The Magic of Crazy Horse

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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…

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