The Killing of Crazy Horse

Pulizer Prize-winning historian Thomas Powers sets the record straight once and for all about the death of the messianic Oglala chief.

The Killing of Crazy Horse By Thomas Powers Knopf 592 pp., $30

Woman Dress told Billy Garnett, the half-Sioux interpreter, that Crazy Horse was planning to murder Gen. George Crook that very morning at the council meeting. Woman Dress said he had learned of the plot from Lone Bear, who had learned it from his younger brother Little Wolf, who had been eavesdropping outside Crazy Horse’s tepee. But it was a lie. (Little Wolf and Lone Bear busted Woman Dress to Billy Garnett on the Pine Ridge Reservation 10 years after the fact.)

Nonetheless, Billy immediately sent word to General Crook, and the council meeting was canceled. As a result, Crazy Horse’s fate was sealed. Two days later, on Sept. 5, 1877, as Crazy Horse approached a guardhouse at the far end of the Fort Robinson parade ground that he’d been instructed to enter, a dense crowd had gathered to watch him. There were hundreds of Indians loyal to Crazy Horse on one side and hundreds more loyal to other chiefs – and antagonistic toward Crazy Horse – on the other side. Meanwhile, in the mix, hundreds of white soldiers still rabid about the massacre at Little Big Horn, looked on.

All assembled knew what the enigmatic chief was walking into – all except Crazy Horse himself. Only when someone in the crowd shouted: “It’s the jail!” did Crazy Horse understand that he was a prisoner.

What happened next – whether he was stabbed in the back with a bayonet thrust by the officer on duty outside the guardhouse, or with his own knife wielded by the invidious Little Big Man or some other jealous Indian – is not what’s important. What is important, what is wakan (sacred) about the killing of Crazy Horse, is the event itself.

And as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, historian, novelist, polymath, Thomas Powers, puts it: “Nothing quite opens up history like an event – the interplay of a large cast pushing a conflict to a moment of decision. It is the event that gives history its narrative backbone.”

Powers’s new book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, sets the record straight once and for all about the death of the messianic Oglala chief. “The Killing of Crazy Horse” is nothing short of a masterpiece. Complex and compelling, lurid and lyrical, tragic and transcendent from start to finish, “The Killing of Crazy Horse” pulses and throbs like the far-off beat of a war drum growing ever louder and faster.

Starting with the interplay of characters, Powers illuminates the major and minor players, deftly exposing their thoughts, actions, and motivations into a colorful and captivating read. There is the most magnificent cast of characters, too – greenhorn reporters, two-faced interpreters, broken-down soldiers, fork-tongued Indians. They’re all 100 percent pure Wild West described in high definition right down to their leather boots, buffalo robes, and “pungent, musty odor, something like that of combined smoke and grease.”

Interpreters, those indispensable intermediaries, are at the center of this great Western tale. First on Powers’s list is Billy Garnett, the half-Sioux, half-Virginia blueblood “perfectly reliable and thoroughly conversant with the Indian language.” Garnett always seems to be right where the action is. He was there that fateful day not 10 paces from Crazy Horse when he was stabbed, and he was present at most of the great council meetings translating back and forth for both the white and the red chiefs. There are other important interpreters, too, like Frank Grouard, a man who looked Indian but was, in fact, half-Polynesian and half white. Grouard was General Crook’s favorite scout, but in the end neither side could trust him.

If Powers isn’t fluent in Lakota, this reader will eat his hat. And his ability to keep track of each Indian – some having two and three names – and his or her blood connection is a feat of investigative prestidigitation that boggles the brain. For example: “White Thunder Woman was a sister of the Oglala chief Smoke, and of Walks as She Thinks, the mother of Red Cloud, which meant that her daughter Mary was connected by blood or marriage to half the leading men of the northern Oglala....” With an anthropologist’s eye, Powers describes in colorful detail the fascinating rituals of the Plains Indians like the smoking of the peace pipe, the making of war bundles, and the savage Sun Dance, an act that he believes, “shouted defiance, a readiness, even a longing to die.”

Soldiers, many recycled from the recently ended Civil War, abound. But Powers, ever the fair historian (“Heisenberg’s War,” “The Man Who Kept the Secrets,” “The War At Home,” etc.), spends the lion’s share of his printed capital on exposing the character and setting the military record straight on the commander of the Department of the Platte, Gen. George Crook.

Described as “noncommunicative, watchful, silent, contained,” Crook was nonetheless a true warrior who fought not only in the Civil War but also against the Snakes of the Pacific Northwest and the Apaches of Arizona. He had a saying: “I never start anyplace but what I like to get there,” and by book’s end the reader is fully informed of Crooks’s military exploits. (For instance, he wasn’t really victorious at the Battle of the Redbud, it was a draw; but he alone won the day for the Union side at the war-changing Battle of Cedar Creek outside Winchester, Va. Once a friend of the self-aggrandizing commanding general of the US Army, Phil Sheridan, he never forgave his old boss for failing to give him credit for his role in his official report about the 1864 battle.

In his introduction, Powers explains why he wrote “The Killing of Crazy Horse”: “[T]he seed of a book can often be traced back a long way. This one began with a childhood passion for Indians.” A few paragraphs later he describes how this seed sprouted while reading Billy Garnett’s account of the chief’s killing while lying abed in a motel room at Crow Agency, Mont., just two miles from the spot where Crazy Horse annihilated Gen. George Armstrong Custer and 200 of his cavalry soldiers on a hillside overlooking the Little Bighorn River.

This reviewer is predisposed to believe that the sprouting of that seed was the work of the Oglala warrior’s sicun (spirit), who fertilized Powers with his whispered ni (breath), selecting him to tell the world that Crazy Horse died victorious, that “too much talk killed him,” and that his war bundle (chekpa) and body have never been found.

Richard Horan’s book, “SEEDS: One Man’s Quest to Gather and Grow Tree Seeds from the Homes of America’s Famous Writers. From Faulkner to Muir, Wharton to Welty” is due out on Earth Day, 2011.

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