Book Review: Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend (Mike Sajna) : WW

Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend, by Mike Sajna, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000, $27.95.

He was quiet, shy, and avoided attention off the battlefield, but on it, he was bold, brave and successful–as William Fetterman, George Crook, George Custer and many other U.S. soldiers found out in the 1860s-70s. His name inspires excitement, if not fear, even today. Oglala Lakota (Sioux) leader Crazy Horse was the epitome of an Indian’s Indian. Although he finally surrendered at Camp Robinson, Nebraska Territory, he never seemed to give in to the demands of the white man’s world.

Big–some may say insurmountable–problems occur when trying to do a Crazy Horse biography. He never told his side of the story, and none of his fellow Indians said much about him to white people until he had been gone at least a quarter of a century. A great deal of myth surrounds the man, some of it triggered by Mari Sandoz’s stirring but fictionalized 1942 biography Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, which did make use of 1930 interviews with half a dozen Lakotas. In the 1970s, Stephen Ambrose took on Crazy Horse with a lot of help from the most written-about soldier of the frontier West–Custer. Ambrose’s dual biography Crazy Horse and Custer runs more than 500 pages. In the 1990s, Richard G. Hardorff concentrated on the most documented time of Crazy Horse’s life (May-September 1877) in The Death of Crazy Horse.

Certainly there was room for another biography that focused strictly on the life of Crazy Horse. By trying to match the primary sources to the historic record instead of relying on secondary sources, Mike Sajna has managed to come up with a fine 367-page work. As he himself admits in his preface, however, his book is more than just the story of that shy but dangerous Lakota warrior who may never have had his picture taken: “I have attempted to fill in the gaps of Crazy Horse’s life, and they are many and yawning, by placing him within the historical times that so shaped his life.” And so the author provides much information about Lakota culture to go along with the facts available about Crazy Horse. That approach will please many readers, though it may frustrate those readers expecting all those Crazy Horse gaps to be filled. In any case, Sanja has made a noble effort to separate the facts from the many myths that have been passed down about a man whose determined resistance to white intrusion put him in the middle of some of the best-known confrontations of the Indian wars.

Louis Hart

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