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The Magic of Crazy Horse

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University of Cincinnati Libraries Digital Collections
Crazy Horse’s last moments, recorded by the Oglala artist Amos Bad Heart Bull. According to Thomas Powers in The Killing of Crazy Horse, ‘One fact was remembered with special clarity by almost every witness—Little Big Man’s effort to hold Crazy Horse as he struggled to escape, shown here in Bad Heart Bull’s drawing.’

In the 1990s, when I was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota researching a book about its residents, the Oglala Sioux, people sometimes told me about sightings of the devil. A woman who had lived on Pine Ridge all her life told me that her friend had recently seen the devil walking in the evening on the Oelrichs road. He was wearing a suit and tie and looked like an ordinary man, she said, except for his thick, long tail. From the number of fatal car wrecks I knew of on the Oelrichs road I could almost believe the story. Sometimes on Pine Ridge—for example, when I came upon a burned-up car abandoned in the middle of a highway in a patch of still-wet asphalt that its flames had melted, or saw drunks staggering across the reservation border back to the beer-selling town of Whiteclay—a powerful sense of darkness shivered into my bones like ague.

The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers examines the darkest episode ever to happen in that part of the world. In fact, I believe a lot of the darkness around there comes from that one killing—of the Oglala Chief Crazy Horse by the American army. Higher-ups in the army and the government regretted the killing but some said it was probably for the best. Nobody investigated it. People’s lives went on, and the Sioux, whom General Sherman had wanted to “reduce…to a helpless condition,” pretty much attained it. Crazy Horse receded from memory, except among his tribesmen and certain of their neighbors like John Neihardt and Mari Sandoz. And yet admirers kept thinking about Crazy Horse, and wondering exactly how and why he had died. Thomas Powers, a journalist whose past books have been about the national security apparatus and the CIA, now joins that number, with the most readable and detailed account of Crazy Horse’s death so far. It’s a passionate book without being in any way a sentimental one.

For both Indians and whites, Crazy Horse was magic. It’s hard even to describe how unique and brave and chivalrous and unpredictable and uncaught he was. When I was on Pine Ridge, a high school teacher of Lakota studies said of SuAnne Big Crow, a basketball star who had become a hero to the reservation, “She showed us a way to live on the earth.” For the Sioux resisting the army and the theft of treaty lands in the 1860s and 1870s, Crazy Horse did that. As an Oglala, he belonged to the largest of the seven tribes of the Teton, or western, Sioux, who lived in what’s now the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Today the western Sioux are more often called the Lakota.

Among the tribe’s many subcategories in the second half of the nineteenth century, an unofficial one became the most important: the northern Indians. These were the still-resisting Oglala and Hunkpapa and Miniconjou and other Sioux (along with some Cheyenne) who fought the whites, followed the surviving buffalo herds on the northern Plains, and stayed away from the transcontinental railroad and its band of settlement across mid-country. Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull rose to prominence among these “hostiles.” The army still considered northern Indians to be hostile even after they had quit fighting and come in to the Indian agencies (now known as reservations), where they joined the followers of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, who had come in some years before.

Thinking about Crazy Horse’s magical qualities can be exhilarating, but a lot of darkness appears there, too. He was born in 1838 or maybe 1840, to an Oglala healer named Crazy Horse and his Miniconjou wife, Rattle Blanket Woman. She hanged herself when the boy, called Curly then because of his light hair, was about four. While still young, Curly distinguished himself in fights with other tribes. One of his first killings was of a Winnebago woman—an event his friends and contemporaries seem to have considered shameful. Through his young manhood, war honors piled up on him. For his bravery, his father gave him the name Crazy Horse, and took a new name for himself.

Crazy Horse always had supreme strategic sense and planned out every fight so he would win with the smallest loss to his own warriors. During a battle west of the Black Hills in 1866 he was among the decoys who lured a force of eighty-one cavalry and infantry into an ambush in which all the soldiers were wiped out. In about 1868 his tribe made him a Shirt Wearer, one of four outstanding men chosen as leaders. Soon after, he ran off with the wife of another man, who caught up with the two and shot Crazy Horse in the face. He survived, with a facial scar and powder marks that were often mentioned in later descriptions of him. Because of this scandal, tribal elders demoted him.

With 898 of his followers, Crazy Horse came into the Red Cloud Agency in May 1877 and declared he was done with war. You couldn’t really say he surrendered. The army never beat him; though shot at countless times, he’d never been hit. But in the spring of 1877 he accepted that fighting any longer was useless, and he let his fellow warriors and other Lakota persuade him to come in. Events leading to that moment were the Sioux victory in Red Cloud’s War, in 1868; the generous treaty the government made with the Sioux in 1870, which said they owned a large part of the present Dakotas, including the Black Hills; the annoying (to the Indians) entry of surveying parties into their lands; fights with surveying parties in 1872; the more annoying entry of a surveying and gold-seeking party led by General George Custer into the Black Hills in 1874; the discovery of gold by this party; the subsequent gold rush; the government’s attempt to buy the Black Hills, for not much; the armed resistance of the northern Indians to the sale; the military expeditions sent to crush the northern Indians in 1876; and the Indians’ defeat of General George Crook and, spectacularly, General Custer, leaders of two of these expeditions. Powers gives a masterful summary of Custer’s ignorance of the size of the Sioux forces and his disastrous deployment of troops.

Astonished by that second defeat, the US got serious, dispatched soldiers to harry the Indian camps in winter, sent agency Indians with gifts and persuasive arguments, and finally induced Crazy Horse and other hostiles to lay down arms. As Crazy Horse approaches the agency, ready for peace, darkness seeps all around. The music should be in the gloomiest of minor chords.

Many books have been written about the Indian wars on the Plains. There are probably millions of words about the Little Bighorn battle alone. To describe Crazy Horse’s end, Powers must include this big picture, of course; but parts of it he sketches in with just a line or two. He may have assumed that readers who pick up this book will already know something of the material. The angle he follows into the Crazy Horse story seems at first to be tangential: he says his original inspiration for the book came when he was reading the reminiscences of William Garnett, son of an Oglala woman and an army officer, who spoke Lakota and English and served as one of the interpreters at the Red Cloud Agency. With Garnett as a major source, Powers uses the interpreters for a connecting thread in the book’s beginning. This structural decision turns out to be inspired, however, because it lets him describe the shaky world of mutual confusion and deadly misunderstanding between white and Indian in which the interpreters lived, and in which Crazy Horse would find himself at the agency. Whenever important events occurred, the interpreters were there.

Powers’s other big structural decision is equally fruitful. Among the government officials in the story, he focuses on George Crook, the army general most involved with Crazy Horse’s fate in the last months of his life. Indeed, the book is almost more a character study of Crook than it is of Crazy Horse. The general emerges as the kind of hardworking, persistent, dogged, sensible person who is also basically an idiot. Wounded pride troubles him. His West Point classmate Phil Sheridan gets credit for things that Crook should’ve gotten credit for in the Civil War. Newspaper correspondents misrepresent him. Crook doesn’t talk much, and makes his predictable decisions on his own. Other books about these events and times concentrate on the glamorous General Custer, naturally—but in a book about Crazy Horse, that can be a red herring. Custer gave Crazy Horse reason to fight, and by dying at Little Bighorn made him permanently famous (and vice versa). But Crazy Horse’s real, dull, grinding, ultimately fatal nemesis was Crook.

If Crazy Horse had magic, Crook had whatever the opposite of magic is. He suffered from bum luck, down to his name, too apt for a general involved in the theft of the Hills. And yet Crook tried hard and endured much, and when there was fighting he was there with his soldiers. In a skirmish with Pitt River Indians in California an arrow hit him in the thigh, and he carried the point in him the rest of his life. Against the Apache in Arizona he used other Apache as trackers and fighters, with success. Chiefs who proved recalcitrant he had no hesitation to hang. But at the Battle of the Rosebud, where Crazy Horse and other northern Indians turned back his expedition against them in June 1876, Crook extended his lines unwisely and came close to being wiped out. In one encounter (as Crook later told an army scout), he fired at Crazy Horse more than twenty times with no effect. Powers remarks:

With a man like Crook the first shot would have been a casual try of luck; the twentieth would have been grimly determined, with teeth clenched, hands steadied by murderous will.

In early dealings with Crazy Horse, when the chief was considering coming in and just before, Crook made blunders that had serious consequences. Perhaps driven by a sense of competition with General Nelson Miles, another officer with a force on the Plains, who was also trying to effect a surrender, Crook promised Crazy Horse he would help him establish his own agency in the north, on Beaver Creek near the Black Hills. Crook also said that Crazy Horse and his people would be allowed to go back north for a summer buffalo hunt after they reported to the Red Cloud Agency. Crook could by no means guarantee either of these assurances, and when he didn’t make good on them, Crazy Horse’s unmet expectations erased any trust between them.

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