The Killing of Crazy Horse

Making narrative out of a life like that of Crazy Horse presents thebiographer with a daunting set of challenges. Shrouded in the mythology of theWest and the mystery of his indomitability, Crazy Horse is a shadowy figure,whose exploits took place almost entirely on the inaccessible side of the SiouxWars’ bloody line through history. It’s for these reasons, and the Wild Westtimbre of his name to twentieth-century ears, that he became a kind of brand, anineteenth-century Che Guevara of the North American plains. And yet among theSioux, his presence is keenly felt: there are still a few alive old enough toremember seeing and speaking with those old enough to have laid eyes on CrazyHorse.

The Killing of Crazy Horse takes on the mythology and the history of the man and his age.Thomas Powers—whose work as a journalist peering into the shadows of theintelligence world has served as surprisingly apt preparation—nimbly traces themixture of legend, tacit knowledge, and hearsay that represents the canon ofCrazy Horse studies. The Sioux wars of the 1860s and ’70s comprised a worldwith a social structure all its own. Even for the Sioux, the plains were arelatively new domain. They had not made their home there until they embracedthe coming of the horse to the Americas in the late eighteenth century. Likethe Comanche in Texas and Mexico, the Sioux would ride the horse to hegemony,creating what the historian Pekka Hamalainen has called an “equestrianempire”—co-opting some tribes, like the Cheyenne, while beleagueringothers, earning the enmity of the Pawnee to the west and bringing the Mandan—apeaceable tribe who welcomed Lewis and Clark and who figure heavily in the artof Karl Bodmer—to the brink of extinction. It was their power, burgeoning andresented by their neighbors, that brought them into conflict with the whitepretenders to the plains.

Despite the differences that separated them, by the 1860sthe worlds of whites and the plains tribes were intimately intertwined. Anentire generation of “half-breeds” had emerged, the offspring ofwhite trappers and traders and Indian women, whom the Sioux incorporated intotheir already flexible notions of family. One of the most colorful of thesefigures, Frank Grouard, had no Sioux blood. Born near Tahiti, he was the son ofa white missionary and a Polynesian woman. As a young man, Grouard made his wayto North America, found himself living among the Assiniboine, who were enemiesof the Sioux. Captured by Hunkpapa warriors, he was delivered into the hands ofnone other than Sitting Bull—who adopted him and taught him the Lakotalanguage. Grouard moved fluidly between Indian and white worlds, even taking anactive part in hostilities on both sides of the Sioux wars. Another of thesemen, Billy Garnett, would serve as an interpreter for General Crook and other U.S.authorities throughout the Sioux wars. But having witnessed the killing ofCrazy Horse, Garnett would choose the Sioux world when the tribes were forciblyrelocated east of the Missouri River; today, his descendants live near the PineRidge Reservation, where they still speak Lakota.

The tapestry of the Sioux world in the 1860s and ’70s wasvaried and paradoxical: many bands lived full-time at agencies established bythe U.S. government, where life was a bizarre pageant and a simulacrum of olderways; soldiers would release beef cattle one at a time for the Sioux to ridedown—as if the domestic brutes were wild buffalo. But some bands and familiesstill left seasonally to hunt and live on the open plains. Still other bands,the so-called Northern tribes led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall,refused to come to the agencies and relinquish the beloved, forbidding BlackHills, where rumors of gold would set in motion the chain of events that led tothe Battle of the Little Bighorn and, ultimately, the dispossession of thepeoples of the plains.

By the mid-1860s, when Crazy Horse’s exploits as a warriorwere first gaining him notoriety among his own people, the Sioux position asthe power of the plains was under assault from white settlers. Open hostilitiesbroke out upon establishment of the Bozeman Road, which ran through tribalhunting territories on its way to the gold fields of Montana. Under theleadership of Red Cloud, Sioux bands went to war against the whites; on thesolstice in 1866, Crazy Horse, then in his mid-twenties, personally lured aforce of eighty soldiers into a massacre behind a ridge near Fort Phil Kearny.

To his peers as well as to later generations, Crazy Horsewas an enigma. “Most Sioux scalped enemies,” Powers writes. “ButCrazy Horse did not take scalps, nor did he tie up his tail before battle withfur, feathers, or colored cloth as other warriors did.” Despite his manywar honors, he never wore more than a couple of feathers. And his plainness inornament was matched by plainness in speech.  Oratory was a prized skillamong prominent Sioux men, but in council, Crazy Horse usually had friendsspeak for him.

His nemesis on the plains, General George Crook, was themirror image of Crazy Horse. Like the Sioux chief, Crook was a talented hunterand a taciturn leader. But unlike Crazy Horse, Crook’s quiet manner hid aresentment born of thwarted ambition. Crook led and fought valiantly throughoutthe Civil War, yet credit for his successes repeatedly fell to his friend andWest Point classmate, General Phil Sheridan, who now commanded him in the West.To Crook, the quiet charisma of Crazy Horse was more than an irritation; it wasalmost a taunt. The serially-thwarted general privately stewed as his superiorsjudged him and the press skewered him; Crazy Horse remained equally silent, andhis stature only grew.

Crazy Horse and his allies fought Crook to a stunningdraw at the Rosebud; in barely a week, on the eve of the U.S. centennial, manyof the same warriors would rub out George Armstrong Custer and his men near acreek the Sioux called the Greasy Grass. Powers’s expository history of thecampaign leading up to the fight at Little Bighorn is fluid and authoritative,although he indulges in a bit of the unavoidable armchair trivia-choppingstudents of the battle long have practiced. But in its telling of the final dayof Crazy Horse’s life, Powers’s account approaches the austere hopelessness ofGreek tragedy, as the chief finds himself resented, friendless, and mistrusted,caught between the aspirations of his peers and the impatient fear of the whitesoldiers into whose hands he had fallen. His end, shocking and implacable, wasspelled out in Crook’s imperiousness, Frank Grouard’s duplicity, and the incomprehensionof soldiers and officers in charge of him.

Throughout this magisterial work, Powers captures thecomplexity and contradiction of the world of the Sioux Wars, and its terriblebeauty as well. After a chapter spent describing the war magic of Siouxfighting men on the eve of battle, Powers concludes:

[This] is what rode south toward the Rosebud on the night ofJune 16–17, 1876: thunder dreamers, storm splitters, men who could turn asidebullets, men on horses that flew like hawks or darted like dragonflies. Theycame with power as real as a whirlwind, as if the whole natural world—the bearsand the buffalo, the storm clouds and the lightning—were moving in tandem withthe Indians, protecting them and making them strong.

The Killing of Crazy Horse should stand alongside BuryMy Heart at Wounded Knee for the authority and art with which it recounts this moment in apeople’s shattered history.