The Magnificent Legacy of Crazy Horse
Updated: Feb 19, 2022
A mighty warrior who was humble, quiet, loved children, and fiercely rejected white ways
There is Geronimo. There is Sitting Bull. And there is Red Cloud. And, then, there is Crazy Horse. His lyrical name seems to dance across the pages of history right into modern times, as if his mighty warhorse carries him still, unstoppable.
He is a man who has captured the imagination not only of his own Lakota people, but all of American society, indeed, the entire world. Why this is so may be subject to conjecture. But some things are known: he was a man of humility and integrity, a mighty warrior, and a native American leader who defiantly refused white civilization to the end of his days. Even on his death bed, he insisted on lying on the ground to die, rather than a white man’s medical cot.
The history of Crazy Horse is shrouded in mystery and aloofness. Born Tȟašúŋke Witkó (His Horse is Crazy), he was an enigma even among his own tribe. His friends knew him as shy, modest, generous to the poor and elderly, and affectionate toward children. Black Elk, Crazy Horse’s cousin told author John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks:
“...he was a queer man and would go about the village without noticing people or saying anything. In his own teepee he would joke, and when he was on the warpath with a small party, he would joke to make his warriors feel good. But around the village he hardly ever noticed anybody, except little children. All the Lakotas like to dance and sing; but he never joined a dance, and they say nobody ever heard him sing. But everybody liked him, and they would do anything he wanted or go anywhere he said.”
A violent early encounter with white soldiers defined Crazy Horse's future. In 1854, when he was still very young, the Army entered his Lakota camp to find a cow. It had wandered into the camp and the tribe had butchered it and shared the meat among the people. When the soldiers accused some of the tribe and fatally shot Chief Conquering Bear, the Lakota returned fire, killing all 30 soldiers and a civilian interpreter. Whites later called the incident the "Grattan Massacre."
After witnessing the death of Conquering Bear, Crazy Horse began to experience trance visions. He saw a warrior on his horse riding out of a lake and the horse seemed to float and dance throughout the vision. The warrior wore simple clothing, no face paint, his hair down with just a feather in it, and a small brown stone behind his ear. Bullets and arrows flew around him as he charged forward, but neither he nor his horse were hit. A thunderstorm came over the warrior, and his people grabbed hold of his arms trying to hold him back.
The warrior broke their hold and then lightning struck him, leaving a lightning symbol on his cheek, and white marks like hailstones appeared on his body. The warrior told Crazy Horse that as long he dressed modestly, his tribesmen did not accost him, and he did not take any scalps or war trophies, then he would not be harmed in battle and that he would be a protector of his people. As the vision ended, he heard a red-tailed hawk shrieking off in the distance, as confirmation to the truth of his vision.
The lightning bolt on his cheek and the hailstones on his body were to become his war paint. From then on, Crazy Horse dressed modestly, with only a feather in his hair, no bonnets. He painted his black and white pinto, named Inyan, with hail and thunderbolts, too, to protect him in battle.
Black Elk told author Niehardt in Black Elk Speaks:
“Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world. He was on his horse in that world, and the horse and himself on it and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seemed to float. His horse was standing still there, and yet it danced around like a horse made only of shadow, and that is how he got his name, which does not mean that his horse was crazy or wild, but that in his vision it danced around in that queer way. It was this vision that gave him his great power, for when he went into a fight, he had only to think of that world to be in it again, so that he could go through anything and not be hurt.”
For all Crazy Horse's shyness and gentleness with children, he was ferocious in battle and showed an early adroitness for combat. Even as a boy, he became known for his courage. He stole horses from the Lakota enemy, the Crow, before he was thirteen. And he led his first war party as a teenager. In the 1865-68 led by the Oglala chief Red Cloud, he risked his life and played the key role in destroying William Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Kearny in 1867 by serving as the main decoy to distract the Army’s forces.
He fought to prevent American encroachment on Lakota lands following the broken Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 by attacking a surveying party sent into the Black Hills by General George Armstrong Custer in 1873.
In 1876, when the War Department ordered all Lakota bands onto their reservations, Crazy Horse took up arms as the leader of the resistance. Because of his first marriage to a Cheyenne woman, he was closely allied to the Cheyenne and gathered a combined force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne at his village. With those forces, he turned back General George Crook on June 17, 1876, as Crook tried to advance to Rosebud Creek toward Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse’s offensive would seal Custer’s fate.
Crazy Horse then joined forces with Sitting Bull and Gall. On June 25, he led his warriors in the counterattack that destroyed Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. He flanked the American forces from the north and west, as the Hunkpapa warriors led by Gall charged from the south and east.
Many Native warriors attested to the valor of Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn. Arapaho warrior, Water Man, said Crazy Horse "was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit." Sioux warrior Little Soldier, said, "The greatest fighter in the whole battle was Crazy Horse." Native warriors at the Little Bighorn later recounted that Crazy Horse rode into battle, encouraging his warriors with the battle cry: "Hóka-héy! Today is a good day to die!"
Crazy Horse had a reputation among the Lakota not only as a daring warrior, but also a fierce defender of his people's traditional way of life. He refused, for example, to allow any photographs to be taken of him. He regarded the white technology as a form of white enticement that could not only steal an image, but steal a soul. He accused a photographer asking: “Would you steal my shadow, too?”
After the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and Gal retreated to Canada, but Crazy Horse stayed to battle General Nelson Miles, who pursued Crazy Horse’s Lakota force and their allies relentless through the winter of 1876-77. On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse and his warriors fought their last major battle at Wolf Mountain against the U.S. Cavalry in Montana Territory. The constant harassment and nearly extinct buffalo population made survival nearly impossible for the fleeing warriors. Near starvation, Crazy Horse and his band were forced to surrender on May 6, 1877.
He was detained at Red Cloud Agency, that would later be renamed Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota. But, even in defeat, Crazy Horse remained defiant. In August 1877, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce had been making headlines across the nation fighting victoriously against the U.S. Army’s best generals as they fled from Idaho through Montana to join Sitting Bull in Canada. Army officers approached Crazy Horse and offered him a horse and gun to help them go fight the Nez Perce. Crazy Horse and his cousin, Miniconjou leader Touch the Clouds objected, saying that they had promised to remain at peace when they surrendered. According to one version of events, Crazy Horse told the translator: he would agree to "go north and fight until not a white man is left."
In September 1877, when his wife became sick, he left the reservation to take her to her parents. General George Crook ordered him arrested, fearing Crazy Horse would incite an uprising. He did not resist until he realized he was to be imprisoned in a guard house, a fate Native Americans resisted at all cost. When he began resisting, his arms were held as another soldier bayoneted him in the kidney.
Even as he was dying, he refused to lie on a white man’s cot and insisted on lying on the ground “close to the earth.” The following morning, Crazy Horse’s body was given to his parents and wife. They placed it on a burial scaffold and mourned him, then buried him in a secret, unmarked place, believed to be somewhere near Wounded Knee.
Unlike most other famous Native leaders, Crazy Horse died very soon after the Little Bighorn, he was not interviewed by scholars or journalists, was not photographed, and did not have a chance to travel to Washington to advocate for his people. Yet his legacy continued to thrive. Even despite his passing death and unceremonious burial in an unmarked grave, his name is one of the most recognized and honored native warriors. The sheer strength of his persona and integrity seems to have cut through the settling dust of the passing years.
Several key books have been credited with helping to keep Crazy Horse’s legacy alive in the 20th century. The first major one, written by Mari Sandoz in 1942, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, was written with such verve, thorough research and empathy for the plight of the Lakota, that her main character nearly jumped out of the pages and pulled readers into his world. “Sandoz single-handedly made the Oglala war leader one of the most famous Indians in white America,” wrote Dr. Alden Big Man Jr., of the Crow Nation, a Ph.D in native history from the University of New Mexico who has taught at Little Big Horn College in Montana.
Then Dee Brown’s 1971 seminal work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, shocked audiences and opened Americans’ eyes to the struggles of Native resistance to white encroachment and genocide.
In 1996, foremost Western historian and scholar, Stephen Ambrose, wrote the best-selling book, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, to rave reviews. Numerous other fine books have been written about the Lakota warrior, as well. (See photograph of nine recommended books about Crazy Horse.)
It is one of history’s ironies that a great American Indian chief, known for his humility and integrity, who refused to be photographed, and who remained in quiet oblivion, buried by his family in an unmarked grave in a place kept secret from the rest of the world, should now be honored by the world’s largest memorial, carved out of a sacred mountain in his native land. Perhaps that is as it should be....
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• The Crazy Horse Memorial
"Crazy Horse" was originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on February 20, 2020
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