Fort Robinson, Nebraska, July 26th, 2017
I wake up at Fort Robinson, just a little ways east of the village of Harrison in northwest Nebraska. I drove here last night from Wounded Knee, which takes about one hour and forty-five minutes. I camped out in the backseat of the car, where I continue to keep my sleeping bag, camp pad, and coats ready to make a cozy nest, in a parking lot behind one of the museum’s lodges. It’s a soft pinkish-blue morning, a little warm with a cool breeze blowing. It rained a little last night and everything feels fresh and clean, except me. I’ll soon find a place to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into clean clothes. But right now, all I want to do is stretch my legs, drink my little thermos of coffee, and go out exploring in this calm and lovely early summer morning.
I drive the car around the fort, getting a good look at the layout and buildings until I see what I seek: a historical marker near apparent early fort buildings from the eighteenth century. I park. The grounds are lovely and well-maintained, and so are the buildings, from these rough log structures to the tidy clapboard ones painted white and green to the large lodges, halls, and offices of brick, adobe, and stone. This fort was in use more or less constantly, from its founding as Camp Robinson in 1874 as a military security outpost for the second Red Cloud Agency, to its reassignment as a training ground and quartermaster remount depot, breeding, training, and caring for up to 12,000 mules and horses at any given time prior to and for the duration of World War II. It was the regimental headquarters for the two African American black regiments in the then-segregated U.S. Army, first the Ninth Cavalry, then the Tenth, from 1887 to 1907. From 1885 to 1916, in fact, most of the troops stationed here were black.
Crazy Horse was among the most revered war leaders of the Oglala Lakota and their allies in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. He had long been successful at resisting white settlers’ and the U.S. Army’s attempts to force him onto a reservation or to adopt their ways. He was one of the bold young warriors who led a contingent of soldiers into an ambush near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. This 1866 engagement, called the Fight of the Hundred in the Hand by the Lakota and the Fetterman Fight by the United States, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later. 81 U.S. troops from Fort Phil Kearny and a few civilians lost their lives here. This battle was the culmination of a series of skirmishes and raids on unwelcome white settlers and forts such as this one set up to protect them.
For a long time previously, white and Native American people traded with one another and enjoyed mostly good relations on the Great Plains. However, settlers began flooding in in ever great numbers, disrupting buffalo migrations, depleting game, clearing timber, and putting up fences. At a certain point, the white presence came to be seen as a menace to the way of life that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those who followed them believed was divinely and wisely arranged. Why resort to grubbing in the soil and putting up fences when Wakan Tanka, the Creator or Great Spirit, had given the people such rich herds of game, which, together with the rich stands of timber and plentiful flowing water, provided all the nourishment, clothing, and shelter one could need, on vast swaths of beautiful land where the people could roam as freely as the animals? The Bozeman Trail, which cut across this good land, was a major route for these white settlers and for a time, they passed through it mostly unmolested. But when the trickle became a flood, the situation changed from a matter of hospitality and mutual benefit to one of survival. Would any reasonable person continue to welcome guests once they’ve begun to ransack their home, raid their fridge, take their most prized possessions to sell, and block their passage from room to room?
Crazy Horse was having none of it. Like Sitting Bull, he distrusted white people and disdained their way of life. It seemed stunted to him, caged, lacking soul and nobility. Unlike Sitting Bull, he made no concessions to white ways until forced to do so for the survival of his band; even then, he did the absolute minimum necessary. We don’t know what he looked like since he refused to have his picture taken; he was unimpressed with most white-made goods and would accept no bribes; he absolutely refused to visit Washington, D.C. as his fellow great chiefs had done because, as he observed, the experience changed them. They were dazzled and bewitched by what they saw, so they lost their independent spirit, their sense of who they were.
Perhaps this touched a nerve: Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two chiefs who had once been among the greatest warrior defenders of the Lakota ways but who had adopted many white ways, grew jealous of the power and influence Crazy Horse enjoyed because of his steadfast independence. They remained great leaders of their people and had come to believe that the best way to preserve the lives of their people while preserving as much of their culture as they could was to work with the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it was a hard decision to make, and I’m sure they did so with a great degree of ambivalence. So, Crazy Horse’s recalcitrance must have been that much harder to take. They treated him with suspicion and took the U.S. Army’s side against him. Even his great friend who had fought at his side at the Little Bighorn, Little Big Man, had switched loyalties. He had visited Washington, too. He was one of those that assisted in the attempt to confine Crazy Horse the day he was killed.
Crazy Horse wasn’t only an independent spirit when it came to white ways. He was very unusual within Oglala Lakota society. He was a reserved man in a gregarious culture; he dressed simply at all times, when warbonnets, elaborate jewelry, and other showy regalia were the usual garb of warriors in battle; he didn’t scalp the enemies he killed; he didn’t take a wife until he was in his thirties when most of his fellows had started a family by age twenty; though he fought bravely and ferociously, he was also methodical in battle, planning his moves carefully and stopping to shoot accurately when a whirlwind, showy style of fighting was more customary; he spoke little of his own exploits when tales of personal heroism were the usual topic of conversation after a good fight. But his fame grew because the daring and magnificence of his exploits made him an irresistible topic of conversation for others.
The Fetterman fight and the Battle of the Little Bighorn were spectacular victories for Crazy Horse and his warriors, but he would never again enjoy that level of success in battle against the white invaders. His last fight with the U.S. Army was at the Battle of Wolf Mountains, which began when the soldiers attacked his band in the dead of winter. Much of the fighting, in fact, occurred during a blizzard. The army decided to end the fighting, once and for all, to make an additional show of invincible strength by showing that they were willing and able to pursue the war even in the most extreme weather. The fighting was fierce and, though there was no decisive winner, the Lakota and Cheyenne’s losses were heavy. The camp, too, was suffering greatly from hunger and the intense cold. Crazy Horse was defeated, finally, not in battle, but by observing the suffering of his people. He, like so many great chiefs before him, surrendered so that his people, if they could not enjoy liberty, could at least survive.
Crazy Horse led his people to the Red Cloud Agency next to Fort Robinson and surrendered there on May 5th, 1877. For the next few months, rumor, gossip, accusations, negotiations, and whispers of plot and conspiracy whirled while Crazy Horse retreated ever further into himself. He was a man of action, not words, and he was impatient with all this hubbub. He had lost his only child, his beloved daughter They Are Afraid Of Her, about four years before, and her mother, his wife Black Shawl, was suffering from tuberculosis. He wanted nothing to be left alone as much as possible so long as he could not fight nor be free. But the rumors that Crazy Horse was plotting to assassinate General George Crook and start another war intensified, and Crook was determined to have him arrested, even assassinated if need be. Later inquiries showed that the rumors were unfounded, that there was no evidence that Crazy Horse planned to do otherwise than keep his word not to fight the whites anymore. Jealousy, infighting, betrayal, and poor translations, both accidental and deliberate, all contributed to the drama.
The rumors got so bad that Crazy Horse feared that he would be executed or, worse, arrested and removed to some distant land of the whites away from his people, so on September 4th, 1877, he wrapped up his sick wife, and he and a few friends fled to his old friend Spotted Tail’s agency about forty miles east. He sought protection and advice as to what the whites were thinking, and he didn’t think this would betray his promise, of surrender. After all, he was going to an agency. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee was ordered to retrieve Crazy Horse, and he escorted him back to Fort Robinson the next morning. They went first to the adjutant’s office.
Crazy Horse understood that he was to have a chance to talk things over with U.S. Army officials and clear things up. Lee was pretty sure of his innocence regarding all those rumors of plots, conspiracies, and warmongering, and promised Crazy Horse an interview with the white authorities which he didn’t have the authority to arrange. Lee hoped he could persuade the higher-ups to talk to Crazy Horse before deciding his fate, but it was not to be. Unequivocal orders came down for Crazy Horse’s immediate arrest instead. When Crazy Horse was led from the adjutant’s office into the guardhouse, he showed no sign of resistance, walking hand in hand with the captain. But when he stepped in the door, he saw the bars of the prison, and he realized this was a trap: there would be no talks, only imprisonment and then, who knows? So Crazy Horse pushed himself out the door, and as soldiers and his old friend Little Big Man tried to restrain him, he pulled out his knife and slashed Little Big Man’s arm. Another soldier near the guardhouse lowered his bayonet at the ready, and when the opportunity came, he lunged and stabbed. The blade pierced Crazy Horse’ side and into his kidney, and he fell.
After some controversy over what to do (put Crazy Horse in prison as he was, now in his death struggle? Leave him lying where he was as his friends began to hear the news and gather in anger?), he was carried back to the adjutant’s office on the red blanket he had been wearing. He refused the white man’s cot offered to him and asked to be placed on the floor instead. Crazy Horse was given morphine to ease his intense pain and he died, after lingering for long and painful hours, in the presence of his father and stepfather. He spoke forgiving words for most involved with his death except Little Big Man, who had, it seemed, not only betrayed Crazy Horse but all of his people.
Crazy Horse has become one of the most widely revered Native Americans in history, if not the most. Many recognize similarities in the life and death story of Jesus Christ to that of Crazy Horse: each was called by the supernatural to be a deliverer of his people, each beheld visions and went out to the wilderness to seek them; each was warned by the supernatural of the nature and manner of death but boldly continued his mission nonetheless; each refused to be tempted away from his purpose by a vision of earthly reward and the sight of a glorious city; each was a loner and dreamer but also a charismatic leader; each called on his people to eschew a life of promised ease and comfort to follow him on a harder road; each preferred simplicity in dress and humility in comportment; each died, falsely accused and betrayed by a friend, with a stab wound in his side. These themes resonate in our American culture generally, in which Christianity plays such a significant formative role. There are so many great Native Americans that we remember and admire but perhaps Crazy Horse remains preeminent in our collective memory for these perceived Christlike qualities. In a strictly historical sense, these similarities are exaggerated and perhaps unwarranted, but in a cultural and spiritual sense, they stand out to us because of their resonance with our most cherished beliefs and values. Native American communities too, many of whom have adopted Christianity and especially those doctrines which echo their traditional faith, perceive Crazy Horse as everything from a stalwart warrior to a messianic figure, a great symbol of hope, deliverance, traditional virtue, and spiritual renewal for their beleaguered peoples.
One last thing: three days ago, I climbed Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Sylvan Lake is nearby, and I had stopped there at a lakeside hotel to seek recommendations for the best hike to the top. One of the routes departs from the short of Sylvan Lake, but not the longer, more scenic one which I had chosen. As a teen, Crazy Horse went to Sylvan Lake with his father on a vision quest, one of the most important in his life, in which he was instructed how to paint his body with hailstones and his face with lightning for battle; to dress simply and wear his hair flowing down; to take no scalps; and generally to live a life of bravery and modest virtue. I wanted to find the exact place he went, but it would take a level of meticulous research and mapping that I had run out of time to do before I left. When I return to the Black Hills, I will make a point of seeking out that place.
Sources and inspiration:
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970
Buecker, Thomas R. ‘Final Days of Crazy Horse,’ Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield website
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984
Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016
‘Crazy Horse.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency National Historic Landmark Nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Steven Lissandrello and Sarah J. Pearce, Historic Sites Survey, National Park Service / Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service, Sep 27, 1976/Jul 20, 1983
‘Fort Robinson History‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931
Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932
Pearson, Jeffey V. ‘Nelson A. Miles, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Wolf Mountains‘. From Montana, The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society
Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010
Rose, Christina. ‘Native History: Crazy Horse Fights Final Battle,’ Indian Country Today, Jan 8, 2014
Rose, Christina. ‘New Fort Robinson Memorial Will Honor Crazy Horse and His Band,’ Indian Country Today, Jul 27, 2015
Schubert, Frank “Mickey”. ‘Fort Robinson, Nebraska (1874-1916)‘ Black Past website
‘Sites and Structures Maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website