OPINION: The Washington Red Clouds
By Bob Drury and Thomas Clavin
Special to the Washington Post
In June 1870, the most powerful American Indian leader in the country, Red Cloud, arrived in Washington with a contingent of Oglala and Brule Sioux. He was treated as a head of state, given tours of the Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard — where he witnessed a gunnery demonstration — and was feted at a White House reception hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant. The former commander of the Union armies may have recognized the significance of Red Cloud accomplishing in two years what Robert E. Lee could not in four: defeating the United States in a war.
What is called Red Cloud’s War officially began in 1866 when the Sioux leader could no longer abide the relentless incursions, including the building of U.S. Army forts, into his people’s territory. The high point of the war occurred when he and his field commander Crazy Horse wiped out an Army troop of 81 men. President Andrew Johnson’s stunned administration sued for peace. In November 1868, Red Cloud signed a treaty to end the fighting — only after burning the Army forts to the ground.
Less than two years later, Red Cloud was in the nation’s capital. “He became stunningly famous,” historian R. Eli Paul wrote. “Newspapers recounted his every word and deed, and large crowds of onlookers gathered at every public sighting.”
It is time for Red Cloud to return to Washington — on the professional football team’s jerseys and in its fighting spirit.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Washington Redskins season-ticket holders, owner Daniel Snyder reiterated his pride in the team and resisted calls to change its name, which Indian groups and others have proclaimed offensive. Snyder emphasized: “Our past isn’t just where we came from — it’s who we are.”
In a response dated three days later and published in The Washington Post, Robert Brave Heart and George Winzenburg, executive vice president and president, respectively, of the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, declared: “As an organization, Red Cloud Indian School has never — and will never — endorse the use of the name ‘Redskins.’ ” They urged Snyder to “engage in further discussion with Native groups across the country and, ultimately, to move toward changing the name, once and for all.”
That discussion can be a short one. The team should be renamed for the great leader who is buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a short walk from the school named after him. Such a move would not only ease tension between American Indians and the NFL, but naming the team after Red Cloud would also signify strength, intelligence and perseverance — qualities any NFL team would be proud to project.
Having grown up on the intense rivalries of the NFC East, we agree with Snyder that the team’s tradition and past glories are a big part of “who we are” and “where we came from.” Which is why we would hate to see his Washington franchise saddled with a generic animal, mineral, geological or meteorological appellation.
The name change from Redskins to Red Clouds would go a long way toward repairing the relationship between the NFL and American Indians. And it would involve minor alterations to the team’s logo and even its famous fight song, which could be sung, without missing a beat, as “Hail to the Red Clouds.” Red Cloud’s profile would be most appealing on jerseys and banners. Finally, there is precedent for naming an NFL franchise after an individual — the Cleveland Browns took their name from their first head coach, Ohio coaching legend Paul Brown.
At the height of his prowess, Red Cloud controlled a multi-tribal empire whose territory spanned one-fifth of the contiguous United States. Moreover, not only did he manage to unite the fractious Sioux clans, bands and tribes into the most fearsome Indian nation in the West, he was a brilliant strategist. Such was his foresight and courage that he was the only Indian to have defeated the U.S. in not just a battle but a declared war.
Born to an alcoholic father who died soon thereafter, Red Cloud’s future appeared dim in the patriarchal Sioux society. Yet he used his insight, innate leadership skills and fearlessness to forge an Indian alliance across the High Plains. Once he led the Sioux to victory over stronger enemies such as the Pawnee and Crow, and co-opted proud tribes such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho into vassal allies, Red Cloud turned his eye toward the white adventurers, miners and settlers streaming into his territory. They were no match for his military acumen — nor were the U.S. Army officers and soldiers sent to subdue him.
The strategy and tactics designed by Red Cloud and carried out by Crazy Horse — the wiry, young fellow tribesman Red Cloud promoted to field commander — became a guerilla campaign that crippled the Army.
Red Cloud was one of the most famous American Indians of the 1800s. His trips to Washington to represent the interests of the Sioux and other tribes were covered by newspapers from Chicago to New York to Boston. These same newspapers gave prominent position to his obituary when Red Cloud died in 1909, at age 88.
What football team would not be honored to bear his name? And what general manager and coach would not use Red Cloud’s personal story as a template for creating a winning franchise?
Named after such a proud and powerful winner, the Washington Red Clouds would be a lock to emulate their namesake and rout 49ers, defeat Raiders, humiliate Cowboys, pluck Eagles, turn back Texans, break Broncos and generally leave quivering the remaining would-be Giants and Titans of the National Football League.
And that is something for Daniel Snyder to consider.
— Drury and Clavin are the authors of “The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend.”