Red Cloud’s descendants commemorate 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty
FORT LARAMIE — The descendants of Chief Red Cloud gathered at Fort Laramie Historic Site and at the Fort Laramie community center on Nov. 5 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
Red Cloud was one of the last Native Americans to sign the treaty on Nov. 6, 1868. Tom Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, said the treaty serves as the basis for the relationship between the tribes and the government, covering the governments obligations to the tribes. It also serves as a reminder of the government’s failures in treating Native Americans.
“The great irony is that the Treaty of 1868 is that when General William Tecumseh Sherman came out here, he said, ‘If you sign this treaty, you will be like us,’” he said. “The way I interpret that is that we would be first class seconds, we would end up being of equal status. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. The reservations where I come from, the Pine Ridge and the Cheyenne River, are the second and third poorest counties in the United States.”
The day started with prayers and offerings at the fort, where the Red Cloud family gathered to recognize and honor their ancestor. The family gathered around a mound of earth to sing and pray. Chris Eagle Hawk, a member of the Oglala Lakota, said the mound serves as an altar. The ceremony also included food, which was used to feed the spirit of Red Cloud. “I’m sure that he was here,” Eagle Hawk said, “so we had food to strengthen him.” The food was also given to the Red Cloud family, as well as the people gathered there.
Reserved solely for the family, however, was Red Cloud’s chanunpa, his pipe. It was used during the signing of the 1868 treaty which ended Red Cloud’s War and has remained in the family since then, passed from generation to generation. Its current caretaker, Wendell Yellow Bull, said the pipe has significant meaning in Lakota culture when used for agreements and treaties.
“When you agree to something under the pipe, then it’s kept,” he said. “It’s a sacred commitment for life. So when (Red Cloud) agreed to the peace, it was a sacred commitment to agree to peace.”
Yellow Bull follows particular protocols to ensure the pipe, which is at least 150 years old, remains in working order. He purifies each year in a sweat lodge, and ensures that the stem is clean. “There’s some other protocols for the caretaker,” he said. “One is to live in poverty and humble oneself, and other is to bring people together. When times of trouble and issues arise, I bring it to the people and remind them that we are a nation.”
After the ceremony at the fort, the family and visitors gathered at the community center in town for food, more songs, and family presentations by the various Red Cloud descendants. Just prior to serving lunch, the family presented a quilt to Tom Baker, superintendent at the Fort Laramie Historic Site, in honor of the park service’s work to hold the commemoration.
Baker said the day was the end of two-and-a-half years of preparation and work. “Even though it was meant to commemorate a historic event,” he said, “it became a historic event itself.” The commemoration brought a number of tribes and Native Americans back to the fort, with a focus on teaching both native and non-native youth and maintaining a positive outlook for the future. “Having really open dialogue, great communication, and bringing tribal perspectives to the fort, which has been missing forever,” he said, “it’s a great way for all of us to connect with each other.”
He added that it was an honor to work the tribes for the commemoration. “We’ve had such incredible conversations throughout that whole time,” he said. “We can’t talk about what’s good without talking about what’s happened in the past and having a recognition of what’s happened in the past. The best we can do, as non-natives working together with the native people, is to ensure nothing like this happens again.”