Crazy Horse: A Lifeby Larry McMurtry
Legends cloud the life of Crazy Horse, a seminal figure in American history but an enigma even to his own people in his own day. This superb biography looks back across more than 120 years at the life and death of this great Sioux warrior who became a reluctant leader at the Battle of Little Bighorn. With his uncanny gift for understanding the human psyche, Larry
Legends cloud the life of Crazy Horse, a seminal figure in American history but an enigma even to his own people in his own day. This superb biography looks back across more than 120 years at the life and death of this great Sioux warrior who became a reluctant leader at the Battle of Little Bighorn. With his uncanny gift for understanding the human psyche, Larry McMurtry animates the character of this remarkable figure, whose betrayal by white representatives of the U.S. government was a tragic turning point in the history of the West. A mythic figure puzzled over by generations of historians, Crazy Horse emerges from McMurtry’s sensitive portrait as the poignant hero of a long-since-vanished epoch.
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
Crazy Horse, a Sioux warrior dead more than one hundred and twenty years, buried no one knows where, is rising again over Pa Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, holy to the Sioux. Today, as in life, his horse is with him. Fifty years of effort on the part of the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his wife and children have just begun to nudge the man and his horse out of what was once Thunderhead Mountain. In the half-century that the Ziolkowski family has worked, millions of tons of rock have been moved, as they attempt to create what will be the world's largest sculpture; but the man that is emerging from stone and dirt is as yet only a suggestion, a shape, which those who journey to Custer, South Dakota, to see must complete in their own imaginations.
It is a nice irony that the little town Crazy Horse has come to brood over is named for his old adversary George Armstrong Custer--Long Hair, whose hair, however, had been cut short on the day of his last battle, so that it is not certain that the Sioux or Cheyenne who killed him really recognized him until after he was dead. Crazy Horse had one good look at Custer, in a skirmish on the Yellowstone River in 1873, but Custer probably never saw Crazy Horse clearly enough to have identified him, either on the Yellowstone or at the Little Bighorn, three years later. The thousands who come to the Crazy Horse Monument each year see him as yet only vaguely; but that, too, will change. One day his arm will stretch out almost the length of a football field; statistics will accumulate around his mountain just as legends, rumors, true tales and tall tales, accumulated around the living man.
What should be stressed at the outset is that Crazy Horse was loved and valued by his people as much for his charity as for his courage, Ian Frazier, in his fine book Great Plains, reports correctly that the Crazy Horse Monument is one of the few places on the Great Plains where one will see a lot of Indians smiling. The knowledge of his charity is still a balm to his people, the Sioux people, most of whom are poor and all of whom are oppressed. Peter Matthiessen was right to call his bitterly trenchant report on the troubles the Pine Ridge Sioux had with the U.S. government in the 1970s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, because the spirit of Crazy Horse was a spirit unbroken, though it was certainly raked raw by the difficulties of his last few months.
George E. Hyde, the great (if cranky) historian of the Oglala and the Brule Sioux, a man not easily swept off his feet by even the most potent myth, confessed his puzzlement with the Crazy Horse legend in words that are neither unfair nor inaccurate: "They depict Crazy Horse as a kind of being never seen on earth: a genius at war yet a lover of peace; a statesman who apparently never thought of the interest of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples--Little Big Man, Touch-the-Clouds and the rest. One is inclined to ask, what is it all about?"
A Sioux Christ? That touches on his charity and on his betrayal, but he was a determined warrior too, one of the great Resisters, men who do not compromise, do not negotiate, do not administer, who exist in a realm beyond the give-and-take of conventional politics and who stumble and are defeated only when hard circumstances force them to live in that realm.
I saw the Crazy Horse Monument one day while traveling north to visit the grave of that sad, boastful woman Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane), who lies in the Deadwood cemetery next to James Butler Hickok (Wild Bill), a proximity he could not protest, since Calamity outlived him by a quarter of a century. I was easing through the Black Hills buffalo herd--many of the buffalo stood in the road, dull and incurious, as indifferent to the traffic as they had been to the buffalo hunters who slaughtered some fifty million of them in a short space of time in the last century--when I slowly became aware of something: something large. I looked up and saw the Crazy Horse mountain, just to the northeast. Great hundred-yard swirls of white paint streaked the mountain, representing his hair; below him more swirls of the same white paint formed a Picassoesque horse head.
Like most travelers who come unexpectedly onto the monument, I was stunned, too stunned even to go up to the gift shop. I stopped the car, sat on the hood, and looked, as buffalo ambled by. What loomed above me, framed by the blue Dakota sky, was an American Sphinx. He was there, but as a force, an indefiniteness, a form made more powerful by his very abstractness.
I suppose, someday, the Ziolkowski family will finish this statue. It may take another generation or two, and when it's finished, if I'm alive, I'd like to see it. But I'm glad that I saw the mountain in the years when Crazy Horse was still only a form and a mystery. Now that I've read what there is to read about him, I think this indefiniteness was also an aspect of the man. His own people experienced him as a mystery while he was alive: they called him Our Strange Man. In his life he would have three names: Curly, His Horses Looking, Crazy Horse (Ta-Shunka-Witco). We know him as Crazy Horse, but in life few knew him well; in truth it is only in a certain limited way that we who are living now can know him at all. George Hyde, who resisted his legend, knew that in spite of what he himself wrote, time had already separated the myth from the man, obliterating fact. Fair or not, that is the way with heroes: Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Custer. For all such men, fact withers in the heat of myth. George Hyde felt the frustrations all historians feel when they find a legend blocking their route to what had once only been a man.
Crazy Horse's legend grew in the main from a broken people's need to remember and believe in unbroken heroes, those who remained true to the precepts of their fathers and to the ways of the culture and the traditions which bred them.
Certainly the whites who fought Crazy Horse helped build his legend, too. Agent Jesse Lee, who brought Crazy Horse back from the Spotted Tail agency to Fort Robinson, only to see him killed before he could be given the hearing that had been promised him, confessed that he was tortured by his involvement in such a dark deed. Even the stern General Crook, who, had he caught him alive, would have sent Crazy Horse off to a prison in the Dry Tortugas--all on the basis of a lie--later expressed regret that he had failed to sit in council with him on the last occasion that presented itself. "I ought to have gone to that council," Crook said. "I never start any place but that I get there."
This short book is an attempt to look back across more than one hundred and twenty years at the life and death of the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, the man who is coming out of a mountain in the Black Hills, the American Sphinx, the loner who has inspired the largest sculpture on planet Earth. It will be an attempt to answer George Hyde's pointed question: What was it all about?
Meet the Author
Larry McMurtry is the author of twenty-one bestselling novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show. He lives in Texas.
- Archer City, Texas
- Date of Birth:
- June 3, 1936
- Place of Birth:
- Wichita Falls, Texas
- B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.
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Although the reader reviews of this book were not high, I purchased the e-version of this book because I usually enjoy Larry's fiction that is staged on the plains. I have sensed that he conducts extensive research about the era that his characters are living in. I am halfway through this book and am not disappointed. Mr. McMurtry is showing us the world that Crazy Horse lived in. If he attempted to place him at specific scenes at specific times or to quote him the biography would become a historic novel. I would recommend this book to readers who want to learn about the Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains and the tragic end of their way of life. It provides the names and some background of tribes, battles, forts, and most important the names of specific participants that may be read about to enlighten people about what happened in the years leading to the reservation system.
What was the essence of Crazy Horse? The attempt to explain the life of Crazy Horse to me was inadequate. Only in the latter part of the book the reader was given a glimpse of the possible persona of Crazy Horse. However, what did keep my attention while reading this book were the descriptions of the different events between the military representatives of the U.S. Government and the Native American Tribes.
I bought this book when it first came out and I definitely feel ripped off. If I was tempted to buy any of the others in the series (and I was), based on this book I won't take the chance. I knew little about Crazy Horse before reading it and I know just as little now. A real disappointment!