Speaking Substances: Bodies

By Kyla SchullerMarch 23, 2016

Speaking Substances: Bodies
In the 21st century, we are inundated with news about human-induced climate change. But perhaps human-produced media are not the only source of information. What if the best source of news about the planetary effects of environmental damage was the planet itself? This essay is one of a four-part series, Speaking Substances, that considers the stories that might be told by unusual, sometimes nonhuman, but still-eloquent media: Ice, Oil, Bodies, and Rock.


THE OGLALA LAKOTA CHIEF Red Cloud, who lived from 1822–1909, is distinguished by two unusual superlatives. He is both the only Native leader to ever win a major war against the US government, and he is the most photographed Native American of the 19th century. Of course, these two accomplishments are related. An extremely sophisticated strategist, Red Cloud gradually shifted his tactics over the course of his career from a military defense of his people to a visual one. After an initial victory over the United States in what’s now called “Red Cloud’s War,” from 1866–1868, a series of military defeats lead Red Cloud to pursue negotiations to protect the Oglala Lakota’s territory in present-day Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana. Red Cloud carefully bolstered his new position as a diplomatic leader of the Lakota through the emergent media of photography. Between 1870 and 1909, Red Cloud sat for more than 128 photographs on at least 45 different occasions.[i]

What explains the 19th-century fascination with Red Cloud’s body, and why was presenting his body as a text so useful to Red Cloud as a political strategy? In Red Cloud’s moment, a range of interests had a stake in decoding the text of the Native body. Evolutionary scientists, for example, regarded Native bodies not so much as living humans but rather as animated fossils, the prehistoric remnants of the barbaric origins of human evolution. This scientific idea, I would claim, was connected to a political or philosophical idea: the belief that the space that is now the United States naturally belonged to the white settlers who sought to not only conquer it, but also to erase all traces of their conquest as a conquest. The spread of this belief, a part of what’s now often called “settler colonialism,” was aided by two surprising tools: the fossil, and the photograph. Red Cloud pushed back against the spread of settler colonialism by carefully shaping how both fossils and his own body were received by US audiences. Doing so, Red Cloud insisted on his rightful place in the visual cultures of modernity. And by carefully attending to the strategies he employed, we can illuminate how ecological readings of emergent 19th-century media connect to the history of settler colonialism — or, put differently, how the history of environmentalism and the history of social justice are intimately bound together.


Beginning in the 1860s, teams of paleontologists funded by the US Geological Survey followed the trail of Indian conquest — accompanied by US troops, officers, and scouts including General Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. They sought to lay claim to the fossil beds buried in what had just been Native land. What was at stake was two aims: first, scientists hoped to find a fossil record that would incontrovertibly prove one of the 19th century’s most pernicious ideas, that evolutionary species change had occurred within homo sapiens, fundamentally separating whites from other races. Second, and relatedly, the nation hoped to use this scientific proof to claim ownership of what one prominent paleontologist called “the long history of the great West.”[ii]

The Lakota referred to the fossils as “stone bones” and regarded them as the remains of the Unkcegila, the most powerful gods in Lakota theology, deities responsible for creating both earth and humankind.[iii] As historian Adrienne Mayor notes, prehistoric fossils played a central role in Lakota origin stories, important pre-Darwinian evolutionary thinking that understood these tremendous beasts to have once dwelled in an inland sea that covered the plains.

For both the Lakota and the US geologists, fossils were what we might call situated media: objects that recorded important planetary information. The difference lay in who makes the fossils speak. For the bone hunters, the discovery and display of what were promoted as “the largest and most terrible animals that have ever inhabited the earth,” naturalized US expansion as the missing link that connected a glorious ancestry with a millennial future.[iv] For the Lakota, fossils played a role in medical, religious, and historical practice, and could be used as a point of negotiation. Paleontologists were a conduit to the US incorporation of Indian land and the destruction of Indian lives, and by shaping access to them, Red Cloud saw that he had an opportunity to make his claims heard.

Though Montana and the Dakotas had initially been identified as among the country’s most promising sites for fossil discovery in the 1840s and ’50s, it wasn’t until the allied Sioux tribes began to lose power that exploring these fossils was deemed feasible. In 1870, Red Cloud and the Oglala Lakota moved onto reservation land, the Red Cloud Agency of northwestern Nebraska. Desiring to threaten the Lakota into further retreat, the army seized upon leading Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh’s plans for an expedition adjacent to Red Cloud’s territory that summer. “It will make it a little embarrassing to the Sioux, by sending a force south of their reservation,” western fort director Phil Sheridan wrote with bravado. The Yale expedition was backed by the head of the army, outfitted with no less than six army wagons, and at one point was accompanied by 30 troops.[v] Yet Red Cloud and other leaders let Marsh and his team conduct three additional fossil-gathering trips undisturbed, though the crew engaged in such activities as robbing skulls from funeral platforms, thereby symbolically dispossessing the Lakota of their land.[vi]

anthropnative american

Figure 1, “Indian Graves.” The illustration shows Marsh’s Yale Expedition looting Lakota funeral platforms. Source: C.W. Betts, “Yale College Expedition of 1870,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 43, no. 257 (Oct. 1871): 665.

When Marsh returned in 1874, however, he was hot on the heels of General Custer’s treaty-breaking discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Red Cloud and other Native leaders identified Marsh’s investigations as a significant negotiating weapon in their efforts to maintain political autonomy on the reservation. Marsh arrived in the midst of an important struggle for control over the Pine Ridge Reservation, where inhabitants were resisting the power grabs of the hated bureau agent, J. J. Saville. Sitting Bull, White Tail, and Red Cloud granted Marsh permission to pass through Lakota land to reach his destination, but only on two conditions. First, Marsh had to guarantee a substantial wage increase for the Lakota men hired by the expedition as scouts, and second, he must bring the tribe’s testimony of the corrupt activities of Agent Saville directly to Washington.[vii]

Marsh did eventually hold up his end of the bargain, bringing the charges against Agent Saville directly to President Grant. In the resulting Statement of Affairs at Red Cloud Agency, Made to the President of the United States, Marsh concludes: “That a chief of such note and ability as Red Cloud should be subjected to the caprices of such an agent, is in itself a gross indignity, and ill-calculated to inspire him or his people with respect for the advantages of civilization.”[viii]

Red Cloud had further opportunity to learn the terms of civilization. Five years later, the US Army seized upon a novel way to ensure that it maintained the upper hand in its relations with the Lakota. The Army granted Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt’s request to open an off-reservation boarding school for Native children, in order to hold the children of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Sioux “hostages for the good behavior of their people.”[ix] Pratt recruited 65 children from Spotted Tail’s tribe, but managed to enroll only 16 students at Red Cloud’s Agency. Pratt reported that “Red Cloud stood like a rock against the plan.”[x] The summer after Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s first year, Red Cloud joined Spotted Tail and other Lakota leaders among a large gathering of parents at the school, which had been established in unused military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The leaders were outraged by what they found, charging that Pratt had “made ‘a soldier place’ of Carlisle.”[xi]

Pushing back against the rhetoric that made white settlers feel entitled to Native children, Red Cloud made the kind of multivalent speech that had become his trademark in the years since he turned to negotiation as a means to fight for his people. Red Cloud declared: “My Great Father, this land is ours. My friends, the palefaces, have a land across the ocean. The man stands before us who has our children all in charge … We want to all shake hands with a good heart that in the future we may live in peace.” Deftly weaving flattering statements of goodwill with a clear declaration of the rightful inhabitants of North America, Red Cloud made it clear that the Natives’ participation in the school was a negotiated partnership hinging upon the leaders’ satisfaction with the proceedings at Carlisle.

Over the next decade, Red Cloud came to praise the work of Hampton and Carlisle for providing a basic formal education for Native children, yet managed to use Carlisle’s publicity machine for his own benefit. Pratt infamously framed Carlisle Indian Industrial School as effecting an evolutionary transformation from savagery to civilization through the deliberate staging and wide distribution of “before and after” photographs of the pupils under his charge. Pratt often had parents who visited Carlisle pose with their uniformed children for the school’s official photographer, an image that collapsed the “before” and “after” into the same frame. The pictures served an important public relations strategy in announcing the Native’s willingness to be “civilized,” as a tiny soldier sits on the knee of a feathered chief.


Figure 2, “Tom Torlino.” Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives [#53,599 and #53,599-A].

But significantly, while Red Cloud made three visits to Carlisle, he opted out of delegation portraits or any other pictures. On his final visit he chose to be photographed, but posed only for solo portraits and images with his interpreter, Ed Laramie, and Agent Edward Townsend, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official who was an important ally in his fight against the oppressive Agent McGillicuddy at Pine Ridge.[xii] The portrait frames Red Cloud as a political leader, not a school grandfather. Rather than a contrast between a “wild” Indian and a tamed worker, Red Cloud staged a photograph that would figure him temporally synchronic with civil servants and yet front and center, his firmly crossed forearms blocking visual access to his torso. A parted jacket reveals his vest, an important component of his impeccable dress. Whereas Agent Townsend to his left looks wooden in front of the camera, Red Cloud appears at once formidable and calmly composed. Laramie’s hand familiarly drapes on Townsend’s shoulder, yet it is toward Red Cloud that his body leans. Taking control over the rendering of his body as text, Red Cloud’s selective participation in the ritual of Carlisle photography served to bolster rather than diminish his political aims.


Figure 3, “Red Cloud, Ed Laramie, Agent Edward B. Townsend,” 1882. Photograph by John Nicholas Choate. Courtesy: Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.

Recently, eco-critics have urged us to see organic forms like fossils and bodies as media, as sources of stories and information. Doing so helps us see Red Cloud’s strategy, through photographs, and through his decisions around fossil access, he was making himself into an agent rather than an object. By the early 1880s, Red Cloud had adopted a new strategy in leading the Lakota in the bitter aftermath of the Black Hills War. Frank Goodyear III has recently shown that Red Cloud embraced portrait photography as a tool to shape his public image in a flattering and respectful light. As Goodyear argues, widely circulated photos of the chief shaking hands with statesmen and government officials on his numerous delegations to Washington Red Cloud were important tools to maintain his political authority, both on the East Coast and among his own tribe. Photographs from the 1880s show Red Cloud in formal suits with medium-length hair, often handing a peace pipe to a white official. His very physicality modeled his strategy to work with, rather than against, the US government as the best means to manage his agency. [xiii] Such a shift has earned Red Cloud numerous accusations of selling out, both in his time and in ours. Yet during an era in which the bodies of Native Americans were almost exclusively positioned by settler colonial culture as media that faithfully transmitted the evolutionary past into the present, Red Cloud insisted that he shape what his body broadcast, to whom it spoke, and to what epoch it most properly belonged.

The month after his final visit to Carlisle, Red Cloud traveled north to New Haven to visit an old ally. Professor O. C. Marsh, then president of the National Academy of the Sciences and head of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, greeted the chief among a fanfare of press. By this time, Marsh had unearthed a series of fossil horses widely deemed to be the first proof of evolutionary change, and the US government had declared success in its conquest of Native America. During his four-day stay at Marsh’s newly completed mansion, Red Cloud visited the Peabody to see the fossilized dinosaurs dug up from his tribe’s land. He refused to attend a church service. The highlight of the visit for the press and for Marsh, however, was a two-hour sitting at a local portrait studio. Marsh told a New Haven reporter that Red Cloud “was not at all inclined to sit … He only did so because I was anxious to have him.”[xiv] Eventually consenting to the session, Red Cloud posed with Marsh and made solitary portraits, some of which provided close-up images of his physiognomy that Marsh later had enlarged at the Museum’s expense.[xv] Marsh approached Red Cloud’s body as evidence. And yet, Red Cloud again drew the line where he saw fit. When requested to submit to a molding of a plaster cast of his head, presumably for the use of Peabody ethnologists, Red Cloud resolutely refused.[xvi]

Red Cloud

Figure 4, “Red Cloud and Othniel Marsh,” 1883. Photograph by Frank A. Bowman. Courtesy Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

The most duplicated image from the photo session shows Red Cloud and Marsh locked in a stately handshake. While Marsh stares intently in three-quarter profile at the camera and the viewer, Red Cloud, stationed in the shadows, keeps his gaze locked on Marsh himself. The professor seems poised to spring outside of the woodlands setting, his foot turned pointedly away from the towering frame before him and toward the presumably welcoming audience. He is centered in front of a halo created by the painted backdrop, the photographer’s light reflecting off his expanse of forehead as if rays of knowledge emanating directly from his brain. The context is a diorama, more than a formal portrait. The peace pipe and pipe bag, meant to be a symbol of Red Cloud’s friendship, hang limply in the center of the photograph. They draw a visual gulf between them, rather than cementing a moment of cross-cultural intimacy. That Marsh himself supplied these potent symbols of Native governance from his collection at the Peabody Museum underscores the paleontologist’s enormous power over Red Cloud and his people.[xvii] These accessories are a brutal reminder of the context of the visit, one in which friendship and political alliance went hand-in-hand with the attempt to relegate Native Americans to the realm of natural history.

Viewing the fossil and the photograph as media forms enables us to see how ecological information about epochs of prehistory — including just who and what is relegated to prehistory — played a central role in settler colonial politics. Both of these media technologies preserve moments long eclipsed, translating what was once flesh and blood into stone and paper. Neither the fossil nor the photograph provide faithful records, context-less evidence, or an unmediated vantage on the past. Carefully managing access to the fossils in Lakota land and to his corporeal form, Red Cloud challenged the narrative of the vanishing primitive; his self-presentation maintained cultural agency in the face of military defeat. Such careful rendering of embodied texts suggests the utility of expanding the genre of 19th-century media beyond the products of the human hand to include the corporeal itself, as well as the need for vigilance in assessing for whom these media are made to speak.


A version of this essay is forthcoming: Schuller, Kyla. “The Fossil and the Photograph: Red Cloud, Prehistoric Media and Dispossession in Perpetuity.” Configurations 24:2 (2016). © 2016 Johns Hopkins University Press.  Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.


[i] Frank H. Goodyear III, Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 1.

[ii] Osborn, “Prehistoric Quadrupeds of the Rockies,” 715.

[iii] James Owen Dorsey, “A Study of Siouan Cults,” Eleventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1894): 438-41.

[iv] William H. Ballou, “Strange Creatures of the Past: Gigantic Saurians of the Reptilian Age,” Century Illustrated Magazine LV, no. 1 (1897): 15.

[v] Jaffe, The Gilded Dinosaur, 25, 29, 32.

[vi] On unburying skulls as dispossession of Native land see Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors.

[vii] Jaffe, The Gilded Dinosaur, 114. While Sitting Bull was chief of the Hunkpapa, a band of Indians who refused to live within the reservation grounds, he was present at the council that day on account of the ongoing resistance to Saville’s displays of power.

[viii] O. C. Marsh, A Statement of Affairs at Red Cloud Agency, Made to the President of the United States (New Haven, CT [?]: O.C. Marsh, 1875), 14.

[ix] Richard Henry Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert M. Utley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 220. Citations hereafter marked in text.

[x] George Hyde, A Sioux Chronicle (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956), 52.

[xi] Hyde, A Sioux Chronicle, 55.

[xii] Ibid., 66.

[xiii] The information in the above paragraph is cited from Frank H. Goodyear III, Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

[xiv] Qtd. in Goodyear, Red Cloud, 76.

[xv] Ibid., 80.

[xvi] “Red Cloud in New-Haven,” The New York Times, January 22, 1882, 2.

[xvii] Goodyear, Red Cloud, 79.


Kyla Schuller is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.

LARB Contributor

Kyla Schuller is professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author of the book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Impressibility in the 19th Century, forthcoming from Duke University Press.


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