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Authors: Larry McMurtry

Crazy Horse

BOOK: Crazy Horse


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin India, 210 Chiranjiv Tower, 43 Nehru Place, New Delhi 11009, India

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published in 1999 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Copyright © Larry McMurtry, 1999

All rights reserved

McMurtry, Larry.

Crazy Horse / Larry McMurtry.

p. cm.

“A Penguin Life.”

ISBN 978-1-1012-0086-5

First edition (electronic): August 2001

Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.



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Paul Johnson on Andrew Carnegie



For Leslie Marmon Silko


, a Sioux warrior dead more than one hundred and twenty years, buried no one knows where, is rising again over Pa Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, holy to the Sioux. Today, as in life, his horse is with him. Fifty years of effort on the part of the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his wife and children have just begun to nudge the man and his horse out of what was once Thunderhead Mountain. In the half-century that the Ziolkowski family has worked, millions of tons of rock have been moved, as they attempt to create what will be the world's largest sculpture; but the man that is emerging from stone and dirt is as yet only a suggestion, a shape, which those who journey to Custer, South Dakota, to see must complete in their own imaginations.

It is a nice irony that the little town Crazy Horse has come to brood over is named for his old adversary George Armstrong Custer—Long Hair, whose hair, however, had been cut short on the day of his last battle, so that it is not certain that the Sioux or Cheyenne who
killed him really recognized him until after he was dead. Crazy Horse had one good look at Custer, in a skirmish on the Yellowstone River in 1873, but Custer probably never saw Crazy Horse clearly enough to have identified him, either on the Yellowstone or at the Little Bighorn, three years later. The thousands who come to the Crazy Horse Monument each year see him as yet only vaguely; but that, too, will change. One day his arm will stretch out almost the length of a football field; statistics will accumulate around his mountain just as legends, rumors, true tales and tall tales, accumulated around the living man.

What should be stressed at the outset is that Crazy Horse was loved and valued by his people as much for his charity as for his courage. Ian Frazier, in his fine book
Great Plains,
reports correctly that the Crazy Horse Monument is one of the few places on the Great Plains where one will see a lot of Indians smiling. The knowledge of his charity is still a balm to his people, the Sioux people, most of whom are poor and all of whom are oppressed. Peter Matthiessen was right to call his bitterly trenchant report on the troubles the Pine Ridge Sioux had with the U.S. government in the 1970s
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,
because the spirit of Crazy Horse was a spirit unbroken, though it was certainly raked raw by the difficulties of his last few months.

George E. Hyde, the great (if cranky) historian of the Oglala and the Brulé Sioux, a man not easily swept off his feet by even the most potent myth, confessed his
puzzlement with the Crazy Horse legend in words that are neither unfair nor inaccurate: “They depict Crazy Horse as a kind of being never seen on earth: a genius at war yet a lover of peace; a statesman who apparently never thought of the interest of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples—Little Big Man, Touch-the-Clouds and the rest. One is inclined to ask, what is it all about?”

A Sioux Christ? That touches on his charity and on his betrayal, but he was a determined warrior too, one of the great Resisters, men who do not compromise, do not negotiate, do not administer, who exist in a realm beyond the give-and-take of conventional politics and who stumble and are defeated only when hard circumstances force them to live in that realm.

I saw the Crazy Horse Monument one day while traveling north to visit the grave of that sad, boastful woman Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane), who lies in the Deadwood cemetery next to James Butler Hickok (Wild Bill), a proximity he could not protest, since Calamity outlived him by a quarter of a century. I was easing through the Black Hills buffalo herd—many of the buffalo stood in the road, dull and incurious, as indifferent to the traffic as they had been to the buffalo hunters who slaughtered some fifty million of them in a short space of time in the last century—when I slowly became aware of something: something large. I looked up and saw the Crazy
Horse mountain, just to the northeast. Great hundred-yard swirls of white paint streaked the mountain, representing his hair; below him more swirls of the same white paint formed a Picassoesque horse head.

Like most travelers who come unexpectedly onto the monument, I was stunned, too stunned even to go up to the gift shop. I stopped the car, sat on the hood, and looked, as buffalo ambled by. What loomed above me, framed by the blue Dakota sky, was an American Sphinx. He was there, but as a force, an indefiniteness, a form made more powerful by his very abstractness.

I suppose, someday, the Ziolkowski family will finish this statue. It may take another generation or two, and when it's finished, if I'm alive, I'd like to see it. But I'm glad that I saw the mountain in the years when Crazy Horse was still only a form and a mystery. Now that I've read what there is to read about him, I think this indefiniteness was also an aspect of the man. His own people experienced him as a mystery while he was alive: they called him Our Strange Man. In his life he would have three names: Curly, His Horses Looking, Crazy Horse (Ta-Shunka-Witco). We know him as Crazy Horse, but in life few knew him well; in truth it is only in a certain limited way that we who are living now can know him at all. George Hyde, who resisted his legend, knew that in spite of what he himself wrote, time had already separated the myth from the man, obliterating fact. Fair
or not, that is the way with heroes: Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Custer. For all such men, fact withers in the heat of myth. George Hyde felt the frustrations all historians feel when they find a legend blocking their route to what had once only been a man.

Crazy Horse's legend grew
in the main
from a broken people's need to remember and believe in unbroken heroes, those who remained true to the precepts of their fathers and to the ways of the culture and the traditions which bred them.

Certainly the whites who fought Crazy Horse helped build his legend, too. Agent Jesse Lee, who brought Crazy Horse back from the Spotted Tail agency to Fort Robinson, only to see him killed before he could be given the hearing that had been promised him, confessed that he was tortured by his involvement in such a dark deed. Even the stern General Crook, who, had he caught him alive, would have sent Crazy Horse off to a prison in the Dry Tortugas—all on the basis of a lie—later expressed regret that he had failed to sit in council with him on the last occasion that presented itself. “I ought to have gone to that council,” Crook said. “I never start any place but that I get there.”

This short book is an attempt to look back across more than one hundred and twenty years at the life and death of the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, the man who
is coming out of a mountain in the Black Hills, the American Sphinx, the loner who has inspired the largest sculpture on planet Earth. It will be an attempt to answer George Hyde's pointed question: What was it all about?


to say firmly at the outset that any study of Crazy Horse will be, of necessity, an exercise in assumption, conjecture, and surmise. We have more verifiable facts about another young warrior, Alexander, called the Great, who lived more than two thousand years earlier than Crazy Horse and whose career is also richly encrusted with legend, than we do about the strange man of the Oglalas (to adopt Mari Sandoz's phrase). Crazy Horse lived about three and a half decades as a member of a hunting-raiding-gathering tribe that was not at all date obsessed. The dates and places where the historian can firmly place him are white dates: mainly the dates of a few battles he is known to have taken part in. For most of his life he not only avoided white people, he avoided people, spending many days alone on the prairies, dreaming, drifting, hunting. According to Short Buffalo, a fellow Sioux who knew him well, he was “not very tall and not very short, neither broad nor thin. His hair was very light . . . Crazy Horse had a very light complexion, much
lighter than other Indians. His face was not broad, and he had a high, sharp nose. He had black eyes that hardly ever looked straight at a man, but they didn't miss much that was going on, all the same. . . .”

There was something of the hermit, the eremite, in him; he was known to walk through his own camp without appearing to notice anybody. When, late in his life, his family began to worry about his tendency to wander off alone in dangerous country, he told them not to worry, there were plenty of caves and holes he could live in; and had it not been for his sense of responsibility to the people of his village—who knew that he would do his best to feed them—he might well have slipped away and lived in those caves and holes.

He came into Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska, with the nine hundred people who, in desperation, had chosen to follow him, only
four months
before he was killed, and those four months were the only period in his life when he was in contact with the record-keeping, letter-writing whites; and even then, he camped six miles from the fort, rather than the prescribed three, and saw whites only when he could not avoid them. For almost the whole of his life he did avoid all parleys, councils, treaty sessions, and any meeting of an administrative or political nature, not merely with whites but with his own people as well.

Although he was given the great honor of being a Shirt-wearer, a position whose responsibilities he fulfilled
as best he could by providing for the weak and helpless ones of the tribe, he was never a talker; for most of his life we know nothing at all of what he said or thought. He was a loner—now, in many respects, he is a blank. Professional writers and amateur historians, professional historians and amateur writers, have all written about him extensively and have not scrupled to put words in his mouth and even to report his dreams—or, at least, one dream that was of great significance in shaping the way he lived his life.

The basis for most of these conversations, reports, speculations are two sets of interviews with elderly Sioux, both sets to be found in the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Association. The first set was done by Judge Eli Ricker in 1906–07; the second, by the journalist Elinor Hinman and the Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz in 1930–31. Judge Ricker interviewed about fifty people, of whom only ten were Indian. The core of the Hinman-Sandoz interviews is the one with He Dog (brother of Short Buffalo), a lifelong friend of Crazy Horse. He Dog was in his nineties when the interviews were conducted; he outlived his friend Crazy Horse by fifty-nine years (Libbie Custer outlived her George by fifty-seven). He Dog may indeed have had a remarkable memory, but to ask him to look back over almost ninety years to the boyhood of his friend was asking a lot—and, anyway, the interviewers devoted most of their questions to the crucial last fifteen months of Crazy Horse's life, when the
famous battles were fought. Except for one or two incidents, the other thirty-five years of his life are barely touched on; and the interview, all told, is only about fifteen pages long, questions included. Mari Sandoz then wrote a biography which is 428 pages long, many of them purely speculative. Stephen Ambrose, a professional historian, writing in the mid-seventies, devotes about half of a 538-page book to Crazy Horse, and, like Sandoz, doesn't seem to mind putting words in the mouth of this man of few words.

If the word “record” is to mean anything, one would have to say that for much of Crazy Horse's life there is no record. He lived the life of a Sioux warrior, raiding and hunting on the central plains. Then, as white pressure on the Plains Indians began to intensify, Crazy Horse emerged as a determined resister whose courage and leadership was a factor in a few battles.

From 1875 on, the record grows steadily more dense, reaching maximum density only on the last day of his life. More has been written about his death—far more—than about the other three and a half decades of his life put together. This is perhaps only natural: there were many witnesses to his fatal stabbing, whereas most of his life went unwitnessed by anyone who would have had any reason to take notes.

The accounts of his death are so many and so varied that one could make a kind of Gospels of Crazy Horse, or, at least, an American

There is also—rarely mentioned but critical—the huge problem of translation. The old men who were looking back across the years and yielding up their memories of Crazy Horse did so in the Sioux language, a language seldom easily or accurately brought into English. Twice in his life, once when he was a young man and once near the end, Crazy Horse experienced the destructiveness that could result from sloppy, inaccurate, or biased interpretation. The slippage between the two languages as the result of ill-intended or merely vague translation was a source of huge frustration to the Indians who made themselves available at the treaty councils—Red Cloud and Spotted Tail in particular—and then found out that what they thought they had heard the whites promise was not in fact what they were getting. How much harder is it, then, for us who really don't know his words, to trust that we know what this private man—who rarely spoke, even in the councils of his own people—felt or thought?

All this is not to say that we know nothing of Crazy Horse. He was a man, not a myth, and we do know certain things about him. We know enough from the testimony of his close associates to have some idea of the main events of his life, particularly his losses: of his brother Little Hawk, of his daughter They-Are-Afraid-of-Her, of his friends Hump and Lone Bear, and of Black Buffalo Woman, the love of his life, who married another man. We also know something of his behavior in two or three crucial battles.

Still, I am not writing this book because I think I know what Crazy Horse did—much less what he thought—on more than a few occasions in his life; I'm writing it because I have some notions about what he meant to his people in his lifetime, and also what he has come to mean to generations of Sioux in our century and even our time.

Ian Frazier, in discussing what he left
of his meditation on Crazy Horse, admits that he omitted a story about Crazy Horse kneeling to Crook the first time the two men met. He left it out, he says, because (a) he didn't completely believe it and (b) he didn't like it. Any biographer of Crazy Horse who has done due diligence with the record will at times be likely to apply that standard in judging this report or that.

I would also like to suggest that the traditions of genre exert their force here and there in the historical record. The genre I have in mind is the battle report, which falls back, if unconsciously, on Homer. When Stephen Ambrose says that forty thousand arrows were shot during the twenty or thirty minutes that it took the Sioux and Cheyenne to kill all the soldiers in the Fetterman massacre, I feel that what I'm getting is a trope, not a fact. Who would have been counting arrows on that cold day in Wyoming in 1866?

In the Crazy Horse literature, as well as the literature of the Plains Indians in general, the historians often chide the writers—Mari Sandoz, Evan S. Connell Jr., John G. Neihardt—for producing good writing but bad history;
the writers seldom bother to chide back. The literature of Crazy Horse is about evenly divided between that produced by “writers” and that produced by “historians.” Neither, so far, have convinced many readers—and certainly not this reader—that they have an accurate grip on the deeds, much less on the soul, of the Sioux warrior we call Crazy Horse.

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