CRAZY HORSE: THE LIFE BEHIND THE LEGEND, Mike Sajna, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 378 pages, $27.95.
The American West has produced more than its share of legendary figures, but few are as renowned as Crazy Horse, the last free-ranging Oglala Sioux war chief. During his lifetime Crazy Horse was a minor celebrity best known for his role in defeating the forces under George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but he has since been reinvented as a martyr to white expansionism. Like Custer himself, he has become a demigod in the pantheon of Western legends.
It’s something of a treat, then, to see his most recent biographer take an unconventional approach by depicting Crazy Horse as an individual instead of a legend. Mike Sajna’s Crazy Horse is an all-too-human bundle of contradictions. At once a loner, an ambitious social climber, a fierce warrior, and an inspiring war chief, he eventually relinquished many of his accomplishments to pursue the woman he loved. Sajna’s insightful treatment of Crazy Horse the man makes his subject seem far more genuine than the legend erected around him.
Sajna’s journalistic background is obvious here. Writing clearly and without sensationalism, he utilizes only primary sources, facts documented by those who actually knew Crazy Horse, whether they were friends, rivals, or battlefield opponents. Furthermore, he reports only undisputed facts as he traces the war chief’s life. While he occasionally suggests that Crazy Horse might have been present at a particular event, Sajna is unwilling to place him there if his presence wasn’t documented. In an era in which romanticized guesswork underlies so many historic accounts, it’s a refreshing approach.
Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend is a must-have for any serious scholar of the Sioux and wouldn’t be out of place on the casual reader’s bookshelf. Not only is Sajna’s work a valuable historical resource, it makes for a compelling read as well.
FLOYD B. LARGENT, JR. is a Dallas-based writer, anthropologist, and historian with a particular interest in Native-American cultures.