They may not even have understood that the whites harbored such a foolish expectation. Conquering Bear may have supposed that he was now chief of the Brulés, and possibly, at a stretch, of the Oglalas, but even of the Oglalas he would have been far from sure. As for being chief of all the Sioux, much less of all the Plains Indians — well, that was a ridiculous notion that no one took seriously. There was no chief of all the Sioux — never had been, never would be. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the Fort Laramie council was the government’s misreading of what chieftaincy meant among the Plains Indians. They could not rid themselves of the expectation that a Sioux or a Cheyenne or a Pawnee, once called a chief, would then begin to behave exactly like a white CEO, bossing people around, initiating, restraining. They were unprepared to recognize that Indian societies didn’t work that way. The Sioux were highly individualistic people; though they often acted in concert on hunts and raids, at other times each man simply went his own way. Crazy Horse ignored the sundance, spent a lot of time by himself, raided when he wanted to. If he could find a few warriors willing to go raiding with him, that was fine; but if no one in camp was in a martial mood, he went alone. The issue of chieftaincy remains ticklish because, through long usage, most of those who read about the Plains Indians, and some of those who write about them, come to assume that the Indians who proved most successful in councils and parleys with the whites were really chiefs back home, when in many cases they were not, Red Cloud being a famous example. The struggle for the Bozeman Trail and the Powder River country is often called Red Cloud’s war, and he is commonly thought to have won that war when the government closed three forts in 1868. But many of the Sioux who knew him were merely amused by the notion that Red Cloud was a chief, although they did concede that perso nally he was valorous enough. But he didn’t sit in the council of elders and wise men called the Big Bellies. The Sioux may have noticed problems with Red Cloud’s character— vanity, for example — that escaped the whites, for a time, though they certainly didn ’t escape agent Valentine McGillycuddy, who had a long and bitter struggle with him in the years after Crazy Horse’s death. Red Cloud’s name is on the plaque at the Fetterman battlefield, though several authorities doubt that he fought in that battle; nor was he at the Little Bighorn, though in extreme old age he seems to have believed that he was. and even made a speech at Cooper Union, in New York City, in 1870. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail both recognized quickly that the whites were too powerful to oppose directly — much too powerful. Whatever might be said in the parleys, and whatever was written on the papers, the whites meant to win; they were going to take what they wanted, which, in the end, was all the country that the native peoples had once inhabited. Red Cloud may not have
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- Spring '18
- History, Sioux, Crazy Horse