Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Most Fascinating Historical Figure One Encounters on Highway 83 Is Spotted Tail

Credit: Library of Congress
As an author, when I sit down to write a book-length piece of nonfiction, I normally have a point I want to make.
I don’t think when I first had the idea to start what would ultimately be a three-part series: The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83, also known as The Highway 83 Chronicles, that I had some overarching theme in mind.
I just thought it would be a fun project to research and write. But that certainly changed as I began the process.
Assign 100 authors to write a hybrid travel-history book about the stories and people they discover along Highway 83 and you would end up with 100 different books. That is because we would all be personally drawn to different stories.
And one story I have been drawn to for a number of years is that of Chief Spotted Tail of the Brulé Lakotas.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish in this book is to at least raise a little awareness about Sinte Gleska, as he is known in the Lakota language. In my mind, he is one of the most fascinating and complex historical figures of the 19th Century “Old West” era.
But few know of him. Why?
Take a poll of the public and ask respondents to name five famous Native Americans. One could probably predict the responses: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Pocahontas would probably be the top four, with number five up for grabs. (Cochise, Red Cloud or Chief Joseph might make the cut.) I doubt Spotted Tail would be on the list even if it were expanded to 10, or more.
We associate all but one of these figures with resistance to the American expansion in the West. They were so-called “war chiefs.”
Spotted Tail was not one of them. I won’t recount the early days of his life. That is in the book, but I will mention that as a young man he came to the realization long before his contemporaries that the plains tribes would ultimately not win a straight ahead war with the tidal wave of white men coming from the East. When his Oglala Lakota rival Red Cloud fought a successful guerilla war on the Bozeman Trail in 1868, he sat that conflict out. He was nowhere near the Battle of Greasy Grass, or “Custer’s Last Stand” in 1876.
He knew such conflicts would get his people nowhere.
Yet he had many other kinds of battles with the U.S. government. He was a tough negotiator, and wanted the best outcome for his people. These were “wars of wills,” not with weapons. And he mostly came out on top.
Americans always wished Native American nations had an ultimate leader, like our own president — someone who spoke for all of the tribes and could make decisions. But that wasn’t normally how these societies worked. It was more about consensus among many chiefs.
Spotted Tail took on this role, though. He went to Washington to negotiate, and could at least speak for the Brulé Lakotas, although it was only one of seven different Lakota, or Teton Sioux, tribes.
He was no pushover.
Highway 83 bisects the Rosebud Reservation. The Highway 83 Chronicles project gave me a chance to do something I had wanted to do for many years: tell Spotted Tail’s story. In the final section of The Last American Highway, I seek to answer the question of how the reservation and the Brulés ended up where they are today.
The story is telling. For several years, the agency was located along the banks of the Missouri, where it was more convenient for the government to deliver supplies. Spotted Tail hated this spot. Firewood and game — once plentiful along its banks — had been depleted. It was easy for whiskey bootleggers to ply their trade there. And such rivers were also a conveyance of diseases. The bureaucrats kept stalling a planned move away from the river.
Spotted Tail pulled up the stakes and moved everyone to where the town of Rosebud is today without the U.S. government’s approving the site. Not all the Brulés wanted to leave the Missouri, though. So he had his loyal men strong arm the others into accompanying them. He had become the autocrat the Americans wanted him to be. This created rivalries and jealousies in others, which led to his demise.
A marker honors the life of Spotted Tail along U.S. 83 in Mission, S.D.
In a story not recounted in my book, Spotted Tail was asked to send some of his children to the Carlyle School in Pennsylvania so they could receive an education, At first, he thought that a white man’s school would be beneficial. After a trip to Washington, D.C., he stopped to visit. What he saw shocked him. The purpose of the school was to transform Indian children into whites, not to provide them with an education. Children who resisted were treated cruelly. It was brainwashing. He yanked his kids out of the institution and brought them back to Rosebud despite the angry denunciations from the school’s supporters.
Spotted Tail had in fact been fighting to preserve Lakota traditions and walking a fine line between the two cultures for years.
The American Indian Movement and its sympathizers in the 1970s had disdain for Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, who, after the Bozeman war, had come to the same hard conclusions about resisting the U.S. government. They were called “treaty chiefs.” Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were right and those two men were white lackeys in AIM’s book. (Leonard Crow Dog, one of the movement’s spiritual leaders, was a descendant of the man who murdered Spotted Tail.)
I admire Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. But I admire Red Could and Spotted Tail equally as men who whose peoples were put in a terrible situation. They guided them as best they could in a time of traumatic upheaval in their society and resisted in their own ways.
Was Spotted Tail some kind of saint or the Native American equivalent of Gandhi?
Certainly not. Ask the Pawnees if he was a “man of peace.” He waged war against them every chance he had. There are no Pawnees left in Nebraska. They moved to Oklahoma, and part of the blame lies with Spotted Tail.
Spotted Tail’s life ends in the Rosebud chapter of The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, but not his story. There’s much more about him in the Nebraska-Kansas book coming out next year.
Finally, a plea. Most of this information on the life and death of Spotted Tail is derived from one book: Spotted Tail’s Folk by George Hyde, which was published in 1961. The world needs an updated biography on this fascinating man. I’m hoping a historian or author reads this column and takes on this challenge.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)