“Dead Indians are a common feature of American history," Thomas Powers writes in the introduction to his new book, "but the killing of Crazy Horse retains its power to shock." • He's right on both counts. In The Killing of Crazy Horse, Powers creates an unsentimental and fascinating portrait of the great and mysterious Sioux war chief and of the pivotal era in our history in which he lived and died.
There is no shortage of biographies of Crazy Horse, and the signal event of his life, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, is practically a publishing subindustry in itself. But Powers brings a special skill set to the task. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and the author of several books about the CIA and other intelligence organizations, he is not only an accomplished digger of facts but someone who understands that in matters of war and politics there are very few totally good — or bad — guys.
Crazy Horse was born around 1838 near Bear Butte in what is now South Dakota. He was a member of the Oglala, one of the seven major bands of the Lakota people, more widely known as the Western Sioux, who in turn were the largest tribe among the Northern Plains Indians. They made their living mainly as hunters of the great buffalo herds that then inhabited the grasslands.
More than a century before Crazy Horse's birth, Powers writes, those tribes first made contact with Europeans, and their world changed. "Two things brought perpetual war into the lives of the Plains Indians: horses, acquired as early as 1700, and the guns that soon followed."
Horses and guns made buffalo hunting much easier, and the tribes' populations grew. That made control of prime hunting grounds more important, though, and the Sioux, along with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone, Pawnee and other tribes, spent more and more time engaged in war and raiding (mainly stealing each other's horses).
Crazy Horse (whose name was passed on from his father) was born into a culture that rewarded him for his unusual skill and courage as a warrior. By his teens he was renowned for his boldness in counting coup and taking scalps, and by his early 20s, he was among the band's wicasa yatapika, "men that are talked about," a sign of his intelligence and charisma.
So both Crazy Horse and his culture were ready to resist when, in the years following the Civil War, white settlers began to push into the Plains in growing numbers, and the U.S. Army began its serious effort to push the Indians out.
For a few years, President Ulysses S. Grant pursued a peaceful solution, but that soon was abandoned for the policy that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman stated so succinctly: "Better to remove them all to a safe place and then reduce them to a helpless condition," the theory behind the reservation system.
Many Sioux were already "agency Indians" who lived in designated areas and had agreed to give up hunting and raiding in exchange for government-issued food rations and other supplies. But Crazy Horse and his band were among the "hostiles" who wanted to remain free to live in their traditional manner — a preference the army couldn't tolerate, especially after a gold rush to the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory led to escalating violence between Indians and whites.
That gold rush had been kicked off in 1874, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a mapmaking expedition in the Black Hills. He brought along two experienced miners who found the first traces of gold in French Creek — setting in motion the events that would help lead to Custer's disastrous defeat at Little Bighorn two years later, and Crazy Horse's death at the point of a soldier's bayonet in the guardhouse at Camp Robinson a year after that.
Custer is just one of the figures in Powers' sharply delineated portrait gallery of the men and women who were part of the last years of Crazy Horse's life. Other military figures painted in all their bravery and foolishness include Gen. George Crook, Crazy Horse's main pursuer, and Crook's chief of scouts, Lt. William Philo Clark, a man whose intense (and highly unusual) interest in the Indians both helped and harmed him.
Powers also vividly paints Crazy Horse's Indian friends, relations and enemies, such as the irrepressible He Dog, fierce but fickle Little Big Man, spiritual leader Sitting Bull, orator and politician Red Cloud and many others. Among the most interesting and complex figures in this story are the "mixed bloods," children of white fathers and Indian mothers, who served as interpreters and scouts. One of them, William Garnett, is one of Powers' main sources and, he writes in his introduction, the original inspiration for this book.
But at the center is always Crazy Horse, and, although everything turns around him, he remains an enigma. As far as can be determined, he was never photographed, but he was described as slim, handsome and unusually fair for a Sioux, with hazel eyes and light brown hair. Unlike many Sioux leaders, he rarely spoke in public, and when he did he was succinct.
His talents were those of the warrior: valor, leadership and strategic brilliance. He was famous for making "brave runs," riding his horse at top speed across the skirmish line of the enemy to draw fire. Yet he was so calculating he would dismount to fire his rifle, in order not to waste bullets in wild shots.
The controversy about exactly what happened on the banks of the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, began before the smoke of battle had cleared and hasn't ended yet. But Powers provides here a lucid and well-supported description of the battle — one that makes clear Crazy Horse's strategy was probably essential both in wiping out Custer's command and defeating Maj. Marcus Reno's.
But less than a year after that decisive victory, Crazy Horse led his band into the Red Cloud agency and gave up his horses and guns. Despite that surrender, Crook was soon offering a bounty to any Indian who killed him, then ordering his arrest.
Powers does a masterful job of constructing the narrative of Crazy Horse's last year, suspensefully describing the rivalries and politics and sheer incompetence that lead up to the moment when Crazy Horse turns himself in at an Army post, walks across a parade ground before hundreds of Indian and white spectators holding the hand of the officer of the day, and is stabbed in the back by a soldier.
That isn't the end. Powers is interested not just in what happened to Crazy Horse but why it happened, and he does his best to pursue it. But Crazy Horse's death, like the man himself, retains its mystery.
Less than a decade after that death, the boundless buffalo herds were virtually extinct, wiped out by white hunters who stripped the animals' hides and left their corpses to rot. In the hard winter of 1877-78, Crazy Horse's family carried his body with them on their 200-mile journey, on foot and horseback, to a government reservation on the Missouri River. Somewhere along the way, his body was buried. No one seems to know where.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.