What would convince me to read Crazy Horse – A Life by Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove? A thin paperback, only 148 pages, I was intrigued. I knew the Indian leader was famous, but why? I had no clue. Might he have been the “Sioux Christ” as indicated by Oglala and Brule Sioux historian, George E. Hyde,
…a man not easily swept off his feet by even the most potent myth, confessed his puzzlement with the Crazy Horse legend in words that are neither unfair nor inaccurate: “They depict Crazy Horse as a kind of being never seen on earth: a genius at war yet a lover of peace; a statesman who apparently never thought of the interest of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples–Little Big Man, Touch-the Clouds and the rest.
Reading the first few pages, I was reminded of a TV documentary I’d seen. Rising majestically over Pa Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Crazy Horse again takes his rightful place as one of the Sioux’s most famous and heroic warrior. Fifty years ago sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began to carve the Indian leader’s likeness out of what once was Thunderhead Mountain. Within the last half-century the artist, his wife, and children have moved “millions of tons of rock…as they attempt to create what will be the world’s largest sculpture; but the man who is emerging from stone and dirt is as yet only a suggestion, a shape, which those who journey to Custer, South Dakota, … must complete in their own imaginations.”
Crazy Horse remained isolated from the encroachment of white civilization for as long as he was able. He seemed an enigma among Indians. Even his own people didn’t understand him.
Crazy Horse, from the first, was indifferent to tribal norms. He had no interest, early or late, in the annual sundance rite, and didn’t bother with any of the ordeals of purification that many young Sioux men underwent, rituals that have been well recorded by George Catlin and others. Crazy Horse took his manhood as a given, and proved it in battle from an early age. His people may have thought him strange, but nonetheless he was let alone, allowed to walk in his own way.
His prominence today, as a symbol of Sioux resistance, owes much to his character, of course, but it also is in part a matter of historical timing. He fought his best in the last great battles–the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn–and then died young, in the last moments when the Sioux could think of themselves as free. By an accident of fate, the man and the way of life died together: little wonder that he came to be a symbol of Sioux freedom, Sioux courage, and Sioux dignity.
Several reasons loomed large in my desire to learn more about Crazy Horse. Biographies intrigue me, historical ones only if there’s a personal story behind the facts. People interest me, not the retelling of history. That’s my husband’s passion. That the Sioux leader was a native American, and I am a native Hawaiian, piqued my curiosity. My desire to eventually see the mammoth memorial in his honor clinched my decision to purchase, and read the slim volume.
An avid fan of old movies, one of my favorites is “They Died With Their Boots On,” starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, filmed in 1941. Of course Crazy Horse was not listed among the credits in the film, although he was there, during the real battle, that is. Watching Errol Flynn portray General George Armstrong Custer, I subscribed to everyone’s belief that he was the hero who sacrified his life at Little Bighorn, the day his regiment was massacred. It would be un-American to think that the Indians were fighting for the survival of their nation, and were, in fact, the real heroes. In the author’s words,
Though Crazy Horse was able to live many months and sometimes even years in the traditional Sioux way, raiding and hunting in turn, the way of life to which he had been born was dying even while he was a boy. By the time of his birth the whites were already moving in considerable numbers along the Holy Road (what we call the Oregon Trail); at first the pressure of white intrusion may have been subtle and slight, but it was present, and would be present throughout his entire life. The buffalo were there in their millions when he was born but were mostly gone by the time he died. Crazy Horse would have been a boy of five or six when Francis Parkman camped in a Sioux village whose leader was Old Smoke;…Parkman was well aware that the way of life he was witnessing that summer–vividly described in “The Oregon Trail”–was a way of life that would soon be changing; indeed, would soon end…With such an abundance of game both north and south of the Platte River, it may be thought that tribal life could have gone on with little change. But the lives of hunting people are never that secure. There was, to be sure, a lot of game; but it didn’t meekly present itself …(it) still had to be found and killed…animals were quick to shift away from places where they were heavily hunted. From the standpoint of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Pawnee hunters who lived by what they killed, the white invasion was almost immediately destructive.
General Custer, “the most aggressive general in the American army,” was an “erratic egoist.” Not prone toward patience nor heeding the advice of others, Custer determined that the Indians were fleeing from him, rather than standing firm in opposition.
On the morning of the battle, when most of the Sioux and Cheyennes were happily and securely going about their domestic business, never supposing that any soldiers would be foolish enough to attack them, Crazy Horse, it is said, marked, in red pigment, a Bloody Hand on both of his horse’s hips, and drew an arrow and a bloody red hand on both sides of his horse’s neck. Oglala scouts had been keeping watch on Custer, following his movements closely. Crazy Horse either knew or sensed that the fatal day had come.
Although prepared to do battle, Crazy Horse, unlike Custer, preferred the peace of his life in isolation.
He would have preferred, I imagine, simply to avoid them and go on living a traditional Sioux life, raiding, hunting, dreaming; but the option of avoidance was not available to him for very long. The whites were too many, and they weren’t satisfied with the Holy Road. They weren’t satisfied with any one place or one road; they wanted everything. So he fought: on the Bozeman, on the Powder River, on the Yellowstone, in the Black Hills, on the Tongue and the Rosebud, at the Little Bighorn…He didn’t win the war. What is hard to judge is how long he really expected to, if he ever expected to …he went his own way, traveled his own road, until it dead-ended at Fort Robinson in September of 1877. Looked back on from the perspective of one hundred and twenty years, his doom seems Sophoclean, inevitable; but perhaps all dooms do, once the roads taken and not taken deliver the character to his fate.
His fateful death seemed preordained, both because of the unending encroachment of the white empire, and Crazy Horse own destiny to lead his people. In a dream, interpreted by his father, Worm, “a healer, a shaman, a holy man, and an accomplished interpreter of dreams” the Sioux warrior learned that he “was to dress simply, put a small stone behind his ear, and, most important, he was not to keep anything for himself. Instead, he was to be a man of charity, doing his best to feed the poor and helpless members of his tribe. His duty to the poor was a duty that Crazy Horse took seriously all his life–it may have been because he doubted his ability to feed the many hungry people who were following him that he decided to bring the band into Fort Robinson in 1877.”
Crazy Horse resisted the dominance of the whites, while other Indian leaders were acclimating, bringing their people to live within close proximity to military forts. Those whose lives were toppled, resented the resistance of those who held fast to their diminishing lifestyles. Because of the unusually hard winter of 1876-77, Crazy Horse decided to succumb to the demands of his pursuers, knowing that the 900 he led would otherwise not survive.
By the end of what was in some ways a year of glory, 1876, Crazy Horse had come to a desperate pass. It was a terrible winter, with subzero temperatures day after day. The Indians were ragged and hungry; the soldiers who opposed them were warmly clothed and well equipped. The victories of the previous summer were, to the Sioux and the Cheyennes, now just memories. They had little ammunition and were hard pressed to find game enough to feed themselves. …
It was a surrender, of a sort, but only of a sort…it was not a full or normal surrender, and neither the agency Indians…nor the generals nor, probably, Crazy Horse himself ever quite believed that a true surrender had taken place. They may all have intuited an essential truth, which was that Crazy Horse was not tamable, not a man of politics. He could only assist his people as warrior and hunter–a bureaucrat he was not. Had there not been those nine hundred people looking to him for help, he might have elected to do what Geronimo did for so long: take a few warriors and a few women and stay out. He might have gone deep into the hills with a few men and fought as guerilla until someone betrayed him or at least outshot him. But it was true that these nine hundred people depended on him, so he brought them in and sat down, for the first time, in council with the white men.
From the time that Crazy Horse handed over his rifle and his horses to the white officers at Fort Robinson until his death just four months later, he was a confused, stressed, off-balance, and, finally, desperate man. For almost the first time in his life he had done something he really didn’t believe in, something that went directly against his nature. Even though he knew he had done it for the right reason–the welfare of the people–it did not feel right. The adjustments required of him if he was to live as an agency Indian were not adjustments he was able to make. From his personal point of view probably the best thing that came out of this move was that Dr. (later Agent) Valentine McGillycuddy offered to treat Black Shawl, his wife, for her tuberculosis, and did treat her with some success.
The following death bed statement was supposedly spoken by Crazy Horse to agent Jesse Lee who had brought the Indian chief to Fort Robinson, according to Peter Nabokov’s “Native American Testimony.” Evidently Lee was tortured over his unwitting involvement in the dastardly deed. Even General George Crook seems to have had regrets about not meeting with the Sioux leader as promised, saying ” ‘I ought to have gone to that council…I never start any place but that I get there.’ ”
My friend, I do not blame you for this. Had I listened to you this trouble would not have happened to me. I was not hostile to the white man. Sometimes my young men would attack the Indians who were their enemies and took their ponies. They did it in return.
We had buffalo for food, and their hides for clothing, and our tipis. We preferred hunting to a life of idleness on the reservations, where we were driven against our will. At times we did not get enough to eat, and we were not allowed to leave the reservation to hunt.
We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government then. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone. Soldiers were sent out in the winter, who destroyed our villages. Then “Long Hair” came in the same way. They say we massacred him but he would have done the same to us had we not defended ourselves and fought to the last. Our first impulse was to escape with our squaws and papooses, but we were so hemmed in we had to fight.
After that I went up on Tongue River with a few of my people and lived in peace. But the government would not let me alone. Finally, I came back to the Red Cloud agency…I came here with the agent to talk to the Big White Chief, but was not given a chance. They tried to confine me, I tried to escape, and a soldier ran his bayonet into me.
I have spoken.
Another element of the dream in which Crazy Horse shouldered leadership of his people, foretold that he “could be injured only if one of his own people held his arms.” “Before Crazy Horse was even in the ground, Little Big Man and a delegation of the Sioux leaders were in Washington to discuss the relocation issue. There exists a curious artifact, a medal presumably given Little Big Man for his bravery in subduing Crazy Horse.”
This post has been in the draft stage since September. Elizabeth Edward’s death reminded me why I’d decided to write about Crazy Horse. Both were individuals who lived their lives out of the spotlight, until circumstances beyond their control placed them, front and center. While they would have preferred to return to their private lives, without fanfare, concern for their loved ones made it impossible. So a mom and an Indian chief did what was required, remaining true to themselves until the end of their lives.
Sometimes you don’t realize who your role models are, until they are. It’s for sure neither Elizabeth Edwards nor Crazy Horse thought their lives would make a difference to those who never knew them, like me. Rather than seeking to know acclaimed celebrities, I would’ve preferred being a “fly on the wall” in the lives of these two reluctant heroes. What made them laugh? Who did they trust with their deepest thoughts? If they could reset their lives, would they do anything differently?
So when I visit Crazy Horse’s sculpted likeness, and if I visit Edward’s grave, I’m sure to be moved by 2 simple people, whose legacies are gargantuan.