Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas
CHAPTER 8. Marriage
[Editor's introduction to story]
Marriage customs among the Lakotas in Red Cloud's time involved a transfer of property, usually horses, from the groom to the bride's family. The result became as much an alliance between families as the joining of two individuals. 1 From the following account, Red Cloud seems to have weighed his choices carefully when the time came to propose. His decision, made not on the field of battle but in the domestic comfort of his village, resulted in one of his most poignant -- and tragic -- stories. Surprisingly, the narrative paints a picture of Red Cloud that is neither glowing nor laudatory, but only all too human.
Neglecting the details of married life is a common feature of male Native American autobiographies. 2 After Pretty Owl's dramatic entrance in his life, Red Cloud hardly ever mentions his wife again in this narrative. Her absence is unfortunate because this union endured for a half century, and she receives little mention elsewhere in the historical record.
[end editor's intro]
On the broad plateau at the base of a cluster of high, bronze-colored mountains known as Raw Hide Buttes, where the waters of the North Platte River come rushing down through the narrow channel they have worn through the rocks until the walls stand perpendicular at a height of one hundred feet on either side, here where the river winds through a valley covered with wild blue grass stood the Oglala village. Great clusters and rows of lodges, some white, some touched with age and smoke, others decorated with gaudily painted suns, moons, stars, horses, and other designs of savage art, the large soldier lodge wherein the council met to which all news is brought and from which information bearing the stamp of tribal authority is disseminated, all these combined to form a picture pleasing to gaze upon.
The occupants of the village doubtless felt more at home in this locality than in any of their numerous camping places, for Fort Laramie contained within its adobe walls much of what the Indians of those days looked upon as rare luxuries. This old post situated within a few miles of the village was established in 1822 [actually 1834] by the American Fur Company and in 1849 was purchased by the government and converted into a military fort, but notwithstanding its change of ownership it continued for many years to hold its prestige as a Mecca for all the Indians of the central northwest.3 It was in this vicinity that the traveler could find the Sioux, Arapahos, and Cheyennes all living peaceably as neighbors, and occasionally a village of Crows pitched their tipis here where treaties with the tribes above mentioned permitted them. These treaties were generally of short duration, however, and their sojourning in close proximity of each other generally resulted in a row and a hurried flight of one tribe or the other.
Red Cloud, having been at home for some time and having joined in all the revelries incident to his arrival and having told and retold the story of his latest adventure to admiring listeners both in and out of the soldier lodge, now began to consider his private affairs. It would have been strange indeed if a man of his standing in the tribe could have failed to attract the favorable attention of the young women of the village and their mothers. To say that he was not slighted in this particular is stating the fact mildly. Like many other young men of his age his mind often reverted to the serious contemplation of matrimony, and, like others also, he had his choices, for in accordance with the privileges granted him by the custom of his people, he chose two at least and more if he felt disposed to pay for and provide for them. He had long been in love with two young women who reciprocated his affection. Pretty Owl and Pine Leaf were their names, and the only matter for him to decide was, which of the two should be number one, for, while he could properly marry each of them, he could not marry both of them at once. There would have to be two wedding ceremonies with at least a month or two of time intervening.
On this weighty subject Red Cloud's cogitations resulted in the choosing of Pretty Owl as the first of the two to be wedded. This course once decided upon the information was imparted to his relatives who began to prepare for the event, the women by constructing a lodge of tanned elk skins and his older male relatives by conducting the negotiations with the family of Pretty Owl, which were finally concluded by presenting her parents with twelve ponies. This ceremony was carried through in the following manner: About ten o'clock in the morning of the appointed day four good horses were taken to the lodge of Pretty Owl's parents and tethered nearby. No sooner had this been done than it attracted the attention of the passersby, and soon the gossips were chattering and watching for the splendid matrimonial gift to be accepted, but, after the horses had stood until noon without any of the objects of the lodge paying the slightest attention to them, the people began to wonder at the cause of the rejection. Then the young man came dashing up to the lodge leading four more horses better than the first and dismounting tied them with the rest and rode away. The people now began to strain their eyes for a look at the lucky young woman who could command such a price, but the hours wore away, and they grew weary and went on their way. Others came to fill their places, and still the wonder grew. Predictions of a final and complete rejection of Red Cloud's suit were made, and the reasons and causes therefore volunteered. Many complained of the perverseness of Pretty Owl-for it was now known that she was the chosen one. Red Cloud was called a fool, who could do better for a less number of horses.
Thus comment continued, keeping pace with the time until near the middle of the afternoon when the young man on horseback again appeared leading four more horses far superior to the ones he had previously brought. In fact the assembled spectators readily recognized among them one of Red Cloud's favorite race horses.
Then astonishment knew no bounds. These horses were left with the other eight making twelve in all, and, shortly after they were left and the young man who brought them had gone, Pretty Owl and her father came out of the lodge. After looking over the animals in a casual manner for a few minutes, Pretty Owl began to untie them. Then arose a shout of applause from the throng of bystanders.
The next morning arrangements were made for the usual marriage festival which consisted of feasting and the performance of a dance in which only the women took part. In this dance the women and children form a large circle in the center of which four or five drummers are beating the drum while others are cooking and dishing out soup and meat to the persons composing the circle. These, as soon as they had partaken of food, joined the dancers within the circle and danced until they were weary and then fell back to the circle and in a sitting posture rested and ate again.
This dance continued during the entire day. In the meantime Red Cloud's mother, assisted by other old women, had erected his lodge upon a smooth grassy plot near the river beneath a large cottonwood tree whose spreading branches and green foliage protected it from the rays of the noon-day sun. The interior furnishing of the lodge consisted of a bed made by first laying a log on either side and staying it in position by means of small pegs driven in the ground; between this and the wall was placed a quantity of small willow boughs over which were spread buffalo robes and trade blankets. At the head of the bed a tripod made of sticks about four feet in height supported a triangular shaped mat made of willows woven together and painted in different colors. Over this and suspended from the top of the tripod hung Red Cloud's war accoutrements. The remainder of the room was occupied by firewood, crude cooking utensils, and the fireplace in the center. Large sacks made of tanned elk and buffalo skins held the clothing and trinkets of the household.
All being put in order, Red Cloud and Pretty Owl, accompanied by a number of their friends, visited their new abode and made an inspection of the premises. They were thus engaged when the master of ceremonies, who had been looking for them, appeared on the scene and reminded them that the hour of proclaiming their marriage had arrived.
Accordingly, four warriors who were in readiness spread a large blanket, and, each one taking hold of a corner and holding it high in the air, Red Cloud and Pretty Owl stepped under it while the remainder of the party formed a line in the rear. The medicine man taking the lead then gave the order to march. The four warriors, each holding a corner of the blanket with one hand and a spear in the other, marched through the village, while the master of ceremony, arrayed in paint and feathers and holding a green ash wand that he used as a baton, loudly proclaimed the nuptial knot and sounded the praises of the happy pair. The ceremony was not concluded until near sundown, the progress of the march being continually interrupted by the proffered congratulations of friends.
To this, as to each previous demonstration relating to the wedding, there was one grim and silent witness who stood aloof with jealous, scornful looks. It was Pine Leaf. No one seemed to have noticed at the time that she failed to partake of the general good feeling except Red Cloud himself, whose eagle eye caught sight of her upon several occasions during the day. Realizing that she was not aware of either his feelings or his intentions, he mentally resolved to seek her out at the first opportunity and acquaint her with his purpose, but the opportunity never came.
After the pageant had ended, Red Cloud and Pretty Owl separated, the former going to the lodge of Little Bad Wolf and Pretty Owl to her father's lodge, but, when the shades of night began to spread over the village, Red Cloud repaired to his new home and kindled a fire. Shortly afterwards his most intimate friends began to assemble, and, as darkness fell, a small procession composed entirely of women approached the lodge singing and bearing torches. These were the personal friends and relatives of Pretty Owl, and they were carrying her in a blanket supported by six buxom lasses. When they came to the lodge, the flap of the door having been thrown back for the occasion, they entered and deposited their burden at the feet of her husband, who, in playful imitation of "counting coo" [coup] on an enemy, struck her with the ramrod of his rifle exclaiming "You are mine." This ended the ceremony, and Pretty Owl at once began her household duties by preparing supper for their mutual friends, who remained and spent the evening with them.
Early the next morning as the clear sky and fading stars told the dawn of day, Red Cloud arose and getting his rope prepared to start to the hills after his horses. After going out of the lodge he turned to the right, intending to pass between it and the large tree that stood near, but he suddenly stopped. A sight of appalling horror confronted him. There in the gray of the morning with a rope about her neck, one end of which was attached to a low projecting branch of the tree, was the form of Pine Leaf, her face distorted and her open eyes resting upon Red Cloud in the glassy haze of death.4 Quickly pulling his blanket over his head and face, he turned and hurried to the lodge of Little Bad Wolf. After telling his mother and sister of what had occurred, he threw himself face downward upon the bed and remained there as one stupefied during the rest of the day.
Soon the crying, groaning, and shrieking told that the news had spread over the village. Pretty Owl had hurriedly fled to her father, while Pine Leaf's relatives, who had arrived at the scene of death, razed Red Cloud's lodge to the ground and broke, cut, and tore into shreds its covering. But that the friends of the newly married couple mingled with the mourners, quietly picked up the most valuable of these household effects, and preserved them all, all of them would have been destroyed. Not an effort was made to stay the mad fury of Pine Leaf's enraged and excited relatives, but, as it gradually spent itself, some of the cooler ones were made acquainted with the cause and all the circumstances connected with the tragedy, which showed plainly that it was a case of suicide. Then comparative quiet was restored, and the body which had been taken down was prepared for burial.
About a mile from the village on the top of a high hill four crotched posts were placed in the ground, the crotches about six feet from the earth. In these were laid other poles forming a scaffold. About the middle of the afternoon the procession started for the grave. The litter holding the corpse was placed on a travois to which was attached an old gentle pony led by an old woman; behind this followed first the mother, leading Pine Leaf's favorite pony and accompanied by her other daughters, all of them weeping and with their hair cut short as an evidence of deep mourning. After these came the father and brothers with their hair hanging loosely over their faces which were painted black and their bodies cut and gashed. They each carried their weapons and frequently fired to the right or left crying and yelling in a hideous manner. Behind these came many other mourners, each vying with the other in making the most noise.
When the grave was reached, the litter containing the corpse was placed upon a scaffold, and provisions and utensils containing water were put there beside it. Then the dead girl's favorite pony was led up to the grave and shot. Having thus furnished her with provisions, water, and mode of conveyance in the future world, a small tanned skin lodge was spread over the whole scaffold. The party slowly and sorrowfully returned to the village. After a brief period had been courteously allowed the relatives of Pine Leaf in which to indulge their grief, they hastened to replace the losses that Red Cloud had sustained by providing him another lodge and paying him a number of horses. This occurrence made an impression upon Red Cloud that caused him to resolve never to have but one wife, and he never did.5
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1. Sioux practices in courting, marriage, and polygamy are described in Royal B. Hassrick, The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 111-21; and Raymond J. DeMallie, "Male and Female in Traditional Lakota Culture," in The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women, ed. Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), 250-55.
2. David Brumble III, American Indian Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 59.
3. For more on Fort Laramie as a magnet for the Sioux and other Plains tribes, see Kingley M. Bray, "Teton Sioux Population History, 1655–1881," Nebraska History 75 (Summer 1994), 181; Kingley M. Bray, "Lone Horn's Peace: A New View of Sioux-Crow Relations, 1851-1858," Nebraska History 66 (Spring 1985), 28-29, 36-37; and James A. Hanson, "A Forgotten Fur Trade Trail," Nebraska History 68 (Spring 1987), 4.
4. This means of suicide was not unprecedented. Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, born in 1857 and living at Fort Laramie, recalled an acquaintance, a young mixed-blood Lakota girl, who in 1865 hanged herself in response to a chastisement by her mother. "Autobiography of Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, a Story of the Oglala and Brule Sioux," 259-60, Bettelyoun Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society.
5. Charles Jordan provided a rare quotation that can be attributed to Pretty Owl, spoken during a 1902 visit of the Red Clouds to Jordan's Rosebud Agency, South Dakota, home. "[L]ooking at Red Cloud, she said jokingly, 'When he was a young man, I was very jealous of him and used to watch him very closely for fear some other woman would win him from me.' Red Cloud seemed to enjoy the joke, and added, 'Yes, she surely kept on my trail.' " Jordan Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society.To Order