Crazy Horse

On the Road in Search of Crazy Horse

Last weekend I went on a quixotic journey through the Black Hills country and the Pine Ridge in search of Crazy Horse. All such explorations should be done in pairs—Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingston, Bert and Ernie. My travel companion was one of North Dakota's top educators. I'll call him "Larry."

The Lakota warrior and absolutist Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko—1840-September 6, 1877) has fascinated me all of my adult life, ever since I heard a Methodist minister in Alliance, Nebraska, draw careful parallels between Crazy Horse and Jesus back in 1985. His point was that establishment culture has a very hard time with absolutists—uncompromising idealists who refuse to conform to the dominant paradigm of their time. Essentially, said the pastor, it becomes necessary for the more powerful culture to eliminate the threat, often with the help of Quislings (factional collaborators) from the oppressed tribe. However much we honor and even idealize these absolutists, he said, things actually go better in the hands of clever pragmatists like Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, who, after a brush with warfare against the dominant culture, decide to negotiate rather than fight for their way of life.

There is an extensive literature on Crazy Horse. We were, between us, carrying a dozen books on or around the subject, particularly an excellent recent study by Thomas Powers: The Killing of Crazy Horse. Every time we stopped at a CH site, we rifled through the books to get pertinent details and, if possible, maps.

Our goal was to get as far as Camp Robinson near Crawford, Nebraska. That's where Crazy Horse was killed on the evening of September 6, 1877. He was 36 or 37 years old. He had never been defeated in battle. He had, in fact, been the strategic mastermind of the stunning U.S. Army defeats at the Battle of the Rosebud (June 17, 1876) and the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), the first against General George Crook and the second against Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. After the debacle of the Little Bighorn, the United States determined (in the white heat of national humiliation) to break the spirit of resistance of the Lakota and Cheyenne people once and for all, and force them to decide between life on reservations or actual extermination.

General Crook and other U.S. military leaders harassed the "recalcitrants" (i.e. the victors of the Little Bighorn) with ruthless fury in a series of dawn, scorched-earth, raids in the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1877. Finally, on May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse brought in his band of Oglalas to "surrender" at Camp Robinson. He came in not because he was beaten in battle, but to spare his tiyospaya (his lodge group) of about a thousand men, women, and children, further suffering and privation. The Crazy Horse procession from the bluffs above Camp Robinson on May 6, 1877, was more than a mile long. The great Lakota freedom fighter rode in with dignity, head up, proud, undefeated--nothing like the "vanishing Indian" of the famous painting. As he looked on in amazement, one of the army observers that day quipped, "This isn't a surrender, it's like a Roman triumph."

Four months later the U.S. Army killed Crazy Horse in a skirmish right in front of the guardhouse at Camp Robinson. He was invited in to have a conversation with "the soldier chief," guaranteed safe conduct, assured that it would be simple enough to settle some differences and reduce tensions between the policies of the occupation army and the conquered Lakota. But the actual U.S. Army agenda was to arrest Crazy Horse, and send him off to spend the rest of his life in an island prison in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida. This is the usual routine for race wars. Roughly the same thing happened to Sitting Bull (on December 15, 1890) at his cabin on the Grand River near Fort Yates; to the Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L'Ouverture (April 7, 1803); and to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (September 12, 1977)--among many others. Bring them in with promises of safe conduct; then an "unfortunate incident" occurs which eliminates the threat and puts an end to the resistance. When Crazy Horse realized that he had been betrayed, in the doorway of the Camp Robinson jail, he attempted to make a break for freedom. He was fatally wounded in the abdomen by an army private with a bayonet thrust. At the time, his hands were being held behind his back by his fellow Lakota Little Big Man. This, too, is the routine. The conqueror/occupiers inevitably manage to build or encourage a pro-U.S. faction that winds up doing some of the more disagreeable "wet work." Sitting Bull was arrested and then shot in the back of the head by "Metal Breasts," the Hunkpapa Indian Police who answered to the white agent James McLaughlin.

We found the exact spot where Crazy Horse was killed. We'd been gabbing, exchanging views, reading aloud to each other, and "arguing" the issues for hundreds of miles, two born talkers, fellow historians, and roadside adventurers.

But now we went silent for a long time.

It's easy for us to see Crazy Horse as a kind of culture hero. That's a luxury of living so far now from the conquest phase of American frontier history. I wonder how we two would have regarded him in the summer of 1876 or 1877? If you want to see what white folks thought about all of this in September 1877, just look at the old newspaper files from the Chicago Tribune or the Bismarck Tribune. It's hard to deny that we are the beneficiaries of the imperial dynamics that tried to shove the undefeated Oglala warrior into that cramped rectangular guardhouse.

Later that day, we pieced and threaded our way to the unmarked site, not far from Pine Ridge, SD, where the body of Crazy Horse was placed (for a short time) on a scaffold overlooking Camp Sheridan. There was a sacred discretion in that.

We are all so lucky to live on the Great Plains, where some of the most extraordinary moments in American history occurred, and the "footprint" of that history is so recent, so fresh, so unpaved-over. Even the fact that most sites are unmarked is a kind of historical ecstasy. You have to leap into the unknown with weak photocopied maps and grainy historical photographs in hand, and puzzle things out on the endless rolling and ridgeline landscapes of the plains. Anyone who wants to can follow Custer to the Black Hills (the Thieves Road) or to the Little Bighorn can do so--on glorious gravel roads--or follow Lewis and Clark from the mouth of the Grand to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and stand where they stood, poke around the Hidatsa earthlodge village where Sacagawea became an adult, or visit Sitting Bull's lonely haunted cabin site on the Grand.

We climbed Bear Butte (near where CH was born), visited the problematic Crazy Horse Monument in the Black Hills, and clomped around the battle site at Slim Buttes where General Crook almost had a mopping-up encounter with Crazy Horse on September 9-10, 1876.

Friendship, I believe, is the highest form of human relationship. And you know who they are.