Book Review: “The Heart of Everything That Is” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin – posted 7/27/2014
We lack great books about Native American history. We do have “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Black Elk Speaks” and “Empire of the Summer Moon” but so much history is left out.
Fortunately, we now have “The Heart of Everything That Is” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. They chronicle the history of the legendary Sioux leader Red Cloud. In the period immediately after the Civil War, Red Cloud defeated the U.S. Army. He did what other Native American leaders had not proven able to do. He united many tribes against the settler-invaders.
Why does this matter? I would submit that the conventional view of American history sidelines the centrality of the Native American struggle. Bottom line: the advancing Americans took their land. Through the means of military conquest, repeatedly dishonored treaties and overwhelming population shift, Native peoples’ were shoved aside and removed to reservations. Along with slavery, this is our original sin that remains very inadequately addressed to this day.
Drury and Clavin present a clear narrative about the struggle of the Sioux to come to grips with the advancing whites. It is not the story you got growing up in school if you got any kind of story at all.
To their credit, Drury and Clavin let it all hang out. They do not prettify or sugarcoat any side. The brutality and violence of both sides was extreme.While they appreciate the heroism of Red Cloud, they show him as a complex human being. Here is one description:
“In later years when old Sioux who had ridden with Red Cloud reminisced, they invariably recalled three traits the young brave always exhibited. The first, surprisingly, was his grace. He rode, walked and stalked like a panther, his every action shorn of extraneous movements. The second was his brutality; he was like flint, they said, hard and easily sparked. On one occasion he killed a Crow boy who was guarding a herd of ponies and the next day he waited in ambush for the pursuing Crow chief, the boy’s father, to kill him too. On another occasion he took obvious joy in jumping into a river to save a floundering Ute from drowning, only to drag him up onto the bank, knife him to death and scalp him. The third trait was his arrogance, essential to any Sioux leader…” (p.76)
The fighting qualities he exhibited earned Red Cloud great respect. As Drury and Clavin explain, he did not spare himself the self-inflicted pain common in Sioux warrior culture. He underwent the Sun Dance ceremony which subjected the brave to excruciating pain. Drury and Clavin explain that the Sioux believed such extreme physical suffering could give a physical edge that would make it harder for them to be killed.
While the book tells many stories about Red Cloud, there was one particularly tragic story about his love life. Red Cloud loved two women. In Sioux culture, a man could take as many wives as he could afford. Although Red Cloud was more attracted to a young woman named Pine Leaf, he decided to marry Pretty Owl, his other love, because it was a more politically advantageous match. Pine Leaf’s family did not have the prestige of Pretty Owl’s.
The morning after Red Cloud’s wedding to Pretty Owl, he stepped out of his tepee. A short distance away, hanging from a low branch, was his first love, Pine Leaf. Red Cloud returned to his mother’s teepee and did not move. He was in traumatic shock and grief. Pine Leaf’s family cut her body down and then her male relatives slashed Red Cloud’s honeymoon lodge to shreds. Red Cloud remained monogamous for the rest of his life. Drury and Clavin wrote that Pine Leaf’s suicide made Red Cloud more dour and smothered any joy in his life. He did remain married to Pretty Owl for 59 years though.
From a very early age, Red Cloud was seen as a major tribal leader and a feared warrior. The book shows Red Cloud’s genius as a military tactician. The guerilla war he led was unprecedented. As noted, he defeated the U.S. Army for a period of time. I did not realize the extent of the internal divisions among the Native American tribes. Red Cloud had a very rare ability to unite previously warring tribes, At the height of his power Red Cloud and the Sioux controlled a huge swath of land from Iowa to Idaho.
On November 6, 1868, after years of battles, Red Cloud rode into Fort Laramie and triumphantly signed a treaty whereby the United States conceded to the Sioux the territory from the Bighorns eastward to the Missouri River and from the forty sixth parallel south to the Dakota-Nebraska boundary. As the book says, this was the proudest moment of Red Cloud’s life.
The United States did not live up to this treaty. Red Cloud went to New York and Washington DC in 1870 to try and obtain treaty compliance and wrest concessions. He met a wildly popular reception and masses of people lined the New York streets to see him. Popular mass appeal did not however equate with meeting Native American demands.
Drury and Clavin say that it was on this trip east that Red Cloud realized the futility of his aspirations. He told the Secretary of the Interior: “Now we are melting like snow on the hillside, while you are growing like spring grass.”
One statistic that impressed me: in 1866, when Red Cloud was fighting there were fewer than 2 million whites populating the West. Twenty-five years later, with the advent of railroads, that number shot up to 8.5 million. Today it is 86 million. Those numbers alone show what the Native Americans were up against.
The book highlights some colorful western characters whom history has left behind. I would mention Jim Bridger who was a larger than life character. He was nicknamed Old Gabe after the Archangel Gabriel. Bridger was a mountain man, a trapper, a scout, and a pioneer with experience fighting Indians. According to the authors, he took part in a Congressional scientific survey seeking the source of the Yellowstone and he discovered a mountain pass that shortened the route between Denver and Salt Lake City for the overland mail coach. (It is now U.S. Route 40). Bridger was friendly to some tribes and he was very ambivalent about the advance of the white settlers. He had a Shoshone wife and his loyalties were often in doubt. He had conflict with the Mormons and Brigham Young that escalated to violence. A posse of Mormons who were out to arrest him attacked a stockade he controlled and burned his large stock of whiskey and rum. They took his livestock and never returned them.
Bridger spoke French, Spanish and close to a dozen Indian tongues. Drury and Clavin say this about Bridger:
“His bravery was unquestioned, and he was said to be the best shot, the savviest scout, the most formidable horseman, and though functionally illiterate, the ablest interpreter in the Rockies. He took two arrows in the back in a fight with Blackfeet in 1832; his companions could extricate only one. Three years later…a passing surgeon was enlisted to remove the other.” (p.98)
The authors do a good job in getting inside the characters of both the Native American leaders and the military men pursuing them.
“The Heart of Everything That Is” can be read as an adventure story, a historical narrative, a biography and the story of a people. The authors did remarkable research which must have been hard to come by. S.G. Gwynne, the historian, described the book as “big blazing history writ large on the High Plains.” Hard to argue with that.
While many profess sympathy, it seems to me that Americans maintain a blind spot around the history of Native Americans. Great books like this are really important because at least the authors tell the story honestly. It is easy to be skeptical that we as a society will ever do the right thing around Native American issues. At least with a book like this we can begin to understand what happened and how Native Americans became so marginalized.