Published on February 22, 2011 by Amy
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The American Indian symbol of the North Dakota Highway Department is the profile of an actual Lakota Indian.
Marcellus Red Tomahawk was a warrior who actively fought against the whites during the early years of Dakota Territory. He later settled on the Standing Rock Reservation, becoming a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs police force.
He was part of several peace negotiations, served as a Lakota goodwill ambassador and met with U.S. presidents. Red Tomahawk is most remembered as the man who shot and killed Sitting Bull.
Tacanke Luta (Tacanipiluta), Red Tomahawk, was born in the late fall of 1849 in Montana Territory. His father, Sintemaza, Peter Iron Tail, was from the Yantonai tribe, and his mother, Wamlisapa, Black Eagle, was a member of the Hunkpapa tribe. Red Tomahawk was the name of his paternal grandfather.
While Red Tomahawk was growing up, the whites began to make inroads into Montana and Dakota Territory, land he considered given to the Lakota by the Great Spirit. By 1862, he started going out with Lakota warriors to harass these intruders in the hope that it would discourage others from following them.
When military forts were built in Indian territory to protect the whites, Red Tomahawk and the other warriors began to harass the soldiers. At Fort Rice, in northern Dakota Territory, he was active in driving off the soldiers’ cattle and horses and making surprise attacks on the fort.
By the mid-1870s, Red Tomahawk realized that the soldiers could not be defeated, and he joined other Lakotas as they settled on the Standing Rock Reservation south of Bismarck. When Sitting Bull convinced many Indians to leave the reservation and join him to flee west into Montana, Red Tomahawk remained at Standing Rock.
After the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn and the discovery of gold in southern Dakota, the U.S. government drew up the Black Hills Treaty in 1877, which took that sacred land away from the Lakota. Red Tomahawk argued that this was in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had been signed nine years earlier.
In the later 1870s, Red Tomahawk converted to Catholicism, got married and took on the Christian name Marcellus. One of the policies of the reservation was that the Indians would have their own police unit. On July 1, 1881, Red Tomahawk and his good friend, Shave Head, enlisted as privates with the BIA Indian Police under the direction of newly installed agent James McLaughlin.
Due to their bravery, intelligence and trustworthiness, the two men quickly rose in rank. Through the Allotment Act of 1887, Red Tomahawk was given a parcel of land north of Cannon Ball on the reservation.
In 1889, Sitting Bull rejoined his followers at Standing Rock and almost immediately began to agitate his warriors through the religious ceremony known as the Ghost Dance.
Realizing the dangerous situation at Standing Rock, Gen. Nelson A. Miles ordered William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody to the reservation to arrest Sitting Bull on Nov. 28, 1890. Cody and Sitting Bull were friends and Miles reasoned that the arrest could be made with little commotion.
McLaughlin refused to allow Cody to make the arrest because he had complete confidence his Indian police would be able to make the arrest with far less turmoil.
Late in the evening of Dec. 14, 1890, McLaughlin was informed that “Sitting Bull was preparing to leave the reservation.” This was something McLaughlin believed he could not allow. He sent Red Tomahawk, “whom I was certain could be trusted,” with instructions about the arrest of Sitting Bull. What stuck in his mind was the last instruction: “You must not let him escape under any circumstances.”
When they got to the house where Sitting Bull was staying, a Ghost Dance ceremony was in progress. Lt. Bull Head, Shave Head and Red Tomahawk entered the home and told Sitting Bull he was under arrest. Sitting Bull appeared to be complying, but said he wanted to get dressed in his proper attire.
This delay in time allowed many of his supporters to gather outside the house. As the police and Sitting Bull exited the house, hostile words were exchanged and shots rang out that mortally wounded Bull Head, Shave Head and other police officers.
When Sitting Bull broke loose and started to run away, Red Tomahawk shot him twice, killing Sitting Bull. Red Tomahawk then took charge and gathered his men back inside the house, where they held off the hostiles until the military arrived.
After that incident, Red Tomahawk was given a commission and placed in charge of the Indian police. He resigned from the police in 1895 to become the head farmer of the agency demonstration farm at Cannon Ball.
Because of his decisive action involving Sitting Bull, Red Tomahawk received national recognition. In 1902, he met with President Theodore Roosevelt in Mandan, and soon other dignitaries who visited North Dakota requested an opportunity to meet with him.
In 1923, North Dakota became one of the first states to work out a uniform system for numbering and marking state highways. To commemorate this achievement, the state Highway Department wanted an attractive-looking emblem to put on the highway signs.
W. G. Black, the department’s chief engineer, decided to put the silhouette of a distinguished-looking Indian on all of the state highway signs, and it was agreed that the person who best exemplified that look was Red Tomahawk.
Red Tomahawk died at his home in Cannon Ball on Aug. 7, 1931.
In 1951, Red Tomahawk’s profile became the official symbol of the North Dakota State Highway Patrol and was emblazoned on the sides of all patrol cars and uniform shoulder patches.