Red Thunder Cloud

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Red Thunder Cloud

(b. 30 May 1919 in Newport, Rhode Island; d. 6 January 1996 in Worcester, Massachusetts), singer, dancer, storyteller, and field researcher best known for his claim to be the last speaker of the Catawba language.

Born Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West, Red Thunder Cloud was also known as Carlos Ashbie Hawk Westez, Carlos Westez, and Namo S. Hatiririe. He was the son of a druggist, Cromwell Payne West, and a homemaker, Roberta Hawkins West. Both were African Americans of Newport, Rhode Island. His father was born in Pennsylvania and his mother was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. Very little information can be found on Red Thunder Cloud’s formative years. What is known and documented is that he was a descendant of a prominent African-American family of Baltimore. West’s maternal grandfather was one of the first African-American lawyers of Baltimore and was a respected civic leader. His sister, Ada Fouche Williams, was a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. From 1935 to 1937 West was employed by the Newport City wharf as a watchman and later as a chauffuer.

For reasons that are unclear, West reinvented his identity and lived most of his life as Red Thunder Cloud of the Catawba tribe. Correspondence between West and Frank G. Speck, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1938 stated that West was a sixteen-year-old Catawba Indian and a junior at Southampton High School on Long Island, New York. He petitioned Speck for help in learning more about his people and indicated that his fascination for Native American culture began when he was in the fourth grade. West stated further that he was brought up by the Narraganset Indians of Rhode Island and had lived with the Shinnecock tribe since 1937. West also told Speck that he had learned the Catawba language from his grandmother, Ada McMechen.

Speck believed Red Thunder Cloud to be a genuine Catawba Indian and proceeded to provide him with training in field methods of recording notes for ethnological studies. Red Thunder Cloud worked for Speck on small projects, collecting ethnographic data and folklore among Long Island Indians. He also collected data on the Montauk, Shinnecock, and Mashpee tribes for George E. Heye of the Museum of American Indians. In December 1943 Red Thunder Cloud lived at the University of Pennsylvania for two weeks, providing information on the Catawba tribe, recording music, and aiding in ethnobotanical research. With a letter of introduction from Speck, Red Thunder Cloud made his first visit to the Catawba Reservation in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in February 1944. According to Chief Gilbert Blue of the Catawba tribe, Red Thunder Cloud studied with his grandfather, Chief Sam Blue, and Sally Gordon during his second visit to the reservation, which lasted for six months. When interviewed in 1957 by William C. Sturtevant, Chief Sam Blue and his daughter-in-law Lillian expressed doubts concerning Red Thunder Cloud’s identity as a Catawba. They believed that he had learned the language from a book.

In a letter dated 25 October 1958, Red Thunder Cloud offered assistance to Sturtevant in making contact with Indian groups in the eastern United States. His correspondence revealed that his mother was Catawba and his father was from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and came from Honduran and Puerto Rican parentage. Red Thunder Cloud also stated that he spoke Spanish and Portuguese as well as an array of Native American languages that included Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, Narraganset, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Creek, Choctaw, Sioux, and Winnebago. In addition, he was able to recognize other Indian languages when he heard them spoken. Foxx Ayers, a longtime Catawba friend of Red Thunder Cloud, stated that his friend’s knowledge of the language was so good that he had trained his dog to answer only to Catawba commands.

Red Thunder Cloud’s marriage to Jean Marilyn Miller (Pretty Pony) of the Blackfoot tribe was brief, although she frequently appeared with him at powwows and other Native American celebrations. He could also be seen at local fairs in New England, selling his herbal medicines under the name “Accabonac Princess American Teas.”

Red Thunder Cloud’s support of Native American causes was demonstrated by his involvement in Indian organizations, as well as his publication of a newsletter called the Indian War Drum. In 1964 and 1965 he worked with G. Hubert Matthews, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to document the Catawba language. Together they published five texts in 1967. Matthews included in these books Red Thunder Cloud’s family genealogy and named the Catawba relatives in his maternal line. In discussions with Matthews, Red Thunder Cloud gave the name of his mother’s father as “Strong Eagle.” The latter was a graduate of Yale Law School, Red Thunder Cloud said, and had died in 1941. He identified his mother’s name as “Singing Dove.”

Red Thunder Cloud died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester at the age of seventy-six. At the time of his death, Leonor Pena, a close friend from Central Falls, Rhode Island, gave Red Thunder Cloud’s name as Carlos Westez and included the alias Namos S. Hatiririe. She listed his occupation as shaman. His sister, as administrator to his will in probate court, gave his name as Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West.

The noted linguist and ethnologist Goddard Ives of the Smithsonian Institution has validated suspicions of Red Thunder Cloud’s identity by way of public documents, letters, and publications. He stated that “in spite of the negative issues surrounding Red Thunder Cloud’s identity, he has made valuable contributions to the study of ethnography.” Ives stated that even though Red Thunder Cloud’s life was a “successful life-long masquerade,” he contributed extensively to a greater understanding and protection of the Catawbas and other native cultures.

Red Thunder Cloud published five editions of Indian War Drum, three of which are located at the East Hampton Public Library in Southampton, New York. Correspondence between Frank G. Speck and Red Thunder Cloud, published by the American Philosophical Society (1938), as well as ethnographic studies on the Montauk and Shinnecock Indians of New York, are available in the Rare Eastern Indian Collection at the New York Public Library. Numerous articles have been written about Red Thunder Cloud, the most definitive of which is Goddard Ives, “The Identity of Red Thunder Cloud,” Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (Apr. 2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Jan. 1996).

Johnnieque B. Love