Crazy Horse was a militant’s militant, one of the fiercest leaders of the Oglala Sioux resistance to American encroachment. Even after he surrendered his bedraggled band after a grinding U.S. Army winter campaign, he represented a threat.
There was no way he was going to live to old age on an agency reservation. No, Crazy Horse was the kind of militant who ends up getting assassinated and he did — with the connivance of his own people.
That’s the linchpin of Thomas Powers’ book “The Killing of Crazy Horse,” but the assassination itself is only the catalyst for the spinning of an epic tale of Oglala politics and warfare.
“The Killing of Crazy Horse” is wildly digressive. Powers explores the deadly machinations of Lakota politics, the sexual relations between white officers and Sioux women and the wife-stealing that created a great personal crisis in the life of the great warrior. The author maps the cross-cultural world of mixed bloods and rolls out the backstory of players like General George Crook. He even spends considerable time addressing the issue of smell: whites found the Indians offensively stinky, and for some Sioux the white-man smell of bacon and coffee was wretched. Good to know.
Fittingly enough for a man regarded by his own people as a bit of an outsider, Crazy Horse is often offstage in this narrative, an enigmatic ghost in his own story.
Meandering off on a maze of side trails doesn’t exactly make for a driving narrative, but each branch and coulee is well worth exploring.
What emerges is a world that is much more interconnected than it might appear at first glance. There was no clear line marking “Indian Country”; the “border” was porous. Many Oglala oscillated between the agencies and the wild north country, where Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and a few other militants did their best to evade the constricting world of the wasicu. And even those wild Sioux were enmeshed in the snares of commerce. They were well armed with the latest weaponry — and dependent on trade for ammunition.
Mixed bloods literally wandered between the two cultures.
It is important to understand that inter-tribal warfare, especially with the Crows, was generally much more important to the Oglala than fighting the whites. Thomas gives a good accounting of this, along with vivid descriptions of the Oglala/Crow brand of frontier partisan warfare.
If you’re reading for “what happens next,” this probably isn’t the book for you. The constant sidetracking will drive you nuts. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a way of life at a moment of existential crisis, “The Killing of Crazy Horse” is absorbing and well worth your time.