The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers

This book is fantastic.  I read this like a thriller.  I bought it when it came out, mainly just out of respect to the project itself.  Powers took this strange and tragic incident that happened in 1877 at a dusty fort in northwestern Nebraska and produced a thick, apparently exhaustive, densely annotated book.

Crazy Horse, out of options, was persuaded to come into Camp Robinson, where it soon became clear he was going to be locked up.  When he saw that he was being led into the guardhouse, he resisted, and in the struggle that followed he was stabbed.  That night he died.  That’s the gist of the story, what else is there to say, really?

Well, from time to time I’d open this book up and read a bit of it and always I found something curious or engaging that I wanted to know more about.  Finally, summer vacation, I just decided to start at the beginning and read the whole thing.

The Little Bighorn event had my attention from when I first heard about it.  Cowboys vs Indians.  The setting: “a dusty Montana hillside.”  A cavalry unit, wiped out to the last man.  Custer, the boasting blowhard, his luck had never run out, and then it did.  No survivor to tell the tale (with the exception of the alleged lone horse survivor, Comanche).  The shock when the survivors of Reno’s stand a few miles away rode among the bodies days after (“how white they look!”).

The classic in this field is Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.

How cool was Evan S.? source.

Maybe my favorite book.  Connell doesn’t just tell us what happened, he follows the threads of how we might know what happened.  The difficulty and ridiculousness of reconciling these accounts from often drunk, bitter, confused or otherwise untrustworthy characters of the American West.

But Powers has a great deal to add to the story.  Take for example the awls of the Cheyenne.  If you’ve read much about the Little Bighorn, you’ve heard that after the battle, some Cheyenne women recognized Custer’s body.  They punctured his ears with what’re sometimes described as sewing needles, so he’d hear better in the next life.  Here’s Powers, not just adding detail but evoking a way of life:

Every Cheyenne woman routinely carried on her person a sewing awl in a leather sheath decorated with beads or porcupine quills.  The awl was used daily, for sewing clothing or lodge covers, and perhaps most frequently for keeping moccasins in repair.  The moccasin soles were made of the heavy skin from a buffalo’s neck; this was the same material used for shields and it was prepared the same way – not tanned, but dried into rawhide.  Pushing an awl through this hide required strength.  “The making and keeping in repair of moccasins was a ceaseless task,” noted Lieutenant Clark in his notes for a book on the Indian sign language.  “The last thing each day for the women was to look over the moccasins and see that each member of the family was supplied for the ensuing day.”  In the many photos of the Plains Indians women taken during the nineteenth and early twentieth century their hands are notable for thickness and strength.

In the early days the awls of the Plains Indians consisted of a five- or six-inch sliver of bone, polished to a fine, slender point at one end for piercing leather, and rounded at the other to fit into the palm of the hand for pushing through tough animal hides.  In later times Indian women acquired awls of steel from traders.  It will be recalled that Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, had once worried that Mo-nah-se-tah would pull out a knife concealed about her person and stab her husband to death.

The Custer fight was just one occasion when Crazy Horse showed his kind of genius for cavalry battle.  It looms over this story.

In a New Yorker capsule review of this book, it’s claimed:

Powers, who admits to a childhood passion for Indians, lovingly details spells and incantations—the importance of burning an offering in the proper way, even during a surprise attack; the right time to make use of a small bag of totems—but gives little insight into the larger meaning of these gestures.

This is totally ridiculous.  One of the great strengths of Powers book is the care he takes with Sioux religion:

To speak of ultimate things like dying, death, and the spirit realm beyond this world, the Sioux used a kind of poetry of indeterminacy.  They explained what they could and consigned the rest to a category of things humans cannot know, or had perhaps forgotten.  There was no single correct way to explain these matters, and the hardest of all was to explain the wakan.  Anything wakan was said to be sacred or powerful.  The Oglala shaman Napsu (Finger) told a white doctor, “Anything that has a birth must have a death.  The Wakan has no birth and it has no death.”

Powers never fails to help us see Crazy Horse in the context and worldview in which he saw himself.

This is a book where even the footnotes are interesting:

Now, be warned, this is a serious book.  At one point I was reading it for about four hours a day and it still took me more than a week.  I’m not sure this is a book for the general reader, although I’d be curious how it reads to someone who wasn’t very familiar with the Plains Indian Wars.  If you’re such a reader, and you give it a try, write us!

Just the names alone: Crazy Horse’s father, who became Worm.  No Water, They Are Afraid of Her, Grabber, Plenty Lice, Whirlwind, Rattle Blanket Woman.

Via an ad on Drudge Report we learn that Bill O’Reilly has a book out called Killing Crazy Horse.  I doubt it will top this one.  I associate O’Reilly with dishonesty and bullying, whereas Powers demonstrates in his book an integrity and devotion to taking care with the material.

Powers’ book led me to this one:

which is reigniting a passion for Ledger Art.

This is the death song Crazy Horse is said to have sung after he was wounded:

You gotta be careful or you’ll spend your whole life thinking about this stuff.  People have done it!

 

 

 

 



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