Article abstract: Crazy Horse, the greatest of the Sioux chiefs, led his people in a valiant but futile struggle against domination by the white man and white culture. He fought to the last to hold his native land for the Indian people.
Little is known of Tashunca-uitko’s early life; even the date of his birth and the identity of his mother are somewhat uncertain. He was probably born in a Sioux camp along Rapid Creek in the Black Hills during the winter of 1841-1842. Most scholars believe that his mother was a Brule Sioux, the sister of Spotted Tail, a famous Brule chief. His father, also called Crazy Horse, was a highly respected Oglala Sioux holy man. Tashunca-uitko was apparently a curious and solitary child. His hair and his complexion were so fair that he was often mistaken for a captive white child by soldiers and settlers. He was first known as “Light-Haired Boy” and also as “Curly.” At the age of ten, he became the protégé of Hump, a young Minneconjou Sioux warrior.
When he was about twelve, Curly killed his first buffalo and rode a newly captured wild horse; to honor his exploits, his people renamed him “His Horse Looking.” One event in Crazy Horse’s youth seems to have had a particularly powerful impact on the course of his life. When he was about fourteen, His Horse Looking witnessed the senseless murder of Chief Conquering Bear by the troops of Second Lieutenant J. L. Gratton and the subsequent slaughter of Gratton’s command by the Sioux. Troubled by what he had seen, His Horse Looking went out alone, hobbled his horse, and lay down on a high hill to await a vision. On the third day, weakened by hunger, thirst, and exposure, the boy had a powerful mystical experience which revealed to him that the world in which men lived was only a shadow of the real world. To enter the real world, one had to dream. When he was in that world, everything seemed to dance or float—his horse danced as if it were wild or crazy. In this first crucial vision, His Horse Looking had seen a warrior mounted on his (His Horse Looking’s) horse; the warrior had no scalps, wore no paint, was naked except for a breech cloth; he had a small, smooth stone behind one ear. Bullets and arrows could not touch him; the rider’s own people crowded around him, trying to stop his dancing horse, but he rode on. The people were lost in a storm; the rider became a part of the storm with a lightning bolt on his cheek and hail spots on his body. The storm faded, and a small red-tailed hawk flew close over the rider; again the people tried to hold the rider back, but still he rode on. By the time he revealed this vision a few years later, His Horse Looking had already gained a reputation for great bravery and daring. His father and Chips, another holy man, made him a medicine bundle and gave him a red-tailed hawk feather and a smooth stone to wear.
When he went into battle thereafter, he wore a small lightning streak on his cheek, hail spots on his body, a breech cloth, a small stone, and a single feather; he did not take scalps. He was never seriously wounded in battle. His Horse Looking’s father, in order to honor his son’s achievements, bestowed his own name, Crazy Horse, upon the young man (he then took the name Worm) and asserted to his people that the Sioux had a new Crazy Horse, a great warrior with powerful medicine.
The Grattan debacle had one immediate effect other than the vision: It resulted in brutal reprisals by the Bluecoats. On September 3, 1855, shortly after Crazy Horse had experienced the vision, General W. S. Harney attacked the Brule camp in which Crazy Horse was living with Spotted Tail’s people. The soldiers killed more than one hundred Indians (most of them women and children), took many prisoners, and captured most of the Sioux horses. Crazy Horse escaped injury and capture but was left with an abiding hatred of the whites. Since the major white invasion of the West did not begin until after the Civil War, Crazy Horse spent his youth living in the traditional ways: moving with the seasons, hunting, and warring with the other plains Indians.
The solitary boy grew into a strange man who, according to Black Elk,
would go about the village without noticing people or saying anything. . . . All the Lakotas (Sioux) liked to dance and sing; but he never joined a dance, and they say nobody heard him sing. . . . He was a small man among the Lakotas and he was slender and had a thin face and his eyes looked through things and he always seemed to be thinking hard about something. He never wanted many things for himself, and did not have many ponies like a chief. They say that when game was scarce and the people were hungry, he would not eat at all. He was a queer man. Maybe he was always part way into that world of his vision.
Crazy Horse and the Oglala north of the Platte River lived in relative freedom from the white man’s interference until 1864. From the early 1860’s, however, there was ever-increasing pressure from white settlers and traders on the United States government to guarantee the safety of people moving along the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and to open the Bozeman Road which ran through the Sioux country.
The military began preparations early in 1865 to invade the Powder River Indian country; General Patrick E. Connor announced that the Indians north of the Platte “must be hunted like wolves.” Thus began what came to be known as Red Cloud’s War, named for the Sioux chief who led the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. General Connor’s punitive expedition in 1865 was a failure, as were subsequent efforts to force the free Indians to sign a treaty. In 1866, General Henry B. Carrington fortified and opened the Bozeman Road through Sioux territory. By 1868, having been outsmarted, frustrated, and beaten again and again by Red Cloud’s warriors, the United States forces conceded defeat, abandoned the forts, closed the Bozeman Road, and granted the Black Hills and the Powder River country to the Indians forever.
Crazy Horse rose to prominence as a daring and astute leader during the years of Red Cloud’s War. He was chosen by the Oglala chiefs to be a “shirt-wearer” or protector of the people. All the other young men chosen were the sons of chiefs; he alone was selected solely on the basis of his accomplishments. Crazy Horse played a central role in the most famous encounter of this war. On December 21, 1866, exposing himself repeatedly to great danger, he decoyed a troop of eighty-one of Colonel Carrington’s men, commanded by Captain William J. Fetterman, into a trap outside Fort Phil Kearny. All the soldiers were killed.
Red Cloud’s War ended in November, 1868, when the chief signed a treaty which acknowledged that the Powder River and Big Horn country were Indian land into which the white man could not come without permission. The treaty also indicated that the Indians were to live on a reservation on the west side of the Missouri River. Red Cloud and his followers moved onto a reservation, but Crazy Horse and many others refused to sign or to leave their lands for a reservation; Crazy Horse never signed a treaty.
As early as 1870, driven by reports of gold in the Black Hills, many whites began to venture illegally into Indian territory. Surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad protected by United States troops also invaded the Black Hills in order to chart the course of their railway through Indian land. Crazy Horse, who became the war chief of the Oglala after Red Cloud moved onto the reservation, led numerous successful raids against the survey parties and finally drove them from his lands. The surveyors returned in 1873; this time they were protected by a formidable body of troops commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. In spite of a series of sharp attacks, Crazy Horse was unable to defeat Custer, and the surveyors finished their task. In 1874, Custer was back in Indian territory; he led an expedition of twelve hundred men purportedly to gather military and scientific information. He reported that the hills were filled with gold “from the roots on down”; the fate of the Indians and their sacred hills was sealed. Not even the military genius of their war chief, their skill and bravery, and their clear title to the land could save them from the greed and power of the white men.
During the years between the signing of the 1868 treaty and the full-scale invasion of Indian lands in 1876, Crazy Horse apparently fell in love with a Sioux woman named Black Buffalo Woman, but she was taken from him through deceit and married another man, No Water. Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman maintained their attachment to each other over a period of years, causing some divisiveness among the Sioux and resulting in the near-fatal shooting of Crazy Horse by No Water. Crazy Horse eventually married an Oglala named Tasina Sapewin (Black Shawl) who bore him a daughter. He named the child They Are Afraid of Her, and when she died a few years later, he was stricken with grief.
Because of the reports concerning the great mineral wealth of the Black Hills, the United States government began to try to force all the Indians to move onto reservations. On February 7, 1876, the War Department ordered General Philip Sheridan...
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