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Spotted Tail: Warrior and Statesman - Biography

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 As a prominent leader of the Sicangu Lakotas during a time of conflict and change, Spotted Tail (1823–1881) left his mark on the Northern Great Plains. He was not a hereditary chief but developed his standing over time, first proving himself a capable warrior and later a persuasive negotiator. As white settlers encroached on Indian lands in ever-greater numbers, Spotted Tail decided to forgo engaging in prolonged conflicts with the United States, including those led by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. Instead, he determined to negotiate with the United States to secure a homeland, education, employment, and other necessities essential to the future of his people. Had Spotted Tail chosen to fight, Captain John G. Bourke wrote in 1891, “neither North nor South Dakota, Wyoming nor Montana might now be on the map.”

Not all Lakotas agreed with his philosophy, and his tactics, heavy-handed at times, earned him enemies. On 5 August 1881, Crow Dog, a fellow Sicangu leader on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, shot and killed Spotted Tail, ending years of rivalry. Even in death, Spotted Tail continued to have an impact as Crow Dog’s conviction for his murder made its way to the United States Supreme Court, ultimately impacting tribal sovereignty.  

In the first full biography of Spotted Tail since the 1960s, Richmond L. Clow uses firsthand accounts from tribal and nontribal sources, government records, and published works to establish Spotted Tail as both a warrior and a statesman. The author’s voluminous research into contemporary news accounts, including interviews with Spotted Tail, provides a wealth of information about his views and actions that, until now, have been remarkably underutilized

Spotted Tail was one of the most complicated man of his time. His time was during and after the Great Sioux War, which consisted of conflict and change as a daily happening. Spotted Tail was an imposing man, who was heavy set, and nearly six feet tall, possessing an intellectual face. Amongst Spotted Tail’s tribes’ men status and prominence were gained by leadership roles through family connections, by wealth, success in war, and also by demonstrating wisdom. Spotted Tail first gained his status militarily by counting 26 coups and as a strategic fighter and leader of men.

After the Battle of Blue Water Creek, Spotted Tail, Long Chin, and Red Leaf surrendered themselves at Fort Laramie on 26 October 1855, due to Brigadier General William S Harney’s command. They came in to the fort because of the mail couch robbery and the Gratten fight. Impressive men, dressed in their finest, singing their death songs. These men led by example, resolved and determined to do what was needed to bring peace to their nation. After his prison time at Fort Leavenworth, Spotted Tail pursued diplomacy with the Americans however, this created battlefields other than military forcing Spotted Tail to learn the art of “give and take” with the Americans while applying an iron hand to his own band. Spotted tail went so far as to beat his own tribes’ men to keep the peace with the Americans.

Spotted Tail was very much in the National spotlight. The “NEW YORK SUN” once published a letter written by Spotted Tail, where his concerns echoed those of the national conscience. That letter focused on civil rights. Spotted Tail controlled the reservation law and order by having each band’s soldier society police the Rosebud agency. But in 1879, Secretary Schultz visited the reservation pushed for a tribal police force that was loyal to the United States Government and not Spotted Tail. In moving forward with police reform, Rosebud Agent selected Crow Dog to oversee the police force, thus undermining Spotted Tail’s influence. The two men disliked each other immensely. The reorganized police force widened the rift between the two men. But by allowing himself and his family to benefit at the expense of the tribe, he ignored the rule: “Never put self above community”.

Spotted Tail was a complicated man, a strong fighter, a diplomat, a ladies’ man, and a man of the people. This book brought Spotted Tail alive. He was a fascinating person of any time and not just his own.

Review by Anita Comeau


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Additional Info

Additional Info

Richmond L. Clow
Publication Details:
South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2019
Book Details:
Hardcover, 390 pages
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