It is better to die young.

CRAZY HORSE, THE NEWLY selected Shirt Wearer, was a man of middle height and light frame. His skin and his hair were both light by Sioux standards, and for a time he was even called the Light Haired Boy. Susan Bordeaux, daughter of the well-known trader, was struck by his hazel eyes when she saw him once in the mid-1870s. His manner was also strange. Among a people devoted to oratory and accustomed to endless public debate and discussion, Crazy Horse was a man of few words and those plain. In 1870 Red Cloud told a roomful of high officials in Washington, “When we first had this land we were strong, now we are melting like snow on the hillside while you are growing like spring grass.” Crazy Horse never said anything like that. When the views of his band were sought in council somebody else usually spoke for him—sometimes his uncle Little Hawk, or other leading men of his band such as Iron Hawk, Big Road, He Dog, and Iron Crow. According to his friend He Dog, “He was a very quiet man except when there was fighting.”1

Fighting was the important thing in his life, but he did not glory in war. Most Sioux scalped enemies and brought the bloody trophies home proudly, dangling from the end of a long pole, singing war songs as they rode into camp with blackened faces. But Crazy Horse as a grown man did not take scalps, nor did he tie up his horse’s tail before battle with fur, feathers, or colored cloth as other warriors did. In the summer of 1868, at the time Crazy Horse was made a Shirt Wearer, the young Billy Garnett heard him describe a vision or a dream in which a man appeared to him with instruction on how to conduct himself. In the story as Crazy Horse told it he was one day near a lake in the Rosebud country, between the Powder and the Tongue, south of the Yellowstone:

A man on horseback came out of the lake and talked with him. He told Crazy Horse not to wear a war bonnet [and] not to tie up his horse’s tail [a custom of the Sioux on going into battle]. This man from the lake told him that a horse needed his tail for use; when he jumped a stream he used his tail … and as Crazy Horse remarked in telling this, he needs his tail in summer time to brush flies. So Crazy Horse never tied his horse’s tail, never wore a war bonnet. It is said he did not paint his face like other Indians. The man from the lake told him he would never be killed by a bullet, but his death would come by being held and stabbed.2

Crazy Horse was a plain man, avoiding the personal display cultivated by so many other Sioux. He Dog’s brother Short Bull said his only ornament was a shell necklace. Few Oglala had earned more war honors. When Sioux warriors counted a coup in battle by touching or killing an enemy they won the right to wear an eagle feather; noted warriors had full bonnets of eagle feathers, sometimes with single or double trails extending to the ground. It is not known how many coups were counted by Crazy Horse, although his father once said that his son had killed thirty-seven people. But Crazy Horse never wore more than one or two feathers—sometimes the tail feathers of a spotted eagle. In battle, he sometimes attached to his hair the dried skin of a male sparrow hawk or kestrel. With the feathers he customarily placed in his hair one or two blades of grass—slough grass, according to his brother-in-law Iron Horse.3

Lieutenant William Philo Clark, chief of scouts for General Crook and one of the few white men ever to speak with Crazy Horse, was a careful observer of the Oglala and noted that they liked to carry intimately on their person things that smelled good, especially

sweet smelling roots, herbs and grasses, and frequently [they] have tiny sacks filled with something of the kind tied to the hair or fastened to a string around the neck. It is simply wonderful how many sweet-smelling grasses they will find in a country where a white man would fail to find any.4

Perhaps more important than the good smell was the power conferred by the grass itself. Crazy Horse once explained to Flying Hawk, a man he called cousin, why he wore grass in his hair:

I was sitting on a hill or rise, and something touched me on the head; I felt for it and found it was a bit of grass. I took it to look at. There was a trail nearby and I followed it. It led to water. I went into the water. There the trail ended and I sat down in the water. I was nearly out of breath. I started to rise out of the water, and when I came out I was born by my mother. When I was born I could know and see and understand for a time, but afterwards went back to it as a baby. Then I grew up naturally—at the age of seven I began to learn, and when twelve began to fight enemies. That was the reason I always refused to wear any war-dress; only a bit of grass in the hair; that was why I always was successful in battles.5

The Sioux were a sociable, gregarious people, living five to ten or more in a single lodge. In the vastness of their territory, which later brought deep loneliness to silent whites on isolated ranches, the Sioux managed to live in a perpetual crowd, calling everyone brother or cousin, uncle or aunt. For much of the year they traveled in small bands of three to six or eight lodges called tiyospaye. Periodically they gathered in huge, sprawling villages for big hunts and ceremonies. Visiting was an integral part of life. Children might stop at any lodge and expect to be fed. Women rarely seemed to have gone off on their own, men only to hunt or fast and pray. But Crazy Horse was noted for the time he spent alone—not just in lonely, high places seeking visions or guidance, like other Sioux, but on long solitary hunts, or on war trips into enemy country alone to steal horses, and sometimes going off by himself simply to think.

Early marriage was common among the Sioux; women became mothers at fifteen or sixteen, and men typically married and lived in their own lodge by the time they were twenty. But Crazy Horse was late to marry, past thirty before he took a woman to live with him, according to his friends. The year was 1870, during a time of constant warfare with neighboring tribes. About ten days after a bloody battle with the Crow near the river called Peji Sla Wakpa (Greasy Grass), Crazy Horse and a few friends, including Little Shield, one of He Dog’s numerous brothers, set off on yet another war expedition, intending to steal horses in the Crow country.

But Crazy Horse did not go alone; he took with him another man’s wife, known as Ptea Sapa Win, or Black Buffalo Woman. Everything about this affair defies easy explanation. Black Buffalo Woman was a niece of Red Cloud. She had been married long enough to be the mother of three children. She left them with different friends or relatives when she departed with Crazy Horse. Her husband, No Water, was a figure of significance, younger brother of Holy Bald Eagle and Holy Buffalo, chiefs of the Hoka Yuta, the Badger Eaters band of Oglala.6 These men, important among the Oglala but little known by whites, were often referred to as “the Twins”—Black Twin and White Twin. Black Twin was a cousin of Conquering Bear, a chief killed in the first big battle with whites in 1854. Red Cloud repeatedly sought Black Twin’s agreement before signing the 1868 treaty. Black Buffalo Woman thus belonged to a leading family among the Oglala, and taking her was bound to make many enemies.

But equally important, taking No Water’s wife violated the instructions Crazy Horse had received when he was made a Shirt Wearer. At that time he and the others had been enjoined to think first of their responsibilities to the people, and to rise above all ordinary or personal concerns, especially those involving women. The simplest explanation for Crazy Horse’s act would be love or physical passion. But it is likely that pure bravado and rivalry had something to do with it as well. Aggression was surely no small part of the character of any man who went to war as often as Crazy Horse, and it would be hard to think of a challenge more naked than riding off with another man’s wife—especially a wife connected by blood to the leading men of the tribe. “An Indian becomes great by such exploits as stealing other men’s wives,” Francis Parkman noted in 1846, while spending the summer with the Oglala. “It is a great proof of bravery … [But] if the husband claims a present, and it is given, the merit of the thing is gone.”7

By “present” Parkman means a payment, in effect a fine, the price generally being determined by elders of the tribe and usually set at one or more horses. Disputes between band or tribe members were usually settled by negotiation of this kind. But No Water did not seek the help of elders when his wife ran away with Crazy Horse.

No Water had been away. On his return he found his lodge empty, his children left with relatives. “Crazy Horse had been paying open attention to the woman for a long time,” He Dog said, “and it didn’t take No Water very long to guess where she had gone.” He gathered a group of warrior friends and set off in pursuit riding a fast mule. Along the way he stopped off at the lodge of another of He Dog’s brothers, Bad Heart Bull, who was known to have a revolver. No Water said he would like to take the revolver on a hunt, and Bad Heart Bull loaned him the gun.8

On the second night after taking Black Buffalo Woman, Crazy Horse and a small party of friends, including Little Shield, set up camp along the shore of the Powder River. That night the chief was sitting in a lodge with Little Shield when without warning the entrance flap was thrown back. No Water rushed in and said, “My friend, I have come!” Crazy Horse jumped to his feet and reached for his knife. No Water brought up the borrowed revolver, aimed directly into Crazy Horse’s face, and fired. Crazy Horse fell forward senseless into the fire.

No Water turned back out of the lodge and told his waiting friends that he had killed Crazy Horse. The group rushed off, leaving No Water’s mule behind. After they stopped to camp they built a sweat lodge, and No Water, with the aid of steam, sage, sweetgrass, prayer, and song, purified himself of Crazy Horse’s murder. Later, No Water went to speak with his brother Black Twin, who said, “Come and stay with me, and if they want to fight us we will fight.” For a time things remained tense.

The Oglala chief Yellow Bear meanwhile returned the fatal revolver to the lodge of Bad Heart Bull and reported the chief’s killing by No Water. News of the affair spread quickly and widely. A report that Crazy Horse had been shot even reached his cousin Eagle Elk in the far-off Shoshone country, where he was a member of a war party.

But Crazy Horse was not killed. His friends pulled his body from the fire and then took him to the lodge of one of his uncles, Spotted Crow. There it was discovered that the wound was not as bad as it looked, painful but not fatal. The bullet from the borrowed revolver had entered Crazy Horse’s face near his left nostril. It followed the line of teeth shattering his upper jaw, and emerged just under the back of his skull. “It took some months for him to get over it,” according to Eagle Elk.9 The angry friends of Crazy Horse wanted revenge, but while the chief recovered tempers cooled and intermediaries negotiated a bloodless resolution of the dispute.

“By good luck,” said He Dog, “there were three parties to the quarrel instead of two.”

The brothers He Dog, Little Shield, and Bad Heart Bull, from whom No Water had borrowed the revolver, were all opposed to further bloodshed. Three uncles of Crazy Horse—Spotted Crow, Ashes, and Bull Head—were for peace too. Gradually a deal was agreed. On the night of the shooting, Black Buffalo Woman had escaped under the back edge of the lodge. With the understanding that she would not be punished, several men brought her to the lodge of Bad Heart Bull, who was Black Buffalo Woman’s first cousin. Bad Heart Bull in turn obtained No Water’s agreement to accept her back in peace. After the return of his wife, No Water made a payment to Crazy Horse for shooting him. The price was substantial—three horses, including a roan and a bay, both noted for their quality. With that the affair was officially over—but of course it was not over. Some months later near the Yellowstone, No Water approached a group of Oglala who were butchering buffalo they had just killed. Seeing Crazy Horse in the group, No Water jumped on a buckskin horse tethered nearby and headed off at speed. Crazy Horse chased him right into the river waters before pulling up his horse and letting No Water escape across the Yellowstone.

After that it was clear that no camp would be big enough for both men, so No Water left his brother’s band in the north and took his family to the new Red Cloud Agency on the Platte River near Fort Laramie. From that time forward No Water lived with the Wagluhe close to the whites and was rarely seen by the Hoka Yuta and other northern Indians. But news traveled freely back and forth, and sometime later word reached the Oglala camps that Black Buffalo Woman had given birth to a fourth child, a daughter. Many people noted that the child was light-haired, like Crazy Horse, and they believed this girl was his daughter.

The consequences of this affair continued to ripple outward. The friends of No Water said magic must have been used to seduce Black Buffalo Woman. Black Twin and others threatened to kill the medicine man Horn Chips, longtime friend of Crazy Horse, accusing him of making a love charm that bewitched No Water’s wife. Horn Chips denied it but took no chances; like No Water he, too, moved south to the agency on the Platte River and kept away from the Badger band in the north. Finally the elders of the tribe, known as Short Hairs, took official note of Crazy Horse’s behavior. Stealing other men’s wives might be a pastime for Sioux men but it was forbidden to chiefs, and as a result Crazy Horse was stripped of his authority. He ceased to be a Shirt Wearer and the shirt itself was returned to the Short Hairs, who had the power to appoint a new Shirt Wearer to take Crazy Horse’s place. But this was never done. No more Shirt Wearers were appointed by the Oglala.

Going to war was the meat of life for Oglala men when young; talking about it was a principal pastime for the remainder of their lives thereafter. As late as 1931 the Yale-educated anthropologist Scudder Mekeel at Pine Ridge, in South Dakota, found He Dog, his brother Short Bull, Left Heron, and others always ready to reminisce about war. “For hours on end,” he wrote,

a group of old men will sit in a semicircle under a shade and discuss old times and the deeds of men now dead, while from mouth to mouth passes the inevitable red stone pipe filled with “red willow” tobacco … If you ask an old woman whether she would like the old times again, she will inevitably say “yes,” but will add, “if we could be free from attack by the enemy.”10

But attack by the enemy was the inevitable result of ceaseless warring by the Sioux against the Crow, the Shoshones, and the Pawnee, who retaliated in kind. It had not always been so. Two things brought perpetual war into the lives of the Plains Indians: horses, acquired as early as 1700, and the guns that soon followed. Peoples who once crept about the periphery of the plains trying to kill the occasional buffalo and growing corn in the river bottoms were suddenly empowered to go where they pleased and kill buffalo in hundreds. Their populations boomed. Feeding them required vast hunting grounds. The ceaseless raiding for horses pushed enemy peoples back out of the good hunting country. Some weaker tribes abandoned the plains altogether. “We stole the hunting grounds of the Crow because they were the best,” the Cheyenne chief Black Horse told an Army officer in July 1866. “We wanted more room. We fight the Crow because they will not take half and give us peace with the other half.”11

The radical changes wrought by horses and guns were roughly a century old when Crazy Horse was born, but they made war the great fact of Oglala life. Every family had lost people in war—men and boys far from home, women attacked while they fetched water or wood, sometimes entire tiyospaye that had the bad luck to run into a big war party when they were hunting or moving camp. When the men came back from raids successful with scalps or horses they stopped first to blacken their faces for joy with the soot of burnt grass and then approached the village singing. But if they had failed, and if men had died, they came back quietly, slipping into the camp. And sometimes a war party simply disappeared. Something might be learned of their fate after a year or two, but very often nothing was ever learned.

The old men who sat around discussing these matters while they smoked told an anthropologist on a visit to Pine Ridge, Clark Wissler, in 1902, that in the life of the Sioux there were “four great trials” that tested the quality of a man. Most difficult, they told him, was “to be left wifeless with a small child in winter.” And after that: “To be shot in the leg in midwinter and to struggle home with the blood frozen in legging and moccasin … To be without food in winter for many days … To go on the warpath, be set upon by superior numbers, driven back and wounded.” But there was still one more thing, the old men told Wissler, that surpassed all others in pain: “the loss of a young son. That the Indians say is the acme of woe.”12

With its dangers and difficulties war remained the challenge that Sioux men struggled to meet. Grant Short Bull—by the 1890s, like all of the Sioux, he had added a Christian name—explained to Scudder Mekeel what a man might properly list in his lifelong record of war honors (called “coups,” using the French word). Most praiseworthy, in Short Bull’s view, was to have served as a blota hunka or war leader, sometimes called canumpa yuha or “owns the pipe,” because a war leader always carried a pipe as the symbol of his authority. Other war honors, in descending order of praiseworthiness, were to be among the first four to strike an enemy, especially if he was alive and armed; to kill an enemy; to seize and carry off a horse that had been ridden by the enemy in battle; to steal a favorite horse tethered right in the middle of an enemy camp near its owner’s lodge; to receive a wound in battle; to rescue a friend; and so on. For Mekeel, Short Bull listed a dozen deeds of significance; he rated the taking of a scalp as the least of these, while others thought it belonged higher.

Going to war was not undertaken lightly. A man might go out alone first to pray and seek guidance before embarking on a war raid. He might ask a wicasa wakan,13 a medicine man, for help in weighing his prospects for success, or for an interpretation of a dream. Prayer was an aid to men in war, but it was not enough. Magic was also needed; protection was offered by small bags filled with special herbs, stones, or animal parts called wotawe. Even a shield required magic to be fully effective. To make shields of great power a man must himself share in the mysterious power called wakan. In later years, some elderly Oglala said that a man was permitted to make wakan shields for only four years; others said they could only make four in a lifetime. The shield itself was typically made of rawhide from the neck of the male buffalo, stretched, dried, and smoked until it was hard. Occasionally the hide for a shield was not taken from the neck but from the groin of a buffalo; left open in the center was the hole once filled by the bull’s penis. A shield fashioned in this manner was thought to embody the power and strength of the buffalo itself.14 Such shields were proof against arrows fired from a distance and, held at an angle, might even deflect a musket ball fired with a weak load.

But the real power of the shield came from its magical properties. These derived from objects attached to the shield or designs drawn on it such as dragonflies for their darting flight, or wavy and zigzag lines to represent lightning bolts, or rough drawings of bears, horses, or thunder-birds—all figures of power. Animal parts attached to the shield lent some of their power to the bearer; a dried hawk conferred speed and sharpness of eyesight, eagle feathers gave power, bear claws conveyed the ferocity of the grizzly. Shields were also believed to have the power to attract arrows, pulling them toward the shield itself and thus protecting the owner.15 Men believed that the shield’s power was not only passive, as a blocking agent, but was active as well, and could strike fear and confusion in an enemy. Other elements were added to a shield for beauty or sound: red trade cloth, ermine tails, tufts of buffalo wool, the rattling dewclaws of buffalo, elk, or a black-tailed deer. The design for a shield, or for any war equipment, would be chosen by the maker in a sacred way, with much singing and praying. Often elements of the design came in a dream, or the animals represented were powerful tokens for the man who intended to use the shield in battle. If a shield struck terror in an enemy, all the better, but its central purpose was simpler—to wrap the owner within a field of protective power, securing him from physical harm. For such a shield a man was expected to pay a horse.

The decoration of shields and shirts, sacred songs and prayers, what a man wore in his hair, the way he painted his face and horse—all protected a man going into battle. Power was what protected. Power came from the unseen world, which men visited in dreams. It was through dreams that men were told how to protect themselves. The spiritual history of Crazy Horse began with the classic quest for a vision—days spent alone in a high place without food or water. For an early site, according to one account, he chose Hill Hard to Get Around, the Lakota name for Scott’s Bluff on the south bank of the North Platte River.16 There he dreamt or saw in a vision horses and thunder beings, who told him how to prepare for war. Other instruction came from the man who rode up out of the lake, and from his friend Horn Chips. Every detail of Crazy Horse’s preparation for war had sacred significance, and in each instance they were believed to have talismanic power as well, to contribute to his success and safety. Dangers were many. So much attention to survival and protection is silent testimony to fear.

For in truth, sometimes magic failed. A sacred shield or shirt was trusted to fend off arrows and bullets, except when its power had been defeated by some infraction of sacred rules. Women in particular could dispel magic power by their touch or even their presence, especially when they were menstruating; even “the odor of their flow” was enough to render wakan objects powerless.17 But in truth there were hundreds of ways to ruin the power of magic: by forgetting to use a certain formula in prayer, or dreaming of the wrong animal, or ignoring the nighttime hooting of an owl, or eating the wrong food, or failing to carry a special stone in a particular way. To give themselves courage some men chewed the root of the calamus, then spread the mix on their skin. But that, too, was magic, and when magic failed only true courage remained. The great fact of life in Plains Indian warfare was that men were wounded and killed all the time; to run the risks anyway required acceptance of the danger, which meant acceptance of the probability of injury or death in battle. Elderly Sioux often expressed regret that they had not been killed in battle when young. “It is better to die young on the battlefield than to live to carry a cane,” one of them said in 1902.18

The embracing of death was a basic feature of the Sioux warrior code. The oldest of the men’s military societies—the Miwatani—ritualized courage by presenting certain men with a headdress of owl feathers, a rattle made of the dewclaws of deer or buffalo, and a broad sash with a hole at one end. For battle, the sash wearers would paint their bodies red, would add a black arc from one cheekbone up around the forehead and down to the other cheekbone, and would drive a stake into the ground through the hole in the end of the sash. Once staked, they were obligated to fight where they stood until they were killed or a friend pulled the stake to free them. The founder of the Miwatani was said to have received the details of its organization in a dream. Later he led a war party close to the enemy and then, alone, “galloped down to a small flat, shouted defiance at the enemy, dismounted, and staked himself down. Then he called out to the war party, ‘If you get home alive, tell the people what happened. It is better to die naked on the prairie than be wrapped up on a scaffold.’ ” 19

Like other warrior peoples Sioux men found something appealing about dying young in battle. It was not a death wish exactly, but a kind of death sentimentalism. The Sioux prayed for success and safety, but they scorned fear. They expected that sooner or later their luck would run out, the charms fail, the enemy prove too strong. To ride to war anyway required a kind of fatalism. In 1846, while traveling with the Oglala, Francis Parkman was told about “that species of desperation in which an Indian upon whom fortune frowns resolves to throw away his body, rushing desperately upon any danger that offers.” The idea was not to kill himself, but to risk all in hope of changing his luck. “If he comes off successful,” Parkman noted, “he gains great honor.”20 Crazy Horse and his war comrades told each other that they were not only looking for horses and glory; they were daring fate—they were “looking for death.”21

While Crazy Horse was recovering from his shooting by No Water, according to He Dog, his younger brother Little Hawk failed to return from a war party which had gone south of the Platte River. The character and death of this brother are sparsely recorded, but it is evident the two were close. Facing two Shoshones in battle once, Crazy Horse jumped down from his exhausted pony and turned it loose. “Take care of yourself,” he told Little Hawk. “I’ll do the fancy stunt.” But Little Hawk did not want to leave his brother and turned his own horse loose as well. What made the stunt fancy is unexplained, but the result was one dead Shoshone, one fled from the scene, and the brothers riding off to safety on the horse of the dead man.22

He Dog says Little Hawk liked fast horses and fancy dress, was rash in battle, and died when he took one risk too many. The circumstances are vague. He Dog says the brother was killed south of the Platte; Flying Hawk says it happened in the region of Utah, and Eagle Elk implies as much in reporting that Little Hawk was killed “when we were fighting the Utes,” which could have meant Utah but probably meant Colorado. The Ute country in Colorado might be described, a little loosely, as south of the Platte.23 The news of Little Hawk’s killing came as Crazy Horse was still recovering from No Water’s pistol shot, but when he was well enough to travel, sometime in the spring of 1870, he went south to find and care for his brother’s body. With him Crazy Horse brought Little Hawk’s best horse, and when he had found and prepared his brother’s body he shot the horse at the place so it might help him on his way to the spirit world. Then, according to both Flying Hawk and Eagle Elk, he proceeded to take revenge on the first victims who came his way.

Certain important words in Lakota have a wide range of related meanings. Two of these are waste (pronounced “wash-tay”) and sica (“she-cha”), whose primary meanings are good and bad. But waste can mean a great many things; women named Wastewin were good women, pretty women, or faithful, resourceful, steadfast, caring, loving, dependable, even-tempered women. Food could be waste, as could be omens, or weather, or the resolution of a problem, or the terms of a treaty, or a heart. Having a good heart meant to be happy, or full of confidence about the future, or reconciled after a quarrel. A bad heart—cante sica—could mean many things as well, but among Indians and whites on the frontier all knew that a man with a bad heart was potentially dangerous, especially when his heart was bad after a loss. There are many stories of the chaotic settling of a grievance against life or fate carried out by a man suffering the inner hurt of irreparable loss—an overwhelming desire to strike out, injure, or kill to relieve an aching or bad heart. Justice played little part in relieving a bad heart; any victim would do.

One such story was recorded by the painter George Catlin, who spent six weeks among the Sioux along the upper Missouri in 1832. There he painted a portrait of an impressive young chief of the Miniconjou named Lone Horn. About three years later Catlin was told that the chief was dead. As Catlin heard the story, Lone Horn had been in some manner responsible for the death of his only son. In his rage and grief he mounted a favorite horse, armed himself for war, and raced out of the village proclaiming that he would kill the first thing he met, “man or beast, friend or foe,” as the Sioux agent of the time reported to Catlin. On the prairie, Catlin was told, Lone Horn met an old buffalo bull of the kind hardest to frighten or kill. The chief wounded it with arrows, then charged it on horseback. In the struggle Lone Horn was dismounted, but he continued to attack the bull with his knife. Sometime later Indians from his village, alerted by the return of his wounded horse, tracked it back to the spot on the prairie where the bull and Lone Horn both lay dead. The bull had been repeatedly stabbed—a hundred times, they said. Lone Horn had been gored and trampled. Of Lone Horn’s reason for this mad combat Catlin said only that “so great was the anguish of his mind at times, that he became frantic and insane”—a succinct definition of what the Sioux meant by a bad heart.24

Flying Hawk and Eagle Elk both say that Crazy Horse took his revenge against white people, without offering much in the way of detail. Eagle Elk said that Crazy Horse had taken his revenge while on the way home, twice encountering soldiers along the way. Each time he attacked the soldiers and killed two of them. “Those are the things that aroused the people,” Eagle Elk commented, meaning that they fed the legend that was growing around Crazy Horse. Flying Hawk said Crazy Horse went alone to the place where his brother had been killed and remained there for nine days, camped at a hidden spot in the woods. “Every morning he got up and would stand and look,” Flying Hawk said. “When he saw some enemy he shot him, until he had killed enough to satisfy him, then went back home.”

The date of the killing of Little Hawk is unusually firm, since it happened while Crazy Horse was recovering from the wound inflicted by No Water. According to He Dog, the chief went south to find his brother’s body “when Red Cloud went to Washington later in the same year,” a trip that extended from April through June of 1870. Crazy Horse was seeking revenge against whites that spring, which probably explains an otherwise puzzling report in mid-April by the Fort Laramie chaplain, Alpha Wright, who described an unprovoked attack on a man named Harris as he had been riding toward the Platte to hunt ducks:

[W]hen about half a mile from the garrison, as he entered a ravine, an Indian, on a fleet pony confronted him. Though [the Indian] rode past him swiftly, not being able to check his pony, he shot [Harris] just above the ankle joint, inflicting a wound that will cause him to lose his limb. But for the speed at which the Indian was riding [Harris] would doubtless have been killed for their aim is deadly. The Indian was an Oglala chief, by the name of Crazy Horse, a great warrior, belonging to a village now on Rawhide Creek, comprising about 200 warriors, who are now on the warpath.25

This newspaper story marks the first known appearance of the name of Crazy Horse in print. But there was no war. When Crazy Horse had killed enough, Flying Hawk said, he stopped.

Crazy Horse was brave, not reckless, said his friend He Dog. “[He] always led his men himself when they went into battle and he kept well in front of them.” But it was not war honors he sought. Crazy Horse stuck close to his rifle; his goal was to kill the enemy; even in the heat of battle he would jump from his horse to steady his aim before firing. “He wanted to be sure that he hit what he aimed at,” He Dog said. “That is the kind of fighter he was. He didn’t like to start a battle unless he had it all planned out in his head and knew he was going to win. He always used good judgement and played safe. His brother and High Backbone [a close friend] were reckless. That is why they got killed.”26

But Crazy Horse could be goaded into rash acts. On the occasion when High Backbone was killed Crazy Horse was pulled first one way and then another. It came during a time of almost ceaseless warring against white and Indian enemies alike. The fall of 1870 seems a likely date. He Dog and Crazy Horse were in a large war party of sixteen men going into the Shoshone country; some said it was a revenge raid, but it may have been nothing more than a routine effort to steal horses. Included in the party was High Backbone (sometimes called Hump), a Miniconjou Sioux and a close friend of He Dog and Crazy Horse of the sort they called brother. They were all about the same age and were rivals of the friendly kind. Also in the party were the brothers Charging Raven and Painted Horse, along with Good Weasel, Bald Face Horse, and Red Feather, who was probably the youngest in the group. They were nearing a Shoshone village and had just passed a creek. Two factors made Crazy Horse hesitate. One was the weather. “It was in the fall,” said He Dog. “There was a drizzly rain turning into snow. Crazy Horse said, ‘I wonder if we can make it back to Cone Creek. I doubt if our horses can stand a fight in this slush. They sink in over their ankles.’ ” 27

But something else made him hesitate as well. On their way the war party had passed one of the sacred places where men over many years had stopped to draw on a smooth rock face.28 On it were painted many figures of men and animals. The Oglala believed that a man could foretell the future if he knew how to interpret these markings, which seemed to change with the light and the weather. The war party had stopped at the site, made an offering, and spent the night. But the next morning Crazy Horse concluded that the omens did not predict success for his friends. Men on war parties were always reading the world around them for any sign their medicine was weak or their luck had turned bad. Sometimes a war leader would carry a dried bird or animal, and at night in camp would set it on the ground in front of the place where he slept, watching it closely. “If it moved or turned over,” Clark Wissler was told, “it was a sign of bad luck and the warparty usually turned back.”29 A wise man paid attention to these omens.

But High Backbone was scornful of his friend’s hesitations. “The last time you called off a fight here,” he said to Crazy Horse. “When we got back to camp they laughed at us. You and I have our good name to think about. If you don’t care about it you can go back. But I’m going to stay here and fight.”

“It is a bad place for a fight and a bad day for it,” said Crazy Horse.

“What did we come for?” asked High Backbone. “That’s what we came for. Are you afraid?”

“Yes, we’re looking for death,” said Crazy Horse. “Let’s go.”

The fight went badly. They reached the Shoshone village in what is now the Wind River Reservation, approached at dawn, and fired into a lodge. In a moment many warriors swarmed out to oppose them, and they had to run for it. Good Weasel and High Backbone were cut off together; Good Weasel broke through a tightening circle of enemies, but High Backbone was set afoot when his horse was shot from under him. He braced to fight his enemies hand to hand. Bald Face Horse and Charging Raven saw him go down. Both were wounded later while fleeing but made it safely into some hills, where they found a spring as night fell. During the night the others joined them at the spring; Bald Face Horse died there. The last to come in was Crazy Horse. Red Feather said, “Four days later Crazy Horse and I went back to find High Backbone and bury him. We didn’t find anything but the skull and a few bones. High Backbone had been eaten by coyotes already. There weren’t any Shoshones around. When the Shoshones found out whom they had killed, they beat it.”

News of this event soon spread across the plains. High Backbone was a famous warrior, and his close friendship with Crazy Horse was well known. Many years later the noted Shoshone chief Washakie claimed on an elk robe decorated with drawings of his exploits that he had been the killer of a “big Sioux War chief” who was “Crazy Horse’s brother”—perhaps a reference to the death of High Backbone.30

The story of High Backbone’s death was soon heard by Frank Grouard, a strange figure who was a white renegade one minute and an Army scout the next. Grouard had been captured on the plains about 1870, when he was just nineteen years old. When the Sioux found him he was wearing a heavy coat and lifted his arms in surrender; they thought he looked like a bear and named him Yugata—the Grabber—Lakota vernacular for bear. After several years living with the Sioux, Grouard was invited by an uncle of Crazy Horse to join the Oglala camp. There he found a place in the lodge of He Dog, where he remained until the summer of 1875. Very probably He Dog himself told Grouard the story about High Backbone, also known as Hump. He described the attack on the Shoshone village and the running battle which ended for High Backbone at Bad Water Creek when his horse was shot from under him and he was trapped alone on the prairie. Years later Grouard recounted the story to a white journalist: “Here Hump was killed, and the Sioux said that Crazy Horse was beside himself with grief and rage. From that hour, said his nearest friends, Crazy Horse sought death.”31

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