By Annette Hinkle
Authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin have collaborated on a number of books — including some that have gone on to become New York Times best sellers.
But in the past, be it WWII or the early days of baseball, all the topics tackled in Drury and Clavin’s historical non-fiction offerings has involved events that were part of living history…meaning there was someone still alive to interview about the topic.
The pair’s newest book is completely different.
“The Heart of Everything That Is” tells the untold story of Red Cloud, a Sioux warrior who did something no other Native American in history has ever done — he won a war against the white man.
This Friday, Clavin will be at the Shelter Island Library to talk about Red Cloud and the new book. He and Drury have been in high demand as of late. Both traveled to Washington DC earlier this week to speak at the National Press Club and on Monday, the authors and the book were featured in a segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
But their subject remains largely unknown to the average American citizen. In fact, Red Cloud’s War was a series of battles waged from 1866 to 1868 between the tribes of the American plains and the U.S. government. At issue was increasing white encroachment into Indian lands — from the building of military forts, to miners and settlers passing through to points west and finally the discovery of gold in the region.
The conflict centered on the Powder River Country of Wyoming and Montana where forts were going up adjacent to the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills – Paha Sapa in the native tongue or “the heart of everything that is.” And for Red Cloud, it was the final straw.
The war ended with the Fetterman Massacre in which Red Cloud and his band of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors wiped out an entire unit of U.S. Army soldiers — it was the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. in the west up to that time. The battle sealed victory for Red Cloud.
“There were only three times in American history that an American military was wiped out,” says Clavin. “Everyone knows about two of them — the Alamo and the Little Big Horn — but there was also the Fetterman Massacre in the middle.”
While Red Cloud was an intriguing subject, with no one to interview, Drury and Clavin were initially a bit unsure as to how to proceed. Fortunately, westerners in the 19th century tended to be avid documentarians. The research for the book took Drury and Clavin to Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas where they for two and a half years they visited small town libraries and historical societies and leafed through fragile journals with white gloves and tongs.
“I was interested, but I’m no scholar of the west,” says Drury who became captivated by various journals from the time. “I had some brief trepidation. But it was wiped out quickly. It didn’t take long to find out how much virgin material there was,” says Drury. “we were following bread crumbs.”
“It’s unbelievable how literate these 19th century people were,” he adds. “Back then every teamster’s wife kept a journal. They documented everything.”
“We came across the journal of a soldier where they made pacts to kill each other if they were captured by the Indians,” he says. “They were issued an extra bootlace so they could wrap one end of it around the trigger of their rifle and the other around their toe so they could blow their heads off if they were captured.”
One of the most important resources Clavin and Drury came across in their research was Red Cloud’s autobiography, a story taken down by an insightful post master on the Pine Ridge Reservation who heard Red Cloud, then in his 70s, sharing memories of the “old days” with a friend. Recognizing the importance of the stories, the post master started feeding questions to Red Cloud’s friend who in turn shared his responses which the post master wrote down in long hand.
The manuscript ended up in the drawer of the Nebraska Historical Society for 50 years before it was discovered, typed up and put back in a drawer for another 50 years. It was finally printed in a small press run in the 1990s.
“I think the reason people find this book interesting is we have Red Cloud’s own words,” says Clavin. “You don’t really have the Indian point of view previous to the 1870s. There were no tribal historians and no written language. Even if reading a book about the 1820s, what you’re reading about the Indians is still a white man’s point of view.”
“When we came across it and realized it was as close to Red Cloud words that you could get, that was great,” says Clavin. “You’re getting his point of view. When he’s describing the mustangs, or the raid on the Crow, it’s not through the voice of a missionary, but his voice.”
When asked what it was about Red Cloud that made him a good subject for a book, Drury responds, “Innately he was a master military strategist and tactician.”
“He had political foresight,” he adds. “Red Cloud realized not only that he’d have to unite the Lakota, he had to bring in the Arapaho and the Shoshones. They used guerilla warfare. The generals were reeling and had never run up against an Indian who could coordinate three attacks at the same time.”
Inevitably, the book offers a tale of Manifest Destiny and Thomas Jefferson’s prophecy of a United States stretching from ocean to ocean — and that ultimately meant to the indigenous population which was “in the way.”
In the end, did Red Cloud really win? After the war, he went to Washington and signed a treaty giving the Black Hills to his people, but only after the U.S. government burned all their forts to the ground.
But 10 years later gold was discovered in the Black Hills and another U.S. general, George Custer, came to “protect” the miners who were infiltrating the land awarded by the treaty. At this point Red Cloud realized his people would never truly win.
“The white man made me a lot of promises,” he is quoting of saying, “and they only kept one. They promised to take my land, and they took it.”
“Anyone who reads the book can see how the mighty have fallen,” notes Clavin. “The Pine Ridge Reservation is an appalling place to be. Unemployment is 80 percent and the population is totally dependent on the U.S. government.”
“This is Manifest Destiny in action,” says Clavin. “We broke it now we own it.”
Tom Clavin talks about “The Heart of Everything That Is” this Friday, November 22 at 7 p.m. at the Shelter Island Library, 37 North Ferry Road. Call 749-0042 for details. Books will be available for sale and signing.