Considered by many to be one of the greatest warriors of all time, Crazy Horse is one of the most legendary members of the Oglala Lakota, but also one of the greatest mysteries of history. Crazy Horse was prolific on the battlefield and involved in some of the most notable events in American history. Still, his true visage is hidden from anyone who was not his contemporary, and his words were few. An incredibly private person, his legend nevertheless lives on, and memorialization efforts continue into modernity.
Curly’s Young Life
Though his exact birth date is disputed, it is believed that Crazy Horse was born somewhere around 1840–1842. His father was named Crazy Horse; his mother was Rattle/Rattling Blanket Woman (Lakota: Ta-sina Hlahla Win). His birth name would be “Among the Trees,” but the child would be dubbed “Curly” in his younger years due to his unusually textured, light-colored hair. Both of his parents were of Lakota, also known as Sioux, tribes; his father the Oglala, his mother the Brule. His mother’s brother was famous Brule chief Spotted Tail (Sinte-galeshka), a man who would greatly influence the young Curly in his formative years.
Curly’s mother would die by suicide when he was four years old, fearing that she had lost favor with her husband as he took on new wives, though polygamy was a common practice among the Lakota. She had been unable to conceive another child, which may have contributed to her grief. His father went into a period of deep mourning that lasted several years. Curly would be raised by his father’s new wives and his aunt, his mother’s sister Good Looking Woman. Later, his mother’s other sister, They Are Afraid Of Her, assisted in his upbringing and taught him how to hunt.
Earning His Name
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By the time he was twelve, Curly had killed his first buffalo, an important accomplishment for a young Lakota man, given the importance of bison to the tribe’s culture. When he was about thirteen years old, Curly began participating in raids with other members of the tribe, particularly against the Crow people.
Proud of his son’s accomplishments, his father bestowed his own name, Crazy Horse, or Tasunke Witco, on his son, taking the name Waglula, or Worm, for himself. The name Crazy Horse more accurately translates to “His Horse is Crazy.” In his early teens, Crazy Horse began to get “trance visions,” and his father decided it was time to take him on a hembleca, or vision quest. The quest took place in the mountains near what is now Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills were and are considered a sacred area to the Lakota and other tribes of the Plains.
On this quest, Crazy Horse had a vision of a rider on horseback dressed for war. The warrior wore his hair loose, had a small stone in his ear, and his face was painted. His paint was yellow lightning strikes on his cheek, and white thumbprints representing hailstones on the vulnerable areas of his body. As the storm in his vision faded, a hawk flew over the warrior’s head. As Crazy Horse explained his vision to his father, Waglula, he interpreted it as a sign of his son’s future success in war. Crazy Horse decided to adopt the battle dress of the soldier in his dream, foregoing the war bonnet that some men of his tribe would wear and refusing to plait his hair. He painted his face with yellow and white designs and wore a single hawk feather in his hair. Crazy Horse was also given a sacred black stone from a medicine man named Horn Chips (Ptehe Woptuh’a), that his horse, Inyan, would wear for protection in battle.
An Able Warrior
A dedicated and admired warrior by his people and their enemies, Crazy Horse soon proved his mettle on hunting trips and raids. His first human kill is said to have been the death of a Shoshone warrior who killed a Lakota woman washing buffalo meat near a river. Throughout the 1850s and into the 60s, he participated in many fights between his people and tribes, including the Shoshone, Crow, Blackfeet, Arikara, and other historical tribal enemies.
By 1865, however, his chief concern became protecting his people and their way of life from the encroaching white Americans. In 1865, Crazy Horse was bestowed with the title Ogle Tanka Un, known in English as “Shirt Wearer.” Shirt Wearers were considered to be the best of the best of the Lakota warrior faction and looked upon as war leaders. The title was not given lightly and was based on fighting ability and leadership.
In 1866, Crazy Horse was a primary participant in the Fetterman Fight, initially known as the Fetterman Massacre, which resulted in the death of Captain William Judd Fetterman and his entire party of eighty men. In fact, Crazy Horse was a member of the decoy party that led the contingency to its demise over Lodge Trail Ridge and into an ambush. Crazy Horse would continue to be a key player in the battles that made up Red Cloud’s War from 1866-68.
The Man Behind the Warrior
Crazy Horse’s personal life was as tumultuous as the battlefields during Red Cloud’s War. In 1867, he persuaded a married woman, Black Buffalo Woman, to accompany him on a buffalo hunt, a romantic gesture for the time. She agreed, and the two set off. This was not as scandalous as it seems by modern standards, as Lakota women had the freedom to divorce their husbands as they saw fit.
Black Buffalo Woman’s husband, No Water (Mni Nica), was well known to be an alcoholic who spent a great deal of time loafing around the American forts and consorting with the white men there. When No Water returned from his latest excursion and found his wife missing, he set off after the pair. He caught up with the hunting party and attempted to shoot Crazy Horse in the chest. One of Crazy Horse’s cousins swatted at the pistol, and the bullet hit the warrior in the jaw instead. No Water rode away with members of the hunting party in hot pursuit. When he reached the safety of his own village, the elders were called upon to resolve the matter. No Water was required to give Crazy Horse three horses as recompense. His wife returned to him. Crazy Horse was stripped of the title of Shirt Wearer for having broken ethical laws. Shirt Wearers were expected to be above such tangled personal scandals.
The elders sent a young woman named Black Shawl (Tȟašína Sápa Win) to help Crazy Horse as he healed from his bullet wound. The two ended up falling in love and marrying in 1871. A daughter was born a year later, named They Are Afraid of Her, after the aunt who helped raise him. She would unfortunately pass away at two years of age, an event that would grieve Crazy Horse immensely. After the death of his daughter, he devoted his life completely to warfare, though he would take another wife, Nellie, in 1877. He would remain married to Black Shawl and Nellie until his death.
The Greasy Grass
In 1876, Crazy Horse would take a key role in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, or to the native contingency, the Battle of Greasy Grass. This battle would be a huge victory for the Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies over the United States Army. Crazy Horse and his men are credited for preventing the arrival of reinforcements to the Seventh US Cavalry and likely limiting the native casualties.
After its scandalous loss, the US government dedicated itself to attempting to round up and confine all indigenous people to reservations. Native populations, though often nomadic to begin with, would have to move constantly to avoid the white pressure and constant threats from the government.
The End of a Warrior
The year 1877 would find Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson, working with officers to negotiate a settlement for his people. He had been promised a reservation in the Powder River area but was struggling to work out the final terms. There was a great deal of hostility among the negotiators and from other members of the Lakota who had previously aligned themselves with the United States and had no love lost for Crazy Horse.
During a peace talk, Crazy Horse’s words were mistranslated, increasing tensions. Later, he decided to leave the reservation to take his sick wife to her family. Instead, his arrest was ordered. Once he realized what had befallen him and he was seized by soldiers, Crazy Horse attempted to escape. Some claim he drew a knife. Regardless, one of the soldiers lunged with his bayonet, stabbing Crazy Horse in the abdomen. Though tended to by the fort surgeon, Crazy Horse died later that night. His body was turned over to his elderly father. It was placed on a scaffold in Lakota tradition and later removed to a final resting place. This location is unknown to this day.
Remembering a Lakota Hero
Though Crazy Horse played such a prominent role in US history, he is often overlooked when studying this subject. Not only is indigenous history classically overshadowed, but a great deal remains unknown about the man himself.
The majority of Lakota history is oral. Though it started to be written down as time progressed, history often died with the history tellers. During Crazy Horse’s time, the US government aimed to erase as many Indigenous people as possible. Many of his contemporaries, such as Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), have photos to memorialize them, but Crazy Horse never allowed his photo to be taken for fear that the camera would steal part of one’s soul when the photo was snapped. He was a quiet man; though he was a leader in battle, he avoided social events and often kept to himself.
A sculpture of Crazy Horse was started in 1948 by sculptor Korczack Ziolkowski and is still under construction. The sculptor himself died in 1982, but the project continued under the watchful eye of his elderly wife (she passed away in 2014) and their children. The carving, located in the Black Hills near Mount Rushmore, depicts Crazy Horse astride his mount, arm outstretched. Without a photo reference, the sculptor inferred his likeness from descriptions provided by those who knew Crazy Horse. It is unknown when the sculpture will be completed, but a visitors’ center is already open for those wishing to view the work, and students can work on the project for college credit. It is the hope of many that this memorial immortalizes not only Crazy Horse but the Indigenous people whose lands it oversees.