Red Tomahawk, Tacanke Luta or Tacanipiluta, is believed to have been born late in the fall of 1849 in Montana Territory. His father was Peter Iron Tail from the Yantonai tribe and his mother was Black Eagle from the Hunkpapa tribe. Red Tomahawk was also the name of his paternal grandfather.
Red Tomahawk began to go out in the war parties against the invading Whites at about thirteen years old. The constant harassment of the settlers and US Army resulted in the building of forts, on the Indian lands, to protect the White's interests. In the mid 1870's Red Tomahawk began to believe the White's were too powerful and could not be pushed out of the Indian lands. He and many other Lakotas moved on to the Standing Rock Reservation. After a few years of unhappy reservation life, and countless broken promises, many Indians began to leave Standing Rock and flee further west of the Whites. Many of the fleeing Indians followed the great leader SItting Bull. Red Tomahawk stayed on the reservation.
When the Black Hills Treaty was drawn up in 1877, Red Tomahawk believed it to be a violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of a few years earlier. Red Tomahawk never the less stayed put, converted to Catholicism and took on the Christian name Marcellus. On July 1, 1881 Red Tomahawk and his friend Shave Head, enlisted in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Police. The two new privates worked for newly installed agent James McLaughlin whose tactics and actions would later create a disaster for Indian peoples. A brave and hard worker, Red Tomahawk rose to the rank of Sergeant.
Following the Allotment Act of 1887 Red Tomahawk was given a claim of land north of Cannon Ball on the reservation. In 1889 Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock where many of his followers became involved in the religious ceremony known as the Ghost Dance. Agent McLaughlin asked for the US Army to intervene and General Nelson A. Miles ordered William F. Buffalo Bill Cody to Standing Rock to arrest Sitting Bull on November 28, 1890. Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull were friends and had worked together. Due to their friendship, General Miles reasoned that Cody could arrest Sitting Bull with minimal incitement of his followers. Agent McLaughlin would not allow Buffalo Bill to make the arrest and wanted the Indian police to do it instead. Publicly Agent McLaughlin stated that he felt his Indian Police would be more effective in not inciting the great leader's followers.
On December 14, 1890 McLaughlin claimed he had received knowledge that Sitting Bull was preparing to leave the reservation. Agent McLaughlin was determined not to let this happen and sent the Indian Police to place Sitting Bull under arrest during the darkness on early December 15th. The Indian Police arrived at Sitting Bull's residence and surrounded it. Lt. Bull Head, Shave Head, and Red Tomahawk entered the residence and informed Sitting Bull he was under arrest. Sitting Bull told the arresting Indian Police that he would go but that he wanted to get dressed. It was night time and he had been in bed sleeping.
Between 150 and 200 followers of the great leader began to congregate in front of his residence as the minutes dragged on and tensions began to rise both inside and outside the house. Sitting Bull allegedly became angry over the treatment he was receiving and words were exchanged with the arresting Indian Police. As Sitting Bull and his captors exited the house, hostile words and some fighting broke out between the crowd and the Indian Police. Shots were fired that fatally injured Lt. Bull Head and Shave Head. Sitting Bull broke free during the melee and attempted to escape. Before he died, Lt. Bull Head shot Sitting Bull in the side. Red Tomahawk shot Sitting Bull in the head with a small revolver he had taken from him inside the house. Red Tomahawk assumed command of the incident and retreated with his men inside Sitting Bull's residence. They were able to hold off the crowd until the nearby military arrived and rescued them.
For his part in the arrest and killing of Sitting Bull, Red Tomahawk was given a promotion and placed in charge of the agency's Indian Police. Red Tomahawk left the Indian Police in 1895 to assume the leadership of the agency demonstration farm at Cannon Ball. In 1902 he met President Teddy Roosevelt in Mandan, North Dakota as a result of his fame. In 1921 Red Tomahawk participated in the American Legion annual conference in Kansas City. A few days later he participated in the consecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia where he met Chief Plenty Coups.
In 1923 North Dakota developed a uniform system for numbering and marking state highways. The state Highway Department decided to put the silhouette of a distinguished looking Indian on the new state highway signs and Red Tomahawk's silhouette in profile was chosen. In 1951 Red Tomahawks profile became the symbol used on North Dakota State Highway Patrol cars and uniform shoulder patches.
Red Tomahawk died at home in Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Reservation August 7, 1931. He was buried in the Cannon Ball Catholic Cemetery. Red Tomahawk left behind thirteen children by at least three wives.