On this day in 1877, Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse is fatally bayoneted by a cavalry soldier in a guardhouse at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. A year earlier, Crazy Horse was among the Sioux leaders who defeated George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. The battle, in which 265 members of the Seventh Cavalry, including Custer, were killed, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army in its long history of warfare with the Native Americans.
Crazy Horse was born c. 1845 to parents from two tribes of the Lakota division of the Sioux, his father being an Oglala and his mother a Miniconjou. His father, born in 1810, was also named Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was named Cha-O-Ha (“In the Wilderness” or “Among the Trees”) at birth, meaning he was one with nature. His mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, born 1814, gave him the nickname “Curly” or “Light Hair,” as his light curly hair resembled her own. She died when Crazy Horse was only four years old.
Crazy Horse began experiencing visions at an early age, following a deadly skirmish. In 1854, their camp was entered by Lt. John Lawrence Grattan and 29 other U.S. troopers, who intended to arrest a Miniconjou man for having stolen a cow. The cow had wandered into the camp, and after a short time someone butchered it and passed the meat out among the people. When the soldiers fatally shot Chief Conquering Bear, the Lakota returned fire, killing all 30 soldiers and a civilian interpreter in what was later called the Grattan massacre.
Crazy Horse’s vision first took him to the South where, in Lakota spirituality, one goes upon death. He was brought back and was taken to the West in the direction of the wakiyans (thunder beings). He was given a medicine bundle to protect him for life. One of his animal protectors would be the white owl which, according to Lakota spirituality, would give extended life.
He was also shown his “face paint” for battle, to consist of a yellow lightning bolt down the left side of his face, and white powder. His face paint was similar to that of his father, who used a red lightning strike down the right side of his face and three red hailstones on his forehead. Crazy Horse put no make-up on his forehead and did not wear a war bonnet. Lastly, he was given a sacred song that is still sung by the Oglala people today and he was told he would be a protector of his people.
Crazy Horse was known to have a personality characterized by aloofness, shyness, modesty and lonesomeness. He was generous to the poor, the elderly, and children. In Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt relays “He was a queer man and would go about the village without noticing people or saying anything. In his own teepee he would joke, and when he was on the warpath with a small party, he would joke to make his warriors feel good. But around the village he hardly ever noticed anybody, except little children. All the Lakotas like to dance and sing; but he never joined a dance, and they say nobody ever heard him sing. But everybody liked him, and they would do anything he wanted or go anywhere he said.”
Playing an enormous role in multiple engagements and the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, historian Ian Frazier’s words best capture Crazy Horse’s legacy: “Even the most basic outline of his life shows how great he was, because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he may have surrendered . . . (but) he was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured. His dislike of the oncoming civilization was prophetic. Unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the encounter.”
And here the lesson of nobility endeth.