The Killing of Crazy Horse, by Thomas Powers, Knopf, 568 pp., $30
In a sunny corridor on the second floor of the Nebraska state capitol sits a bust of Red Cloud, a renowned leader of the Oglala Sioux who, in 2000, was enshrined in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. At first blush, Red Cloud might seem out of place, given that neighboring statues pay homage to Cornhusker luminaries like novelist Willa Cather and anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Moreover, Red Cloud is best known for the eponymous war he fought against the United States between 1866 and 1868, which claimed scores of white victims. The chief, however, had a second act as a noted advocate for peace. He settled his followers on an agency in northwestern Nebraska (since relocated to South Dakota), where he worked to improve their living conditions. According to the plaque beneath his likeness, he remained “a steadfast advocate for his people” until his death in 1909.
Visitors to the capitol will find no bust of Crazy Horse, although he lived and died in Nebraska, and—like Red Cloud—was fiercely dedicated to the Oglalas. In the end, his style of leadership is harder for the public to embrace, given that Crazy Horse proved far less pliable than many Indian leaders of his time, including Sitting Bull, who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and ultimately accepted confinement on the Standing Rock Reservation. And then, of course, there is the uncomfortable matter of his death at Camp Robinson on September 5, 1877, one of the most shameful episodes in the U.S. conquest of Native America. Who wants to be reminded of that on a quiet Sunday afternoon tour through the state’s monument to fair play and the rule of law?
Thomas Powers’s tremendous new book serves as an admirable stand-in for the missing bust, and reminds us why, more than 130 years after his death, Crazy Horse retains such a powerful hold on the American imagination. Befitting such an unusual personality as its subject, The Killing of Crazy Horse likewise defies easy classification. Powers’s study is not a biography, because the title character disappears for lengthy stretches (and as the author himself notes, historian Kingsley Bray has recently published a very satisfying portrait of the warrior). Neither is the book a full account of the Sioux struggle to resist U.S. expansion onto the Plains, for Powers largely ignores the Dakota War of 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the opening and closing chapters of that sad tale.
Instead, Powers’s volume is an extended rumination on the turbulent period between 1866 and 1877, during which Crazy Horse played perhaps the most important role in the collision of white and native cultures on the northern Plains. Although the story may be familiar to readers armed with an abiding interest in the history of the American West, Powers adds considerable flesh and bone, and in elegiac fashion. The Killing of Crazy Horse is one of the most moving and compassionate books on the Indian Wars published in some time, imbuing not only native peoples but whites, too, with motives, passions, weaknesses, and dignity. This is no small achievement, and easily compensates for the book’s few missteps (occasional but lengthy digressions, overemphasis of secondary characters, and especially the oddly placed retelling of the Battle of the Little Bighorn).
Crazy Horse was born sometime around 1840 in present-day South Dakota. Even as a boy he was distinguished by his courage, which—according to Powers—matched his ambition to become one of the wicasa yatapika, “men that are talked about.” Originally called Curly Hair, the light-skinned and fair-haired youth acquired his father’s name sometime in the mid-1850s, after he killed and scalped two Arapahos; thereafter, he was known as Tasunka Witko. Powers explains the meaning this way: “his horse is imbued with a sacred power drawn from formidable spiritual sources. . . . The operative word is power in the classic Lakota sense—imbued with force and significance.” Because of his unsettling reticence as well as the potency of his visions, the subtitle of Mari Sandoz’s 1942 biography of Crazy Horse makes sense: The Strange Man of the Oglalas.
Within a decade of assuming his father’s name, Crazy Horse had become one of the most admired warriors among his people and took a leading role in Red Cloud’s War. In December 1866 he was chosen as one of 10 decoys charged with luring a detachment of 80 U.S. soldiers from the safety of Fort Phil Kearny, a post in northern Wyoming built to facilitate American expansion into Sioux territory. Led by Captain William Fetterman, the troops chased Crazy Horse and his fellow decoys over a nearby hill, where a combined force of more than a thousand Sioux and Cheyennes lay in wait. With clubs and knives the Indians killed the soldiers to a man, inflicting what to that time was the worst defeat suffered by the Army at the hands of Plains Indians.
Though revered by the Oglalas, Crazy Horse was largely unknown to American military strategists until the summer of 1876, when the Sioux took up arms to resist the American invasion of the Black Hills, which had been reserved permanently for the Indians by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. On June 17, Crazy Horse and some 1,500 warriors stymied the advance of General George Crook up Rosebud Creek in south-central Montana. And then eight days later at the Little Bighorn, the Oglala warrior enjoyed perhaps his finest moment, when in an act of supreme bravery he led an uphill charge into the teeth of the 7th U.S. Cavalry, breaking the soldiers’ line in two and bringing the battle to its bloody climax.
Unlike Sitting Bull, who fled to Canada to avoid U.S. retaliation, Crazy Horse and his band remained in the Powder River Country, where they were stalked by hunger and disease. These conditions led him to surrender at the Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska on May 5, 1877. Crazy Horse soon fell into a deep depression, exacerbated by the stresses of unremitting Army supervision and the resentment of fellow Sioux who had submitted to federal authority.
Powers narrates the four-month period between the capitulation of Crazy Horse and his death with extraordinary care; indeed, his nuanced retelling of the tangled negotiations (both in Washington and on the Plains) about what should become of the feared warrior—Army scout? political exile? target of assassination?—occupies almost one quarter of the book. But these details are critical in getting at the elusive question that inspired Powers in the first place. As he explains: “I confess it was wanting to know why Crazy Horse was killed, not the abstract lessons to be drawn from his fate, that drew me on.”
If he provides no tidy answers to that query, Powers’s re-creation of the events that culminated in the stabbing of Crazy Horse—accidental or otherwise—as he was herded into the guardhouse at Fort Robinson in preparation for a train ride to Omaha (and an uncertain fate) evokes nothing so much as Christ’s
Passion. There is Judas (Little Big Man, a friend turned rival, who struggled with the warrior before he was pierced by the bayonet of a U.S. soldier); Pilate (Camp Robinson’s commanding officer, who insisted to a concerned associate that he had no choice but to follow orders and thus could not grant the Oglala chief a chance to speak on his own behalf); and even Jesus himself (Crazy Horse, who—as he lay dying—allegedly told the Army men who attended him that “no white man is to blame for this”).
Despite the powerful mixture of fear and respect that he elicited from white adversaries during his lifetime, in death Crazy Horse slipped into relative obscurity among the general public, overshadowed especially by Sitting Bull, the most famous Indian of them all. But that began to change by the mid-20th century, around the time that a Polish-American artist began carving an enormous sculpture of Crazy Horse into a mountainside in the Black Hills. The project, still far from completion, remains controversial among the Sioux, and not only because there is no photograph of the warrior (who refused to have his picture taken) on which to base the likeness. Russell Means, the noted Oglala activist, insists that the sculpture pollutes sacred ground, and allows non-Indians to celebrate the romance of the native past while ignoring the plight of their descendants in contemporary America. And that, as Powers’s book reminds us, is surely untrue to the spirit of the mysterious and defiant man the monument honors.