Chief Lobbyist

He made little headway with President Grant, but Red Cloud won over the 19th century’s greatest photographers

The great Lakota chief Red Cloud
The great Lakota chief Red Cloud at 51, in an 1872 portrait by Alexander Gardner National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives

Red cloud started down the path of becoming the most photographed American Indian of the 19th century one spring morning in 1872, a few blocks from the White House. Before meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant, the Lakota chief agreed to sit for Mathew Brady, famed for his Civil War-era photographs and his portraits of the prominent. Two days later, Red Cloud posed at the nearby studio of Alexander Gardner, Brady's former assistant and one of the founders of American photojournalism. That session yielded a picture that was a bestseller in its day and is one of the earliest, most striking photographs of an Indian chief in his prime.

Aside from the tribal blanket around his waist, Red Cloud's dress is simple. "My great-great-grandfather was both a leader and a warrior, but he was also a man," says Dorene Red Cloud, 34, an artist in Gardner, Massachusetts. The chief, she says, wanted Washington leaders to see him as a diplomat, "minus the glamour or pomp or circumstance of feathers and beads."

Not much is known about Red Cloud's visit to Gardner's studio, says Frank Goodyear III, a curator of photographs for the National Portrait Gallery and author of the 2003 book Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief. Gardner made at least four different plates, and the session was arranged by a wealthy land speculator named William Blackmore, who was collecting photographs for a museum about Native peoples he'd opened in 1867 in his hometown of Salisbury, England.

The Scottish-born Gardner, once a Glasgow newspaperman, had been living in Washington since 1856. He started as Brady's assistant and occasional bookkeeper, but launched his own studio in 1863, after what D. Mark Katz, in his Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner, calls an "amicable" break with Brady. In 1865, Gardner published a volume of frontline Civil War scenes, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War. He also won recognition for his images of Abraham Lincoln and other leading figures. He made his mark not with technical innovations but by "affecting public awareness," Katz writes, whether through "authentic images of the horrors of the battlefield" or mug shots of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. After the war, Gardner briefly went West, where he documented treaty signings between Indians and U.S. officials. Gardner retired in 1879 and died three years later at age 61.

The best-known Indian leader of his time, Red Cloud had become a warrior in clashes with the U.S. military in the Northern Plains. In 1868, he reluctantly signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, which reaffirmed the Lakota's hunting rights, sectioned off the Great Sioux Reservation and required the government to remove military forts.

But the government didn't hold up its end of the deal, and even built a new fort on Lakota soil. After meeting with Grant the first time, in 1870, a frustrated Red Cloud was quoted as telling Secretary of the Interior Jacob Cox that the treaty was "all lies." He added: "We have been driven far enough; we want what we ask for." Officials, meanwhile, had hoped to wangle from Red Cloud access to the Lakota's gold-rich Black Hills (which they obtained years later). During the chief's second visit to Grant, in 1872, Red Cloud sensed more respect, and as a kind of diplomatic gesture, Goodyear says, he agreed to have his picture taken.

In years to come, Red Cloud would journey from his home in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to Washington eight more times and hobnob with officials from three other administrations, frequently on his own initiative. Photographers clamored to capture him on film, and the 128 known photographs of the chief trace his quest to hang onto influence while most people believed American Indian culture would go the way of the dinosaurs. In photographs from the 1880s, Red Cloud sports short hair and tailored suits, which he had hoped would help win over U.S. leaders. Those efforts proved futile, and he let his hair grow. The final portraits show a frail, white-haired, nearly blind old man, seemingly wistful for his tribe's glory days. He died in 1909 at age 88.

But at Gardner's studio in 1872, Red Cloud fixes his gaze directly forward—a "strikingly modern" view, Goodyear says, that distinguishes this image from the rest: "He's at the top of his game as a diplomat and tribal leader. You can sense this is not a defeated man."

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