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Biography Crazy Horse

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Crazy Horse was the adult name of a charismatic Sioux warrior who is still remembered with reverence by the Sioux nation.  Born around the year 1840, and dying in the year 1877, Cray Horse participated in many of the major battles between the Sioux and the US Army in the twilight period of the Sioux as a free ranging people of the northern plains. Dying around the same time as freedom died for the Sioux, Crazy Horse was legendary for his bravery in battle, but historians really know very little about him.

As a child in the Oglala band of the Sioux, he was known as “light skinned boy” because of his light colored skin, or “His Horses Looking” because he was good at capturing and breaking wild horses, or in time, “Curly” for no apparent reason.  Curly apparently liked to wander out over the plains alone, which troubled his father, who was named Crazy Horse. At age thirteen, the boy went out onto the plains alone to fast and to have a spirit vision. Curly was successful, eventually dreaming of a horseman floating above the ground. The horseman told the boy to throw dust over his horse before going into battle, and to wear only a single feather instead of a headdress. He was instructed to wear a stone behind his ear in battle. Never keep anything for yourself, said the horseman. Although his dream was considered sort of a basic, boring vision, he tried to live up to it for the rest of his life. He dressed plainly, fought with almost foolhardy courage, and devoted himself to feeding and supporting the poor among the Sioux.

When the boy went into his first battle at age sixteen, a fight against the Arapaho tribe, he displayed no fear of physical danger, killing two of the enemy. When he returned from the fight, his father gave up his name to him. From now on, he said, you will be Crazy Horse, or Ta-Shunka-Witco in the Sioux language.

As Crazy Horse entered adulthood, the free range days began to fade away for his people. The Sioux were completely dependent on buffalo hunting for their survival, and white hunters began to slaughter the great herds. The Civil War reduced the pressure for a few years because the soldiers were needed elsewhere, but then after 1865 the settlers and the army came back in greater numbers. The Black Hills area, the heart of Sioux territories, were targeted by white miners who believed there might be gold there.  After much fighting, Chief Red Cloud managed to obtain a treaty promising the land to the Sioux for eternity. But eternity only lasted a few years- whites broke the treaty and flooded in, taking the Black Hills away from the Sioux.

Every year there were fewer buffalo.   Cavalry units under George Custer and others raided Native American camps, making no distinction between the bands that had attacked whites and those who had not. Crazy Horse became an important war leader in the occasional fights with whites.  He did not become an important political leader, however. He stayed away from whites except for fighting them. As a consequence, Crazy horse never came to Washington, D.C.  like Spotted Tail and other Sioux chiefs- and never had a chance to see the overwhelming numbers and unbeatable technology of the whites.  Crazy Horse as a consequence never really had a chance to recognize that fighting the whites was thing that had no future.

The fighting with the whites reached its peak in 1876, as General Crook and General Custer each led a column into the Sioux Nation.  Crazy Horse and around a thousand warriors met Crook’s detachment at the Rosebud River, and in a day of hard fighting drove the cavalry back.  Crazy Horse and the other warriors then rode north to the enormous camp of Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn River.  Custer then foolishly ordered his soldiers to attack the camp in three separate detachments.  Custer’s soldiers were surrounded and wiped out by Sioux and Cheyenne led by Crazy Horse and others such as Chief Gall. The other two units under Reno and Benteen had some casualties, but survived.  It was the last victory for the Sioux warriors.  The big camp broke up into smaller units, and the cavalry, which was enraged by the death of Custer, chased the Sioux bands into the freezing winter blizzards.

Crazy Horse was soon forced to give up on the free range life, because the women and children in his band who depended on him had nothing to eat.  When he came in to the reservation area in 1877, the Army and Indian Agents debated what to do about him. In the end, it was decided to lock him up and send him to prison in Florida, where he would not longer be able to serve as a symbol to his people. The final chapter of Crazy Horse’s life bore some similarities to that of Jesus of Nazareth. As was true of the Jews under Roman rule, the Sioux were a demoralized and tormented people who were being forced to accept the unendurable- the end of their way of life.  As was true of the Jews of Roman Jerusalem, the Sioux had conflicted feelings as an occupied people. Some of the Sioux admired Crazy Horse, while others were terrified that his presence could unleash a wave of deadly violence from the white Army.   When the attempt was made to imprison him, Little Big Man, a fellow Sioux warrior, tried to grab him. Crazy Horse struggled with him and pulled a knife.  A US army private then bayoneted Crazy Horse, wounding him mortally. Crazy Horse died less than a day later.

The Sioux people remember Crazy Horse as deadly in battle, but also as a man who devoted much of his life to the care and support of the needy among his people. He seemed to have had an intense spiritual connection with the tallgrass buffalo plains, an ecosystem that no longer exists except in isolated pockets. His lack of interest in political matters and his strong character traits likely made it impossible for him to physically survive as a captive warrior. It is therefore unlikely that he had a future after the defeat of the Sioux that followed the Custer fight, even had he been able to survive the act of imprisonment.

More about this author: Chris Wiegard

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