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Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life

Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life

4.2 5
by Kingsley M. Bray

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Crazy Horse was as much feared by tribal foes as he was honored by allies. His war record was unmatched by any of his peers, and his rout of Custer at the Little Bighorn reverberates through history. Yet so much about him is unknown or steeped in legend.

Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life corrects older, idealized accounts—and draws on a greater variety


Crazy Horse was as much feared by tribal foes as he was honored by allies. His war record was unmatched by any of his peers, and his rout of Custer at the Little Bighorn reverberates through history. Yet so much about him is unknown or steeped in legend.

Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life corrects older, idealized accounts—and draws on a greater variety of sources than other recent biographies—to expose the real Crazy Horse: not the brash Sioux warrior we have come to expect but a modest, reflective man whose courage was anchored in Lakota piety. Kingsley M. Bray has plumbed interviews of Crazy Horse’s contemporaries and consulted modern Lakotas to fill in vital details of Crazy Horse’s inner and public life.

Bray places Crazy Horse within the rich context of the nineteenth-century Lakota world. He reassesses the war chief’s achievements in numerous battles and retraces the tragic sequence of misunderstandings, betrayals, and misjudgments that led to his death. Bray also explores the private tragedies that marred Crazy Horse’s childhood and the network of relationships that shaped his adult life.

To this day, Crazy Horse remains a compelling symbol of resistance for modern Lakotas. Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life is a singular achievement, scholarly and authoritative, offering a complete portrait of the man and a fuller understanding of his place in American Indian and United States history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Wielding the source material with muscular assurance and a judicious eye, historian Bray aims at nothing less than a definitive account of the great Oglala warrior and tribal chief. This nonfiction debut promises to be a standard reference for many years to come.” —Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
Bray, an independent researcher who has been studying the Lakota for more than 20 years, has responded to the need shown by Larry McMurtry's brief "Penguin Lives" biography of Crazy Horse and produced a full and detailed life of the noted Lakota war chief. Acknowledging that the documentary evidence is fragmentary, Bray has mined interviews given by Crazy Horse's friends early in the 20th century and has interviewed modern Lakotas to glean additional information about his genealogy, family background, and private and spiritual lives. The result is a well-rounded biography that shows Crazy Horse not only as a great warrior but also as a leader concerned with the welfare of his people. Bray conveys how the divisions within the Lakota bands, particularly the Oglala, influenced and were influenced by Crazy Horse. He has penetrated deep enough beneath the enigma that is Crazy Horse to show the forces and events that shaped the chief's inner world and determined his career. This finely written biography is likely to become the standard account of Crazy Horse and should be in all libraries. Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Civilization of the American Indian Series
Product dimensions:
7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Crazy Horse

A Lakota Life

By Kingsley M. Bray


Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8376-3



It was fall 1840, the season the people would recall as Stole-One-Hundred-Horses. The short grasses of the high plains were curing yellow. From the pine-covered Black Hills, a web of creeks and gullies snaked east to join the forks of the Cheyenne River. Along one watercourse, horse herds grazed, and buffalo-skin tipis—conical tents supported by an hourglass framework of slender pine lodge-poles—marked a camp of the Lakota people. Family hunting groups were scattered over the plains, hunting small game. Other men were busy at home, grinding arrowheads and repairing hunting gear, while women worked busily at skins for winter clothing. In one particular tipi, a young woman was preparing to give birth.

Twenty-six years old, Rattle Blanket Woman was confident in the impending birth. Already blessed with a daughter of about four, she would soon bear her second child. Moreover, her husband had taken care to ensure her comfort. Most men preferred to have their children born in their own camps, but Crazy Horse—a family name derived from a vision granted his own father—had lingered through the fall with his wife's people, the Miniconjou division of Lakotas.

On the day Rattle Blanket Woman's labor pains began, the family tipi was left to the expectant mother and her kinswomen. Her mother, or some other relative experienced as a midwife, oversaw the birth. A stake decorated with eagle-down plumes was driven into the earth, and near it, a clean deerskin was spread for Rattle Blanket Woman to kneel upon. As the contractions increased, she pressed her hands and knees against the stake. Imperturbably, the midwife fetched water, grease, and swabs of braided sweetgrass until, at last, after unknown struggles, the baby came.

The midwife gently laid the baby on the deerskin, cleared its mouth, and with a sharp knife severed the umbilical cord, nicking the end attached to the afterbirth. Then she wrapped a band of skin around the baby's middle, before cleaning his body and placing him in his mother's arms. As Rattle Blanket Woman held her firstborn son, she was able to examine the tiny form, exclaiming over his light skin and brown-tinged wispy hair.

As mother slept, the baby was fed fruit purees and fitted with a soft tanned diaper lined with cattail down. Over the next few hours, family members quietly visited the new arrival. Among the first were the maternal grandparents, who presented matching charms in the form of beaded pouches representing lizards. Believed to endow health and long life, the lizard charm was the first embodiment of a fundamental concept in Lakota life: sicun, a power granted to all animate and inanimate things at birth. A baby had only a small amount, but it was believed that placing the umbilical cord in the pouch would transmit something of the lizard's protective power to the baby. The matching empty pouch was hidden far away to decoy bad spirits from the baby's source of power.

Rattle Blanket Woman's family was prominent among the Miniconjous: their gifts were abundant. Other gifts came from the husband's family. Big Woman, Crazy Horse's married sister, presented elaborate cradles. At length Crazy Horse was permitted into his lodge. Born into a respected Oglala family, Crazy Horse's father Makes the Song was an important holy man. Crazy Horse valued his position among his wife's people. Now his marriage was strengthened by every Lakota man's wish—a son.

Crazy Horse had an elder stripe the baby's face with fine lines of red paint, symbolic of the child's relationship to Wakan Tanka, the Great Holy. Then an honored friend or relative was chosen to ensure the transfer of valued personality traits to the infant. Such a man, renowned for bravery in battle and good nature at home, took the baby in his arms and, gently parting the infant's lips, breathed into his mouth, transmitting the vital life principle ni. In the days that followed, Crazy Horse sponsored a feast to honor his wife, and after all had eaten, the village herald stepped into the center of the circle to announce the baby's name.

Whatever name was drawn from the store of honored family titles, it did not stick. Ultimately, the boy would acquire his father's and grandfather's name—Crazy Horse—and make it imperishably famous. But for now, mother or sister coined a nickname. Doting over his comparatively pale skin and the wavy hair inherited from his mother, the black highlighted by a deep brown sheen, the family began to call him by any one of several lovingly ingenious variations on Pehin Yuhaha: Curly Hair.

The 1840 Lakota world that Curly Hair was born into was vigorous, confident, and growing. His Teton people roamed the high plains west of the Missouri River, throughout modern western South Dakota and adjoining parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, and North Dakota. About 11,500 strong in 1840, the Teton divisions accounted for about one-half of the people Euro-Americans knew collectively as Sioux. East of the Missouri ranged relatives and allies who spoke mutually intelligible dialects: Yankton and Yanktonai bands were centered on the long grass prairies of the James River, while in southern Minnesota, the Santees occupied the transition zone between prairie and woodland.

The Tetons comprised seven divisions. Curly Hair's people, the Oglalas, ranged between the Black Hills and the North Platte River in southeast Wyoming. The Brules hunted along the White and Niobrara rivers to the east. North of the Black Hills ranged five smaller divisions, collectively known as Saones: the Miniconjous, his mother's people; Two Kettles; Sans Arcs; Sihasapas; and Hunkpapas.

Lakota domination of the northern plains was implemented by a diplomacy that matched force with intertribal alliance. By definition, all other tribes were considered enemies, except for the Cheyennes and Arapahos, who were accorded an honorary status as part of the great Lakota Alliance.

By the time of Curly Hair's birth, two tribes in particular were emerging as key opponents in the Lakota domination of the plains. Southeast of the Lakota domain, in the lower Platte River valley, the horticultural Pawnee villages lay at the core of extensive hunting ranges on the central plains.

Along the Yellowstone River ranged the Crows, a nomadic tribe, wealthy in horses, that had exchanged long-distance raids with the Lakotas for many decades. As Lakota expansionism fronted Crow hunting ranges in a new war zone along the Powder River, the cycle of raid and reprisal would accelerate during Curly Hair's lifetime. The Crow war would be the arena in which the adult Curly Hair would first prove himself as the greatest of all Lakota warriors.

As young Curly Hair grew into boyhood, his deepest, most sustaining relationships were rooted in the intimacies of family life. Within the embracing circle of the tipi, he lived with his father, mother, and elder sister Looks at Her. His father customarily sat in the honor place, at the rear of the lodge, facing the east entrance. As firstborn son, Curly Hair would sit at his father's left, while his mother and sister busied themselves around the cooking fire, serving food to kinsfolk and visitors.

Even more important than the nuclear family of parents and children was the wider extended family. The tiyospaye, or lodge group, was the basic building block of society. A cluster of families, related by blood and marriage, the tiyospaye was typically fifty or a hundred people strong. Curly Hair's large kindred was called Kapozha, meaning lightweight, or "not encumbered with much baggage." The leading family was Curly Hair's own, proudly tracing its descent through a lineage of elders and holy men to his great-grandfather Black Elk I, born in the days before the Lakotas obtained horses. The families of grandfather Makes the Song, his four brothers, and their six adult sons formed the core of the kindred, augmented by those of men who had married in. Ten or fifteen tipis of siblings, cousins, and in-laws made an extended home in which Curly Hair felt the nurturing security of being valued and loved. The proliferation of nicknames affectionately detailing his wavy hair—The Light-Haired Boy, Yellow Fuzzy Hair—reflected the relaxed intimacy of relationships with one's own "band relatives." In his mother's band of Miniconjous, too, Curly Hair enjoyed a warm, reassuring home away from home.

Two other kindreds, identified with the prestigious families of Standing Bull and Yellow Eagle, formed with Kapozha a larger band known collectively as Hunkpatila, or Camp at the Horn, the place in the Oglala tribal circle next to the camp entrance accorded to respected warriors.

A band like Hunkpatila recognized one man as its "chief," or wicasa itancan. In Curly Hair's boyhood, Man Afraid of His Horse, a rising war leader and a patron of the Fort Laramie traders, emerged as ranking chief. Elders like Makes the Song sat as an advisory council with Man Afraid of His Horse.

Political organization at band level was more stylized and coercive. Activities like the communal hunt demanded precise coordination, so the council recognized several younger men, proven in war, as akicita police, to serve for the duration of the activity.

With the Hunkpatila, two other bands, the True, or Original, Oglala (in theory the senior band within the tribe) and the rather amorphous Spleen band, made up a larger unit, the Oglala Proper. Numbering one hundred lodges, 750 people, when Curly Hair was born, the Oglala Proper camped together for upwards of half the year. After winter dispersals, it re-formed in time for the big buffalo hunts in May, to replenish meat stocks, and again in November, to lay in winter surpluses and supply the traders' demand for thickly haired winter robes. Each June the Oglala Proper gathered with two other bands, the Kiyuksa and Oyuhpe, to offer the tribal ceremony of the Sun Dance, to hunt the great summer buffalo herds, and to make war on tribal enemies.

As Curly Hair grew, he absorbed the deepest values of his society. Four fundamental virtues—generosity, courage, fortitude, and wisdom—animated tribal life. Most basic of all was generosity. It underwrote every aspect of daily life, from the simple sharing of food to the orchestrated giveaways that marked great ceremonials. Family-sponsored feasts celebrated Curly Hair's first tottering steps, his first word. His father presented the poor and infirm with robes, dried meat, and horses in the name of his toddler son. At the 1842 Sun Dance, the parents celebrated Curly Hair's ability to walk and talk by having his ears pierced. Within the dance arbor, families stacked robes, blankets, dried meat, metal knives, and kettles. Curly Hair was laid on a bed of sage. A chosen elder harangued and sang, then took an awl and pierced each of Curly Hair's ears, exhorting the parents to bring up their son according to Lakota customs. As the child squalled, Rattle Blanket Woman took her place at the piles of family wealth, presiding over their distribution to valued allies, respected matrons, and the poor.

The second foundation of Lakota ethics was courage. At his father's side, Curly Hair heard tales of the ancient wars of the Lakota, when warriors fought on foot against the Chippewa. In the boy's family, the greatest living warrior was Male Crow, his father's younger brother. Male Crow was the family's child beloved, in whose name feasts and giveaways were sponsored. He lived the life of the Lakota warrior with the easy poise of a man born to greatness. For young Curly Hair, Male Crow made a dashing role model.

Soon after Curly Hair turned four years old, the security of his infant world was thrown into a turmoil that would radically shape the rest of his life. Male Crow led 160 men, including Crazy Horse, on a horse-stealing raid against the Shoshones. The war party marched afoot through worsening weather, tracking the Shoshone trail north from Wind River into winter ranges shared with the Crows. Nearing their quarry, Male Crow halted the party atop a wooded ridge. After ordering breastworks dug, he detailed his brother-in-law Last Dog, with three other scouts, to reconnoiter from bluffs commanding the Shoshone camp. Last Dog did not reach the camp, which had been augmented by Crow allies. Stumbling on a lone Shoshone, out riding with his young son, the Oglalas opened fire with their muskets. Although his father was killed, the boy and his well-trained pony turned and galloped for home.

The scouts hurried back. Snow was falling thickly, but Last Dog taunted Male Crow to lead an attack. Wiser heads urged caution, but Last Dog continued to brag, and Male Crow's rashness got the better of him. Saying starkly, "I am a man to look for death," Male Crow prepared to march out alone, but four of his five "brothers" and many of their friends and relatives tagged along. One brother—evidently Curly Hair's father—stayed with the main party, anxiously watching the scene in the valley.

Amid thickening snow, hundreds of enemy warriors appeared, encircling the party. Only one Lakota managed to escape. After finishing off Male Crow and his thirty warriors, the Shoshones and Crows raced in pursuit. They stormed the Oglala defenses, where desperate men and youths lobbed rocks down the hillside. Undaunted, the Shoshones and Crows pressed forward until the weather worsened into a blizzard. The enemy disengaged, beating the backs and shoulders of the fleeing Oglalas with bows and whips, and gesturing that they had "killed as many as satisfied them for the time." In panic and disgrace, the 130 Oglalas fled the field, most of them wounded or bearing the welts of enemy quirts.

Several days later the war party reached home, exhausted, hungry, and demoralized. In an ecstasy of grief and mourning, men and women hacked off their hair and slashed their legs and arms with knives so that, visiting trader David Adams wrote, "you cold trak them by the blud whar evr thay went." The horses of the slain were led forward and their tails and manes cut off. Mourners such as Makes the Song harangued, giving away ponies and tipis to war leaders or warrior societies that would pledge vengeance for their relatives.

There was not grief alone, however, but shame. Adams noted that the war party had all but "run therselves to deth becos they was sow badly scert," concluding that "I dont think that thay will get ovr their frit in 10 years." The memory of Male Crow, the happy hero of other fights, was traduced as critics talked up his recklessness. Male Crow at least was dead, but criticism now turned on the survivors. For Crazy Horse, the surviving brother, the agonies of guilt and his family's grief were compounded by insinuations of cowardice. Wracked with shame, Crazy Horse pledged to lead the revenge expedition against the Shoshones.

For three months, he worked steadily to mount a coalition of Lakotas and their allies. "Crazy-Horse says his prayers and goes on the war path," reads the terse mnemonic accompanying one winter count. Scheduling a February rendezvous at the forks of Laramie River, Crazy Horse promised many horses and gifts to those bands that joined him and smoked his war pipe. Hundreds of lodges of Lakotas and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies pledged their help. A truly massive coalition would avenge Male Crow's death.

The villages gathered late in January 1845, but suddenly the coalition broke apart. Traders with abundant liquor were present, and a drinking session among the Lakota leaders deteriorated into a bloody brawl. The village broke up in acrimony. Many relatives of the warriors lost with Male Crow joined the Kiyuksa Oglalas, confirming the extreme view that Curly Hair's father was to blame for the deaths of his brother and their loved ones.

The powerful weapons of gossip and shame tore at the fabric of Crazy Horse's marriage. It had seemed an ideal match. Crazy Horse was a skilled hunter, and Rattle Blanket Woman, famously beautiful and a magnificent runner, was a fitting bride: as a teenager, she had been chosen to run in ceremonial hunts, leading the game toward the hunters. With her wavy hair plaited in tight braids, in her robe adorned with jingling shells, she had won the heart of the visiting Oglala. Crazy Horse had presented her family with a famous dowry of horses, meat, and pelts.

As happens after many fairy-tale weddings, however, the marriage proved unstable. Gossip linked both partners with adulterous affairs. Because siblings-in-law were potential marriage partners, flirtations between them were accepted behavior in Lakota society, but according to modern descendants, Crazy Horse conducted affairs with Rattle Blanket Woman's sister. The scandal cut two ways, however, when gossips linked Rattle Blanket Woman with Male Crow. Reeling from grief and criticism, Crazy Horse verbally lashed out at his wife. "Why is our son so light-complected?" he demanded, tacitly accusing her of an affair with a wasicu, a Euro-American. It was the last straw. Isolated from the sustaining love and support of her own family among the Miniconjous, Rattle Blanket Woman succumbed to despair. Although, as one descendant claims, she was newly pregnant with Crazy Horse's third child, Rattle Blanket Woman left the tipi carrying a rope. Finding a sturdy cottonwood, she hanged herself.


Excerpted from Crazy Horse by Kingsley M. Bray. Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kingsley M. Bray is Senior Bookseller at BMA Hammicks Medical Bookshop in Manchester, England. He has spent the past twenty years researching Plains Indian, especially Lakota, history and ethnology.

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Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is not a textbook but it is mistakenly classified as a textbook. So the only format that you can read it is your nook reader. That turned out yo be a problem for me
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The ebook version of this book is mistakenly classified as an eTextbook.