Remembering Tasunke Witko –Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota Leader
The following article is the first of a periodic chronology that will be published by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation on the history of the Memorial – a story that remains in a state of becoming. Much of this initial piece of history is a brief remembrance of the Memorial Foundation’s namesake, Tasunke Witko, Crazy Horse, based on information by Joseph M. Marshall III’s The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History.
“The dream began at a small lake, a small still lake. Bursting upward from the blue calmness, a horse and its rider broke through the surface and rode out across the land. The rider was a man, a slender man who wore his hair loose. A stone was tied behind his left ear, a reddish brown stone. A lightning mark was painted across one side of his face. On his bare chest were blue hailstones. Behind them to the west as they galloped was a dark, rolling cloud rising higher and higher . . . .” (Joseph M. Marshall III, The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History, pages 71-2). So begins one telling of the dream of Tasunke Witko, Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse. Since his death, various renderings of this dream, some believe it to be a vision, have become a substantial part of the Lakota oral narrative tradition and part of a growing body of written scholarship surrounding Crazy Horse.
Tasunke Witko, known in his childhood as Jiji or Light Hair, was born in the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, into a time of great change for the Lakota, as well as all indigenous peoples of North America. He was born into a time when cultures clashed and land became an issue of deadly contention. He was born into a time when the Sacred Hoop of the Lakota and countless other nations was threatened and stressed to point of fracture. How he responded to the challenges of the time, ultimately putting the needs of his people above his own, would forever embed him and his legacy in American history.
The son of a medicine man, Crazy Horse spent the early years of his life with the women of his tiospaye or family. During this time, he played games with other children, observed the way of life around him, and on occasion found mischief. Regardless of what he did or where he went, Crazy Horse was always learning – a characteristic that would help him grow into a man of great character, a warrior and military strategist of the highest caliber, a hero to many, and, eventually, a legend to all. Also, supporting this growth were close relationships to male mentors such as High Back Bone and Spotted Tail – men of great regard among the Lakota, who taught Crazy Horse from an early age about the ways of a warrior, hunter, and leader. Ultimately, the natural ability with which he had been blessed, the love and direction of the women in his tiospaye, and the mentorship of great men, enabled Crazy Horse to become a leader among his people.
During his life, he was a Thunder Dreamer and, for a short time, a Shirt Wearer – both revered statuses within Lakota culture. And while he did rise to greatness, the journey was not always easy. Over the course of his life, Crazy Horse endured great hardships – losing his mother, his brother, several of his friends and mentors, and his daughter. The love of his life married another man – leaving him with unrequited feelings, though he eventually married another woman. In addition to suffering the physical loss of loved ones and unrequited feelings, Crazy Horse struggled to face the potential loss of a traditional way of life for his people – a way of life and a people for whom he fought fiercely. He was a friend to Sitting Bull and a contemporary of Red Cloud. He fought in the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand and in the Battle of Greasy Grass, known to the non-Indian world as the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He experienced the fallout of both the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaties, though he refused to sign any treaty or live at an agency.
His exploits on and off the battlefield would forever plant him within oral tradition, within the larger cultural consciousness of the American people, and create a legacy of inspiration for generations of people hence. Consequently, in the early part of the twentieth century Crazy Horse’s maternal cousin, Henry Standing Bear would feel compelled to honor his cousin and at the same time seek to teach the world that American Indians had great leaders too, leading him and several of his fellow Lakota leaders to extend an invitation to award-winning sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to come to the Black Hills and carve a memorial .