A great American
Crazy Horse, Tȟašúŋke Witkó in Standard Lakota Orthography, was one of the most legendary of American Indians. His very name is redolent of Western myth and he ranks with Sitting Bull, Cochise and Geronimo as one of the best known of his people. He has been referred to as a genius of war, a lover of peace, a statesman, a mystic, even as a Sioux Christ (and this idea was heightened by his being betrayed at the end by his own disciple).
There is no authenticated photograph of Crazy Horse. This is a sketch made by a Mormon missionary in 1934 after a discussion with his sister.
Crazy Horse on the screen
Of course the movies and TV have made much of him. Think of Victor Mature as Crazy Horse in the George Sherman-directed 1955 Universal picture Chief Crazy Horse. Poor Victor: he was actually surprisingly good in Westerns but he really wasn’t very convincing as the Oglala mystery man…
Victor Mature as Crazy Horse. Oh dear. Here he is with Black Shawl (Suzan Ball, Lucille’s cousin); the movie makes no mention of his true love, Black Buffalo Woman, another man’s wife.
There was Fox’s Crazy Horse and Custer: The Untold Story in 1990, with Michael Dante as Crazy Horse. There was a TV movie in 1996, with Michael Greyeyes in the role. Of course Matt Clark had to meet him on Stories of the Century (I don’t think there was a famous figure of the Old West that Matt didn’t meet – or capture) in 1954. George Keymas was Crazy Horse then. And so on.
There is a perhaps surprising amount you can read to find out about the life of Crazy Horse, considering how few hard facts there really are known about him. His own people thought him a mystery while he was alive (one of his many names might be translated as Our Strange Man) and he was known for his modesty, shyness and preference for being alone. He certainly avoided whites as much as possible, had no photograph of himself taken and we don’t even know for sure when he was born.
That hasn’t stopped writers discoursing at length on his life. In 1906 and ’07 Judge Eli Ricker interviewed people who knew Crazy Horse. Journalist Elinor Hinman and Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz did something similar in 1930 – 31, when of course those who knew him were very old. Sandoz wrote a 428-page-long novelistic biography, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, in 1942. Professional historian Stephen Ambrose went one better in 1975, at 528 pages. Since then there have been many more biographies, often of great length.
Mari Sandoz and her book
All of them seem to have no problem putting words into the mouth of Crazy Horse, clearly a man of very few words, or even telling us what he was thinking. I waded through the Sandoz because, well, you gotta, but I must say I found it hard going. I know she’s a great American writer and all but these ‘poetic re-imaginings’ aren’t really my thing, however beautifully they are written. And it just seemed interminable.
For me, by far the best read is Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse: A Life in the Penguin Lives series. Yes, Mr McMurtry is a novelist too, and a very fine one, but he is also an excellent writer of non-fiction. He manages to stay factual yet bring a good novelist’s readability to a book. And most blessed of all, it’s short.
The best book
Why do most books have to be so long these days? The thing is this: I reckon to read about fifty books a year. It may be fewer if I’m into Victorian novels or Russians, it may be more if I’m rattling through some Elmore Leonards or Luke Shorts. But it’s roughly one a week, on average. Now, let us imagine our reading life as a reasonably sentient being at, say, sixty years, even seventy. That’s still well less than 4000 books in total, leaving aside all those earnest volumes you rushed through at college to complete the next essay. 4000! That’s a minuscule fraction of what’s been written. So I am just plain resentful of a writer who wants me to plow through a weighty 600-page tome on a subject that interests me. It’s selfishly taking too great a share of my exceedingly limited reading time. So there.
And, as we all know, less is more. You don’t need 600 pages. The best life of Custer is Robert M Utley’s Cavalier in Bucksin, which is complete, fascinating, elegantly written and weighs in at a slender couple of hundred pages. And McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, cheaply available on Kindle, is a 142-page masterpiece, illuminating, thoughtful and well, authoritative. The writer says:
I am not writing this book because I think I know what Crazy Horse did – much less what he thought – on more than a few occasions in his life; I’m writing it because I have some notions about what he meant to his people in his lifetime, and also what he has come to mean to generations of Sioux in our century and even in our time.
The few hard facts of his life
Brief the book may be but the author still has time to recount the facts of Crazy Horse’s life – for of course we do know something about him, and he was a man, not a myth, even if McMurtry makes the point that we know more about the life of Alexander the Great over two thousand years ago than we do about Crazy Horse. The Sioux only came into serious contact with the record-keeping, letter-writing whites in the four months between the moment he led his people in to Fort Robinson in May 1877 and his death, and even then he camped six miles away instead of the prescribed three and saw whites only when he absolutely could not avoid them.
However, we learn that Crazy Horse was born sometime around 1840 by the Belle Fourche River in what we now call South Dakota. His father, a shaman and healer, and not of a great family, was also called Crazy Horse but he transferred his name when his son proved himself a warrior, and took the name Worm instead. The boy, known then as Curly, who, all accounts say, was noticeably pale-skinned, led the traditional life of the Plains Indian, raiding and hunting. The buffalo were still there in their millions.
McMurtry makes the point that to many writers Crazy Horse was a sort of Zelig, turning up wherever key historical events occurred, and this gives the writers license to write about the Fort Laramie Councils, General Harney’s attack on the Bluewater village, the great parley at Bear Butte or whatever else, because Crazy Horse “may have been there”. But then he may well not have been, and given his propensity for avoiding whites and being alone, his non presence would be more likely.
Most of the accounts do however place him on a raid against the Arapahos in the summer of 1858 when he behaved with such courage that he earned his father’s name. The early 1860s were a time of relative prosperity for the Sioux because the whites were down in the south and east fighting each other, leaving the Plains Indians mostly to their own devices and own way of life. McMurtry writes perceptively and interestingly about the Plains, that great American steppe which whites called a desert but which was far from a desert, and upon which migrating animals and nomadic people wandered and lived – the latter with a sacramental view of the land that contrasted with the commercial attitude of the encroaching whites. This must have been the golden time of Crazy Horse’s life, when he was probably in his early twenties and earning honor and respect as a horseman, warrior and hunter.
Many of those who knew Crazy Horse who were interviewed talked of his love for a certain Black Buffalo Woman, the niece of Red Cloud, who married another, No Water. Crazy Horse took the news hard and remained near her, though No Water was a jealous husband.
About 1865, when Crazy Horse was probably in his mid-twenties, the Sioux revived the custom of the Shirt-wearers. The duty of the men chosen was to put selfish interest aside and concern themselves exclusively with the welfare of the tribe. It was a high honor. Notable young Sioux were chosen, men of good family, Young Man Afraid, Sword and American Horse, but Crazy Horse was too. He had lived an ascetic life ever since receiving a vision in his youth, kept no possessions and did all he could to look after those in need among his people. In addition he was a fine warrior and hunter. He was an excellent choice to be the sort of role model the Shirt-wearers were supposed to be.
Crazy Horse could have made an offer of horses to No Water for Black Buffalo Woman. No Water would probably not have accepted but at least the norms would have been respected. Instead, Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman now eloped. After only a day No Water found them and he shot Crazy Horse in the face with a pistol. The bullet broke his jaw but he lived. Black Buffalo Woman was persuaded by the elders to return to her husband. Crazy Horse could not remain a Shirt-wearer. No one replaced him; the institution fell into disuse again. It is interesting that Black Buffalo Woman’s last child, a daughter, was very light-skinned, like Crazy Horse. She lived into the 1940s.
Crazy Horse did marry, a woman named Black Shawl, and they had children – one daughter died aged two. It seems to have been a loving relationship. He also later took another wife, a mixed-race person named Nellie Larrabee, also known as Chi-Chi and Brown Eyes Woman, described by interpreter/scout Billy Garnett as “a half-blood, not of the best frontier variety, an invidious and evil woman” but that was just his view. Black Shawl survived Crazy Horse and died of influenza in 1927.
Fighting the whites
Crazy Horse may have been involved in several previous fights against whites but the first one we know about for sure is the Fetterman rout of December 1866. You know the story. Fetterman was an arrogant, Indian-hating and frustrated captain who was highly dissatisfied at the policy of containment and negotiation with the Sioux, which he regarded as weakness and cowardice. Crazy Horse was one of six who had the honor of enticing Fetterman to disobey orders and pursue the Sioux over a ridge, where he had been expressly forbidden to go. It is said that Crazy Horse often dismounted to encourage his pursuers and once even built a small fire. At any rate, once Fetterman and his troop of eighty (he had boasted that with eighty men he could “march through the whole Sioux nation”) breasted the rise in question, he found the massed Indian resistance and he and his whole force were annihilated. You can’t help feeling that it served them right, though one is sorry for the troopers led by idiots to the slaughter.
Crazy Horse was with Sitting Bull in August 1872 when they fought an action against four hundred well-armed soldiers who had learned the Fetterman lesson and would not be tempted out. It was nearly a disaster. Sitting Bull made himself famous by sitting down within rifle range, filling a pipe and smoking it. Crazy Horse had a more actionful way of showing his courage: he galloped right across in front of the Army line and had his horse shot out from under him. Then the Sioux called off the fight.
It was in 1873 that Crazy Horse encountered Custer for the first time, in an inconclusive skirmish with few casualties on the Yellowstone. Custer thought Sitting Bull was the leader of his foe; he didn’t know Crazy Horse, who had never been to a meeting with the whites, and had received no mention in the popular press (the financial panic had anyway driven most other things out of the newspaper columns).
It might have stayed that way if they hadn’t found gold in the Black Hills. Although the US government was used to breaking treaties it had made with the Indians (McMurtry quotes the writer Alex Shoumatoff who has reckoned the total at 378) it had to squirm especially awkwardly to break the 1868 pact which had guaranteed the Black Hills in perpetuity as a reserve which whites may not enter. Still, the financial situation back East cried out for more gold and Sherman began to mutter (very unconvincingly) about treaty violations by the Sioux. Many of the Indians knew anyway that the whites would never let a mere solemn promise stand in their way: they would not stop till they had everything. In no time at all there were more whites in the Black Hills than their owners.
When Grant’s order came that the Sioux must come in to designated reservations by January (a particularly stupid order because he should certainly have known that they did not move camps in wintertime) Crazy Horse, who was enjoying what would be his last winter as a truly free Indian (whether he realized that is another matter), sent word that he would consider it in the spring but not before. By March of 1876 a large campaign was forming, with Crook, Gibbon, Terry and Custer taking the field. Everyone knew a major conflict was coming.
General George Crook (1828 – 90)
Crook struck first. He located what he was assured was Crazy Horse’s village, made a dawn attack and although he killed few Indians he captured all their food and most of the horses. It was not, however, Crazy Horse’s village and that night the Sioux recovered most of their horses.
Crook certainly did clash with Crazy Horse and other warriors in June, though, on the Rosebud, and it was a major battle, if overshadowed by the more famous Little Bighorn eight days later. Crook’s force of a thousand was strung out and met fierce resistance from Sioux and Cheyennes in similar numbers who assailed them mercilessly, preventing them from forming a proper battle line. At dusk the Indians had enjoyed a great day’s fighting and stopped the advance of Three Stars, as they called Crook, and they went home. Because they left the field, Crook claimed victory. It was an empty boast which he probably didn’t even believe himself. How many died depends on which account you read, somewhere between nine (Robert Utley) and fifty-seven (George Hyde) on the white side and perhaps thirty of the Indians. Of course the Civil War had hardened the US Army to losses but when Indian fought Indian a death toll of three or four was usually the maximum, so thirty-odd would have been a great loss.
So much has been written and read and watched and listened to about Custer’s last stand, and this is not the place to rehearse all that. What part did Crazy Horse play in the conflict? That is the question here. One story has it that while many of the Sioux and Cheyennes never dreamed that Custer would be foolish enough to attack, and were going about their business in the normal way, Crazy Horse was readying himself, marking a red bloody hand on his horse’s hips and a red arrow on its neck. He must have known or sensed that the big day had come.
Both Stephen Ambrose and Mari Sandoz wrote much about Crazy Horse’s brilliant strategy in flanking Custer and seizing the high ground. Others say that Sitting Bull or Gall or another had more influence on the outcome of the battle. We shall never know the details. We shall never know for sure, for example, who killed Custer. We don’t even know how many Indians there were – McMurtry says that two thousand is a fair estimate, but it’s an estimate. Some say that Crazy Horse was involved in the attack on Reno’s force, others that he did indeed flank Custer and prevent him from taking an effective defensive position on high ground. It is conjecture. What we can say for sure is that malgré Hollywood, Crazy Horse was no commander-in-chief in the white way, disposing ‘his’ troops hither and yon.
After Custer’s defeat the Sioux and Cheyennes went back to their life. Crazy Horse was apparently occasionally harrying the miners in the Black Hills. The government now simply took the Sioux lands for themselves. There was a disgraceful ‘treaty’ of sorts but it signified nothing – the whites wouldn’t keep to it anyway. In November Crook finally had a victory, of sorts, when he attacked the Cheyennes under Dull Knife. Those who got away from that struggled north in the cold and joined with Crazy Horse.
The end of freedom
But Crazy Horse must have known that his people were now in a pretty desperate situation. It was freezing, they had little food and less ammunition and there were large numbers of soldiers on the field. Colonel Nelson A Miles wanted Crazy Horse to surrender and sent runners to him promising fair treatment. Crazy Horse sent emissaries to discuss the idea but Miles’s Crow scouts saw them coming and attacked them, killing several. Miles was furious but the damage had been done. At this time Sitting Bull took his people to Canada but Crazy Horse seems not to have considered this.
Finally, in May of the following year, after a brutal winter, Crazy Horse decided to bring his people into Fort Robinson in Nebraska – about nine hundred of them, with two thousand horses. Crook called it a surrender and of course the press took this up but it was only a surrender in a way. Crazy Horse was not ‘tamable’, he was no negotiator, he wasn’t even a chief in the traditional sense – just that these people depended on him.
More broken promises
Crook had offered Crazy Horse his own agency and that the Indians would be allowed to leave for a forty-day buffalo hunt. The promises may have been made sincerely, but as often happened they were not maintained. Normally leading hostiles like Crazy Horse would have been invited to Washington and lionized and fêted there, but Crazy Horse never went. He needed his own agency because at the Red Cloud agency where he was he was treated with suspicion, even hatred, by the leading ‘settled’ Indians, especially Red Cloud himself. Many whites respected him and wrote admiringly of him but fellow Sioux did not.
Rumor, envy, jealously, and hatred
From the day that Crazy Horse came in he was the focus of rumor, envy, jealously, and hatred, and it was among his own people that hatred became a dripping, ultimately fatal poison – a paradoxical thing since, except for this short terrible period, no Indian was more respected by the Indian people than he was.
Rumor could be particularly insidious. The famous mistranslation, deliberate or not, by scout Frank Grouard to white authorities of Crazy Horse’s words, making the whites believe, wrongly, that Crazy Horse had said he would if necessary fight to the death of the last white man, poisoned many whites’ view of Crazy Horse. When General Crook returned for another parley an Indian named Woman’s Dress told Crook that Crazy Horse meant to shake his hand then stab him to death. Crook ordered Crazy Horse’s arrest, which he must have known would set the cat among the pigeons. There was talk of sending Crazy Horse to Florida.
But when the soldiers and Indian police (including No Water) sent by Crook to effect the arrest arrived, they discovered Crazy Horse had left for the Spotted Tail agency, forty miles away. Spotted Tail, though, was no happier than Red Cloud to see him. The next day, Crazy Horse went back to Fort Robinson, to explain to its commander, General Bradley, that the rulors were falsehoods and he was behaving well. He must have found it hard to understand why so many Indians were massed against him.
But, behaving well or not, Crazy Horse had become a symbol of resistance, a source of shame for the agency Indians and worry for the whites.
The death of Crazy Horse
Bradley had no intention of seeing Crazy Horse or listening to his version of the facts. The Sioux was marched to the cells by the officer of the day, a Lt. Kennington, and by Little Big Man (no relation to the character in the Thomas Berger novels or Dustin Hoffmann movie) a former friend who had become a policeman. Crazy Horse saw his destination and broke free but Little Big Man grabbed his arms. Crazy Horse went for a knife and a private, William Gentles (who would die of asthma six months later) bayoneted him in the back, piercing his kidneys, and Crazy Horse sank to the ground mortally wounded. That seems to be the accepted version anyway.
Curiously, though, because it was such a public event, different accounts of the assassination became common. For example, Little Big Man always claimed that Crazy Horse had whirled in a frenzy, accidentally and fatally stabbing himself, but if you want to believe that Crazy Horse stabbed himself in the back, go ahead.
At any rate, Crazy Horse died, aged somewhere in his thirties, at Fort Robinson on the night of September 6, 1877.
Many in the fort expected to be killed that night but the Sioux did not rise. They were probably too cowed and in the thrall of their chiefs, who had become used to accommodating the white man. Many of them anyway did not regret Crazy Horse’s death. His presence had been an embarrassment to them.
Little Big Man received a medal (currently at the Nebraska State Historical Association) for his “bravery”.
In 1948 the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski started creating a giant monument, hacking an image of Crazy Horse out of a 600-foot rock face in the Black Hills. Though Ziolkowski died in 1982 his wife continued the work and when she died their ten children did so too. When finished, it is supposed to be the biggest sculpture in the world. McMurtry starts and finishes his concise book with this monument.
The giant monument slowly takes shape
Crazy Horse has benefited from never dealing with the whites, attending no peace councils and refusing to travel to Washington. He was entirely true to his culture. This may be one of the reasons he has become such a symbol to Native American peoples today, and indeed to many Americans of all creed, color and origin.
Sorry if this post is too long…