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Who Was Crazy Horse?

Crazy Bull in Robert Redford's The West
Crazy Horse as depicted in Robert Redford's American West

Still revered as a hero amongst the Lakota Sioux, Crazy Horse was a central figure in Native American resistance to white settlers encroaching on their land. Alongside chief Sitting Bull, he helped engineer General Custer’s historic defeat at Little Bighorn – the Sioux’s greatest victory in the American Indian Wars.

Born between 1840 and 1845 in South Dakota, Crazy Horse was originally named Cha-O-Ha ("In the Wilderness" or "Among the Trees"). His mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, died when he was four years old. His father was originally “Crazy Horse”. Some sources claim as Cha-O-Ha grew and proved his strength, his father passed his name onto his son and took a new one, Waglula (Worm). Others say Cha-O-Ha became “Crazy Horse” after having a vision.

With his fair skin and brown curly hair, Crazy Horse stood out in his tribe. He was said to be quiet and a loner, but known throughout his life for his kindness to the poor, elderly and children, and regarded highly amongst his people. He was born into the Lakota, the largest band within the Sioux tribe, at a time of great prosperity. They held vast territory between the Missouri River and Western Big Horn Mountains.

White settlers began arriving in the 1850s, searching for gold and a new life out on the frontier, bringing disease and competing for space and resources.

Tensions were running high, when in August 1854, Lieutenant John Grattan led 29 men into Crazy Horse’s camp, demanding they hand over tribesmen who had killed one of their cows. When chief Conquering Bear refused, a soldier shot him dead, and the Sioux instantly killed Grattan and his companions. What came to be known as the “Grattan massacre” marked the beginning of the First Sioux War.

After witnessing Conquering Bear’s murder, the teenaged Crazy Horse was said to have had visions telling him he would be his people’s protector. In the visions, he also apparently learnt he would not be harmed in battle if he dressed modestly, his tribesmen weren’t touching him and he didn’t take any scalps or war trophies. As it turned out, Crazy Horse was known throughout his life for his uncanny ability to escape injury when fighting.

Crazy Horse’s reputation as a warrior grew through the 1850s and 60s. He fought enemy tribes (the Crow, Shoshone, Pawnee, Blackfeet, and Arikara) and allied with other tribes against the US in conflicts like the 1865 Battle of Red Buttes.

In 1865, Crazy Horse was named Ogle Tanka Un (Shirt Wearer, or war leader) both for his fighting skills and his kindness to his people.

In December 1866, Crazy Horse helped lay the crucial decoy in the Fetterman massacre, which, at that time, was the US army’s worst defeat on the Great Plains. 

In 1870, Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman (said to be the love of his life) ran away together. Her husband, No Water, pursued them and shot Crazy Horse with a pistol, leaving a scar on his face. Tribe elders resolved the conflict between the two men, but Crazy Horse was stripped of his Shirt Wearer-title.

 

Crazy Horse married Black Shawl, a fellow Oglala Lakota, in 1871. They had a daughter, They Are Afraid Of Her, Crazy Horse’s only confirmed child, in the same year, who died in 1873.

On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in a surprise attack on General George Crook's regiment and their Crow and Shoshone allies. The so-called Battle of the Rosebud delayed Crook's joining with General Custer and his 7th Calvary, laying the way for Custer’s spectacular defeat at Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse fought alongside Sitting Bull in the battle itself, which was, arguably, the Native Americans’ greatest ever victory against the US.

Following Custer’s defeat, the US Army doubled down on the Lakota. Sitting Bull and his followers fled to Canada but Crazy Horse stayed and continued fighting.

In the winter of early 1877, as he and his band struggled with cold and hunger. On May 5, 1877, he surrendered with his remaining followers at Fort Robinson in Nebraska.

Soon after his arrival at Fort Robinson, Crazy Horse took a second wife, Nellie Larrabee (Laravie), who lived with him and Black Shawl. Also known as “Chi Chi” or “Brown Eyes Woman”, Nellie was believed to be spying on Crazy Horse for the US military, and some argue she was significant in his final downfall.

That year, the Lakota held the Last Sun Dance in Crazy Horse’s honour, celebrating his Little Bighorn victory and praying for him in his current predicament. Five of Crazy Horse’s warrior cousins sacrificed blood and flesh for him.

Fear and suspicions grew between Crazy Horse and the US military, fuelled, at least partly, by flawed translation and misunderstandings. On 4th September, Crazy Horse fled with Black Shawl, who had tuberculosis.

He was arrested and brought back to Fort Robinson, where, during a struggle with the officers, he was bayoneted in the kidneys. Crazy Horse passed away on September 5, 1877. His father buried him at an undisclosed location, and his final resting place remains unknown today.