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.
Crazy Horse’s Indian name was Tasunka Witko, which means far more in Sioux than is suggested by its literal English rendering. Mr. Powers offers this long and nuanced translation, which emphasizes both Crazy Horse’s gravitas and his spiritual life as a man granted the gift of many visions:
“[H]is horse is imbued with a sacred power drawn from formidable spiritual sources, and specifically from the thunder beings who roil the sky in storms.”
Why was he killed? Mr. Powers shows that Crazy Horse had very few friends he could trust by the time he died. Fellow Sioux, even many who had been close to him, such as Little Big Man, had turned on him. The reason was that Crazy Horse wouldn’t compromise. Long after other Sioux chiefs had agreed to settle down and live on reservations, he refused, wanting to remain free.
And most whites - especially soldiers and officers - could never forget Little Bighorn. As Mr. Powers notes, not even during the very bloody Civil War had a single battle wiped out an entire command, as Custer’s was in that single battle.
So when Crazy Horse voluntarily turned himself in at Fort Robinson in September 1877, a year and two months after Little Bighorn, everyone - soldiers, his fellow Indians - were in an uncertain, touchy mood.
Crazy Horse, who did not expect to be jailed, resisted when Indians and soldiers escorted him to a stockade. In the ensuing tussle, he was bayonetted twice in the lower back. Mr. Powers gives the varying accounts of exactly what happened offered by eyewitnesses, most of whom were deeply troubled by the event and grew more so as time passed.
The legend, too, began to grow. No one knows where Crazy Horse is buried. The family kept it secret.
There is no known photograph of the man who has become one of the most highly regarded of all Indians, perhaps, as Mr. Powers implies, because so much about him remains a mystery.
This is a masterful book, an epic read. Mr. Powers has repaid the Indians he found compelling and mysterious as a kid 60 years ago with this marvelous, well-told tale.
Stephen Goode is a writer who divides his time between Milton, Del., and Albuquerque, N.M.
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