Along with the Apache Geronimo and his fellow Sioux Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse is one of those legendary 19th-century Indian warriors whose name everyone recognizes. He has been the subject of two widely read biographies, the 1942 “Crazy Horse” by the great Mari Sandoz and Kingsley Bray’s authoritative 2006 book with the same name.
Now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Powers takes up “The Killing of Crazy Horse.” It’s not a biography, though readers will learn a great deal about the man. It’s also more than just an investigation into Crazy Horse’s Sept. 5, 1877, killing at Fort Robinson in Nebraska after he had surrendered voluntarily to federal officers, though it is that, too, in fascinating detail.
What Mr. Powers offers in this book is a meticulously researched history of the Great Sioux War of the 1870s, whose most famous (but by no means only) battle was Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, in which Crazy Horse played a leading and heroic role. In the process of telling the war’s story, the author paints a rich portrait of the Sioux and their culture and of life on the American frontier in the 1870s.
The book is packed with hundreds of memorable characters, sharply drawn: Indians, soldiers, officers and their wives, scouts, traders and many others - an incredible mix of life that few books or movies present as well as this book does.
Mr. Powers writes that his interest in Indians “was acquired in the usual way, picked up on the playground in the 1940s and ‘50s when the game of cowboys and Indians enjoyed a last flowering.”
Cowboys he found “dull,” while Indians were “mysterious” and “compelling.” But he did not act on this interest until 1994, when he and his brother visited the battlefield at Little Bighorn. That visit, coupled with a chance reading of Billy Garnett’s account of Crazy Horse’s death, led Mr. Powers to want to understand the great chief’s killing in detail.
Garnett had been present when Crazy Horse was killed. The illegitimate son of a Confederate Civil War general who died at Gettysburg and a Sioux woman, Garnett worked as an interpreter for federal officers and knew Crazy Horse well.
“Very often,” he explains, “the excavation of an event can reveal the whole of an era, just as an archaeologist’s trench through the corner of an ancient city can bring back to light a forgotten civilization.”
To dig his trench into the American frontier of the 1870s, Mr. Powers makes ample use of the many available primary sources, including Billy Garnett’s eyewitness account. He also has read (and mastered) a vast array of secondary material, interviewed many descendants of the original players and traveled to the battlefields and regions frequented by the still-migratory 19th-century Sioux.
Born in 1838 or perhaps 1840, he had natural courage that was noticed from the time he was still a boy. The warrior He Dog, who grew up with him, told an interviewer late in life, “When [Crazy Horse] came on the field of battle, he made everybody brave.”
He also was a “plain man,” Mr. Powers writes, “avoiding the personal display cultivated by so many other Sioux.” His only adornment was a shell necklace.
Instead of an eagle feather to represent every man he had killed in battle - Crazy Horse’s father claimed his son had killed 37 altogether - he wore only one or two feathers. Other Sioux braves had full bonnets of feathers that boasted of their prowess, Mr. Powers notes.