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Change is a Constant Red Cloud

by Rob Phillips, Head of School.
Originally Published in Best of SAAS 2012-2013 Magazine.

 

Head of School
I

Every summer for the past 25 years, I’ve spent an extended period of time at a remote home in southeast Alaska that was built by my aunt, uncle, and their daughters. And once again this summer, a group of Seattle Academy middle school students travelled to Alaska to stay at the homestead.  While retreating to the wilderness always reinforces my appreciation for so much that is timeless, this summer also reminded me that change is truly a constant.

Each day, as I was out in the boat with students fishing and kayaking, I noticed new cabins in bays that had always been my favorite isolated fishing spots, and the quiet that had once been broken only by loon calls was now increasingly interrupted by the sounds of our new neighbors traveling by boat and float plane to their summer cabins.

 

As I grappled with the loss of solitude and this “new normal” of a less remote homestead, my thoughts became increasingly centered on the nature and persistence of change, and I found myself coming back to a leader who had once been confronted by forces whose magnitude could scarcely be comprehended and in no way avoided: Red Cloud, a Native American leader to whom fell the task of preserving his people’s very survival in a period of unprecedented change.

II

The tidal wave of western movement known as Manifest Destiny provided countless new opportunities for many Americans, but it was a disaster in the making for tribes like the Navajo, Apache, Comanche, and Yakima. And especially for the Lakota, a nation that controlled large swaths of the northern Great Plains – land that included parts of present-day Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota.

The Lakota were known to Americans and to enemy tribes as the Sioux, and they were recognized by foe and ally alike as a force to be reckoned with. Red Cloud was the leader of the Oglalas, one of the largest bands in the Lakota Nation, whose lands stood squarely in the way of American westward expansion. 

Since the Lakota were a known military force and Red Cloud was a feared and respected military leader, the government tried to buy him off with presents and promises. But Red Cloud refused to meet with the negotiators unless they agreed to his preconditions, and as result the government launched five successive military invasions of Lakota country; all were defeated by Red Cloud and his allies.

General Sherman was sent to assess the situation, and he reported to President Grant that even given 20,000 troops he couldn’t promise a victory. So the US government signed a treaty that accommodated Red Cloud’s demands, and the Lakota celebrated their victory.

But as was so often the case, the treaty that Red Cloud believed he’d agreed to in 1868 was changed once it reached Congress, and by 1870, the concessions Red Cloud had won were essentially worthless. So despite his misgivings, Red Cloud boarded a train bound for Washington D.C., determined to get a clearer understanding of an enemy that he recognized could be defeated in a battle, but not in a war.

Photo of Seattle Academy Students at Park

General Sherman was sent to assess the situation, and he reported to President Grant that even given 20,000 troops he couldn’t promise a victory. So the US government signed a treaty that accommodated Red Cloud’s demands, and the Lakota celebrated their victory.

But as was so often the case, the treaty that Red Cloud believed he’d agreed to in 1868 was changed once it reached Congress, and by 1870, the concessions Red Cloud had won were essentially worthless. So despite his misgivings, Red Cloud boarded a train bound for Washington D.C., determined to get a clearer understanding of an enemy that he recognized could be defeated in a battle, but not in a war.

III

I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for Red Cloud and the other native leaders on that train: seeing the farms and settlements that increasingly blanketed the land as the train moved eastward, the diminishing buffalo herds, the diversity and wealth of technology the Americans possessed.

By the time the train rolled into Washington, D.C., it had to have been brutally apparent to Red Cloud that the future was about to overtake him with all of the force of a thunder storm on the prairie, and that the world his children and grandchildren would live in would be radically different than the world he’d been fighting to preserve.

But as jarring as the trip to the East must have been for him, I can’t help but wonder even more about Red Cloud’s thoughts on the train trip back home, as he desperately tried to figure out how he was going to lead his people forward in a time of such drastic and immediate transition.

For us today, as parents and educators, the future that our children will inhabit is almost impossible to imagine, and this causes us enormous anxiety.

But try to put yourself in Red Cloud’s plight: he’d actually seen the future. His question wasn’t, “What’s coming?” It was, “What must we do to survive as a people?” 

How would Red Cloud find the words to explain to his people what he’d seen? And if he could find the words to describe what was coming, how would he ever maintain any sense of hope and resolve about the future, given the enormity of the challenges he knew were bearing down upon the Lakota? What solutions would he propose, and how would he help his people implement those solutions?

To directly compare our challenges as 21st Century parents and educators to Red Cloud’s would be presumptuous; to do so would be to underestimate the gravity of the situation he faced and would, however well-meaning, be disrespectful of his and so many other Native People’s legacies as people facing a nation determined to erase them from the equation. Today’s challenges are also immediate, but they are obviously different.

But there are important connections to be made and lessons to be learned.

Red Cloud’s story didn’t have a Hollywood happy ending. But he did have the intelligence, courage, and foresight to reject the two either/or options that were being debated by whites and natives alike: fight to the death and go out in a blaze of glory, or absolutely surrender the Lakota lands, religion, and identity in the name of an assimilation policy designed to “kill the Indian but save the Man.”

Despite enormous uncertainty, Red Cloud reached several conclusions that are helpful for us, as we prepare our students and our children to face a future where change will continue to be the most prominent feature of the landscape.

IV

Red Cloud’s first realization was that he was going to have to find a place to stand between two very different cultures. Red Cloud rejected the either/or proposition being forwarded by most whites and natives, that the Lakota either needed to completely assimilate to white culture or maintain a total adherence to their traditional culture and practice.

He recognized that the Lakota would need to be able to live in the tenuous, uncertain zone where cultures converged and interacted if they were going to be able to retain what could be retained while also adapting to new realities. As Red Cloud repeatedly said to Lakota’s and to the U.S. government, learning to live with the whites and retaining a meaningful identity as Lakota were equal necessities.

Here in the early 21st Century, our own future depends on our ability to equip a generation of leaders with a foundation from which to navigate among global cultures while still retaining a sense of personal identity and timeless values. Being a citizen of the world will mean knowing who you are and knowing who others are.

We work hard at Seattle Academy to put our students in situations where they understand what it’s like to be The Other, to recognize that their assumptions and values won’t always be shared and will therefore need to be examined, explained, and sometimes reconsidered.

So we give our students experiences like the three days our 8th graders spend immersed in service and study in the Seattle homeless community, which is far more beneficial to our students than it is to the homeless population we serve over those days. And our students travel to places like New Orleans, China, and the Yukon for experiences that are crucial for their ability to develop the kind of resilience and perspective on themselves and on the world that we believe is fundamental for them to be able to navigate constructively in a world in which cultural isolation and ignorance will forever be as reckless as it is unproductive.

V

Red Cloud accepted the jarring truth that many of the concrete skills the Lakota had relied on for centuries to master their environment were quickly becoming irrelevant. That realization is applicable in our own times, given the shifts occurring in employment patterns. Entire industries have disappeared in less than a generation, and with them millions of jobs that were the only option that many of our citizens were trained to do. And while new industries are being constantly being created, that’s of little comfort to the workers who don’t have the skills to benefit from them.

Photo of Red Cloud leader of the Oglalas of the Lakota Nation

That’s why we’re so committed to instilling and strengthening in our students both an entrepreneurial mind set and an entrepreneurial skill set. We can’t know precisely what skills will matter in the future, but we do have some indications that certain skills are becoming ever more important and that an entrepreneurial spirit which prepares students to think and act creatively and collaboratively can only increase their chances of success in the future.

That’s why we’ve been equally vigilant about equipping our students with timeless skills (critical thinking, effective writing and public speaking, grace under pressure, teamwork) as we’ve been about adding new courses in the sciences, in computer programming, and an Innovations seminar for seniors.

And it’s why we’ve devoted time and resources to bringing in national experts to visit Seattle Academy and give us feedback on our programs, and why we’ve sent teams of faculty, administrators, and board members to visit innovative schools and universities around the country.

VI

Red Cloud understood that his greatest responsibility was to future generations. He repeatedly urged his people to make all decisions in light of seven generations into the future, and not just for the needs and challenges of the moment. He thought in terms of sustainability in broad terms for both the human and natural communities.

The tide of challenges facing future generations is rising, not receding, and as Joe Puggelli has noted, “We’re going to need bold innovators to create jobs to replace those that have disappeared and will disappear; and we’re going to need bold innovators to create the bonds, the connections, and the communities that knit us together. We’re going to have to build not only sustainable buildings, but also sustainable people and sustainable communities.”

The tide of challenges facing future generations is rising, not receding, and as Joe Puggelli has noted, “We’re going to need bold innovators to create jobs to replace those that have disappeared and will disappear; and we’re going to need bold innovators to create the bonds, the connections, and the communities that knit us together. We’re going to have to build not only sustainable buildings, but also sustainable people and sustainable communities.”

Which is why we at Seattle Academy expend so much effort to make sure that our mission never becomes a collection of stale words.

Our mission is “to prepare our students for college and life.” Not just college, but life, and not just life as we understand it now, but as it will be lived by our graduates, by our immediate community, and by our global community well into the future. Seven generations forward, we’d like to hope.

Try as we might, it’s difficult to imagine the future. We literally don’t know what the physical climate – weather patterns, temperatures, ocean levels – will be like for our children, much less the economic, political, and social climates.  
But just as Red Cloud grappled with how to prepare his people for the future he’d seen, our mission is to prepare our students and our children for the multiple possible futures that are flying at us as quickly today as Red Cloud’s train thundered across the plains and  back to the Lakota.

VII

Red Cloud was and continues to be a controversial figure, with a complex legacy, as we’d expect of a leader who tried to serve as a translator between two very different cultures, and who tried to bridge the past to what he saw as an imminent future.

And he lived into the 20th century, long enough to see his prediction about the folly of war come true. A great Lakota victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn resulted in the full punitive force of the United States military being leveled against the Lakota people, and Red Cloud witnessed the horrific crimes committed by the 7th Calvary in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. But he also lived long enough to know that he had succeeded in preserving the seeds of a viable future for the Lakota, despite repeated attempts to wipe them off the map.

In his final address to his people, on July 4th 1903, Red Cloud offered this advice:

“I was born a Lakota and I shall die a Lakota. As a child, I was taught to be kind to my people and brave before my enemies, to tell the truth and to live straight, and to protect my people. What more can be offered or expected?”

We’ll never know what thoughts Red Cloud had on that train ride home, over thirty years before his farewell speech, but I suspect that he was searching for solid ground to stand on in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and chaos. He knew that paralysis driven by uncertainty was a clear danger, as was the temptation to grab for quick answers and simple solutions. And I can’t help but guess that the childhood lessons he stated in his final address provided him with points on a compass as he sought to guide his people forward into an uncertain future.