By Thomas Powers
"The half-Sioux interpreter William Garnett, who died a dozen years before I was born, first set me to wondering why Crazy Horse was killed. He made it seem so unnecessary," writes Thomas Powers at the beginning of his compelling new book about the life and death of the legendary chief.
Unnecessary, but inevitable. The tiny guardhouse at Camp Robinson, Nebraska, to which Crazy Horse was brought on September 5, 1877, was too small to contain the proud man who wanted his freedom and the throng of vengeful soldiers and rival Indians who wished him dead or at least far away. In truth, the entire American frontier wasn't big enough. If Crazy Horse's fate wasn't sealed by the U.S. government's desire to renege on the Treaty of 1868 and take Black Hills land expressly granted to the Indians, it was after the chief and his warriors annihilated George Armstrong Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn in June of 1876.
"Very often the excavation of an event can reveal the whole of an era...But I confess it was wanting to know why Crazy Horse was killed, not the abstract lessons drawn from his fate, that drew me on," explains Powers, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting and the author of several books on military intelligence and war. "It's my working theory that pinning down what happened is always the first step to understanding why it happened." Surprisingly, for over 130 years, "the event itself remained obscure, muffled, sketchily recorded."
No longer. "The Killing of Crazy Horse" is a skillfully written, meticulously researched book that covers far more than the chief's final days and hours. It begins not in Nebraska in late summer 1877, but in Wyoming in early winter 1866. There, Crazy Horse and others cleverly lured eighty soldiers from Fort Phil Kearney into an ambush that none survived. Up to this point, the Oglala Sioux warrior born in about 1838 had established a reputation in the Indian world, but was not well known to the U.S. Military.
Powers does not fast-forward the story from 1866 to Little Bighorn ten years later. Instead he provides a richly detailed account of Sioux life on the northern plains - from hunting to communing with the spirits to battling with enemy tribes as well as the soldiers who sought to deny them their land and way of life, particularly after gold was found in the Black Hills. During this period, Crazy Horse, a quiet man who let his deeds speak, distinguished himself in battle, but also rankled some powerful tribal leaders by, for example, taking another man's wife.
Numerous histories recount how Crazy Horse's Sioux along with the Cheyenne and Arapaho wiped out the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry Brigade at Little Bighorn in the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877, killing over 260 soldiers and scouts. Powers holds his own with these works, vividly describing Crazy Horse's solo charge, or "brave run," that triggered the first of the Indian assaults on the soldiers. According to his comrade Red Feather, Crazy Horse rode down between the lengths of the two lines of fighters blowing his eagle-bone whistle. Said Waterman, another warrior, "Crazy Horse was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit."
The battlefield tactics of each side were as diametrically opposed as their cultures, says Powers. "Soldiers always tried to keep an enemy at bay, to kill him at a distance. The instinct of Sioux fighters was for exactly the opposite: to charge in and touch the enemy with a quirt, bow, or naked hand while he was still alive. There is no terror in battle to equal physical contact - shouting, hot breath, the grip of a hand from a man close enough to smell."
Even more powerful than this blow by blow account of the battle is the story of an expedition to Little Bighorn a year later led by two generals responsible for carrying out the U.S. government's Indian policy, Philip Sheridan and George Crook. "Bourke (one of the soldiers) spotted government issue cavalry boots strewn upon the ground. The uppers from ankle to calf had been cut away by Indians scavenging the field...The lowers, Bourke noted with horror, revealed the human feet and bones still sticking in them."
Custer's ill-fated raid on the Sioux encampment remains the signature battle of the Great Sioux War. When the Indians refused to return land granted to them under a previously negotiated treaty, the Grant administration decided to take any means necessary to gain the territory. Outnumbered and weary of fighting, many Indians surrendered by the spring of 1877. They were shipped to Indian Territory.
Crazy Horse and his band surrendered on May 5, but his surrender was not unconditional. To the dismay of U.S. officials and some chiefs who resented his stature, he balked at going to Washington to meet the Great White Father and negotiate. He also demanded that he be allowed to settle in an area that was to be off limits to the Indians.
Throughout the summer of 1877, rumors swirled that he was going to leave his home and in all likelihood create havoc. When Indians reported that Crazy Horse intended to kill General Crook, the military and some Indians hatched a plot to kill him first. Eventually that report was discounted. After receiving certain promises from the military, Crazy Horse agreed to come into Camp Robinson.
Once he arrived, a familiar refrain was played. The government broke its promises to him and sought to jail him. Surrounded by those who wished him no good, Crazy Horse made one last stand. In the chaos he was stabbed by a soldier's bayonet. He died hours later. Again, Powers does a masterful job of piecing together the story from numerous accounts.
Why did Crazy Horse die? Powers cites the writings of Jesse Lee, an officer whom Crazy Horse had trusted. Noting that, whether intended or not, the chief had made enemies on both sides of the cultural divide, Lee wrote: "'He was not left alone,' said (Crazy Horse's father) Waglula. Every courier that came out from the agencies said, 'Come in. Come in.' The whites promised to hunt him until he came in or was driven north into Canada to join Sitting Bull. 'At last he came.' But that was not the end of the trouble. 'Spotted Owl and Red Cloud had to stand aside and give him the principal place in the council. They became jealous. They were the cause of the poor boy lying there,' said Waglula. 'He was killed by too much talk.""
- Steve Fiffer has written several books of non-fiction, including "Tyrannosaurus Sue."