NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Feelings toward Yale University might be strained right now in Indian country because of gruesome allegations that its secret student society Skull and Bones once robbed Geronimo's grave, but it wasn't always this way.
An alliance between a Yale professor and the famed Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud once produced an upheaval in federal Indian policy and at least temporary reforms.
The story, from the 1870s, is more an accident of science and personalities than a product of Yale's mission. Unlike its Ivy League counterparts Harvard and Dartmouth, which were intended to educate indigenous students as well as English settlers, Yale reflected the indifference of Connecticut colonists toward their tribal neighbors. Its founding in 1703 also came a generation after King Philip's War broke the back of New England tribal power.
The alliance in fact arose from the fossil hunting of Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh. The first scientist in the country to be appointed a professor of Paleontology, Marsh led a boom in the search for dinosaur bones in the West. In the late 1860s, he took several expeditions of Yale undergraduates to the frontier of western Nebraska and Wyoming to conduct excavations.
In 1872, Marsh wanted to search in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at the time still part of the Greater Sioux Reservation. He asked permission from Chief Red Cloud, who reluctantly granted it. Red Cloud had just won a war with the U.S. Army, forcing removal of its forts from traditional Lakota hunting grounds in eastern Wyoming, and was abiding by his treaty. But he was angry at the shoddy supplies and sharp dealing he was getting from Indian agents, and he asked Marsh to carry his complaints back to Washington.
At the completion of his dig, Marsh returned East with two tons of fossils, but he also took back samples of the moldy beans and rotten rations that the Red Cloud Agency was dispensing to the Lakota. At a professional conference in Washington in 1874, he went public, enlisting editorial writers and Congressmen to investigate. The ensuing expose of corruption in "the Indian Ring" ultimately brought about dismissal of the local Indian agent, the head of the BIA and the Secretary of the Interior. The administration of Ulysses S. Grant transferred the BIA from Interior to the War Department.
Chief Red Cloud was surprised and grateful at Marsh's effectiveness. In 1883 he visited Yale and New Haven, donating many personal items to the Peabody Museum of Natural History, (endowed by Marsh's uncle as a home for his work.)
The Peabody proudly displays mementos from this episode. A picture caption on the wall of its main conference room, the Marsh Room, quotes a message from Red Cloud after the reforms. "I thought he would be like the other white men and go away and do nothing. But he kept his promise.
"Tell him I think he is the best white man I ever met."