Crazy Horse - The Man
Crazy Horse was born as a member of the Teton Sioux tribe on Rapid Creek about 40 miles northeast of Thunderhead Mt. in the year 1843(?). He was killed at Fort Robinson by an American Indian soldier around midnight on September 5, 1877 while under a flag of truce - age 34.
Not much is known of the very early years of Crazy Horse. He would have grown up with the traditional ways of the Lakota. As a very young child he would have learned things like recognizing animals & what types of plants were edible. He would have lain in the tall grass of the prairie listening to and attuning his senses to nature, hoop toss, whipping toss game and whirling bone games with his friends. He would have been taught the ways of his people from multiple sources: his father, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and any other member of the tribe. Learning happened every day and was always something that prepared the young man for his future life as a warrior for the tribe. A boy of 4 or 5 would have already mastered the use of tomahawks, bows and horseback riding.
As with tradition Crazy Horse was not originally named Crazy Horse. He happened to start out in this world as “Curly”, aptly named this because he had wavy hair. He would be called Curly until he earned his father’s name, Tasunka Witco (Crazy Horse), by proving himself in battle. Contemporaries of Crazy Horse described him as fairer skinned than the “typical” Native American of the time, with lighter wavy hair than most. They also described his character as introspective, Crazy Horse always thought before speaking.
Crazy Horse lost his mother at age 4. Raised by his father and step mothers he was again faced with great tragedy at the young age of 12 where he witnessed an attack by Lieutenant J.L. Grattan on a Brule-Oglala encampment. The altercation seems to have started as a misunderstanding while Conquering Bear negotiated with Grattan over a lost cow from a passing homesteader. No one knows who fired the first shots but this attack on the Lakota people provided the fuel needed to create a flame of war that lasted for over 23 years.
Once Crazy Horse was old enough he would have set out on one of the most important rites of passage to a Lakota warrior…the Vision Quest (Hanblecheya – which is defined as "crying for a visions "or "to pray for a spiritual experience"). This rite of passage would have given Crazy Horse guidance on his path in life. He would have gone alone into the hills for four days without food or water and cried for a dream to the great spirits.
“Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world…. It was this vision that gave him his great power, for when he went into a fight, he had only to think of that world to be in it again, so that he could go through anything and not be hurt.” - Black Elk
By the time Crazy Horse was in his mid-teens he was already a full-fledged warrior. His bravery and prowess in battle were well-known by the Lakota people. He rode into battle with a single hawk feather in his hair, a rock behind his ear and a lightning symbol on his face. The symbols and rituals that went into preparing for war was meant to allow the warrior to draw power and protect themselves from harm during battle.
In 1876 Crazy Horse led a band of Lakota warriors against Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry battalion. They called this the Battle of the Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand. Custer, 9 officers and 280 enlisted men all lay dead after the fighting was over. According to tribes who participated in the battle 32 Indians were killed. Although Crazy Horse is often given credit for killing General George A. Custer, there is no proof that he was the one who took Custer’s last breath. It is known that without Crazy Horse and his followers the battle’s outcome would have been much different as he was integral in stopping reinforcements from arriving.
It was after the Battle of the Little Big Horn that the United States Government would send scouts to round up any Northern Plains tribes who resisted. This forced many Indian Nations to move across the country always followed by soldiers until starvation or exposure would force them to surrender. This is how Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces & Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota were forced into submission.
In 1877, under a flag of truce, Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson. Negotiations with the U.S. Military leaders stationed at the fort broke down. Eye witnesses blame the breakdown in negotiations on the translator who incorrectly translated what Crazy Horse said. Crazy Horse was quickly escorted toward the jail. Once he realized that the commanding officers were planning on imprisoning him, he struggled and drew his knife. Little Big Man, friend and fellow warrior of Crazy Horse, tried to restrain him. As Crazy Horse continued to free himself, an Indian infantry guard made a successful lunge with a bayonet and mortally wounded the great warrior. Crazy Horse died shortly after the mortal wound was inflicted. There are different accounts putting the date of his death around midnight September 5, 1877.
It is a well-known fact that Crazy Horse refused to have his picture or likeness taken. Crazy Horse lived under the assumption that by taking a picture you were taking a part of his soul and would shorten his life. The popular response to photograph requests would be, “Would you imprison my shadow too?”. The likeness that Korczak created for Crazy Horse Memorial was developed by descriptions from survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse the man. Korczak, decided to create a monument that captured what Crazy Horse stood for instead of a true likeness based on the descriptions provided to honor the great warrior chief’s wishes. With his left hand thrown out pointing in answer to the derisive question asked by a Cavalry man, “Where are your lands now?” he replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
- Indian Museum of North America®, 2008 Korczak’s Heritage, Inc.
- Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, 2004 Mari Sandoz
- Crazy Horse (Tashunka Witko) Great Warrior of the Oglalas (Teaton Sioux), 2003 Harold P. Howard
- Crazy Horse A Lakota’s Life, 1956 Kingsley M. Bray,
- www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3755.html, www.nps.gov/libi/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm
A Letter written by Korczak Ziolkowski in 1949, "Why Crazy Horse was chosen by the Native Americans":
"Crazy Horse was born on Rapid Creek in 1843. He was killed when he was only 34 years of age, around midnight September 5, 1877. He was stabbed in the back by an American Indian soldier at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, while he was under a flag of truce. During his life he was a great leader to his people. He did not have an equal as a warrior or chief. He gave submissive allegiance to no man, White or Indian, and claimed his inalienable rights as an Indian to wander at will over the hunting grounds of his people. He never registered at any agency; never touched the pen; never signed a treaty. He wanted only peace and a way of living for his people without having to live in the whiteman’s reservations.
Crazy Horse defended his people and their way of life in the only manner he knew, but only after he saw the treaty of 1868 broken. This treaty, signed by the President of the United States said “As long as the rivers run and the grasses grow and trees bear leaves, Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, will forever and ever be the sacred land of the Indians.” He took to the warpath only after he saw his friend Conquering Bear killed; only after he saw the failure of the government agents to bring required treaty guarantees such as meat, clothing, tents and necessities for existence. In battle the Sioux leader would rally his warriors with the cry, “It is a good day to fight-it is a good day to die.”
In 1877 Crazy Horse’s wife, staying at Fort Robinson, was dying of tuberculosis. His only child, a daughter, had recently died of this same disease. Under a guarantee of safe conduct both into and out of the Fort, Crazy Horse agreed to confer with the Commanding Officers. History has proven since that the intention never was to let Crazy Horse go free, but rather to ship him to the Dry Tortugas in Florida. The chief had no notion of what was in store for him until he entered the building and saw the bars on the windows. Right then he was face to face with the fate the whiteman had intended for him. He drew a knife (the fact that he had not been disarmed is good proof that he never surrendered) and attempted to get his Indian friends outside of the stockade. Little Big Man, friend and warrior companion of Crazy Horse, hoping to avoid trouble, seized Crazy Horse’s arms. In struggling to free himself, Crazy Horse slashed Little Big Man’s wrist. At this point an infantry man of the guard made a successful lunge with a bayonet and Crazy Horse fell, mortally wounded.
In the minds of the Indians today, the life and death of Crazy Horse parallels the tragic history of the redman since the whiteman invaded their homes and lands. One of the many great and patriotic Indian heroes, Crazy Horse’s tenacity of purpose, his modest life, his unfailing courage, his tragic death sets him apart and above all others.” - Korczak Ziolkowski, Sc. May, 1949