Monday, April 25, 2011

#21: The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers

536pp, Knopf, 2010

While this book is classified as a biography of the Oglala chief Crazy Horse, it is actually much more. It is a sweeping collection of biographies, ethnology and legend connected through Crazy Horse, a man who does not so much leap from these pages but rather challenges the reader to find him. No photograph exists of him, he is modest in speech told by people who new him. I knew that Crazy Horse was killed on Sept 5, 1877 at Camp Robinson in far Northwest Nebraska. I did not know what he meant.

Powers himself writes that this book is an attempt to explain why Crazy Horse was killed (469) and this is accomplished. The amount of research that went into this text is enormous (the endnotes alone span over 60 pages) and the theory advanced by Powers is thoughtful and powerful. However, the true quality of the book lies in the writing. In taking notes on books, I rarely write down entire paragraphs. I did several times over the better part of two days while I devoured this book.

For example, take Powers words on the ride out to fight Crook's troops in the Rosebud in June of 1876, some 10 days before the Custer Fight. This was given after a in depth description of Crazy Horse's preparation for battle, which included painting lightning bolts down the front legs of his pony from the shoulder down and dotting himself with white spots to represent hailstones:

"That is what rode south toward the Rosebud on the night of June 16-17, 1876: thunder dreamers, storm splitters, men who could turn aside bullets, men on horses that flew like hawks or darted like dragonflies. They came with power as real as the whirlwind, as if the whole natural world...were moving in tandem with the Indians, protecting them and making them strong. Frank Grouard had tried to explain the power of the Indians, but it is doubtful that Crook's officers understood what he was telling them. The whites all thought they were a match for any rabble of ignorant savages." (181)

There are myths here on both sides. Myths surround a lot of "the West" in history and in the conceptions of Americans. This book does not resurrect the "noble savage" idea, nor are all of the whites depicted as evil, two currently en vogue myths. This is a book about politics, relationships, friendship, family, culture and misunderstandings. This is a text about paranoia, careers, power, glory. People create myths about these things every day for many reasons; what the reader takes from this book is that Crazy Horse was of four parts, at least.

He was myth, a powerful figure distinguishing himself in battle. This is the Crazy Horse that his friend He Dog said "made everybody brave." (461) It is fascinating that in Power's collection of sources, Indians (Crow, Shoshone and others) speak always of noticing Crazy Horse in the thick of battle. These men knew each other; this was power, the stories of bravery, cruelty and respect. This is where the myth comes from for whites, who saw only Indians.

He was a quiet man, not given to dishonesty. He complained, after he brought his band in, that the army immediately wanted to sign the men up as scouts to fight the Nez Perces. Crazy Horse wanted to return to the grounds to hunt buffalo, not other Indians. Crazy Horse told Lt. Clark, commander of Camp Robinson, that "Kola (friend), I want this peace to last forever." (262) For him, peace meant exactly that.

He was a master tactician, nearly destroying Crook on the Rosebud and leading the charge that broke the resistance of the 7th cavalry during the Custer Fight.

Last, what the whites did understand all to well, he was dangerous. He was dangerous because he was true to himself, and unafraid. That means he was dangerous to nearly everyone. Where Crook and Clark found him "unrepentant" and "sullen", and rival chief Red Cloud saw too much power, Crazy Horse rises from the pages as his own man. This book is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding I have read in the last five years. Get it if you can.

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