"My lands are where my people lie buried." -Crazy Horse
Written by The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
August 27, 2018

Since his violent and controversial death, Crazy Horse has become almost a mythical figure of the Great Plains Indian wars.  The place and date of his birth are uncertain, but he was probably born in the early 1840s near Bear Butte on the Belle Fourche River in South Dakota.  His father was a medicine man of the Oglala, his mother a Brule.

As a youth, Crazy Horse was known as Curly, but acquired his father’s name after proving himself in combat.  He was below average height, his body lithe.  He was fair-skinned and had brown, curly hair, giving him an appearance that was noticeably different from other boys his age.  Except for his last days near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, he was out of reach of frontier photographers.

Crazy Horse’s birth had come during a great time for the Lakota people.  A division of the Sioux, the Lakota represented the largest band of the tribe.  Their domain included a giant swath of land that ran from Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains in the west.  Their contact with whites was minimal, and by the 1840s the Lakota were at the peak of their power.

In the 1850s, however, life for the Lakota began to change considerably.  As white settlers began pushing west in search of gold and a new life out on the frontier, competition for resources between these new immigrants and the Lakota created tension.  Military forts were established in parts of the Great Plains, bringing in even more white settlers and introducing diseases that took their toll on the native Indian populations.

In August 1854 everything boiled over in what became known as the Grattan Massacre.  It started when a group of white men, led by Lieutenant John Grattan, entered a Sioux camp to take prisoner the men who had killed a migrant’s cow.  After one of the white soldiers shot and killed the chief, the camp’s warriors fought back and killed Grattan and his 30 men.

The Grattan Massacre is widely considered the conflict that kicked off the First Sioux War between the United States and the Lakota.  For the still young Crazy Horse, it also helped establish what would be a lifetime of distrust for whites.  As conflicts escalated between the Lakota and the U.S., Crazy Horse was at the center of many key battles.  The aim of his fight was to retake the Lakota life he’d known as a child, when his people had full run of the Great Plains.

During the following decade, Crazy Horse joined Sitting Bull in an unyielding determination to defend the Black Hills and resist reservation control.  When the U.S. Army mounted a three-pronged military operation in 1876 to drive the “free” Plains Indians onto reservations, Crazy Horse confronted the column led by Gen. George Crook at Rosebud Creek, June 17.  He concentrated his warriors against weak spots in Crook’s lines, fighting hand in hand at times to win the day.

After the battle, the victors rode over to the Little Bighorn to join Sitting Bull’s large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne.  On the twenty-fifth, Gen. George A. Custer’s column attacked the camp, and Crazy Horse and Gall, a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, led their warriors in a pincers attack that quickly enveloped Custer’s divided cavalry and wiped it out.

Following the defeat of Custer, the U.S. Army struck back hard against the Lakota, pursuing a scorched-earth policy whose aim was to extract total surrender.  While Sitting Bull led his followers into Canada to escape the wrath of the Army, Crazy Horse continued to fight.

Crazy Horse and his followers attempted to hold out in remote areas of the Yellowstone country, but soldiers hunted them relentlessly.  But as the winter of 1877 set in and food supplies began to shorten, Crazy Horse’s followers started to abandon him.  On May 6, 1877, he rode to Fort Robinson in Nebraska, surrendered and spent the summer near Fort Robinson, awaiting the assignment to a reservation that had been promised him for surrendering.  Instructed to remain on the reservation, he defied orders that summer to put his sick wife in the care of his parents.

After his arrest, Crazy Horse was returned to Fort Robinson, where, in a struggle with the officers, he was bayoneted in the kidneys.  He passed away with his father at his side on September 5, 1877. 

At Crazy Horse Memorial, the second traditional night blast of the year is on September 6th. The blast honors the dual anniversaries of the 1877 death of Crazy Horse and of the 1908 birth of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.  The public is welcome at the night blasts. After 5:00 p.m. on September 6th the Memorial gratefully accepts three cans of food per person for the KOTA Care and Share Food Drive in lieu of the regular admission fee. Because the night blasts are among the Memorial’s most popular events, the public is advised to arrive early.

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