Native American Biography

Crazy Horse Appearing

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Below is Chapter 5 of the life story of the great Lakota Chief. 

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above: A herd of Native American wild mustangs

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Crazy Horse Appearing

by Judee Shipman

Chapter 5

In that time and place, the only way to get food and horses was to just go out and get them, killing, if necessary, anyone who tried to stop you. Larger tribes needed many more horses than they could trade for, so raiding was common practice on the plains. There was no central organization, just scattered groups of villagers deciding to raid horses. 

Raiding kept a man in prime physical condition for the hunt, as warring and hunting required exactly the same skills. The Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoes were raiders, too. All the larger tribes were raiders. Every attack was justified as necessity, or as revenge for a previous attack. 

Raiding was not a moral decision. Raiding was taken completely for granted as a way of life. Unlike the Iroquois, whose Great Law of Peace was based on socially responsible behavior, the ways of the plains were based on survival of the fittest. Street justice. Safety in numbers. 

The people didn't see it as stealing. Horses were sacred free spirits, part of the landscape, part of Grandmother Earth, which of course nobody owned. Horses were as free as the cool blue waters from which all men drank, or the plants they gathered, or the rocks they climbed, or the animals they hunted for food. 

Anyway, the Oglalas outnumbered the smaller tribes, so their horses were easy to get. 

Someday, the smaller tribes would get even. 

Horses were indispensable commodities for Lakota tribes. Just as you must have money to make money, the people needed horses to catch buffalo. Just as time is money, so were horses. And so it was, from time to time, that small groups of brave young tribesmen would converge on the camps of enemy bands, for the purpose of “acquiring” horses (or retrieving horses that had been “acquired” from them). 

In ancient times, the Oglalas lived in woodlands east of the Big River, along the verdant shores of many lakes. They had no horses, only dogs. Pony drags were dog drags, and Crazy Horse may have even had an ancestor named Crazy Dog. Birds and small game were shot with oversized bows and stone arrows. Mammoths were surrounded and killed by bands of thirty men or more. The enemies of the Nation were other Indian tribes with no particular competitive edge. They fought each other over hunting grounds. 

For Crazy Horse and the people he knew, ancient times were about eighty years ago. Crazy Horse knew village elders who still remembered the Walking Days. Yet, Crazy Horse was among the last generation of Lakota horsemen born in tipis lined with buffalo hide. 

The Oglalas were a technologically advanced civilization. Back in the woodlands, one among them had discovered a method of curing hardwood bows with fire instead of smoke, drastically reducing the curing time from five years to five days. 

When the Ojibwa traded for guns from the French in the late 1700s, they used those guns to chase the Oglalas and their bows clear across the Big (Missouri) River. That was where the Oglalas found horses, and called them Shunkawakan - Sacred Dogs. 

The Oglalas traded bows for horses, and before long they were a full-fledged Horse Nation. All those extra bows came in handy. Now bison were caught by the many. With food so easy to get, the Oglala population flourished. For a few decades, the Oglalas were a very rich and powerful tribe. 

Above: A ledger drawing of Native American warriors

image credit: prairie

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The three most honored professions among the people were hunter, warrior, and scout. Hump and Crazy Horse excelled at all three. Their futures looked brighter than stars. 

At the age of fourteen, following a four-day fast on a hilltop in Scottsbluff, Crazy Horse painted red lightning on his face and blue hailstones on his chest. In his hair he placed two eagle feathers and carefully secured a flat, polished stone behind his ear. Then he rode for the first time as an adult warrior in a raid against the Shoshones, as the Oglala people were dangerously low on horses. 

In his very first battle, Crazy Horse, adorned as the rider of his dream, approached the battleground with Hump and Lone Bear. Each man carried a stone club, a big sharp knife, a good strong bow, and a quiver full of arrows. When Hump asked if he was ready, Crazy Horse said, and would say many times again to bring out the bravest in the braves, 

Consider the helpless ones at home. Good day to fight. Good day to die.” 

Then “Hoka Hey!” they yelled, charging forth, far in front of the rest of their men. The others could not have kept up with them if they'd wanted to, and little did they want to. 

Crazy Horse was fearless from the start. He may have hoped he wouldn't have to kill anyone, but he was there to protect his men no matter what. The village needed horses. His people had to eat. Anyone who tried to stop them would be taking food from the mouths of their children. Crazy Horse never started a fight, but he would finish one if needed. 

Soon enough, two Shoshone warriors attacked him. Crazy Horse dispatched them both with two adroitly aimed swings of his war club. Turning to ride away, he noticed Hump and the others urging him to count coup and get the scalps. 

Refusal was never an option. 

As fast as he could manage, Crazy Horse dismounted, approached the bodies and smacked them with a stick, then drew a hunting knife from a sheath attached to his waistband and reached forth, just as an enemy arrow pierced his thigh. His pony got spooked and ran. Crazy Horse narrowly escaped with his life by hobbling down a hillside. Being so young, he would soon recover from his injury. 

Later, warriors danced the campfires in their usual swaggering manner, celebrating yet another battle victory. As Crazy Horse limped away from it all, villagers smiled. Children played. Braves saluted when they saw him. The familiar face of a pretty child approached. Black Buffalo Girl smiled at Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse smiled back. 

Later, alone and elsewhere, Crazy Horse reviewed what he had learned from his first battle: For starters, scalping and counting coup were a waste of precious time that might be better spent in attack and rescue efforts. Also, dismounting before shooting improved your aim, allowing a man to hit his targets more often. This would save time, energy and ammunition. 

From that day on, Crazy Horse would always ride bravely into battle, far in front of the rest. But he never mentioned the events of the day, never again collected scalps, always let the others count coup, and gave all his captured ponies to the needy young boys who had none. 

Crazy Horse never had his eye on a prize. His goal always was to excel at a task. To do what he could for the others. To work, then back silently away. Never did he strive to earn an Eagle Feather. 

Above: 19th century ledger drawing of a Native American village

image credit:

It was around the time of his first battles that Crazy Horse was given the name by which he is known. To the people, names were treasured family heirlooms handed down through generations, bestowed like precious gems upon the loved ones who had earned them. To whites, names were as fickle as the weather on the plains, causing much unwelcome confusion for future white historians. 

Crazy Horse was once called Zizi, a name that translates roughly into “Light-Fuzzy-Yellow-Hair.” As a boy, his soft, wispy hair was compared to the down on a baby duckling. The name “Crazy Horse” was a gift from his father who, in giving up his own name to his son, renamed himself Waglula. In Lakota language, Crazy Horse's name was Tashunka Witko. The nearest English translation would be The-Man-With-The-Enchanted-Horse. 

The name implied a special affinity for horses. His outstanding horsemanship was one reason warriors always invited Crazy Horse to join them on raids. His outstanding bravery was another. 

Old Lakota customs exemplified an almost perfect democracy. Lakota warriors were invited to fight, and were free to decline the invitation. Compare this to the U.S. Army policy, by which soldiers were forced into service, then convicted, court-martialed, and executed for failing to follow an order. 

Yet, somehow, the Plainsmen created formidable resistance despite the lack of enforced military discipline. Despite inadequate weaponry, short supplies, and outdated technology. Despite that they were astronomically outnumbered. Despite the time-consuming, self-imposed disadvantages of counting coup, collecting scalps, and dragging away the dead. 

One time, during a desperate battle against a band of Absaroka braves, Crazy Horse immediately established himself by closely following Hump, who was widely regarded as one of the bravest of all Lakota warriors. Both men drew arsenals of enemy fire until Hump slightly overstepped the Daring Line. Suddenly, a Crow warrior shot Hump's horse right out from under him. The enemy immediately rushed in for the kill.

Hump was surrounded before he hit the ground. 

Crazy Horse rushed to the rescue, charging his powerful five-year-old gelding face-to-face with the enemy gang. He had a Medusa-like effect on all who beheld him. On looking him in the eye, the faces of the enemy registered stunned, unknowing stares, like a family of raccoons in the headlights.

Crazy Horse dismounted, hoisted his cousin onto his horse, jumped on behind him, and disappeared faster than a white man's dollar, leaving his embarrassed opponents flailing in the dust, cursing the air, wondering what the Hell just happened. 

Back at the camp, Hump boasted of his shy-spoken cousin to all who would listen. 

I was as good as dead!” Hump declared. “You would be crying now!” 

Decades down the road, when the scant survivors were all living on Agency land, a group of Oglalas were boasting of their hero, Crazy Horse, the greatest of all red men who ever rode the earth, when a nearby Absaroka took the opportunity to tease the them: 

Actually, we knew him better than you did,” said the Crow. “He was always closer to us than he was to you,

Crazy Horse never mentioned saving the life of his cousin, seeing no reason to speak what was already known. He could hold his head high at the Laramie trading post, where a white trader his own age was already a masterful painter.

The young man's name was John Dare Howland. The people called him Jack. The animals he painted on Oglala tipis looked as real as their reflections in a lake. He rendered bison so lifelike on the canvas of their flesh that hunters were tempted to shoot an arrow through them. 

Oglala Chiefs invited Jack on buffalo hunts, where he must have witnessed with amazement the mad hunting skills of Crazy Horse, his friend and fellow prodigy. 

Ominously, they found only bulls that year.

The Nation's rise and fall came much too quickly. The bison population was vanishing fast. 

Above: Native American 'Buffalo Hunt' by John Dare Howland


Throughout his tragically short life, Crazy Horse maintained his hunting prowess, but only went to battle when asked. Not so fortunately for him, he was always asked, and the warriors could always count on him to lead them. 

Off the battlefield, Crazy Horse devoted much of his time to developing or improving equestrian techniques for achieving optimal performance in the battle and the hunt. In this, his greatest talent was compassion. He saw the horses as partners, friends, and coworkers, rather than mere moving objects, and treated them accordingly. 

He is credited with being the first to eliminate the arbitrary custom of tying the horses' tails into knots before battle. He reasoned that the horses need their tails for balance when climbing, and for swatting flies in the sweltering summer heat. 

He always kept his horses fresh and ready, by never riding the same one for too long. Because he rode so fast and switched horses often, it was assumed that he wore them out quickly.

In fact, just the opposite is true.

Where other men were reluctant to part with their favorites, Crazy Horse would turn loose his most obedient mustang in favor of a well-rested, wild pony. They say he could ride any horse. 

They say he became one with horses. 

Among his most clever equestrian innovations was the “strong medicine” that rendered both horse and rider invisible. He taught horses to respond to hand gestures so they became silent and motionless on signed command.

Then, just before a battle, he applied dirt from a mole hill and pieces of straw to the mane and tail of his horse. Then he did the same to his own hair.

The people called it “Invisible Medicine.” The French called it “camouflage.” Whatever you called it, Crazy Horse was a Master of disguise. He could stand with his horse ten steps away, unnoticed by anyone, friend or foe.

For these and many reasons more, the horses he rode looked healthier, ran faster, covered greater distances, and generally outlasted other horses. 

And so it was his horses seemed enchanted.17 

Above: A Native American ledger drawing of a battle

by Howling Wolf


Spring of 1859 saw an abundance of bison in western Montana, a territory ruled by the Blackfeet tribes. According to their agent, Major Vaughan, the Blackfeet supplied 22,000 robes to the trading posts that year. Major Vaughan went to Washington to arrange, according to the the treaty, “$15,000 appropriated annually for a farm for these Indians.”

As of today, there is no such place as Blackfeet Farm, but it is said that the descendants of those tenacious braves are still working on it. 

That year, the Oglalas fared worse than other tribes. It was Many-Navajo-Blankets-Winter, when the pressing poverty caused by a lack of hides forced Oglala villagers to trade practically everything they owned for coarse, hand-woven wool blankets from the traders. So desperate was their situation that they were compelled to eat their own sacred horses to avoid starving. 

The weather had not been exceptionally cold, but deep snow had fallen, and lately not everyone was as hardworking as they might have been. Many had put their faith in the promised U.S. government provisions. Some were too old or too ill to hunt. Others just had too much whiskey lying around. 

Game was alarmingly scarce, and finding food was harder than ever before. Some of Red Cloud's followers were called the Bad-Faces, on account of that shameful winter when many of them had selfishly refused to hunt, complaining like babies that the air was too cold, the wind too strong, the snows too deep.

Instead, they just hung around the lodges of those who did hunt, trying their best to look downcast (bad-faced), until someone gave them food just to make them go away. This tactic worked so well among their generous kind that too many villagers made it a habit, and the delicate structure of society began to crumble. 

The following winter, food became scarce in the Brule camp when two key providers, Chief Big-Crow and Chief Tied-Braid, were killed by Crow warriors in the Hills. Then two sons of Black Shield went hunting for the village and were also killed by Crows. The white encroachment had, for centuries already, been squeezing the tribes closer together, leading to wars more frequent and more deadly than before. 

A council meeting was hastily assembled at the Brule camp. The village's Headmen connected several tipis into one big lodge, arranging every item with care and cushioning the ground with fresh sage. Over time, almost everyone who should have been there had arrived. Together, they smoked and talked of how best to feed their families for the winter. Crazy Horse was not among them. No one could say where he was. 

He moves to his own drumbeat,” said one of the council members. 

He does exactly as he pleases,” issued another. 

Does he not understand the importance of this meeting?” a third man wondered aloud. 

How much meat have YOU brought home?” asked Chief Lone Horn of the third man. 

Yes, and how many horses?” added Lone Horn's brother, Chief Elk-Voice-Walking. 

Crazy Horse's Uncle-Chiefs then stared at the men who had spoken until they looked to their feet in shame. 

Meanwhile, a few miles away, a small herd of about forty bison found a clearing shielded by low-lying rock formations. The snow was less deep here, so the animals at once began dislodging it with their hooves and chewing on the cold, wet grasses underneath. The head of the herd looked around and scanned the surrounding rocks, then carefully sniffed the air before allowing himself to eat. 

Back at the council lodge, Lone Horn was making an announcement: 

We will make Buffalo Medicine,” he said. 

Amid the skeptical murmurings of the council crowd, Chief Lone-Horn blessed a white buffalo hide and improvised a Buffalo Medicine song. Hump (the elder) filled a pipe with willow bark. Elk-Voice-Walking adorned the room with ten painted buffalo skulls. 

Meanwhile, a few miles distant, the bison were munching contentedly on the frozen grasses in the warming winter sun under a still blue sky, when suddenly one of them fell dead. By the time the others had a chance to turn their giant heads around, another one bit the dust. The head of the herd looked around at the rocks, his eyes ablaze with panic. How could a rock be... moving??? 

The bison chief bleated a piercing red alert. The animals turned and ran, but not before a third one had fallen. The next three were struck when they stumbled over the first three in trying to escape. Then the rock came alive and out ran Crazy Horse from a downwind direction on his Invisible Medicine pony, which had to leap over one of the bodies to give chase. 

Back at the council lodge, Lone-Horn, Hump, and ElkVoice-Walking continued singing hunting songs and issuing smoke-filled prayers to the One Great Spirit. 

Meanwhile, a stampeding buffalo herd raced across the plains. Crazy Horse, bringing up the rear, managed to slay four more before running out of arrows. The rest got away. When the daring deed was done, he glanced around. Ten bison lay scattered about the land. He had to count them twice to make sure he wasn't dreaming. 

Crazy Horse took none of the meat home with him, unwilling to keep more for himself than any other villager would have. Unwilling to eat before the others would eat. So he told some Brule villagers he met on the way home where the meat was, and asked them to bring it back to camp. As the men rode excitedly away, Crazy Horse called after them and issued a special request. 

Later, back at the lodge, the grumbling council members remained hotly engaged in a discussion about how to get some food, while Lone-Horn, Hump, and Elk-VoiceWalking were finishing up their ceremony. Suddenly, a messenger trudged into the room with ten fresh bison tongues on a blanket he dragged behind him. After a brief moment of eye-popping disbelief, the Council exploded into undulating rounds of applause. 

On learning what had happened, the braves hailed Crazy Horse as a hero without equal. Surely, now they would hear all about it. How proudly he would finally explain his hunting prowess to the cheering crowd! How gladly he would accept many fine gifts from the Chiefs! 

Brothers Lone-Horn, Hump, and Elk-Voice-Walking, by now well into their forties, might have wished they could have done more, but the hunt was for younger men. Still, they were proud to death of their wonderful nephew. His bragging rights were well deserved and a long time coming, to say the least. 

A while later, Crazy Horse entered the Council lodge, bypassed the Council crowd with barely a nod, and stepped right up to his Uncle Chiefs, whose mouths were too full of food to speak. 

Uncles,” said Crazy Horse, “How highly I praise you! Your Medicine worked!” 

Then Crazy Horse left the Council lodge, having nothing else to say, and having yet to taste his first bite of food. As Crazy Horse wandered down the dirt road of the village, a beautiful and familiar young maiden approached. She had fine curves and smiled at him with twinkling eyes. 

You are a very brave young man,” said Black Buffalo Girl, who had recently arranged her braids demurely toward the front, and was now Black Buffalo Woman. 

Her words shot an arrow clean through his heart, and struck a chord he did not recognize. She had changed, all of a sudden. Crazy Horse watched her walk away. 

Crazy Horse's most spectacular deed to date was rewarded with the highest tribal honor – traditionally given to the hunter who brought the most meat. The winning hunter was granted the privilege of giving all of the meat away, personally serving it to widows, old folks, babies, and others unable to hunt for themselves.

When every last bite of food was given away, someone could be counted on to offer the winning hunter a meal. No meal ever tasted better than the meal given to a hunter being honored in this way. 

At long last, sitting with his family, Crazy Horse sank his teeth into a juicy hunk of bison flesh infused with the earthy, smokey flavoring that comes only from fresh buffalo meat slow-cooked in a dirt oven. 

Above: A Native American Plains Indian ledger drawing of 

Crazy Horse's most famous buffalo hunt


Bison flesh was super-lean and took a very long time to spoil. So the women made big batches of wasna from the meat left over. They mixed dried bison bits with kidney fat and berries, then mashed it together jerky-style and formed it into tough, tasty meatballs.

Wasna, also known as pemmican, was a staple food during winter moons, and a favorite snack of hungry travelers who longed for a home-cooked meal. 

Despite his unwillingness to keep extra meat for himself, Crazy Horse still managed to sneak a slice of fresh bison to his pet coyote. Some among the villagers might have been shocked if they'd caught him doing this. Coyotes were creatures you pelted with rocks to keep them away from the meat. 

But this coyote was Crazy Horse's pet, as loyal and playful as a pampered family dog. When the meat was held high, the creature would stand on its hind legs and hop from foot to foot like a ceremonial Heyoka.

The villagers found it strange to have a coyote wandering among them, but out of respect for Crazy Horse, they let it be.

If anyone asked, Crazy Horse pretended he had no idea why he was being followed around camp by a dancing coyote.18 

For a whole year following, the bison were so plentiful they left tracks outside Brule tipis when the occupants were away. 

Crazy Horse Appearing

Native American Bio: Crazy Horse Appearing - Ch-1

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Native American Bio: Crazy Horse Appearing - Appx

Native American Bio: Crazy Horse Appearing - Main

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