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The Killing of Crazy Horse

by Thomas Powers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010, $30.

 Thomas Powers had his reasons for writing this 592-page book: He wanted to explain why Crazy Horse was killed, who was involved and what they wanted out of it. The author also wanted to let readers experience the story with no judgments on his part, making “no summation of the case before it goes to jury.” He has admirably succeeded in his goals, defending neither the “Indian side” nor “white side” of the story. Instead, he lets the characters tell the tale, and through their words we gain understanding.

The saga is much more than the title implies, however. Instead of just the killing of Crazy Horse we get the full panoply of Lakota history, with emphasis on the 1860s and 1870s, when Crazy Horse made his greatest impact on the historical record. The author’s palette is rich in colorful characters and events. Indeed, it is not only a biography of Crazy Horse but also contains minibiographies of some of its chief informants, including William Garnett, Frank Grouard and George Crook. There actually may be more written about Crook than Crazy Horse, and sometimes the story goes off on a few unnecessary tangents. Then again, a tale focusing only on the Oglala warrior’s death would be a short book.

It is by revealing the life and times of Crazy Horse and his people that Powers unfolds this rich tapestry. Sometimes what he reveals is not all that pretty or in keeping with the accepted mythical portrayal of Crazy Horse. But, of course, he was subject to the same emotions as any man; he made good and poor decisions; he could be forgiving or vengeful. The Oglala warrior killed scores of people, including women. He was an adulterer. He could be a tyrant, such as when he prevented his own tribal members from surrendering, and once he did surrender, intrigues and jealousies turned half of his people against him. Red Cloud referred to Crazy Horse’s band as “bad Indians.” A number of Lakotas claimed “he was tricky and unfaithful to others and very selfish as to the personal interests of his own tribe.”

Regardless of Crazy Horse’s failings, he did not deserve his fate. Powers delves into the intricate, behind-the-scenes machinations that led up to his death, and it is difficult to place blame on any party. Many whites wanted him either incarcerated or killed for his seeming unreconstructed wild ways and the potential threat he was to keeping Indians peaceably on the reservation. The Lakotas, however, were as much to blame for their petty envy and hate. In September 1877 a soldier bayoneted Crazy Horse, inadvertently or not, while “friends” struggled to restrain him on the way to the guardhouse at Nebraska’s Camp Robinson. As he lay dying that night, his father stood beside him and blamed a jealous Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. “They were the cause of his poor boy lying there,” the old man said. Crazy Horse was dead. He was imperfect, as are we all, but he became a legend and a hero to a broken and oppressed people who cared less about him in life than they did in death.

The book offers plenty of explanatory annotations for those who want to consult the sources. Powers might have benefited from John Monnett’s study, Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed, for he repeats the apparently erroneous tale that Crazy Horse was a decoy in the Fetterman Fight of 1866, and one might quibble about some of his chronology at the Little Bighorn clash, but overall he has provided a superior work that chips away some of the myth, leaving us with what he proposed: reality unfettered by personal agenda. Certainly, after Powers, there can’t be another book about Crazy Horse. Then again, one might have said that about General Custer.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here