Crazy Horse:
The Strange Man of the Oglalas

Dialogues
'Crazy Horse' is a biography of one of the most famous Native American warriors in recent history. Mari Sandoz, the author, interviewed dozens of Crazy Horse's people in the 1930's, all of them by then old people. From interviews, facts, and letters, she constructed this semi-fictionalized biography of the great Sioux warrior. He is most famous for defeating Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but there was much more to his life than merely that one battle. The book attempts to describe and chart the lives of Crazy Horse and his Sioux people during the mid to late nieteenth century, during which they were enduring the immense pressures of the United States' Indian Wars, as well as settlers pressure on the Sioux land.
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Mari Sandoz tells us Crazy Horse was born in or around the year 1842 to Sioux parents on Rapid Creek, in an area called the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa. The Black Hills were the center of Sioux land, which spread out into what is now called Wyoming, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and Montana. The young boy was light-skinned compared to his people, and his hair was light-colored and curly, earning him his childhood name of 'Curly.'

When still just a pre-teen, Curly witnessed the shooting of some of his people by the Army, led by a man named Grattan. The shooting was over the loss of a cow, something ridiculous. This was one of dozens of incidents in the book where clashes between the whites and the Indians went badly; growing up with these types of things happening to his people constatntly, Crazy Horse vowed to protect his people from the whites' invasion of Sioux land.

From bravery in battle, 'Curly' was granted the name of his father, Crazy Horse. Quickly he was recognized for his cunning, as well as bravery and skill in battle. Often Crazy Horse led decoys in battles, like in the Fetterman Massacre and Platte Bridge battles. There were many other Sioux warriors and leaders besides Crazy Horse who helped (often in giving up their lives) the effort of their people to keep their homeland. Others mentioned and chronicled in the book are Sitting Bull (the medicine man who once cut out 100 pieces of his own skin in order to get a vision), Young Man Afraid of His Horse, Spotted Tail, Worm (Crazy Horse's father's name in later life), Red Cloud, Touch the Clouds, Little Big Man, American Horse, Conquering Bear, He Dog, and Dull Knife.

Throughout the book their are mentions of promises and treaties struck up between the US government and the Indians, including the famous one that used the phrase 'as long as grass grows and rivers run.' Of course none of them worked, as eventually each and every one crumbled beneath the weight of westward expansion, manifest destiny, and an insatiable desire harboured by the whites for not just more land, but all of the land. The embodiment of the Indians' plight and frantic struggle for their precious homeland was in the Battle of the Little Big Horn (recounted in Crazy Horse, as well as from the white perspective in Sandoz' book The Battle of the Little Big Horn). Perhaps the most famous of all battles between Indians and the US government, this one went down as the greatest defeat by the Indians in history. General Custer (ironically known for his long, curly hair, too) and his soldiers were completely wiped out by the Sioux. But even this great conquest against the invading forces of the whites was not enough to stop the ever-encroaching tide of people. They kept coming and coming, eventually overwhelming even the Sioux by sheer numbers, and by killing their main food source, buffalo.

In a vision, Crazy Horse saw himself with a pebble in his hair in a hailstorm, protected from everything. In every battle he painted his horse in hailstones, and hung his medicine stone in a knot in his hair. The medicine held true, as he was never harmed by enemy bullets in any of his many skirmishes and wars. In the end, true to his vision, it was one of his own people who aided in his death. Two Sioux warriors, then turned into guards for the white men, were holding Crazy Horse's arms while he struggled against going into a prison, where he knew he would die. A soldier stabbed him several times with a bayonet in the back, resulting in his death.

  Notes

Karl Marx said, 'It [the bourgeoisie] compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst...' and then, 'The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns.'

In the beginning of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Captain Marlow says, 'And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.' It has been pointed out to us that this country (USA), this land, has also been one of these places. A quick look into Native American history, and the relationship (if it can be called that) they endured with the colonizing whites, will easily show this darkness. For a more complete history of US interaction with Native Americans, books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, and In Vain I Tried to Tell You, by provide even uglier details from the dozens - hundreds - of tribes decimated and eradicated by the growth of the United States.

In 1949, the sculptor Korczak began work on a still-unfinished project: the making of an enormous stone sculpture, carved into a mountain in the Black Hills, of Crazy Horse. The dimensions are staggering: 642 ft long by 563 ft high. It has taken 50 years to get only a portion of the finished memorial done. In 1998 the face was unveiled in finished form. When finished, it will show Crazy Horse bare-chested, astride his horse, hair blowing behind him, with his arm pointing out over the top of his mount's head. Even from a mile away the sculpture is huge. The Crazy Horse Memorial Project is not a federal or state program, and is mostly financed by an admission fee to the monument.

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  Links

*** Mari sandoz literary page (books for sale by Sandoz, and some info) : http://www.sandozlit.com/sandozlit/index.html

*** Web site of Crazy Horse Memorial Project mountain carving in the Black Hills : www.crazyhorse.org

 

  Teaching

Judging people's actions is difficult and challenging within historical contexts. The biography of Crazy Horse was one of the first books to come close to a sympathetic view towards Native Americans, and it came out half a century after the last of the big Indian Wars. Now, more than a century has gone past since America has dealt with armed combat against the continent's original inhabitants. With the advantage of hindsight, we can look back and observe the actions and consequences of what was a devastatingly quick 'replacement' of cultures in the Americas and, in this particular case of the American West. This is.

Some study questions:

1. The American 'project' began as a group of pathetically inept colonies, whose members often suffered greatly and died from disease and starvation. How did this humble beginning escalate into the enormous force that invaded and populated the West, Crazy Horse's people's country, in such a relatively short amount of time? What were the factors, the motivations?

2. Discuss the wars within the book that the Sioux had with their enemies of other tribes, and compare the reasons for these battles with the reasons behind the wars with the whites.

3. In your opinion, is Crazy Horse a great leader? How great? What makes a leader like Crazy Horse special?

4. Would you fight for your way of life if another was being forced upon you?

  Citations

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Stories. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1995.

Sandoz, Mari. Crazy Horse: the Strange Man of the Oglalas. Nebraska: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

 

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