Saturday, December 01, 2012

Crazy Horse: "Strange Man" of the Great Plains

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I'm currently reading Larry McMurtry's 1999 biography of the Oglala Lakota warrior and mystic Crazy Horse (ca. 1840-1877). It's a compelling and well-written account of the now legendary figure who, during his relatively short lifetime, was known by his people as "Our Strange Man."

Although I don't particularly relate to the warrior aspect of Crazy Horse, I do respect and admire his courage, humility, and genuine care and concern for his people. By all accounts, he was a man of few words and somewhat of a loner. Writes McMurtry:

There was something of the hermit, the eremite, in him; he was known to walk through his own camp without appearing to notice anybody. When, late in his life, his family began to worry about his tendency to wander off alone in dangerous country, he told them not to worry, there were plenty of caves and holes he could live in; and had it not been for his sense of responsibility to the people of his village – who knew that he would do his best to feed them – he might well have slipped away and lived in those caves and holes.


The image of Crazy Horse walking through his camp without appearing to notice anybody brings to mind Robbie Robertson's reference to Crazy Horse in his song "Ghost Dance": Crazy Horse was a mystic / He knew the secret of the trance.

McMurtry also notes that Crazy Horse encountered whites only when he could no longer avoid them. "For almost the whole of his life he avoided all parleys, councils, treaty sessions, and any meeting of an administrative or political nature, not merely with whites but with his own people as well," writes McMurtry.

According to McMurtry, the Lakota (or Sioux) were a "tolerant, non-compulsive people." Individuals were allowed to "follow their own bent," and differing abilities were recognized and accepted. This was just as well, since Crazy Horse was indifferent to tribal norms. He ignored, for instance, the sundance and, writes McMurtry, "didn't bother with any of the ordeals of purification that many young Sioux men underwent." Orthodoxy was never Crazy Horse's way. Yet another reason, no doubt, for my admiration and interest in his life and story. I also appreciate and resonate with author Chris Hedges' observation that Crazy Horse's "ferocity of spirit remains a guiding light for all who seek lives of defiance."

My introduction to the unorthodox and defiant life of the 'strange man of the Oglalas' was through John Irvin's 1996 telemovie Crazy Horse, starring renowned actor, dancer, director and choreographer Michael Greyeyes. Filmed on location in South Dakota, the film has been described as a "gripping story with a fine cast" and praised for its attention to detail.  In The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History, historian and author Joseph M. Marshall III is critical of movie portrayals of Crazy Horse. Yet he concedes that Irvins' film "came the closest" in credibly portraying the life and story of the 'strange man of the Oglalas.'


Above: Members of the cast of Crazy Horse (1996).
From left: Wes Studi (as Red Cloud), Buffalo Child, Michael Greyeyes

(as Crazy Horse), Steve Reevis, and Nathaniel Arcand (as Little Hawk).
The film also features Irene Bedard as Black Buffalo Woman,
August Schellenberg as Sitting Bull, Peter Horton as

George Armstrong Custer, and Sheri Foster as Black Shawl.


Like Crazy Horse, I grew up in a landscape dominated by expanses of earth and sky. And, as I discuss here, this expansiveness undoubtedly influenced and shaped my spirituality and theological outlook. In my case, this landscape is the Liverpool Plains of the Namoi River valley (right), situated in northwest New South Wales, Australia. It’s a predominately flat area; the tallest hills rising no more than 400-500 metres (1,300-1,600 ft) above sea level. The climate is hot in summer, mild in winter – and dry. Rainstorms in catchment areas, however, occasionally cause flooding of the Namoi River. My hometown of Gunnedah and its surrounding areas were originally inhabited by indigenous Australians who spoke the Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) language. The area now occupied by the town was settled by Europeans in 1833, ten years or so before the birth of Crazy Horse half way around the world, in an area close to the border of Wyoming and South Dakota.


Above: My "bone country."


As I read Larry McMurtry's biography of Crazy Horse I'm reminded of the deplorable ways that the indigenous populations of both Australia and North America have been treated by their respective European colonizers. Yet I'm also reminded of the beauty of the landscape of my childhood and youth – a landscape that I feel very much claims me, despite my present geographical distance from it. McMurtry's evocative writing has also strengthened my resolve to one day visit those parts of the Great Plains of America where Crazy Horse lived and died.

Following is an excerpt from McMurtry's book in which he eloquently writes about the Great Plains and Crazy Horse's connection to them.


[The] great American steppe was Crazy Horse's home during his whole life. His attachment to these plains never weakened; he was born to those great skies and those long horizons, and he kept to them as long as he could. . . . [H]e refused to be chased from his home country. The range that he traveled in his life was spacious, but it wasn't infinite. He went south a few times to Kansas, west as far as the Bighorn Mountains, north and east to the Missouri country; but the land where he roamed and fought mainly was plains country: Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, eastern Montana. Rarely if ever was he east of the 100th meridian, that important line on the map that told whites where the Great American Desert began.

It wasn't desert, of course – Geronimo lived in a desert. Crazy Horse lived near the center of the great grassland steppe that stretched from Texas well into Canada. Then and now, the central plains were the least populated part of the United States. To those not attuned to their subtleties the plains are merely monotonous emptiness. But to those who love them, the plains are endlessly fascinating, a place where the constant interplay of land and sky is always dramatic; gloomy sometimes, but more often uplifting. Despite their unpopularity with the general public, many writers have penned rhapsodies to the plains, and the eyes of many artists – from Catlin and Bodmer on – have been challenged by them.

The American plains, like all the world's great steppes, are the natural home for grazing animals and nomadic peoples, and are particularly ideal for certain large ruminants such as the buffalo. The plains have never welcomed either the plow or the fence, The balance of the grasses, the wildlife, and the climate is delicate, easily disturbed. Not merely Crazy Horse but all the Plains Indians recognized with dismay that the whites were indifferent to this balance and likely to destroy it.

Nomads, of course, can be wanton too; like most humans they are inclined to the binge. But in the main, they held a sacramental attitude toward the earth and its creatures, whereas the white attitude from the first was essentially commercial.

. . . Crazy Horse was not unaware of mountains. He knew the Bighorns and the Black Hills, was born near and died not far from Bear Butte. But for most of his life he was a man of the Great Plains. His rivers were the Platte, the Niobrara, the Powder, the Yellowstone, the Tongue, the Little Missouri. He lived under one of the most generous skies in the world. Again, many commentators have recognized that such skies, hovering over the rolling land, with the horizons a mystery, with mirages frequent, makes the plains a place that calls forth imaginings. Those long vistas, those splendid clouds tempt the imagination as the plains of Castile tempted Don Quixote. When Plains people die, white or Indian, they speak of a going up, for where would the spirit go except into the sky? It is easy on the plains to imagine things not seen, worlds not known. Crazy Horse, in his wanderings over the summer plains, would have seen many mirages, which perhaps encouraged him in his belief that this world, with its buffalo and horses, is only the shadow of the real world. He was in a way a prairie Platonist, seeing an ideal of which the day's events were only a shadow. His belief in the two worlds seems to have made him exceptionally cautious where the camera is concerned. He didn't want any white man to snatch his shadow, coax it into a little box. He wouldn't even allow his friend Dr. McGillycuddy, the doctor who so faithfully treated his wife Black Shawl for tuberculosis, to take his picture. He believed it would shorten his life; and his life did indeed end not long after he came to the place where cameras – the little boxes that snatched shadows – were common.

This strange man of the Oglalas was always a man of the central plains. He would not be driven from them. . . . He was determined to hold to the country that was his own, and in the end, that is what he did.


Above: Michael Greyeyes as Crazy Horse
in John Irvin's 1996 telemovie Crazy Horse.


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
"Something Sacred Dwells There"
Michael Greyeyes on Temperance as a Philosophy for Survival
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paul Coelho

Image 1: EllasEdge.
Image 2: A portrait of Crazy Horse drawn in 1934 by a sketch artist interviewing Crazy Horse's sister, who claimed it was an accurate image.
Image 3: VHS cover of John Irvin's Crazy Horse (1996).
Image 4: Photographer unknown.
Images 5-6: Michael J. Bayly.
Image 7: Cover of Larry McMurtry's Crazy Horse: A Life. Design by Paul Buckley. Painting by Stephen Johnson.
Image 8: A still from John Irvin's Crazy Horse (1996).


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