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“The Greatest Warrior of the Sioux”
~ Mary Burrows
Although the exact year of Crazy Horse's
birth is unknown, between 1840 and 1845,
he was born in the Spring along what is
now Rapid Creek, possibly during the
purification period before the People
migrated into the sacred Paha Sapa
(Black Hills) and began their annual trek
along the limestone ridge south to where the Cheyenne River runs in four directions. This is still sacred ground, including an ancient Sun Dance site, protected by the Wild Horse Sanctuary and the Institute for the Range of the American Mustang (IRAM).
His father, who originally had the name Tasunke Witco, was Oglala, and his mother, who died when he was four, was Mniconjou. He was named Chan Ohan, which means Among the Trees: that he was “one with nature.” Because he was born with relatively light and curly hair, his mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, nicknamed him “Pehin Yuhaha,” (Curly) or “Zizi,” (Light Hair).
“Tasunke” is the horse, which comes from the West, as do Thunder Beings, imbued with great power and energy. “Witko” has to do with the sun, “Wi” meaning sun and pertaining to something different and unique, something “special and rare.”
One's hair is very special to Native Americans. The middle part represents “balance in Life.” Three strands of the braid represent “body, mind, and spirit.” Hair is only cut during mourning, which lasts for one year. It was said that when one was born with curly hair, they would “have a gift.” Even as a young man, Crazy Horse exhibited a very serious demeanor, possibly already pondering the care and betterment of his people.
When Crazy Horse was 14 years old (another source says he was 11), he witnessed the murder of Conquering Bear (Brule) near Fort Laramie during an incident known as “The Mormon Cow Incident,” wherein a lanky cow owned by a group of settlers wandered into a Native camp and was butchered for food. The settlers went to Fort Laramie and claimed that the animal had been stolen. Second Lieutenant John Grattan took it upon himself to arrest the butcher and left the fort with 29 men and two cannons. Conquering Bear refused to turn over the butcher High Forehead, and offered instead some of his own horses for the cow. The Mormons demanded $25 dollars. Negotiations failed, and Grattan concluded the proceedings. In the aftermath, a nervous soldier shot Conquering Bear in the back. What followed was known as “The Grattan Massacre” to the world. The Sioux, including Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, totally destroyed the detachment.
Crazy Horse had his first vision a year after this experience, somewhere near what is now Scottsbluff, NE. He saw two men on horseback (Marshall says one rider and one horse.) emerge from a lake, one wearing a stone behind his ear; the other had a stone under his arm. There was also a storm and red-tail hawk. Marshall says the horse changes colors in the dream, that the rider rode through a hail of arrows and bullets unscathed until he is eventually pulled down by his own people “grabbing and holding back his arms.” It is speculated that the vision contained a warning that “the boy would die as a young man in his prime.” There are several versions of this dream, but no one can really know what he described to Worm following this experience. As a very young man, he shouldered the mantle of Thunder Dreamer, living a life of service and caring for the vulnerable among his people, especially widows and ophans.
His father told him that the Thunder Dreamer never takes a scalp or boasts of his deeds, that they must always do the opposite of what people expected. The Thunder Dreamer walks the path of humility, therefore Tasunke Witco was never one to speak of his exploits of war around the fire.
During the period of 1854-55, Crazy Horse happened upon the burned out camp of Little Thunder in what is now northwest Nebraska as he returned from a hunting trip. Consider that he was still a young man in his teens. “Woman Killer” Harney left dead and mutilated bodies in his wake. The horror of this discovery had to have been an intense emotional shock and most likely led to Crazy Horse's subsequent opinions of Wasicu as dishonorable foes, intent only on killing, and not to be trusted in any capacity. There was no honor in the Wasicus' war. Counting coup, or just touching your enemy, was often more valorous than killing him.
After he confided the vision at Scott's Bluff to his father Worm and to his friend (possibly a relative) Horn Chips, also a visionary, Horn Chips provided two protective stones for him to wear, as Crazy Horse had seen in his dream. Crazy Horse was never harmed in battle after he began wearing the protection.
His second dream came to him near Mni Kahta...Hot Springs...in western South Dakota. It involved a snake and the protection of his palomino horse, the embodiment of the Thunder Dreamers. The horse was also given a stone by Horn Chips for protection.
His third vision occured in 1871 near Greasy Grass River in Montana. It involved his second horse, Two Strikes, and hail (a hail of arrows?). Crazy Horse never took the spoils of war and never wore a war bonnet. He was not a chief, (though many refer to him as such) but a great strategic warrior and leader for his people. A petroglyph attributed as Crazy Horse's signature, since eroded away, was photographed by a man from Sheridan, Wyoming, near the site of the battle. It shows a horse, a snake, and lightning.
The love of Crazy Horse's life was Black Buffalo Woman, outside whose tipi he stood in line with other young suitors waiting for just a moment with her under the protection of his robe. She was the niece of Red Cloud, a prominent orator and leader of the Lakota people. Crazy Horse and Red Cloud had been allies in the two-year effort to protect their ancient hunting grounds at the foot of the Shining Mountains in Wyoming. The Red Cloud family had great influence among Lakota, and any joining of a man and a woman fell under that influence. Worm's family was far less prominent, which grieved him when it came to his son and Black Buffalo Woman. The ambitions of her father, uncles, and family doomed any possible union of the two young people.
Though the Grandmothers thought that the two were a perfect match, following a particularly successful raid against the Crow, Crazy Horse returned to camp and the word that Black Buffalo Woman had become the wife of No Water. After a brief period of introspection, which was his natural bent, he resumed the life of warrior and Thunder Dreamer, much to the relief of his mothers, who were Spotted Tail's sisters.
Wasicu continued to enter treaty lands in search of gold, and stories came of buffalo hunters with long guns who shot hundreds of the animals and pulled their hides off, leaving meat that sustained the People to rot. Then came the Sand Creek Massacre and stories of little boys being tied to wagon wheels, children being thrown into the high flowing river, unborn babies cut from the womb, women with breasts and genitals mutilated, young girls forced into soldiers' tents at night. The Sahiyela (Cheyenne) vowed retribution, and the Lakota joined in that goal. Though relatively young, Crazy Horse showed himself to be a daring, fearless fighter and strategist during all skirmishes and fights with the soldiers.
After much thought, the elders agreed that, in order to beat the Whites, they needed to find strong young men to lead the others by renewing the tradition of Shirt Wearer: a strong young man of good ways to set an example for others. (The Shirt was a ceremonial regalia made from the hides of Big Horn sheep.) Shirt Wearers were the “owners of the tribe,” in that they made important decisions collectively. The tradition had degraded into a father-to-son designation and had been discontinued several generations before. In revival of the tradition, Crazy Horse was one of those initially chosen (at age 30, in 1868) to wear the Shirt, which further eroded the relationship between him and the Red Cloud power structure.
Several years later, after a hunt, Crazy Horse stopped at No Water's camp and renewed his conversations with Black Buffalo Woman, who by now had three children. Despite warnings from Worm that “they will never let her go,” Black Buffalo Woman one morning rode away from the camp with Crazy Horse after leaving her children with a relative. No Water caught up with them as they rested and feasted with friends, tore into the lodge, and shot Crazy Horse in the left side of the face. During his recovery at the hands of his mothers, news came that his younger brother Little Hawk had been killed by Whites in an unexpected attack. Additionally, a council of elders under the influence of Red Cloud and No Water decided that Crazy Horse was to return the Shirt, because his actions over a woman endangered peace among the Oglala. Following this, the Oglala never again named a new Shirt Wearer. Crazy Horse continued to be a “Strong Heart” warrior in that he used nothing provided by White men to the Natives, with the obvious exceptions of horses, guns, and ammunition taken in raids.
There is conjecture that Black Buffalo Woman subsequently bore a child, a light-haired girl, who died in infancy.
Worm, Spotted Crow, and He Dog (nephew of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse's friend since childhood) spoke with Red Feather, whose sister was still unmarried, and thus, by her own choice, Black Shawl Woman became the wife of Crazy Horse (Technically, his second wife, since Black Buffalo Woman had chosen him once, in the Lakota way.) The couple was away, looking for the bones of Little Hawk, when Red Cloud came north to the camp and told them of the treaty (Fort Laramie, 1868) with Wasicu and the promise of goods from the Great Father. He had “touched the pen,” which Crazy Horse refused to do. When the time came for Red Cloud to distribute the wagonloads of goods from Washington at Fort Laramie, Crazy Horse and his band living in the north were consipicuously absent.
Following the death of his friend and mentor High Back Bone in a skirmish in Snake country, and pondering over the loss of Black Buffalo Woman, his place as a Shirt Wearer, and the death of his brother, he resolved to fulfill his role as a Thunder Dreamer and live the life of sacrifice. Marshall: “He did not belong to himself, he belonged to the people. It was not what he wanted for his life, but what life wanted from him.”
In the second Fall of their union, Black Shawl gave birth to a light haired girl-child whom Crazy Horse named “They Are Afraid of Her.” The child, and later her mother, was afflicted with “the coughing sickness.” It is said he took her south to Medicine Water (now Lake DeSmet in Wyoming, near Fort Phil Kearny at the foot of the Shining Mountains) to sweat her and pray. Nevertheless, one day he returned to camp on the Tongue River after an exploratory trek into Crow country, and the painful news that his daughter was dead, probably at age two.
Crazy Horse was now headman of a small band...less than 1,000...loyal and like-mnded Lakota. He was and is known as “the last wild Indian,” living away from the Whites, all the while receiving news and visitors from Fort Laramie to the south. The buffalo were scarce, as was Native firepower and ammunition, and the Whites were ever a threat. He had to consider how he could provide for those who were now his responsibility. The Army had sent Lone Bear into his camp as a spy in the fall of 1876, and Hunts the Enemy had led a delegation to talk peace (surrender) with Crazy Horse in January 1877.
During the Spring of 1877, Crazy Horse spent much time in solitude, contemplating the future and his course of action. The elders and others often spoke long into the night regarding surrender to the Long Knives, but universally decided to reject offers from the agencies. In February, Crazy Horse sent eight emissaries to meet with Bear Coat (Colonel Nelson Miles) at the fort on the Yellowstone to discuss the placing of an agency in the north for Crazy Horse. A group of Crows attacked and killed five of the Lakota before they reached the fort, as Crazy Horse watched from hiding with a contingent that had escorted the emissaries.
The awareness now was that the Long Knives were nothing but trouble. Crazy Horse moved his band into the sheltering bluffs of the Tongue River. Late in February, soldiers and hundreds of Crow and Snake scouts attacked the camps. Resolutely, the Lakota inflicted heavy casualties and succeeded in confusing the soldiers while women struck lodges and made their getaways. The People had to keep moving in spite of the deep cold. As they made camp near the Big Horn River, Lakota came from the agency with food and blankets and a message that if Crazy Horse would come in, the people would have food, blankets, and clothing and that he would be allowed to return to Powder River country to claim his agency.
Sitting Bull, the other hold out, had decided to go to Canada. Young Man Afraid had surrendered. Resistance cost them bullets. Half of his people wanted to go in: They were tired of running, of hunger, of losing relatives. They stayed because of their belief in Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse sent back a message that if no more action was taken against him, he would consider the offer of White Hat (Clark, Spotted Tail Agency) and Three Stars (Crook, Red Cloud Agency). The reality of the situation conflicted strongly with his aversion to being under the control of those who had vowed to wipe his People from the face of the Earth, and that any survivors were to be “confined” to reservations. In his mind, it was a living death, but at least they would be alive.
In the harshness of that winter, Crazy Horse's uncle Spotted Tail brought a hundred people to help him convince Crazy Horse to come to the agency. He had already reached the conclusion that because of the helpless and vulnerable, going to the agency was a serious consideration. If he did not surrender, he knew the Long Knives would keep coming until they had killed them all. So, he spent his last moments of freedom in the solitude of the Shining Mountains that he loved.
It was about 20 days' travel from the camps in the north along the Tongue River to the agencies in the south along the White Earth River in what is now northwest Nebraska. Early in the Moon When Red Calves are Born (May) of 1877, the Crazy Horse band of less than 900 humans and 1500 horses surrendered to Lt. Philo Clark near Fort Robinson (Red Cloud Agency). The soldiers took their horses, their guns, and their hope. Crazy Horse selected a place on Cottonwood Creek near Fort Robinson for his camp.
Rumors spread that Crook was going to make Crazy Horse a “chief,” which he absolutely did not want, causing much political intrigue and treachery during the ensuing months among the Lakota such as Red Cloud, and even Spotted Tail, and the soldiers. Crazy Horse heard whispered warnings about plots to kill him from friends and from his new young wife, his third, Nellie Larrabee (Ellen LaRive), one of four daughters of local trader Joe Larrabee and a Cheyenne woman. Her sister Sally was to later marry rancher Scotty Philip, reknowned for his contribution in saving the Bison on the Great Plains. Some urged Crazy Horse to go to Washington and meet with the Great Father in order to plead for his own agency and to profess his desire to live in peace, but Nellie warned that they would kill him if he went.
The promise of an agency of his own had not materialized. Nor had a buffalo hunt in the Powder River country promised by Crook. He knew he would be an object of curiousity, but little more, if he had even wanted to go to Washington. Rumors had spread to General Crook that Crazy Horse intended to assassinate him. Fear was rife that the Lakota would break away and flee the agency.
Early in the Moon When Leaves Turn Brown (September), Crazy Horse had taken the ill Black Shawl Woman to the Spotted Tail Agency because he was unsure of her well-being if the trouble he was expecting matierialized. He also wanted counsel from his uncle Spotted Tail regarding the generals. Spotted Tail basically told him to return to Fort Robinson and learn to live with the Wasicu.
As he, Touch the Clouds, Swift Bear, and Black Crow returned to Fort Robinson on that bright September morning, they were met by a contingent of 60 mounted riders, charged with escorting him to Fort Robinson. Since he had been at Fort Robinson, Crazy Horse had lived peacefully, taken another wife, and even helped as a scout, but the goal of Crook was to round up all Lakota and move them east of the Big Muddy (Missouri) River. Crook's writings speak of rounding them up and breaking them, of making them totally dependent upon the government. Since Crazy Horse was such an “agitator” and threat to that plan, Crook determined that he should be sent to the Dry Tortugas near Florida, a certain death sentence for the free spirit who was Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse thought he was going to meet with a spokesman for Crook, but became wary when he saw the square log guard house where he was being pushed by the mob surrounding him. As he was shoved through the doorway, he saw the iron bars. He turned and saw Little Big Man blocking the entry. As he tried to shove past him, Little Big Man grabbed Crazy Horse's arms. Pushing free, he was able to draw his knife and slash Little Big Man through the arm of his blue soldier coat. Many hands, including brown hands, held him as a soldier lunged with his bayonet and punctured Crazy Horse's kidney.
“Let me go,” he said quietly, “you've gotten me hurt.”
Later, as he lay under a red blanket on the floor, he whispered to Worm, “Tell the people they shoud not depend on me any longer.”
Valentine McGillycuddy was post surgeon and Indian agent at Fort Robinson, known and trusted by Crazy Horse. It was he who told Crazy Horse that Black Shawl Woman had well-advanced tuberculosis. He examined the wound to the kidney, treated pain with morphine, and, along with Touch the Clouds, stayed with Crazy Horse throughout the night. He knew of the plot to send Crazy Horse to the Dry Tortugas. He knew of the treachery of his fellow Lakota who were hungry for White Man's power. O'Brien conjecures that McGillycuddy mercifully gave the great warrior a large dose of morphine and eased his journey into the Spirit World on that fateful day in September.
While anger, shock, and tears prevailed at the Cottonwood Creek camp, Worm and Crazy Horse's mother took the body from the soldiers and placed it on a horse-drawn travois so the warrior could make his final journey as a Lakota, rather than to accept the offer of a soldier wagon. They made their way over the land they knew so well, even in the dark. Worm was anxious to be on the move because he knew of the reward of $200 for the head of his son.
They reached the camp on Beaver Creek, and there the grieving women cleaned and prepared the body for burial. They anointed him with red and wept as they recalled what he had said two months earlier: that if anything should happen to him, to paint his body red and put it in water and his life would return. He said if they did not, his bones would turn to stone and joints to flint, but his spirit would rise. They painted him for war with a yellow lightning mark over the scar on his face, blue hailstones on his chest, and tied a reddish brown stone to his left ear.
The body was wrapped in deer hides over which a buffalo hide had been sewn, hair side out, and again placed on the travois. It was taken to a meadow on the west side of Beaver Creek and placed on a scaffold in an ash tree The wake lasted that day and into the night. Many came and wept, told stories of his bravery, brought food, and grieved with the parents.
After sunset the next day, the body was again placed on the drag poles, and the old man and old woman set off into the night with their precious burden. By sunrise, they were back at Beaver Creek.
There is commentary that Crazy Horse's body was “buried” in three places. Perhaps the head is secreted somewhere near Beaver Creek. There is an image of Crazy Horse's grave near old Camp Sheridan in Nebraska. It is said that the body was made small enough to fit into two boxes. One is buried along the Manderson Road...so they say. Another, perhaps in the Badlands... There is also the issue of his precious medicine bundle, described as the size of a baby. It was entrusted to family and in the 20th Century was buried six feet deep under a cottonwood tree, also along the Manderson Road. At one point, family had wanted to explore what was contained in the bundle. As they removed the outer wrappings, a great cacophany of owls arose around the lodge, beating their wings. The humans immediately closed the bundle and made the decision to bury it. It is now lost to history, because terrain has changed and memories lost.
He Dog, Crazy Horse's longtime friend told an interviewer in 1920 that what made the warrior the greatest fighter of the Sioux was “When he came on the field of battle, he made everybody brave.”
“The Killing of Crazy Horse,” Thomas Powers, 2011, Vintage Books
“The Journey of Crazy Horse,” Joseph M Marshall III, 2004, Penguin Books
“The Contract Surgeon,” Dan O'Brien, 1999, Mariner Books
“Last Days of Red Cloud Agency,” Thomas R. Buecker, 2016, University of Nebraska Press,
featuring photographs of Peter T. Buckley (1876-1877)
Writer also draws on memories of “Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas,” by Mari Sandoz, but cannot find my book.