not only was he the sole warrior-chief to defeat the United States in a war—not in a single battle, but in the eponymous Red Cloud’s War—but his historical victory would’ve dramatically changed the lives of Indian Americans for the better had the ensuing treaty been honored by the U.S. government in 1868.
Red Cloud ascended from humble beginnings to the leadership of the most powerful tribe on the Western Plains, the Oglala Sioux. He also became the first American Indian to form a coalition of Native Peoples to fend off the encroaching whites. At the height of his power, Red Cloud’s “empire” spanned one-fifth of the contiguous United States, running east from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains and fanning south from Montana and the Dakota Territory through Wyoming and Nebraska and edging into modern-day Utah and Colorado.
Red Cloud was not only a brilliant military strategist and tactician who carried out a successful guerrilla campaign against General William Tecumseh Sherman, but he was also a remarkable and caring husband, father, and chief who led his people as much by example as by decree.
So why have most of us never heard of this extraordinary American Indian?
Unlike his better-known successors such as Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise, and Crazy Horse—whom, it should be noted, Red Cloud mentored and groomed as fighters—Red Cloud strode the western stage during an era when few whites were present to report his exploits. By the time newspaper reporters and dime novelists flooded into the territories, Red Cloud was a middle-aged man who had essentially retired and was living quietly on a reservation with his family. It’s also important to note that Red Cloud was neither martyred (like Crazy Horse), incarcerated (like Geronimo), nor publicly exploited (like Sitting Bull); this most certainly prevented him from achieving the reputation he earned and deserves.
Red Cloud did not go to war with the United States to increase his power or to gain territory but to protect “Paha Sapa,” the Sioux phrase that translates to “the heart of everything that is”—what the tribe calls the Black Hills. That Red Cloud won his war but eventually lost the greater battle makes his story that much more sorrowful.
The Heart of Everything That Is fills in a huge gap in American history—in particular our understanding of the relations between American Indians and the explorers, mountain men, gold seekers, soldiers, and settlers who eventually populated the American West. What our book also does is return Red Cloud to his rightful place as the most significant and successful Indian leader in American history.
In his later years Red Cloud advocated for peace and constructive coexistence between red and white America, and especially for the education of younger generations of Sioux. But his vision of the future was never realized.
Instead, he was left to lament, “The white man made me many promises, but he only kept one. He promised to take my land, and he did.”