Horse, Crazy

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Horse, Crazy

Born c. 1842

South Dakota

Died September 5, 1877

Fort Robinson, Nebraska

Warrior and tribal leader

"He never wanted anything but to save his people.... It does not matter where his body lies, for it is grass; but where his spirit is, it will be good to be."

Black Elk, as quoted in Crazy Horse

Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was present at every major battle in the Plains Indians' long war to retain control of their lands in the West. A quiet, distant leader, Crazy Horse was noted for his uncommon bravery. He rose to a position of leadership not only within his own tribe but within the confederacy (loose grouping) of tribes that came together in the 1860s and 1870s to combat the white advance onto Indian lands in present-day South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Crazy Horse led his people to their greatest victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. However, within a year of this victory over forces led by General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876; see entry), the Indian forces were divided and Crazy Horse was dead.

Following a vision

Crazy Horse's name as a child was Horse Stands in Sight, but his friends called him Curly. He was given the name Crazy Horse later in life. Like most Sioux youth, Curly dreamed of the day that he would become a powerful warrior. Among Curly's people, a tribe known as Oglala Sioux, the path to manhood was reached by way of a vision, a powerful waking dream that indicated the path that one's life would follow. Their elders led most young men to their vision, but Curly was not like most young men. He looked different—he had lighter skin and light brown wavy hair—and acted different—he was quieter and less rambunctious than his peers were. Curly would come to his vision in his own way, and the life path that the vision fore-told was also quite different.

In 1855, when he was about thirteen years old, Curly rode away from his tribal camp, stripped off his clothes, and prepared to accept his vision. After lying on sharp rocks to stay awake and depriving himself of food and water for three days, Curly finally had his vision. In the vision, described by Judith St. George in Crazy Horse, "a man dressed in a plain shirt and buckskin leggings came riding up out of the lake on horseback. He was wearing only one feather in his long, flowing brown hair and he had a small stone tied behind his ear." The dream warrior told Curly never to wear a war headdress, to sprinkle himself and his pony with dust before battle, to paint a single lightning bolt on his face, and never to take the spoils of battle for himself. If he followed this vision, he would be protected from arrows and bullets. The vision also predicted that Curly would meet his death with his arms pinned by one of his own people. Curly had had his vision and was ready to become a man and a warrior.

Curly returned to his tribe triumphant, but his triumph did not last, for his father scolded him for leaving camp on his own and for seeking a vision without the counsel of elders. "You are not yet a man," he told Curly. But the young man felt he was close. With his friends he tested his bravery and his riding skills in small raids on the white travelers who crossed Indian land on a path the Oglala called the Holy Road and the whites called the Oregon Trail (the main route at the time for overland travelers heading west). Although still young, Curly had already learned to hate the white people who took Indian land, disturbed Indian hunting grounds, and made promises that they never kept. Curly felt no shame in stealing horses, food, and supplies from the white travelers; he considered it fair trade for all that they took from the Indians.

A warrior is born

Though Curly trusted his vision, he was not yet a man in the eyes of his people. Then, when he was thirteen or fourteen, Curly did his people the great service of locating a buffalo herd only two days' travel from the Sioux camp. Allowed to join the band of hunters, Curly showed his bravery by killing two of the great shaggy buffalo on his own. At the tribal dance of celebration, Curly was praised for his contribution to his tribe, a great honor for a Sioux. Around the time he was seventeen Curly took part in his first battle, a fight against the Arapaho Indians to claim hunting lands surrounding the Powder River in eastern Wyoming and Montana. Clad only in a breechcloth (a strip of cloth covering the genitals) and sprinkled with dust, Curly killed two Arapaho and avoided a hail of arrows. Upon Curly's return his father took him aside and granted him a warrior's name, his own name: Curly was now known as Crazy Horse.

Holding back the white tide

Crazy Horse became a warrior and a man at a time of great transition for his tribe. Before the arrival of the white man, the Sioux tribes had ranged widely across the vast Plains, camping where the hunting was good and living lightly off the land. But beginning in the 1840s, the Plains began to see a steady stream of white emigrants crossing the country in search of a better life in Oregon and California. The rush of people crossing Indian land increased dramatically after gold was discovered in California in 1849. Emigrants soon came into conflict with the various tribes who lived along the Oregon Trail, and beginning in 1855, U.S. troops were sent onto the Plains to eliminate the Native Americans' threat to westward expansion. Army forces and Indians soon met in battle. Crazy Horse watched closely the changes sweeping his land. He saw army troops attack defenseless women and children, and he came to believe that the white men had no intention of keeping the treaties they forced the Indians to make.

In 1857 all the Sioux tribes—the Oglala, Brulé, Minneconjou, Sans Arcs, Blackfeet, Two Kettles, and Hunkpapa—met near Bear Butte at the eastern edge of the Black Hills to discuss the white threat. The Sioux feared that the white trespassers would soon try to seize the land the Sioux considered holy, land that was crucial to their cultural and religious lives. Among the chiefs gathered at the meeting were Sitting Bull, the great military, spiritual, and political leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux; Spotted Tail; and Hump, whose life Crazy Horse saved only three years later. Though tribe members agreed on the threat that faced them, they were unable to come to an agreement on how to combat it, and they left the meeting with no clear plan for resisting the white advance.

Clashes between whites and Indians increased on the northern Plains in the years following the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery). Crazy Horse was among those who refused to back down in the face of a growing army presence in the region. After hundreds of Cheyenne were slaughtered at Sand Creek in 1864, Crazy Horse joined in an attack on the Julesburg stockade in Colorado Territory. Crazy Horse's most notable battle of this period occurred in December 1866, when Captain William J. Fetterman led a band of eighty soldiers out of Fort Kearny and—against orders—beyond sight of the fort. Crazy Horse and a small band of men lured Fetterman's forces ever further from the fort. Suddenly, the remainder of the large force of Native Americans poured down from the surrounding hills, slaughtering Fetterman and all his men. Only twelve Indians lost their lives in this battle that helped convince the army to abandon their positions in Wyoming a few years later.

During the many clashes with white soldiers, Crazy Horse secured his standing among his people not only by demonstrating bravery in battle, but also by constantly looking out for the good of his people. In 1865, at a meeting of all the Oglala Sioux, Crazy Horse was named a "shirt-wearer," or battle leader, a great honor. Unlike the other shirt-wearers, who made fiery speeches and boasted of their exploits in battle, Crazy Horse was reserved, almost shy. He led by example, not by words. Yet he also had a serious weakness. He had long been in love with a woman named Black Buffalo Woman, who was married to another warrior. Crazy Horse's love clouded his commitment to his people, and in 1870 he "stole" Black Buffalo Woman away (though historians believe that Black Buffalo Woman went willingly and in accordance with Indian custom). Her husband, No Water, chased Crazy Horse down and shot him, though not fatally. Crazy Horse was stripped of his status as shirt-wearer, and he struggled to regain the respect of his people. Crazy Horse later married another woman, however, and slowly regained his people's trust.

"This is a good day to die!"

By the late 1860s the Sioux had made life so difficult for whites in the Powder River area that the whites virtually withdrew from the northern Plains. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 called for the closing of military forts along the Bozeman Trail, safeguarded the tribes' absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of reservations, forced out white settlers, and promised punishment for any whites who injured Indians. As part of the agreement, prominent Indian leaders Red Cloud and Spotted Tail led their people to permanent "agencies" (Indian-controlled reservations) south of the Black Hills. But Crazy Horse, refusing to honor a treaty that he believed the whites would not honor, took the position of war chief of the Oglala.

Within six years Crazy Horse's prediction had come true, for after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 countless miners and settlers poured into the area, protected by the U.S. Army. The U.S. government attempted to avoid breaking the Fort Laramie Treaty by offering to buy the land from the Indians, but the Sioux refused to sell the land that lay at the center of their religion and was believed to be the home of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. Undeterred, the United States government declared that the Sioux were in violation of the treaty and promptly decreed that all Indians in the region had to report to reservations by January 31, 1876. Those who did not would be killed by the armed forces that were massing nearby.

The various tribes soon realized that a unified military effort was needed to preserve their traditional freedoms. The Cheyenne and Sioux gathered in a great encampment in the Rosebud area of Montana and then moved to the Little Bighorn River. Led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Indians showed great courage in a June 17, 1876, clash with soldiers led by General George Crook. Then, on June 25, the Indians' camp on the Little Bighorn was attacked by forces led by General George Custer. Sweeping down on the white soldiers in the new battle formations that Crazy Horse had taught them, the Indians first routed a band of men led by Major Marcus Reno. Then, calling out to his warriors "Hoka hey! It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die!" Crazy Horse led his warriors in the utter destruction of Custer's band of 225 men. Only about twenty Indian warriors lost their lives, while Custer and all of his troops were killed.

The end of the vision

The great victory at Little Bighorn cheered the Indians and shocked the whites, but the victory was short lived. After the battle the various tribes went their separate ways, and increased pressure from the military drove many of them onto reservations. Crazy Horse continued to raid mining camps in the Black Hills, killing as many of the invading miners as he could find. But after soldiers under the command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles (1839–1925) attacked his village on January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse knew the end was near. Although Crazy Horse and his warriors fought off Miles and his troops, the Indians' camp and supplies were ruined. By spring the great warrior and his one thousand followers faced starvation.

On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse led hundreds of his people to Fort Robinson to take their place on the Red Cloud Agency. Crazy Horse retained the respect and love of his people, who knew that he had kept them free longer than other Oglala leaders had kept their people free. But, stripped of his horses and his guns, Crazy Horse did not settle easily into life on the agency. He negotiated with the government for his own agency but was faced with the hostility of other Indian leaders who were jealous of the treatment that Crazy Horse received. When Crazy Horse was asked to join the whites in fighting a band of Nez Percé Indians, he replied, according to St. George, "We are tired of war; we came in for peace, but now that the Great Father asks our help, we will go north and fight until there is not a Nez Percé left!" Crazy Horse's words were misinterpreted, however, to suggest that Crazy Horse vowed to fight until there was not a white man left. Panicked, white leaders at Fort Robinson ordered Crazy Horse's arrest.

On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse arrived at Fort Robinson and was promptly placed under arrest by Indian police, including several of his own warriors. When Crazy Horse learned that he was to be sent to a prison in Florida, he struggled to escape. With Little Big Man pinning Crazy Horse's arms, soldiers stabbed Crazy Horse with their bayonets. Within a matter of hours the great warrior Crazy Horse was dead, and in the way his first vision had predicted.

Much of the life of Crazy Horse is shrouded in mystery. No authentic picture of him is known to exist, and most of what is known about him comes secondhand, through the words and memories of those who knew him. To this day no one knows where his body was buried or the exact date of his birth. Yet he has been memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp and in a nearly six-hundred-foot-high statue that remains under construction on Thunderhead Mountain in South Dakota. He is remembered today as one of the greatest of all Indian leaders, brave, wise, and dedicated to the good of his people.

For More Information

Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of TwoAmerican Warriors. New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Brown, Vinson. Crazy Horse, Hoka Hey (It Is a Good Time to Die!). Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph, 1987.

Clark, Robert A. The Killing of Chief Crazy Horse. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Dugan, Bill. Crazy Horse. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Freedman, Russell. The Life and Death of Crazy Horse. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

Goldman, Martin S. Crazy Horse: War Chief of the Oglala Sioux. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Guttmacher, Peter. Crazy Horse, Sioux War Chief. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Masson, Jean-Robert. The Great Indian Chiefs: Cochise, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull. Translated by Annie Heminway. Hauppage, NY: Barron's, 1994.

Razzi, Jim. Custer and Crazy Horse: A Story of Two Warriors. New York: Scholastic, 1989.

St. George, Judith. Crazy Horse. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.