How Would Crazy Horse See His Legacy?

Perhaps no Native American is more admired for military acumen than the Lakota leader. But is that how he wanted to be remembered?

a water color illustration of a Native American
According to contemporary accounts, Crazy Horse carried himself with great humility. Illustration by Gabriella Trujillo

Crazy Horse, or Tasunke Witko, was born around 1840 in the midst of a war. The Lakota Nation had launched a concentrated expansion into the Trans-Mississippi West and was fighting several other Native nations over pasturelands, river valleys and trading privileges. A son of a wealthy, respected family, the young Crazy Horse was known as Curly Hair. His relatives described him as “full of fire.”

Curly Hair received his military training from his father and counted his first coup in 1857 by striking a Pawnee enemy—by some accounts a woman—with a stick during battle. His reputation grew in subsequent conflicts, and in 1865 he earned membership in the elite Shirt Wearers’ Society, dedicated to protecting the welfare of the Oglala tribe.

Most Americans know of Crazy Horse’s reputation as a fierce combatant, but a close study of his character by the Lakota historian Joseph M. Marshall III over the last three decades suggests that this legendary warrior, who almost always outwitted his opponents, was a surprisingly humble man. He was an introvert prone to low moods and self-doubt, who dressed plainly and shied away from social gatherings and did not participate in the Lakota ritual waktoglakapi, in which warriors recounted their exploits. Such reticence makes him something of an elusive figure, for all his fame. Indeed, he sometimes seemed to think that he was good at little else besides warfare, as Marshall found by collecting oral histories and scouring archives. Oglalas considered him a great general, but he never donned the war bonnet, the honorific feathered headgear worn by military leaders, which he would have deserved many times over.

an illustration of Crazy Horse on a United States Stamp
Jesse T. Hummingbird of the Cherokee Nation designed this stamp. National Museum of the American Indian

Intense fighting over the northern Great Plains solidified Crazy Horse’s position, along with his compatriot Red Cloud, as first among the Oglalas’ military leaders. Pious, generous with his possessions and brave in battle, Crazy Horse embodied the Lakota warrior ethos. A keen analytical observer, Crazy Horse saw how the Lakota world was rapidly changing and dedicated his life to helping Lakotas preserve their sovereignty and traditional way of living. The bison hide trade with the Americans was booming, and the Lakotas emerged as the dominant power in the heart of the continent, in the Black Hills or Paha Sapa, their mythical birthplace. Around the turn of the 20th century, Short Feather, an Oglala elder, told an American anthropologist that Oglalas of Crazy Horse’s period had been “more like the Great Spirits than any other of mankind.”

But despite a lucrative trading arrangement, the relations with Americans soon deteriorated. American settlers were already pushing into the west along the Oregon Trail, disturbing bison herds, polluting streams, spreading deadly germs and killing Indians. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, full-blown war was inevitable.

By the mid-1870s, Crazy Horse had been fighting for more than a decade for the Oglalas and the Lakota Nation. He had blocked railroad surveys, killed invading settlers and inspired his fellow warriors in the Battle of Red Buttes, the Fetterman Fight, the Wagon Box Fight and many other hostile encounters with the U.S. Army. In these confrontations, Crazy Horse designed big, idiosyncratic maneuvers using decoys and counterintuitive battle plans that confused soldiers, securing years of relative safety for his people.

a illustration of Crazy battling soldiers on horseback
Crazy Horse, center with musket, repels U.S. troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn, June 1876, in a c. 1900 illustration. The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

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This article is a selection from the November/December 2022 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The battle along the Little Bighorn River in June 1876 was Crazy Horse’s finest moment as a leader. He executed a singular tactical maneuver, riding hard nearly a mile downriver with his band of warriors to contain and devastate the American cavalrymen. Of the 700 or more U.S. troops at Little Bighorn, 263 died. George Armstrong Custer, commander of the Seventh Cavalry, perished with his men, utterly outnumbered.

Despite this decisive victory, Lakota fortunes would soon fade. Swelling overland traffic further disturbed the bison’s migratory routes, and the herds shrank dangerously. After continuing sporadic fighting with a small force in the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming, Crazy Horse finally surrendered on May 6, 1877, at Camp Robinson in Nebraska. His people, suffering from malnutrition and various illnesses, were exhausted by the U.S. Army’s relentless attacks in the wake of Little Bighorn. Some 300 families who had been traveling under his protection with him were resettled on a reservation. That September, a U.S. Army guard bayoneted Crazy Horse after he allegedly began a skirmish with the soldiers who had arrested him. Crazy Horse died from the wound at just 37 years old.

Today, Crazy Horse has pride of place among the most admired Native American leaders, alongside such towering figures as Sitting Bull, Tecumseh, Red Cloud and Geronimo. He is inevitably associated with Custer’s Last Stand and thereby embodies the determined Native American resistance to colonial expansion. The principles by which he lived still inspire the Lakota people. As Marshall writes, “The boy in me sees him as a glorious warrior. The man I’ve become sees him as someone who reluctantly answered to the call to serve.”

Over the Top?

An unlikely obsession with a Native American hero remains controversial after more than 70 years
By Brian Reed

a giant sculptor carved into a mountain with the scale model in the foreground.
Korczak Ziolkowski wanted the monument to “give back to the Indian some of his pride and create a means to keep alive his culture.” (Foreground: a scale model of the completed sculpture.) Sharpshooters / VWPics via AP Images

The Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski detonated the first blast of dynamite on Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota on June 3, 1948. His goal: create an enormous carving of Crazy Horse riding a horse triumphantly out of the mountain. It would, when finished, be the largest sculpture ever made, more than eight times the height of Egypt’s Great Sphinx of Giza. When Ziolkowski died in 1982 at 74, the Crazy Horse Memorial was still not even close to being completed.

Ziolkowski’s widow and ten children picked up the task, finally completing Crazy Horse’s face in 1998. But even then, the achievement was controversial. For one thing, Crazy Horse himself had famously refused ever to be photographed or drawn. What’s more, the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota, and the memorial is seen by many as a desecration, a view that persists especially among those who consider Crazy Horse a forebear. As the Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means lamented to me in 2007, it’s “a goddamn stone face in the Holy Land.”   

Still, the Ziolkowski family maintains that an Oglala chief, Henry Standing Bear, who died five years after Korczak struck ground, had asked the sculptor to build this likeness in the Black Hills. Today, the blasting continues. According to Ziolkowski’s grandson, Caleb Ziolkowski, who currently oversees the carving, the team has recently started doing practice runs on Crazy Horse’s fingernail.

*Editor's Note, 12/6/2022: An earlier version of this story stated that a Crazy Horse stamp designed by Jesse T. Hummingbird was issued in 1982. In fact, this print was not officially issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

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