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"When we were young,
all we thought about was going to war."
it was nearing midday on the shortest day of the year in 1866 when Indians attacked a detachment of soldiers sent out from Fort Phil Kearny in northern Wyoming to cut firewood for the post. The weather was mild and clear. A light powdering of recent snow lingered in the shadows of the hills. The Indians could not be seen from the fort itself, but a soldier stationed on a nearby hill signaled the opening of the attack. Through the gates of the fort emerged a relief party of eighty men, cavalry in the lead, infantry hurrying behind. They circled north around some low hills, passing out of sight of the fort. Ahead of the soldiers, retreating back up the slope of a ridge, were ten Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, all practicing the oldest ruse of warfare on the plains. Each man in his own way was hurrying without hurrying, like a quail skittering through the brush away from her nest, trailing a wing, showing herself to hungry fox or coyote. It was the custom of decoys to lure and tantalize-to taunt the soldiers with shouted insults, to show their buttocks, to dismount and check their horses' feet as if they were lame. The decoys would linger back, just at the edge of rifle shot, almost within reach.
This moment had a long history. Fort Phil Kearny was the first of three posts established in the early summer of 1866 to protect whites traveling north to the Montana goldfields along a new road named after the man who had mapped it out a year earlier, John Bozeman. For twenty- five years the Sioux Indians had traded peacefully with whites at Fort Laramie two hundred miles to the south and east, but the Bozeman Road threatened their last and best hunting country. The chiefs spoke plainly; the whites must give up the road or face war. In June, they had been invited to gather at Fort Laramie, where white officials hoped to patch together some kind of agreement for use of the road. A friendly chief of the Brulé Sioux warned an Army officer that talk was futile. "There is a treaty being made at Laramie with the Sioux that are in the country where you are going," Standing Elk told an officer heading north. "The fighting men in that country have not come to Laramie, and you will have to fight them. They will not give you the road unless you whip them."
All that summer Fort Phil Kearny was under virtual siege by the Indians. They prowled the country daily, watching or signaling from the ridges. They often attacked soldiers sent out to cut wood or hay and they killed numerous travelers-thirty-three by the end of August, according to the commander of the fort. At every chance the Indians ran off horses and cattle, threatening the fort with hunger. When the fall buffalo hunting was over, thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne converged on the isolated fort, but they hid themselves, taking care that the soldiers never saw more than a few at a time. During one midday raid on the fort's dwindling cattle herd in November, soldiers on horseback suddenly charged out of the fort in angry disorder, infuriated by the endless attacks. This set the Indians to thinking.
In early December the decoy trick almost succeeded in luring reckless soldiers into an ambush. On December 19, the Indians tried again, but the decoys were too clumsy, or the soldiers too cautious; they turned back when the Indians passed up over the ridge north of the fort. But two days later, encouraged by a promise of success from a "two-souled person" or winkte, the Indians organized a second effort on a still larger scale and this time everything was done right. The great mass of warriors hid themselves in the grass and brush on the far side of the long ridge as it sloped down and away from the fort. No overexcited young men dashed out ahead of the others. The horses were held back out of the way. The decoys were convincing. The eighty soldiers never slacked their rush up the ridge after the men they feared were getting away.
In that group of ten warriors retreating back up the ridge, but not too quickly, nor lingering too obviously, were some of the leading men of the Oglala Sioux-Man That Owns a Sword, American Horse, and Crazy Horse. All were respected warriors, men in their late twenties, known for courage in battle. Among that group Crazy Horse did not impress at a casual glance. He was a slender man of middle height. He dressed simply. He wore his hair loose with a few feathers or sometimes the dried skin of a sparrow hawk fixed in his hair. For battle he painted himself with white hail spots. A zigzag line of paint down his horse's shoulder and leg gave it the power of lightning. He had dusted his horse with the powdery earth from a prairie dog mound to protect it from bullets. His usual weapons were a stone war club and a gun. If he ever fired an arrow at a white man it was not recorded.
None of the whites would have recognized Crazy Horse on December 21, 1866. Only a few had met him or knew his name. But Crazy Horse and the others were about to lure eighty soldiers into an ambush where all would die in the second of the three humiliating defeats inflicted on the U.S. Army by the Sioux Indians and their Cheyenne allies. Ten years later Crazy Horse would do it again. But no trickery would be involved in that third and greatest of Indian victories. His friend He Dog, who was in both fights, said Crazy Horse won the battle of the Little Bighorn with a sudden rush in the right spot at the right moment, splitting the enemy force in two-the kind of masterstroke explained only by native genius, in answer to a prayer.
The Sioux Indians of the northern plains had a phrase for the leading men of the band-wicasa yatapika, "men that are talked about." From earliest times, whites had called the leader of any Indian community the "chief," and the word matched the reality: in any band, one man was generally respected, listened to, and followed more than any other. But among the Sioux no chief ruled as an autocrat for long; wise chiefs consulted others and were supported in turn by various camp officials, men with authority over decisions about war, hunting, the movements of the band, and the enforcement of decisions and tribal law. For each office the Sioux language provided a distinct term, but all might be called chiefs without doing violence to the meaning, and all were drawn from the wicasa yatapika. The talk about those men generally started with some notable deed, and the deed was most often performed in battle.
From an early age the man who would be remembered as Crazy Horse attracted attention, first for his skill as a hunter, then for his courage in war. Many stories are told about the early life of Crazy Horse but few are completely firm. His friend and religious mentor Horn Chips said he was born in the fall on a creek near a sacred hill known as Bear Butte in what is now South Dakota; his friend He Dog said that Crazy Horse and He Dog were born "in the same year and at the same season of the year"-probably 1838, but possibly 1840. The name Crazy Horse belonged to his father before him, an Oglala of the band led by Smoke; when the band split after a killing in 1841 the father remained in the north with Smoke's people. The mother of Crazy Horse was a Miniconjou named Rattle Blanket Woman who "took a rope and hung herself to a tree" when the boy was about four years old. The reason is unclear; she may have been grieving over the death of a brother of her husband. In 1844-45, the elder Crazy Horse led a war party against the Shoshone Indians to the west, probably seeking revenge for the killing of this brother, whose name may have been He Crow, who may have been a lover of Rattle Blanket Woman, and whose death may have led to her suicide. It is impossible after so many years to be certain about any of it. To a boy of four all of this would have been frightening and vague.
Some facts are a little firmer. The elder Crazy Horse took a second wife said to be a relative of the Brulé chief Spotted Tail, possibly even the chief's sister. All witnesses agree that the boy was called Curly Hair until he was about ten years old, and some say that for a few years afterward he was known as His Horse in Sight.
Of his earliest life we know only what his friend He Dog said: "We grew up together in the same band, played together, courted the girls together, and fought together." Childhood ended early among the Oglala and by the time Crazy Horse was fifteen or sixteen in the mid-1850s his life was increasingly absorbed by episodes of war and violence. The stories that survive follow a familiar pattern: despite great danger horses were stolen, an enemy was killed, or a friend was rescued. On one early raid against the Pawnee when he "was just a very young boy," according to Eagle Elk, Crazy Horse was shot through the arm while rushing an enemy to count coup-that is, to touch him with his hand or a weapon. "From that time he was talked about," said Eagle Elk. Many accounts of Crazy Horse's early fights and raids end with a similar remark-that he was first into the fray, that his name was known, that people talked about him.
"When we were young," said his friend and mentor Horn Chips, "all we thought about was going to war." It was fame they sought; to be talked about brought respect and position. "Crazy Horse wanted to get to the highest station."
When Crazy Horse was about eighteen he lived for a year with the Brulé Sioux, probably with relatives of his father's second wife. The Brulé were bloodily attacked about that time by the American Army, but Crazy Horse's friends in later life did not remark on that. It was his abrupt return to the Oglala which excited curiosity. His friend He Dog asked around to learn what had happened. "I was told he had to come back because he had killed a Winnebago woman," said He Dog.6 Where
the transgression lay is not clear; women were often killed in battle, and He Dog himself later killed a Crow woman, sometime around 1870, although telling about it made him uneasy, as if he were ashamed.
It was at about this time, in the later 1850s, that Crazy Horse acquired the name he was to carry for the rest of his life. His friend Horn Chips said the new name was given to him after his horse ran around wildly-crazily-during a fight with the Shoshones. He Dog offered two stories; one said Crazy Horse got the name when his horse ran down an enemy woman who was hoeing her corn. But it is He Dog's second story that offers the most detail and makes the most sense. About 1855 or 1856 the young man, then still known as His Horse in Sight, took part in a fight with Arapahos, returning with two scalps. For most of the middle decades of the nineteenth century the Arapahos were allies of the Sioux, and of the Oglala in particular, but on one occasion the Oglala chief known as Red Cloud led an attack on a group of Arapahos who were on their way to visit the Prairie Gros Ventres, traditional enemies of the Oglala. This may also have been the occasion when Crazy Horse rescued a leading man of the Miniconjou named Hump, whose horse had been shot. In any event, the young man's feat-two scalps taken from enemies forted up on a rocky hilltop-made the father proud.
It was a custom among the Sioux to celebrate a son's achievement with a feast and the giving away of presents. When a boy killed his first buffalo his father might ask the crier to call out the news throughout the camp, then feed those who came to hear about the feat and perhaps give a horse, or even several horses, to people in need. After the fight with the Arapahos, in which His Horse in Sight twice charged the enemy hiding among the rocks, the father gave the son his own name, Crazy Horse. For the next two decades the father was known by an old nickname, Worm, for which the Lakota word is Waglula.8
The meaning of Crazy Horse's name requires some explanation. In Lakota it is Tasunka Witko, and a literal translation would read "His Horse Is Crazy." Tasunka is the word the Lakota coined for horse sometime in the early 1700s, a combination of sunka (dog) and tatanka (big). The word witko is as rich with meaning as the English word "swoon." It might be variously translated as "head in a whirl," delirious, thinking in all directions at once, possessed by a vision, in a trance. In the sign language of the plains witko was indicated by rotating the hand in a circular motion, but the word's meaning was far from simply "crazy" in the sense of the vernacular English. The meaning of the name Tasunka Witko would be something like this: his horse is imbued with a sacred power drawn from formidable spiritual sources, and specifically from the thunder beings who roil the sky in storms. The operative word is power in the classic Lakota sense-imbued with force and significance. In short, the name of Crazy Horse implied that the bearer was a person of great promise and consequence, and soon his name and his feats were the talk of the plains. Honors followed.
In the late 1860s Crazy Horse and He Dog led a war party west of the Big Horn Mountains to raid the Crow or Shoshone Indians, traditional enemies of the Oglala. On their return to the village they were met by a large group who had come out to greet them, singing praise songs and inviting them back for a feast and the bestowal of an important gift. "The whole tribe," He Dog said, honored the two warriors with a gift of lances decorated with feathers and fur. These were not weapons but emblems of membership in the Kangi Yuha-the Crow Owners society, named after the dried crow skins attached near the base of the spears. "These spears were each three or four hundred years old," said He Dog, "and were given by the older generation to those in the younger generation who had best lived the life of a warrior."9
The lances brought honor and a stern duty. Members of the Kangi Yuha accepted a "no-flight" obligation: in battle they must plant the lance in the ground and stand fast until death or a friend released them.