Tour de horse: a masterly retelling of a death on the Plains.

Author:Graybill, Andrew
Position:The Killing of Crazy Horse - Book review


By Thomas Powers, Knopf, 568 pp., $30

In a sunny corridor on the second floor of the Nebraska state capitol sits a bust of Red Cloud, a renowned leader of the Oglala Sioux who, in 2000, was enshrined in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. At first blush, Red Cloud might seem out of place, given that neighboring statues pay homage to Cornhusker luminaries like novelist Willa Cather and anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Moreover, Red Cloud is best known for the eponymous war he fought against the United States between 1866 and 1868, which claimed scores of white victims. The chief, however, had a second act as a noted advocate for peace. He settled his followers on an agency in northwestern Nebraska (since relocated to South Dakota), where he worked to improve their living conditions. According to the plaque beneath his likeness, he remained "a steadfast advocate for his people" until his death in 1909.

Visitors to the capitol will find no bust of Crazy Horse, although he lived and died in Nebraska, and--like Red Cloud--was fiercely dedicated to the Oglalas. In the end, his style of leadership is harder for the public to embrace, given that Crazy Horse proved far less pliable than many Indian leaders of his time, including Sitting Bull, who toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and ultimately accepted confinement on the Standing Rock Reservation. And then, of course, there is the uncomfortable matter of his death at Camp Robinson on September 5,1877, one of the most shameful episodes in the U.S. conquest of Native America. Who wants to be reminded of that on a quiet Sunday afternoon tour through the state's monument to fair play and the rule of law?

Thomas Powers's tremendous new book serves as an admirable stand-in for the missing bust, and reminds us why, more than 130 years after his death, Crazy Horse retains such a powerful hold on the American imagination. Befitting such an unusual personality as its subject, The Killing of Crazy Horse likewise defies easy classification. Powers's study is not a biography, because the title character disappears for lengthy stretches (and as the author himself notes, historian Kingsley Bray has recently published a very satisfying portrait of the warrior). Neither is the book a full account of the Sioux struggle to resist U.S. expansion onto the Plains, for Powers largely ignores the Dakota War of 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the opening and closing chapters of that sad...

To continue reading