Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life
By Kingsley M. Bray, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006
Scholarly writings on historical American Indian figures are more rare than the public might imagine since such works have to be based in large part on tribal oral traditions. British author Kingsley Bray sifted through oral tradition, past interviews conducted by Mari Sandoz and others and his own journeys to the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations of South Dakota from 1993 to 2005 for this biography of the Sioux war chief Crazy Horse.
Bray gives a good description of Sioux village life and Crazy Horse’s family history. Crazy Horse, born about 1840, was shaped by the suicide of his mother, Rattle Blanket Woman, and a military disaster at the hands of the Shoshone that his hero and uncle, Male Crow, brought down upon the Sioux. Oral tradition remembers Male Crow’s last words as “I am a man to look for death,” and this emerges as the theme for Crazy Horse’s life.
But Bray fails to give a clear picture of the Sioux Nation during this period, and he seems to fall back on the Hollywood image of the noble savage. In fact, the Sioux Nation was an imperial power successfully battling and conquering all those around it. As early as 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition reported that tribes living along the Missouri River were very uneasy about the Sioux flooding out over the plains. Bray only hints that the Sioux were relative newcomers to the area.
However, as the reader comes closer to the events of the Great Sioux War and Crazy Horse’s tremendous victory over George Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876, Bray’s skills as a wordsmith begin to shine. The book becomes not only informative, but an enjoyable read. Still, Bray seems determined to the point of obsession with elevating Crazy Horse to a level of importance perhaps higher than he deserves.
Bray is dismissive of the role the Sioux war chief Gall played at the Little Bighorn. Likewise, his description of Sioux forces battling the U.S. Army during the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition would lead one to believe that Crazy Horse was the only Indian commander on the field. Bray peppers his work with conjecture as to what Crazy Horse was thinking at various times. Some of that space could have been dedicated instead to quotes from other contemporary sources that would give the book more balance.
Over time Crazy Horse has become a heroic symbol of American Indian resistance to the whites’ conquest of the West. As an advocate of armed resistance, however, he was at odds with prominent tribal leaders. Crazy Horse was “the man without ears, who would not listen to counsel,” Bray has Red Cloud and other Sioux chiefs saying when Crazy Horse dies in U.S. Army custody in 1877.
For those who love the history of the West, Crazy Horse is a wonderful study of mid-19th-century intertribal politics, egos and strategies. Despite a few shortcomings, it adds to our understanding of how the Sioux warrior viewed his world and reacted to it.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.