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Historically Speaking: The Defiant American

Crazy Horse: The Noble Defiant American

By Tom Morrow

In describing Crazy Horse, the famed Oglala Lakota Sioux leader, author Chris Hedges observed, “There are few resistance figures in American history as noble as Crazy Horse. His ferocity of spirit remains a guiding light for all who seek lives of defiance.”

Arguably, Crazy Horse was our most famous Native American leader. Names such as Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Pontiac, Black Hawk, Keokuk, Geronimo and Cochise are iconic, but Crazy Horse captured the imagination the most. He was never defeated in battle.

Born circa 1840, he led a combined tribal army against the U.S. Army in 1876-77, fighting land grabs settlers and miners were taking from territories reserved exclusively for his people. The highlight was Crazy Horse’s 1876 victory at the Battle at the Little Big Horn in eastern Montana.

Igniting Crazy Horse’s wrath was when a company of 29 troopers entered a camp to arrest an Indian for stealing a rancher’s cow. The army claimed theft, but the Indians maintained the animal wandered into the camp. It was slaughtered and the meat distributed among the people. A fight broke out and the Indians killed all of the troopers.

The unrest culminated in Crazy Horse’s surprise attack on Gen. George Crook’s force of 1,000 cavalry and infantry at the Battle of Rosebud. The Indian leader led a combined tribal army of 1,500 Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Crook’s defeat prevented him from supporting Lt. Col. George Armstrong’s 7th Cavalry as they began looking for Crazy Horse. A week of searching ended in a surprise attack on June 25 1876, as Crazy Horse surrounded Custer and 200-plus troopers at the Little Big Horn River. Custer and his entire unit were wiped out.

On Jan. 8, 1877, Crazy Horse’s warriors fought their last major battle against the U.S. Cavalry at Wolf Mountain in the Montana Territory. But after enduring starvation during a long winter, Crazy Horse surrendered to protect his followers. They went to Fort Robinson in Nebraska. What followed was an unfortunate misinterpretations of statements made by Crazy Horse.

In August 1877, officers at Camp Robinson received word the Nez Perce had broken out in Idaho and were fleeing toward Canada. When asked to join the Army against the Nez Perce, Crazy Horse objected, saying he had promised to remain at peace when he surrendered. When pressed, Crazy Horse finally agreed, saying he would fight “till all the Nez Perce were killed.” But his words were misinterpreted by a scout, who reported Crazy Horse had said he would “go north and fight until not a white man is left.”

With the growing trouble, General Crook was ordered to stop at Fort Robinson where he was incorrectly informed Crazy Horse had said he intended to kill the general. Crook ordered Crazy Horse’s arrest and departed.

On the morning of Sept. 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was escorted to Fort Robinson where he was arrested. Crazy Horse struggled with a guard and was stabbed with a bayonet. He died late that night.

The war chief’s body was turned over to his elderly parents, who moved it to a location which remains unknown to this day.

No other Native American has caught the imagination of so many. Accordingly, the nation’s largest mountain sculpture, begun in the early 1950s, is being carved into his image near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills.


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