Plains Folk

Same Old Story


A couple of weeks ago I was part of a tour group at the historic Wolf Hotel, in Ellinwood, Kansas. Truth is, I was inside this building many times as a kid, when the public library was in the basement. In fact, during the tour, we found my mother’s library card, and I’m sure if we searched, we would find mine, too.


There are two books I definitely recall checking out from that library and reading, my recollection being an as-the-twig-is-bent proposition. The first is Stuart Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. The second is Paul Wellman’s bloodthirsty history of Indian-white conflict on the plains, Death on the Prairies.


I would like to think that over the past half-century we have become more enlightened in how we think about the so-called Indian wars of the plains, but maybe I am just wishing. You see, I have in hand a new book from Simon & Schuster entitled, The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend. It makes me think that as far as its authors, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, are concerned, things haven’t changed a bit since Paul Wellman in 1934.


The authors are a couple of journalists from New York and New Jersey. You may be thinking, enough said, but I thought, the winds of change surely reach the east coast, too, and so I read the whole book. Well, I was wrong.


I should have believed the dust jacket, which promised “a stirring chronicle of the conflict between an expanding white civilization and the Plains Indians who stood in its way.” There are just so many things wrong with that sentence I could spend a whole class hour on it, and maybe I will, although not just now.


The subject of the book is what has been called Red Cloud’s War, that is, the war waged by Lakota people, mainly Oglalas, along with some Cheyennes, to defend the Powder River country against gold miners and US troops. The war resulted in the closing of the military outposts along the Bozeman Trail. This often is pointed to as the only war ever successfully waged by Indians against the United States, a designation about which I am dubious.


More to the point, the book rests on racist assumptions that not only don’t sit well with America today but also are just at odds with the facts on the ground. “For all their historic ruthlessness,” the authors intone, “the tribes had always lacked long-range planning.” Who says this? The more we look at Indian life as well as warfare on the Great Plains of North America, the more we find that the opposite is true. The tribes, indeed, had the long view, extending over centuries. It was the makers of federal Indian policy who vacillated.


Anyway, since, according to Drury and Clavin, Indians are not deep thinkers, how did they manage to defeat the US Army in Montana? The answer, evidently, is that Red Cloud was an exceptional Indian, a smart Indian, who somehow pulled them together. With the help of some white guys, of course. This is the same old story, and not a good one.


A particularly objectionable aspect of the book, too, is that it claims discovery of a long-lost autobiography by Red Cloud himself—conveniently neglecting the fact that Robert Larson made great use of that document in his 1997 biography of Red Cloud.


We can tell better stories than this.


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