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Interview -- Thomas Powers

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Webmaster's Note: Historian and Pulitzer Prize recipient, Thomas Powers, talks with us about his new book The Killing of Crazy Horse and how he researches his subject. Read a review of the book.

January 2011

Bob Reece: “The Killing of Crazy Horse” is not only a masterful account of the tragic death of one of our most enigmatic characters in American Indian history but also a tour de force for the beginning of the end of the 19th century American West. I sometimes think that Shakespeare would have written a play about the last days of Crazy Horse. If so, who do you think he would choose for the antagonist and why?

Thomas Powers: The mystery at the heart of the last days of Crazy Horse may be narrowed down to one question – why did he let the Army kill him? It seems to have been deliberate. He ignored every evidence of malice and threat until the moment he saw the bars in the window of the guardhouse door.

The flaw that proved fatal appears to have been the chief’s trust but his enemies schemed and maneuvered to get him out of the way. It was Shakespeare who created Iago, whose poisonous insinuations destroyed Othello. The great playwright could have chosen among a rich choice of characters for the villain in the killing of Crazy Horse: General Crook, who hated defiance and resented claims he had been whipped by Crazy Horse at the Rosebud; Frank Grouard, who feared what Crazy Horse might tell the Army what Grouard had really been doing with the Indians; Woman Dress, who told the lie which turned the Army decisively against Crazy Horse; Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, who resented his popularity with the young warriors; and Lieutenant William Philo Clark, who shaped and pressed events. He offered a reward for killing the chief, set in motion a plot to kill him in the middle of the night, urged his arrest and removal from the Agency, shed tears (so witnesses said) when he learned of the chief’s death, then cabled Crook within an hour or two that his death would save much trouble. I think Shakespeare would have chosen Clark – at every stage he is the one pushing events forward. His vice was confidence, he knew exactly how to get what he wanted.

B.R. You obviously are comfortable juggling many characters such as those in the world of espionage and secret intelligence. How does one make the move from such a subject to the American West and Crazy Horse? Was it difficult and/or easy, and why?

T.P. All of my books seem to find their origin in something that is hidden. I begin to wonder about the hidden thing, and then I start to hunt around for a route into the mystery. The last months of Crazy Horse’s life were rife with rumor and intrigue. Lieutenant Clark surrounded him with spies and the role of Woman Dress offers a classic example of the subtleties of agent handling – was Clark using Woman Dress to destroy Crazy Horse, or was Woman Dress using Clark to the same purpose?

Experience with writing about intelligence organizations proved useful in another way. It is said that the heart of intelligence is file keeping, and that’s also true of writing history in close focus. My basic tools were a chronology and a biographical register, which is essentially a list of names where each is followed by bits of information – called “serials” in counterintelligence. My chronology of Crazy Horse’s last summer is about 90 single-spaced pages. My name list is not far short of 500 single-spaced pages and references several thousand names – I’ve guessed that it may include as many as half the Oglala males active in the 1870s. Creating those files over a period of years was a way of internalizing the information. When the time came to write the book I felt I knew that world.

B.R. You’re knowledge of that world shines through within the many fascinating sidebars in your book that become adventures on their own: details about how whites and Indians did not like the smell of each other; what “whipping” means; and the concept behind a warrior’s death song. One of my favorites is found in endnote number 28 of chapter one regarding the astronomical occurrence of the moon on the night of the Fetterman Battle. What motivated you to investigate this event?

T.P. The brightness of the night Fetterman died was something I stumbled across in a news story when it happened again a few years ago. That story said no full-moon had been so bright since Dec 21, 1866, and of course that date lept out at me. It was a small fact but I loved the drama it added to the scene of Crazy Horse searching the battlefield for his friend on the brightest night in a hundred and twenty years.

B.R. That makes me wonder what process you work through for accepting an idea to write about. What journey do you take in research from inception of the idea to the book’s release? And, what of that journey is most challenging for you?

T.P. I get lots of ideas for books but I don’t write lots of books. The challenge is to find one I can live with for years on end without growing weary. In the end I let the project choose me, not the other way around. If it creeps into the corners of my life, if I find myself thinking about it at odd moments while walking the dog or drifting to sleep at night, if I head automatically to that section of the bookstore almost without knowing it, if my eye picks up odd references to the subject, if I try to tell people about it or seek out people to discuss it with, if I find myself trying to solve the literary problems – come up with a structure, identify a tone, describe the characters in my mind – if all that and more take hold of me and won’t let go and six months or a year later nothing has changed, then I begin to think that maybe this is something I ought to do.

Once I’m pretty well seized of the subject I like to walk the ground. The Crazy Horse book took me all over the northern plains; I visited many spots again and again, especially Fort Robinson, and the site of the old Spotted Tail Agency where Crazy Horse spent his last night, and the Pine Ridge Reservation, where I went down or up every road that would handle a 1984 Volvo, and some that wouldn’t. I remember making my way along one track that went from gravel to grass and grass to sand until I found myself blocked by an abandoned rusted hulk of a van. It appeared to have been there for a decade. I backed up three miles before I could turn around.

I explore the literature in the same spirit. The web is a very powerful tool in this regard. If you want to know what I mean go to AbeBooks, click on advanced search, put “Sioux” in the keywords box, organize the hits by highest price first, and then click on Find Book. The result today is 26,709 hits. Working your way down that list for a few days will give you a serious education.

The biggest challenge is not to drown the story in excessive detail. But my own appetite for detail is great, so I try to tell the story with sufficient detail to make it vivid and lively and rich, while relegating the rest to footnotes. Crazy Horse has been called a dense book, but anybody that knows the history of the Great Sioux war knows that I have left a lot out. The challenge is to know when enough is enough, and I’m sure there are lots of readers out there who think I’ve abused their patience.

B.R. One gets that impression from reading a few reviews on Amazon. But, sadly, the world is filled with many who must have their answers now! Reading the details in a vibrant fashion is much more enjoyable than just a regurgitation of facts. I'm thankful your style is most definitely the former. As you’ve shared with us, the Crazy Horse story chose you. What is it about history that inspires or moves you? Is there a particular place in history that created such a spark; a place you might have visited or one you will never forget?

T.P. What I love about history is the story – what people do with the cards fate has dealt them – the intertwining of lives with a place and an event – the unfolding narrative leading toward triumph and despair – the things that leave you shaken or moved when you get to the end of the story. With a friend I once climbed from the Dead Sea up to the ruins of the first century fortress at Masada, where the Jewish revolt came to an end. From the walls looking down you can see the Roman walls of circumvallation, locking the defenders in. When food, water and time ran out the defenders elected to kill themselves rather than surrender, choosing by lot every tenth man to kill his fellows, and then choosing again, till one man was left. Broken bits of pottery were handed around to each man, only one with a mark. When the Israeli archeologist and General Yigael Yadin excavated Masada he found these bits of pottery in a cave. It would be hard to imagine a story with more drama, which helps to explain why I choose a true story, rather than try to make one up.

In my view, the killing of Crazy Horse has a similar focused interest which can leave a reader full of strong feeling. Unlike the history of the automobile or the history of cotton farming in the Mississippi Delta or the history of the English language or the history of medicine, a story built on an event has a natural ending – a moment when the story is told, and it is time to think about it.

B.R. I love the first chapter of your book. We experience a dramatic telling of the Fetterman Battle, but we also experience the birth of Crazy Horse, how he got his name, and how he became a shirt wearer. If this chapter was the beginning of a movie, it would open with a big bang. How did you decide to write this chapter the way you did? Do you find these events in Crazy Horse’s life the most significant?

T.P. First words and last words are always toughest in writing a book. I set aside two fully written first chapters before I settled on the Fetterman fight as an event to open the book. Crazy Horse in 1866 was at the height of his powers – clear in purpose, brave and calculating, deeply involved in guiding the fate of his people. The fight offered a natural moment as well to describe Oglala politics, the history of Red Cloud, the details of the treaty which set the stage for the Great Sioux War, and the last great period of Sioux hunting and warring culture.

B.R. Your writing style employs a unique structure that does not progress from point A to point B in the usual manner. This approach reminds me a little of Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star”. What encouraged you to use this style?

T.P. One of the challenges in writing this book was to balance the great battle scenes – the Fetterman fight comes naturally at the beginning, but the Little Bighorn finds its chronological place in the middle – a year and many chapters before the actual killing of Crazy Horse himself. One reason for moving my account of the Little Bighorn closer to the end of the book was to balance it, and to prevent the fights at Slim Buttes and the Red Fork of the Powder River, along with other developments in the story, from slipping into anti-climax.

But I had other reasons as well. Crazy Horse was killed in my view largely because the Army was angry at him for his role in destroying Custer, and afraid of his ability to do it again if the war was resumed. General Crook and his officers had little idea what had happened to Custer during the latter half of the summer of 1876; they got their best and fullest understanding on visiting the battlefield the following summer in 1877 – so I told the story of the fight not when it happened chronologically (June 1876), but when Crook and his officers learned about it chronologically (July 1877). I hoped that would help readers see the connection between the Custer fight and the killing of Crazy Horse – a connection I wanted to show, not state and repeat and argue at length in the usual way. In my view these connections – in effect, the meaning of the story – should arise naturally from the story itself, not be tacked on summarily at the end.

B.R. Is there a new project you’re working on now?

T.P. The books I have written have typically required years of intensive research, which I confess that I love to do. But now I want to do something different – write a book about my father’s early life. He told me once that he was the most American person he had ever met. He had in mind where and how he grew up, some of the people he knew, what he tried or managed to achieve in life, and several of the adventures of his childhood. Among these was his friendship as a boy of ten with a Sioux Indian who lingered behind in Memphis, Tennessee in 1902 when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show disbanded there at the end of the season. Only a couple of weeks later, Joe Creeping Bear killed a man in a bar and during his three trials my father befriended and came to know him. A few years later, my father made a five-hundred mile trip down the Mississippi River in a rowboat with his brother. He was fourteen at the time and his brother was nine; the astounding thing is that their mother let them go.

The stories are all interesting; the challenge will be to write them in a way that helps explain the sort of America my father knew as a boy, and how it had changed by the time he died.

B.R. It sounds like a tale Mark Twain would love to tell, a subject that I think most others will find interesting as well. You mentioned in an email that you did visit the LBH battlefield with John McDermott. Would you share with us your feelings when you first visited the place? Was the first visit part of your research on Crazy Horse or was that another time? What was your experience like while walking the field with Mr. McDermott? Did any of your assumptions change as a result of your visit?

T.P. I've been to the Little Bighorn battlefield four times -- first on 2 September 1963, in the tail end of a freak blizzard -- the ground was deep in wet snow and fog obscured the field. Protected only by a thin sweater, I hurried from the empty parking lot to the visitor's center where I lingered in front of dioramas before heading back out to the road east, at the New York end of which waited a girlfriend. The second time was with my brother in the summer of 1994. On that trip I was under the immediate spell of Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse, which is like strong drink. I have a vivid memory of standing on Custer Hill and looking south and west and somehow seeing -- with the help of the scattered markers coming up the hill toward me -- the sweep of the almost-final stage of the fight.

My third visit was in 2003 with Jack McDermott, who arranged for a local battle buff to take us over the ground, starting back up the creek along which Custer and Reno first approached the field. Our guide was breath-takingly well informed. At the end of a few hours of instruction I had a kind of epiphany -- it was that Custer never attacked the Indians! He may have wanted to and planned to and his course along the bluffs down the river suggests that he was looking for a place to, but he never actually pulled off an actual concerted attack. The Indians sprang up around him so rapidly and in such numbers that he was overwhelmed between one desperate idea and the next. Excited by my discovery I blurted out the gist of my epiphany, to which McDermott responded with a bark of laughter. When I asked him to elaborate he shook his head and left me to wallow in ignorance.

Since then I would say that I have ventured ankle-deep into Custer waters -- just far enough to realize that I needed to make no attempt to answer the knotty questions that bedevil most students of the fight. The account which I hoped to give was limited to what the Indians said they had seen and done. Many expressed surprise that soldiers were in the neighborhood, or surprise by an attack timed for the middle of the day, or surprise that so few had attacked so many. But none of the Indian witnesses expressed surprise at the outcome of the fight. The Indian accounts are largely free of mystery and contradiction: they saw the soldiers, and with more Indians joining the fight all the time, they attacked the soldiers, chased the soldiers and finally overwhelmed the soldiers.

Finding a way to tell the story -- a method for deciding what to put in and what to leave out -- was a literary problem. But what drew me to the story was quite different. Part of it was the place -- the immensity of the arena of the struggle -- not only the fighting along five miles of river -- but the whole surrounding reach of country. I loved the look and the feel of it on a hot summer day. In 1876 all that country remained prime hunting territory -- there was no lack of buffalo for the people. The hide hunters did not venture in till the Indians were all safely out of the way. What is remarkable is not the Indian victory but their quick realization that winning only put off defeat -- they did not long resist the obvious, but all concluded to accept white demands, settle on agencies, and give up the old life.

On a fourth visit to the Little Bighorn, also with McDermott, I spent a day in the library going through various collections of papers and talking with the park’s historian John Doerner, whose love for the place and the subject was unmistakable. I could have stayed a week with pleasure, and would have if the place had funds enough to keep its doors open.

It's not so much the battle which draws me as all the things connected to the battle -- the Indians who were lords of the plains, the whites who came to seize the land and then establish ranches when the buffalo were gone. Powerful emotions are attached to what happened. The wonder and the sorrow of it were captured, I felt, by Thomas Riggs' account of a final buffalo hunt by the Cheyenne River Sioux near Slim Buttes in the early 1880s. At the end of a week's hunting an old man sat on a high place, looking out over the country to the east on a winter day, then covering his head with a robe and telling his white companion that he was crying because he knew he would never see the county like this again.

B.R. That’s amazing. It has been a great pleasure having this most interesting conversation with you. I cannot thank you enough and I’m sure our members feel the same. I wish you all the best in the writing of the story about your Father and continued success with “The Killing of Crazy Horse”.

T.P. You're welcome Bob.

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