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Killing of Crazy Horse

The Killing of Crazy Horse

By Thomas Powers

Book Review by Bob Reece, January 2011

 “When I die I’ll come back as thunder and lightning”

                                --  Crazy Horse

Late in the evening of September 5, 1877, a mortally wounded Crazy Horse struggled to sing his death song. His father Worm and friend Touch the Clouds remained vigilant while reminding him that he was not alone. As Crazy Horse sang the last verse and took his last breath, so went the great Lakota nation as it reached the end of a way of life that forever remains a memory to its entire people. The beginning of that end was the previous May when Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered to a young Army officer somewhere along Hat Creek. It can be argued that the Battle of the Little Bighorn or the surrender of Sitting Bull marked that beginning; however, there were many battles in 1876-1877, and Sitting Bull fled to Canada. It is Crazy Horse who continued the fight and who symbolizes the defiance of the Lakota nation; he continues to inspire his people even today. Yet, the world still struggles to understand why Crazy Horse was killed. That is the question Thomas Powers answers in his book, “The Killing of Crazy Horse”.

Somewhat like Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star”, Mr. Powers' narrative follows a unique structure that some critics have unfairly deemed confusing. I find it refreshing and invigorating. The opening chapter alone takes us on a whirlwind journey that includes the Fetterman Battle, Red Cloud’s killing of Bull Bear, Crazy Horse’s birth, how he got his name, and his becoming a shirt wearer. Mr. Powers discusses his choice of structure in more detail in our interview that you can read here after the jump.

We are lucky that Mr. Powers chose the death of Crazy Horse as the subject for his book; otherwise we would not experience his vivid description of a tragic episode from the American West. The extensive bibliography of the final days of Crazy Horse includes many fine books – even Thomas Buecker’s one chapter “The Final Days of Crazy Horse” from his book “Fort Robinson and the American West 1874-1899” outshines most -- but Mr. Powers, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, applies his mastery of storytelling that sets a new barometer for others to reach.

These final days are brought to life in extensive detail that grants us the chance to experience Crazy Horse’s world to its absolute fullest. Like a tragic play, its well developed characters enter stage right as they did in real life. The key actors besides Crazy Horse include interpreter Billy Garnett, George Crook, Little Big Man, Jesse Lee, Woman Dress, and Lt. William Philo Clark. Their understanding of the world, their culture, and their flawed beliefs become comprehensible: how and why whites did not like the smell of Indians and vice versa; the meaning of whipping; and why a warrior sang his death song. This stage’s backdrop is painted in bold colors like the late-night light that covers the field of carnage at the Fetterman Battlefield. Scenes are recognizable  – some not as much as with the killing of John Richard and Yellow Horse (“It wasn’t solely his own close shave that struck him; it was being trapped for two hours in smelling distance of a man looking to die.”). However, the episodes of the Black Hills commission with the defiance of Little Big Man and the 24 hours leading up to Crazy Horse’s death are told in a fresh and dramatic way. These scenes and others are complete and the tension is palpable.

The reader will be challenged to find the chapter on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It doesn’t fall into its place chronologically but the narrative flow works well as the author explains in our interview. Once you reach the battle, the experience is fresh while told from the Indian point of view. It is apparent that Mr. Powers wishes to tell us the reasons why Crazy Horse was killed, and not why Custer was rubbed out.

Over time Crazy Horse was buried and then reburied by his parents for privacy and to protect their son’s remains. As he was known in life he is known in death. Crazy Horse was a complex man. He lies somewhere on the vast plains of America’s west, but his spirit forever soars. Even though an imagined likeness of him is being carved from a mountaintop in the Black Hills, and a purported photo of him recently came to light, we still will never know for sure who Crazy Horse was. But thanks to Mr. Powers, we now know the reasons why he was killed.

“Sometimes when I go up on Bear Butte, he speaks to me from the sky. His voice is thunder, his tongue is lightning."

                           --- Matthew King

Further Reading

The Final Days of Crazy Horse by Thomas Buecker

Is This a Photo of Crazy Horse?

Fort Robinson Timeline

Visit the Fort Robinson Museum

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