It was “howling adventures among the Injuns” that Huckleberry Finn vowed to light out for when Aunt Sally threatened to adopt and civilize him, and it’s a bet he wasn’t thinking about the root-digging Indians of the Utah desert, or the sheep-herding Indians of the Southwest, or the rice-harvesting Indians of the Great Lakes, but about the gorgeous, horse-riding, buffalo-killing, war-whooping Indians in feathers of the Great Plains who lived as they liked and rode where they pleased. Finn was chafing for freedom in the 1840s, stuck in western Missouri on a hemp farm (“There’s liver places than a hemp farm,” writes Twain), at a time when the three men who became the great Sioux chiefs of the nineteenth century—Red Cloud in his twenties, Sitting Bull in his teens, and Crazy Horse not yet ten—had rarely if ever seen a white man, and could not imagine the restless ocean of white faces to the east already beginning to dream about bettering their condition across the wide Missouri.
What Finn knew about Indians came from his well-read friend Tom Sawyer, always eager to share his knowledge, and Mark Twain, summing it up in 1884, when the story of the Sioux was already pretty much over (save only for the episode known as Wounded Knee), has captured in a single remarkable passage not only the Indian of the American popular imagination in its purest form but a kind of subversive antihistory of what actually happened to the Indians who watched the pioneers bound for Oregon making their way west in the 1840s. Twain took pen in hand as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ending with Huck’s vow to light out, was on its way to the printer. Commencing a new novel (never completed, alas) with the plan for western adventures, Twain recorded at generous length Tom’s patient explanation of why Jim had nothing to fear from the wild Indians in the Territory:
Injuns ornery! [scoffed Tom.] It’s the most ignorant idea that ever—why, Jim, they’re the noblest human beings that’s ever been in the world… And brave? Why, they ain’t afraid of anything… Death? an Injun don’t care shucks for death. They prefer it. They sing when they’re dying—sing their death song. You take an Injun and stick him full of arrows and splinters and hack him up with a hatchet, and skin him, and start a slow fire under him, and do you reckon he minds it? No, sir; he will just set there in the hot ashes, perfectly comfortable, and sing, same as if he was on salary… They’re awful strong, and fiery, and eloquent, and wear beautiful blankets, and war paint, and moccasins, and buckskin clothes, all over beads, and go fighting and scalping every day in the year but Sundays, and have a noble good time, and they love friendly white men, and just dote on them, and can’t do too much for them, and would rather die than let any harm come to them, and they think just as much of niggers as they do of anybody, and the young squaws are the most beautiful maidens that was ever in the whole world, and they love a white hunter the minute their eye falls on him, and from that minute nothing can ever shake their love loose again… They’re the most giftedest people in the whole world, and the hospitablest and the happiest, and don’t ever have anything to do from year’s end to year’s end but have a perfectly supernatural good time and piles and piles of adventures! Amongst the Injuns, life is just simply a circus, that’s what it is. Anybody that knows, will tell you you can’t praise it too high and you can’t put it too strong.1
The route picked by Twain for Tom and Huck was the classic one, up the Platte Valley, following the Oregon Trail through present-day Nebraska and the vast grassland and buffalo-hunting country contested by the Pawnee, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Sioux. When they passed the forks of the Platte they would have entered territory only recently claimed by the Oglala Sioux, split between northern and southern branches since the killing in November 1841 of a chief named Bull Bear by Red Cloud, then twenty or twenty-one. The origins of the affair were complex, involving whiskey and a woman, but the bad feelings it left were long-lasting. Crazy Horse, born about the time of the killing, grew up among the northern Oglala in the Powder River country, while Red Cloud, who became a chief of the southern Oglala, remained close to the North Platte.
What the Sioux thought of the white people who began crossing their territory in emigrant trains of covered wagons bound for Oregon beginning in 1841 has been reconstructed by Mari Sandoz in her biography of Crazy Horse, a remarkable book first published in 1942. The Sioux had already grown dependent on white traders for guns, powder, and the many small useful articles of everyday life—cooking pots, metal knives, trade cloth, ribbons, vermillion paint, and glass beads. But the traders often married Indian women, wore Indian dress, spoke Indian languages, or could at least understand Indian sign language. The river of white farmers and their wives and children who passed one way only on the wagon-rutted trail that the Sioux called the Holy Road was something else again.
So the trail had started, with just a little stream of white men coming through, and the Indian had lifted his hand in welcome and went out to smoke and watch this lengthening village of the whites that moved past him day after day all summer, always headed in the same direction. He wondered that he never saw them come back, yet they must be the same ones each year, for there could not be that many people on all the earth. At first he wondered at the women and children, too, for he had long thought of the whites as only men, although he had heard stories of the families that had been seen, the women with the pale, sick skins and the break-in-two bodies, the young ones pale too, with hair light and soft as the flying seed of the cottonwood….
Puffing at his long-stemmed pipe of stone the Indian had watched all these things and found them very new and strange. But soon the little stream of whites grew into a great river, wider than a gun could shoot across, and the grass and the buffalo got so used up that the Indian ponies were poor far into sundance time and the hunters had to travel many days, sometimes clear to the Crow country, for a kettle of fresh meat. There was uneasiness about this, and much talk at the councils. The younger chiefs and warriors from up on the Cheyenne River or down in the Smoky Hill country and other places back from the white man’s road were angry at the things they saw happening. And when the trader chiefs like Conquering Bear and Bull Tail and old Smoke made strong talk for continued peace with the people on the trail, the others called them Loaf About the Forts and said they sold their tongues to the white man for his sugar and coffee and whisky.
The argument between the peace chiefs and the war chiefs, the Loaf About the Forts and the unreconstructed, war-making buffalo hunters, lasted perhaps forty years, not counting time out while the United States was preoccupied with fighting the Civil War. By the mid-1880s Crazy Horse was dead, the buffalo herds in their scores of millions had been reduced to a few hundred scattered survivors, the last hostile Sioux under Sitting Bull had been disarmed and confined to reservations, and Red Cloud, slowly going blind in his two-story frame house on the Pine Ridge reservation, was being ignored by the ever-changing officials in Washington who set and carried out government policy. But while the subjugation of the American Indians has often been likened to an act of genocide, and many tribes and languages have in fact utterly disappeared, the Sioux remain, their reservations combined are bigger than several states, and the Lakota language is one of perhaps twenty that are still being taught by American Indian parents to their children. The survival of the Sioux, never a numerous people, was the principal goal of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull, and their very different strategies for how to achieve it, described in three recent biographies, demonstrate that nothing works in a desperate situation quite like putting up one hell of a fight, and then knowing when to quit.
Fighting was what the Sioux did best, they were trained for it from childhood, they boasted about it and recorded it in beautiful drawings of a type called “ledger art,” they were the last American Indian tribe to abandon organized resistance, and at the height of their power they inflicted the single most crushing defeat ever suffered by US military forces at the hands of Indians—the annihilation of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry on a hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana in 1876. No battle in American history has been the subject of more books—not Gettysburg, not the invasion of France on D-Day—and it occupies a central place in the lives of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Red Cloud. But only Crazy Horse fought in it. Sitting Bull, by his own choice a medicine man rather than a war chief, was present but took no direct part in the battle while Red Cloud, convinced by several trips to Washington that armed resistance to white power was futile, remained in his agency, as Indian reservations were called, on the Platte three hundred miles to the south and east, but nevertheless sent his son Jack, still in his teens, to take part in the fighting.
Red Cloud’s had been a familiar name to readers of The New York Times and other eastern newspapers since the early 1870s, but Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were unknown to the general public until fame was bestowed by their role in killing Custer, something of a popular hero for his daring cavalry exploits during the Civil War. In November 1877, interviewed in Canada, Sitting Bull told reporters that the Indians outnumbered Custer ten to one (probably about right), that “the desperation of Custer and the men under his command made it necessary for the Indians to kill them,” and that “God gave me the power to see out of the womb”—a power he had used for a preliminary investigation of problems (smallpox, for example) facing the Sioux before his birth. This startling remark suggests the difficulties faced by any white biographer of the Sioux.
The first interviews with Sitting Bull were followed by many others as white writers sought out aging Indian warriors to pin down minute details of all that led to Custer’s fall. By the time the last survivors died in the 1940s a substantial literature of Indian accounts had accumulated, focused on the Little Bighorn but at the same time recording much else about Sioux history and culture.
By their own estimation and popular repute Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were both great warriors. Sitting Bull, who drew a ledger-art autobiography, claimed forty “coups” during his warring years—exploits of personal bravery in battle such as touching an enemy with a stick or even a hand. Killing and scalping an enemy was also praiseworthy but wasn’t granted quite the same respect. Red Cloud, born in 1822, claimed eighty coups but is credited by white historians with something greater still—actually winning a war with the United States. But it’s talking, not fighting, that set Red Cloud and Sitting Bull apart from the many other fighting chiefs.
Both men were orators, frequently negotiated with white officials, at times eloquently expressed the bitter heartache of losing an entire way of life, and made themselves a thorn in the side for a generation of Washington officials who wanted the Sioux to become Americans—by which they were meant to vanish as a culture and a people. Red Cloud and Sitting Bull were far from being white men in feathers, but their frequent contact with note-taking whites created something like a conventional record of words and dates, and their later careers are accessible to biographers and historians.
Crazy Horse was a fighter pure and simple. He played a central role in the two great defeats of white soldiers by the Sioux—of Captain William J. Fetterman and eighty men wiped out on the Bozeman Trail in December 1866, and of Custer a decade later. He fought until his people couldn’t take it anymore, and then he surrendered. A long decline in demoralized silence eating agency rations probably would have erased his name from history but he survived his surrender by only a few months; his death was needless and cruel, and as a result the name and memory of Crazy Horse still excite emotion.
The Crazy Horse of history was born on the Belle Fourche River in what is now South Dakota about 1840. The little that is known about his early life comes mainly from his friend He Dog, who described it to Mari Sandoz and Eleanor Hinman in 1930, and from passing remarks by other aging Indians to interviewers mostly interested in Custer. As retold with great art but much-criticized historiography by Sandoz, and summarized in sparer form by the noted Texas writer Larry McMurtry, the life of Crazy Horse takes on the shape of a passion play in which the principal scenes might be identified as follows: (1) Youth and the Vision, achieved through fasting, of a magical horseman who told him to seek nothing for himself but strive to serve the people; (2) learning to be a warrior in raids against neighboring Indian tribes; (3) fighting the whites in a conflict known as Red Cloud’s war—a two-year struggle by the Sioux to close the Bozeman Trail to travelers heading for the Montana gold fields, and to drive out the soldiers defending the trail—a war actually won in 1868 when US officials accepted Red Cloud’s demands; (4) a near-fatal passion for Black Buffalo Woman, who married another man; (5) the Custer fight and the relentless pursuit by white soldiers that followed; (6) surrender and death in 1877.
Asking McMurtry to write a life of Crazy Horse for Viking/Penguin’s new series of brief lives was an inspired idea. McMurtry, after all, knows the West, is the author of a longer string of good novels than perhaps any man since Anthony Trollope, and has already written often and well about Indians—among them, the eighty-some-year-old Oglala No Ears in Buffalo Girls, whose nose was so keen he could smell the bodies along the Little Bighorn from a hundred miles away; the stone killer Blue Duck in Lonesome Dove and Comanche Moon, from whom Stalin might have learned a few tips on the exercise of leadership through fear; the peerless tracker Famous Shoes in The Streets of Laredo, who thought nothing of jogging a couple of hundred miles through the Texas desert to check on the spirits of his Kickapoo ancestors.
McMurtry, a widely read and cosmopolitan man despite his reputation as a western writer, has an uncanny ability to strip the mental attic of book-learning and enter imaginatively into the minds of Indians who may have seen once from a distance a white town of a single dusty street lined by a dozen wood-frame buildings; who believe that buffalo first emerged from a hole in the earth and may well have returned, possibly in pique; and who theorize interestingly about the reasons of white men for the things they do. What’s striking about McMurtry’s Indians (and about many of his other Western characters as well) is that they do not seem at all hampered or limited, but simply to be operating with minds differently furnished. It’s a wonderful gift, and it has helped McMurtry to create Indian characters wholly free of any taint of dime novels or Hollywood.
But readers should not expect to find a richly imagined version of Crazy Horse in McMurtry’s small (141 pages of text) life of the legendary warrior. The problem, in McMurtry’s view, is that the firsthand sources on the life of Crazy Horse are few, those few are thin, and even thin as they are they often contradict each other. “It is as well to say firmly at the outset,” McMurtry warns the reader, “that any study of Crazy Horse will be, of necessity, an exercise in assumption, conjecture, and surmise.” The Sioux, he notes, were “not at all date obsessed” and the chronological spine of Crazy Horse’s life consists mainly of the dates of battles with white people. The most famous of these fights were voluminously recorded—in letters home, in newspaper accounts, in memoirs—but very few of the white combatants knew Crazy Horse by sight and none that I know of claim actually to have seen and recognized him in the heat of battle. What Indians had to say came for the most part decades later, when they were old and infirm, and they tended not to see things in the white man’s way—broadly and strategically—but narrowly and personally. One might remember that on the day of the Custer fight Crazy Horse placed blood-red handprints on the rump and neck of his horse. A second might say he wore only a beach-clout and was in the fight with Major Reno at the south end of the village on the Little Bighorn. A third might say no, Crazy Horse only entered the fight much later, crossing the Little Bighorn at the north end of the village. The result, in McMurtry’s view, is a biographer’s nightmare—no end of legend, very little of the man.
“To pretend that we can follow Crazy Horse’s thinking at the Rosebud [where General Crook was defeated a week before Custer was killed],” McMurtry writes, “is hubris, in the main. In a great many shadowy cases where Crazy Horse fought, or may have fought, the data is simply not firm; in making him a master strategist—as opposed to merely a very daring warrior—the historian walks on very thin ice indeed.”
It is the same with the Custer fight, which made Crazy Horse the second most famous Sioux (after Sitting Bull) of all time. For years Crazy Horse has been credited with closing off Custer’s last hope by sudden seizure of the high ground in a daring flanking attack.2 Trapped on a hillside, with no natural cover to provide a defensive position, Custer and the remnants of his five companies of cavalry were overwhelmed. The great military writer S.L.A. Marshall in Crimsoned Prairie credits this maneuver and others during the Great Sioux war of 1876-1877 for Crazy Horse’s reputation as “the greatest battlefield plunger of his race and time. No other Plains war chief matched him in skill and audacity.”
Maybe yes and maybe no. McMurtry in skeptical mode doesn’t buy it. “Exactly when Crazy Horse entered the battle is a matter of debate…. If Crazy Horse did flank Custer, it was of course good quarterbacking…. Possibly Crazy Horse fought as brilliantly as some think—we will never really know.” You might think it was the Indians who were wiped out at the Little Bighorn, leaving no one to tell the tale.
“This book is about Crazy Horse, not Custer,” McMurtry admonishes himself as he approaches the climactic battle. But the truth is that McMurtry finds Custer in some ways a more congenial subject; there is so much to say about him. Many, many pages of this brief book are entirely about Custer. McMurtry has obviously been thinking about Custer for years and perhaps wishes Viking/Penguin had been looking for a brief life of the golden cavalier. At moments, like a reservation agent grown tired of his troublesome charges, McMurtry seems to lose patience with Crazy Horse altogether. When Crazy Horse ran off with Black Buffalo Woman, he tells us, her husband, No Water, tracked them down, burst in upon Crazy Horse with a borrowed revolver, and shot him in the face. “Horrified,” McMurtry writes, “Black Buffalo Woman crawled out of the tent and skedaddled.” With that word “skedaddled” McMurtry seems ready to wash his hands of the whole affair.
But the moment passes, and while the known facts of the life of Crazy Horse are few, they are not zero, and McMurtry lays them out in a crisp fashion that includes many sharp observations of the Western scene—for example, the awful dust which must have afflicted the combatants at the Little Bighorn—and conveys the brooding spirit of the warrior and the size of the place he continues to occupy in the American imagination. Frustrated though he may be by the sparse and balky factual record, McMurtry has nevertheless been seized by the spell of this story of a man given to solitude and silence, devoted wholly to the welfare of his people but hurried by fate to a cruel end. About that day in September 1877 much is known, and McMurtry relates with powerful restraint the sad conclusion of his story.
It is a tale Shakespeare might have chosen for a play. After Crazy Horse surrendered, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, each with his own agency nearby, were jealous of the newcomer’s popularity, rumors were spread about his intentions, and General Crook was convinced by a red Iago that Crazy Horse was plotting his murder and ordered the Indian’s arrest. Confused by the rumors swirling about him and sensing that things were falling out of his control, Crazy Horse with his family and a few friends rode east to Spotted Tail’s camp, thinking to leave the jealousy and arguments behind.
But the authorities demanded his return and the following day Crazy Horse, surrounded by Indian scouts working for the white soldiers, rode back to Fort Robinson. He had been promised a conversation with the commanding general but was taken to the guardhouse instead. When he saw the prison door he realized he had been tricked and pulled away, struggling to free himself. At that point the army bayonet entered his back, pierced his kidney, and brought his years of fighting to an end. “Father,” he said during the long night it took him to die, “it is no good for the people to depend on me any longer—I am bad hurt.”
“In its tragic simplicity,” McMurtry writes, “this exchange between father and son puts us back with the Greeks.”
Sitting Bull met a similar end nearly fifteen years later—shot in the back of the head by a Sioux tribal policeman named Red Tomahawk in December 1890. The latest biographer of the great Sioux medicine man, Robert M. Utley, does not break stride over the difficulty of sources when writing the life of an Indian chief. A former chief historian for the National Park Service, Utley has published numerous deeply researched histories of the western Indian wars and has been in and out of the files for more than three decades. No significant factual claim in The Lance and the Shield fails to receive a footnote, and the portrait that emerges describes a man who shared little with Crazy Horse or Red Cloud except a determination to hold on to a traditional way of life. “Look at me,” he told some agency Indians in 1867; “See if I am poor, or my people either. The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.”
When Crazy Horse surrendered with nine hundred people in Nebraska, Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada. There he and his people toed the line as drawn by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, skimped by on the rapidly disappearing buffalo, and pined for their homeland till they could stand exile no longer. “The whites” got Sitting Bull in the end, just as he had predicted. He crossed back into the United States in 1881, surrendered at Fort Buford in what is now North Dakota, and a couple of years later went on tour for a season with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, selling signed portrait photos for $1 that now fetch thousands. According to the famous markswoman Annie Oakley, whom Sitting Bull named “Little Sure Shot” and adopted, “Most of what he earned went into the pockets of small, ragged boys.” He could not understand why children should go poor in a country so rich, and he said so. After that single season, which included a voyage across the ocean to Great Britain, Sitting Bull spent most of his last years at the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, living in a cabin on the Grand River near the spot where he had been born.
One of Utley’s earlier books, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, provides an authoritative account of the Ghost Dance mania that swept up many of the Sioux in the late 1880s, convincing them that the Great Spirit would soon wipe white men from the earth, bring back the buffalo, and restore to life all the Indians killed in all the wars. Sitting Bull was a peripheral figure in this messianic movement but he angered white authorities by refusing to condemn it. The agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin, pressed to do something by panicky white settlers, ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest. Utley provides a fair and lucid account of this episode, much criticized as little better than an official murder. Utley is unconvinced. “If McLaughlin used the police as a murder squad, either explicitly or implicitly,” he writes, “no compelling evidence survives to convict him.”
In the tragedy that followed on the Pine Ridge reservation near a creek called Wounded Knee, Red Cloud played only a marginal, unwilling role. Seventy years old and nearly blind—a common affliction among elderly Sioux, apparently the result of smoky teepees—Red Cloud was kidnapped by another half-blind chief, Two Strike, and held as a kind of hostage until reality and patient negotiation by General Nelson Miles ended the last Sioux outbreak. Twenty members of Two Strike’s band were briefly imprisoned at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and then released to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In his biography of the Oglala chief the historian Robert W. Larson throws up his hands in despair at the difficulty of describing Red Cloud’s formative years (“He gained a full and practical education based upon his experiences and the knowledge he acquired along the way”), but he is admirably comprehensive in recounting Red Cloud’s many trips to Washington and stubborn defense of Sioux rights. Crazy Horse was a wild Indian of the sort that once inhabited the dreams of small boys, ferocious in battle, in peace silent and dignified; but Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were tough negotiators and natural politicians, with a gift for harassing white authorities a little like that of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Battle was the smaller part of their lives; the real struggles took place over the language of treaties and the governance of agencies. They were new at the game of public advocacy, hindered by the lack of secretaries and written records, too easily distracted by petty quarrels with resident agents, while more important issues were being settled behind closed doors in Washington. The Great Sioux reservation promised by white negotiators at the conclusion of Red Cloud’s war in 1868, incorporating most of the present state of South Dakota, was whittled back substantially.
But a greater danger, recognized by Red Cloud and Sitting Bull alike, was removal altogether—to the Fort Randall area along the Missouri, or Indian Territory in Oklahoma. “I do not wish you to mention that name Missouri River to me,” said Red Cloud on a visit to Washington in 1877. “The Missouri River is the road to whiskey and ruin.” Sitting Bull’s stubbornness in defense of Sioux land and rights brought him Crazy Horse’s fate in the end; Red Cloud was superseded and left to molder away until his death at nearly ninety in 1909. But all three chiefs succeeded in the main thing—Sioux survival—by finding many variations of the word no. Other tribes said no and disappeared. But the Sioux proved themselves dangerous at the Little Bighorn, proved themselves desperate at Wounded Knee, proved they could stick to the point at countless negotiating tables, and convinced nervous white authorities to stop short of trying to take it all.
The history of American Indian policy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is well documented by the traditional sorts of materials—official government reports and files; the letters, diaries, and memoirs of participants and witnesses; the transcripts of hearings held by Congress; magazine and newspaper stories. American officials were as anxious about public opinion then as they are now; “the interests” (land, cattle, timber, and mining) exerted influence through lobbyists operating quietly behind the scenes; elected officials tipped the hat in all directions; reformers and clergymen were publicly horrified by the wrongs against the untutored red wards of the state; the eastern press loved a good story and the western press was infuriated by the meddling of do-gooders. Reading about federal Indian policy in the West in the 1870s and 1880s is a good deal like reading about federal civil rights policy in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. For the most part lost in the controversies over Indians at the time, and in the general run of biographies and histories written now, is a sense of the strangeness of the Indians themselves. How the Sioux were confined to reservations is preserved in the record; what they were like and how they experienced their own fate is not so easily recovered.
No one has tried harder to do this than Mari Sandoz in her life of Crazy Horse, which is rigorously confined to the Sioux point of view and written in a voice incorporating the syntax and rhythms of the Lakota language. Anyone with a command of chapter and verse on the known facts of Crazy Horse’s life can spot the source of pretty much everything in Sandoz’s book. A handful of recently discovered materials are missing, but for the most part Sandoz and McMurtry had access to the same factual record. What Sandoz had in addition, and drew upon heavily, was the experience of growing up in northwestern Nebraska at the turn of the century, hearing stories of Crazy Horse, who was killed nearby at Fort Robinson, and of several months in 1930-1931 spent formally interviewing six Oglala Sioux who had actually known Crazy Horse, those around him, and the circumstances of his life and death.
Chief among these was Crazy Horse’s friend He Dog, who surrendered with him in May 1877, and rode with him to Fort Robinson on the day he died. Sandoz did all the usual kinds of archival research as well, but when, after agonizingly slow progress, she found the book refusing to be written, the conventional language of flat, uninflected historical narrative failing to convey what she intuitively understood, she made a radical decision to adopt the voice of the elderly Sioux and tell the story of Crazy Horse as they might have done. The result is a narrative of striking richness and power; it is simultaneously intimate and strange, like something overheard in someone else’s tongue and mind, and it conveys the feel of a life relentlessly driven, and in the end extinguished, by unknown forces for reasons only dimly understood.
The only way to get a feel for Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas is to read a chunk of it. The language is simple, direct, and forceful; a number of Lakota words are regularly used; adjectives are few and plain; the speaker tries to convey essence, not nuance; grave things are treated gravely—foolish things as not worth bothering about. An example describes the end of the Fetterman fight in December 1866:
Even after the wounded had been collected and the Indians were hurrying to get to camp before the hurt ones froze, Crazy Horse was still searching every brush patch and gully for his friend. It couldn’t be that he had left the fighting and gone home, for such a thing Lone Bear would not do…. All this time Crazy Horse still hunted for his friend Lone Bear, Hump staying behind to help him. The sky was darkening and the snow was on the wind when they found him in a little clump of brush, a clump so small it seemed none could hide there. The warrior was face down and when Crazy Horse turned him up, they saw that his hands and his face were already white-frozen, his bullet-torn breast a great lump of blood ice. As Crazy Horse lifted him, Lone Bear opened his eyes and even now there was a little shamed smiling for this bad luck. So he died in the arms of his friend, with Hump standing beside them, crying.
The historian and biographer Stephen B. Oates, in his introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Sandoz’s book, can’t praise it highly enough: “In all respects,” he writes, “in its flawless storytelling, its convincing interpretation of character, its emphatic expression of personality, its innovative style and beauty of language, and its accurate historical context, Sandoz’s Crazy Horse is a towering achievement…the biographical equivalent of Moby Dick—the greatest American life ever written.” I myself would give pride of place to Leon Edel’s life of Henry James, but otherwise I pretty much agree with Oates: Sandoz has entered the mental world of another culture, captured the spectacle of a way of life on the verge of disappearing forever, evoked the power of a man whose charismatic appeal was felt by red and white alike, told one of the classic American stories of innocence, courage, defeat, and loss. What more can you ask of a work of literature?
Larry McMurtry is unpersuaded. In a note on sources he credits Sandoz with having written “a considered and sympathetic study.” But Sandoz was credulous, in his opinion, and her decision to write from a Sioux point of view was “unfortunate,” turning her book into a kind of “historical novel.”
This isn’t the sort of literary disagreement that can be said to have a correct answer. Sandoz wrote the book the way she did and you like it or you don’t. What McMurtry appears to find haunting and powerful is the unknowability of Crazy Horse the man and the sadness of his fate; for Sandoz the interesting thing is his strangeness—the solitary inward-looking of the man, driven by the memory of a vision given to him in his youth. In it he saw a man on a horse dressed in a strange and sacred way. On the man’s body, which Crazy Horse came to understand was his own body, were painted a few hailspots, on his cheek a jagged streak like lightning. Behind his left ear was tied a small, brown stone; in his hair was a single eagle feather. Around him as he rode into battle arrows and bullets fell harmlessly.
The vision of a Sioux warrior became the organizing principle of his life, and Mari Sandoz has much to say about the vision that came to Crazy Horse and seemed to foretell so much of his future. It is highly particular and full of meticulous detail in the manner of the ledger-art drawings that Plains Indian warriors began to make in large numbers in the 1870s after they were confined to reservations. The paper came literally from the ledger books of agency trading posts; the drawings were done mostly in pencil, then colored with crayon, colored pencil, or paints. The scenes depicted were mostly of war or hunting, and their purpose seems to have been primarily to record the world and personal history of men who quickly came to understand that exchanging the old roving, hunting life for agency rations meant the end, in time, of virtually everything that made them what they were. Several thousand of these drawings are known, and collectively they form an extraordinary body of work that marks the exact moment when Plains Indians discovered what can only be called “art”—the making of images whose sole purpose is to express, to inform, and to be looked at.
A major exhibition of ledger art was put on at the Drawing Center in New York City three years ago. It included work done over a seventy-year period, from a very early Cheyenne ledger book of drawings recovered from a battlefield in 1865 to Sioux drawings done in the classic style as late as 1935. It is possible that two of the drawings included in the show and its companion catalog depict the life of Crazy Horse. According to the editor of the catalog, Janet Catherine Berlo, the drawings come from a ledger book acquired in 1877 by a Denver Post reporter, George P. Wallihan. Years later Wallihan said he had been the only reporter present for Crazy Horse’s surrender at Fort Robinson, and that the chief gave him the ledger book personally, but declined to say whether the subject was himself. Both drawings depict war exploits—the killing of Pawnee enemies and the capture of six horses.
But at the heart of the show, and on the cover of the catalog, is a drawing with no connection to Crazy Horse, but which goes a long way toward explaining the true meaning of his name. The drawing is known as Medicine Vision, 1882, and was created a few years after Crazy Horse’s death, by the artist whom Janet Berlo calls “Henderson Ledger Artist A.” The Henderson ledger book, originally containing 122 drawings but broken for sale in 1988, was created by a nineteen- or twenty-year-old Arapaho named Frank Henderson who attended the Carlisle Indian School in 1879 and later sent the book as a gift to a woman he had known in Pennsylvania. Since the drawings in the book are clearly the work of two distinct artists, one of them must be Henderson—but which one? Very probably it was the artist who did most of the drawings, which happen also to be the best (although Henderson B is almost as dazzling). But it’s impossible to know for sure. What is known is that Henderson was desperately unhappy as a student at Carlisle, where every effort was made by school officials “to kill the Indian in order to save the man,” that Henderson worked for a time with a missionary in the Indian Territory after his return, that he drew some and probably most of the drawings in his ledger book, and that he died at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three in 1885.
Medicine Vision, currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the “Native Paths” exhibition,3 has an uncanny resemblance to the dream vision of Crazy Horse, as passed on to Mari Sandoz by elderly Sioux for whom the details of a vision, like the design of a warrior’s shield or his way of painting his horse or the contents of his medicine bundle, were essential clues to a man’s identity. In the drawing, a ghostly male figure, iridescent with fire, rides a blue horse. Its tail appears to be tied for war. The man’s right hand and left foot are painted red, his left hand (and presumably his left foot, hidden by the horse) blue. Red hailspots run in a double row down the horse’s chest, down his legs, along his back. This horse is magical, full of power—the meaning of the word “crazy” in Crazy Horse’s name. Wavy lines of red power pass from the man’s hand and foot down across the break of the page to the simply drawn figure of a man in a trance. There is much else besides—a shield, a bird, a painted teepee, a buffalo-horn headdress. This drawing, destined to take its place as one of the great works of American Indian art, and, in time, perhaps of American art, is a subtle mix of delicacy and power. Through it as through a window, one sees the shimmering brilliance of a mysterious and sacred knowledge—the gift from the gods that made Crazy Horse strange.
March 18, 1999
Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories (University of California Press, 1989), pp. 35-37. ↩
But not by Gregory F. Michno, author of Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat (Mountain Press, 1997). See pages 242-247: Michno says Crazy Horse fought and fought well, but had no time for the wide flanking ride around Custer’s forces with which he has been credited. Michno and Richard G. Hardorff are two recent writers who have carefully mined the surviving Indian accounts of the Custer fight for evidence of what happened. Their attention to the record is minute and full of interest, but for every doubt settled it seems another is raised. I hope to return to this subject in another article. ↩
The exhibition runs from May 7, 1998, to January 2, 2000; the catalog of the exhibition is Native Paths: American Indian Art from the Collection of Charles and Valerie Diker, edited by Allen Wardwell (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998). ↩