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above: A map of the former Lakota territory.
image credit: lakotaindependence.wordpress.com
by Judee Shipman
For Crazy Horse, childhood's end came suddenly on August 19th, 1854. It was The Winter Chief Brave Bear Was Killed, at the time of year when cherries were blackest and the moon loomed full overhead like low hanging fruit pulling earthward.
Near the Brule campsite in Northern Wyoming, a famished Minneconjou man met a group of Mormon travelers on the road. With them he traded what little he had for a part-lame, half-starved ox, then shepherded the bony creature to the peaceful village of Chief Brave Bear. The animal was killed, cooked and eaten with a speed and efficiency only the starving can achieve.
A short while later, the traveler who had owned the ox complained to U.S. soldiers and demanded it back. Apparently, the ox had been traded without his permission. On learning the animal's fate, the owner insisted on punishment to whoever “stole” the ox.
The Hunkpapa camp was only about five miles away from the Brule camp. Crazy Horse happened to be visiting his mother's relatives at the time. Others from the Hunkpapa village milled around the camp as well. Some were awaiting the annual distribution of goods, as promised by the treaty of 1851. Others hoped to do a little trading – buffalo robes and tobacco for metal conveniences like muskets, kettles, knives and pans. And gun powder for the muskets. And spirit water.
So lustfully tempting were the white man's things that some of the people had already set up camp right outside the walls of the fort. They became known as The Loafers. The Crazy Horse family stayed as far away as possible, only visiting the Fort when they wanted to trade.
The goods had arrived days earlier, but were still locked in the warehouse of the American Fur Company, pending “approval” from the fort's Commander. This was nothing new. Since the treaty council three years earlier, many Lakota people had died awaiting provisions that never arrived, or arrived too late, packed with bug-bitten, disease-infested blankets, and food too spoiled for human consumption. The hardest hit had been the elderly and very small children, but crushing poverty was taking its toll on everyone now.
On this day, the people were once again forced to wait. Many had failed to hunt for food, in expectation of the promised provisions. Some had not had a meal for several weeks. Their bellies growled like tormented wildcats.
Early morning, a gang of soldiers led by Lieutenant Grattan went straight from an all-night drinking binge to Brave Bear's Brule campsite. Some of the soldiers issued menacing, mocking war whoops, clapping their hands to their mouths as they circled the village. Provoking no response, they became bored with this activity and invited themselves in.
Boldly, Grattan and his interpreter approached Chief Brave Bear. Obeying Grattan's overzealous command, his troops got busy erecting their cannons and aiming them at the lodges of these peaceful villagers, “just in case.” Suddenly, Grattan had to have noticed that these Lakota warriors outnumbered his troops by about twenty-five to one.
“Lucia!” barked the inexperienced 24-year-old Lieutenant to his incompetent interpreter, while holding his hungover head in both hands. Having just barely graduated from West Point, finishing near the bottom of his class, this assignment was Grattan's first (and last) position of command.
“Explain!” said Grattan to the interpreter. Grattan probably meant something like, “Make up some reason why we came and get us the Hell out of this death trap.” But the interpreter misunderstood him.
“We WANT the dirty, thieving, Injun SCUM who STOLE the OX!” bellowed the interpreter, in a voice much too loud for someone standing so near, and speaking of something so trivial.
Reeking of spirit water, eyes agleam with alcoholic madness, the interpreter stared coldly at Chief Brave Bear as if daring him to argue, then reached into his inner breast pocket, pulled out a half-full bottle of scotch, popped the top off with his teeth, and gulped down the contents like water from a mineral spring. Grattan yanked the flask from the interpreter's hand and smashed it over his saddle. Brave Bear thought a while and got an idea:
“I will discuss this with my advisers,” said Brave Bear.
The Chief walked away and spoke at length with Man-Afraid and a few others, then returned to the waiting soldiers.
“We do not know who brought the ox,” said the Bear Chief.
“Well. You better learn who brought the ox reeeeal quick!” said the interpreter in a low, menacing growl.
Brave Bear thought on it some more and got another idea:
“I will discuss this with my advisers,” said Brave Bear.
Again, the Chief walked away, spoke with his advisers, and returned a few minutes later.
“The man who brought the ox,” he politely explained, “does not wish to go with you.”
Some of the soldiers laughed.
“Of COURSE he does not WISH to go with us!” said the interpreter. “That's why we call it being ARRESTED, you dumb, dirty Indian.”
Brave Bear remained diplomatic.
“The man who brought the ox is not Brule. He is Minneconjou. I am Brule. I will offer...”
“Shut up, asshole!” spat the interpreter.
Augustine Lucia12 was a mixed-blood Iowa Indian who knew very few words in Lakota language, and a few too many in English. Desperate to support his wife and child, Augustine Lucia had accepted a job for which he was superbly under qualified. But a decent man does what needs to be done and a decent man he was, not that anyone could tell from his behavior at the time.
The job market was tough on the plains. Game was increasingly rare. His family had to eat somehow. So he faked his way through translations, often reduced to just guessing as well as he could what anyone was talking about. His apparent drinking problem and the fact that his Commander was an Indian hater only magnified his fears.
“Give me forty good men,” the Lieutenant had bragged, “and I'll wipe out the whole Sioux Nation!”
Perhaps Augustine Lucia was trying to appease his hateful employer, while also attempting to convey a secret message of imminent danger to his uninitiated Sioux brethren. Whatever he thought he was trying to do, he was making an awful mess of it.
Brave Bear, unfamiliar with the word “asshole,” calmly continued reasoning, having never dealt with a gang of drunken psychos before. The language of the people contained no “dirty” words, as the people had no use for them. Their ways were more physical than verbal. The best way to offend your enemy was to imitate the person in a mocking manner, or laugh loudly and openly at someone else's mistakes.
As the conversation reached a boiling point, women and children and some of the men slipped silently away along the dried river bottom.
Chief Brave Bear walked away again and later returned carrying five painted sticks from village herdsmen. Each stick represented a promise. The promise of a fine, strong horse. Painted sticks were stronger than dollars, but weaker than the spirit water that fogged the soldiers' minds. A promise was as good as gold before the whiskey came.
The Bear Chief lay the sticks on the ground at Grattan's feet, then turned to face the interpreter and spoke.
“We offer the five strongest geldings from our herds to compensate the Mormon for his loss. Then we will smoke and be friends,” pleaded the Chief, respectfully raising his pipe bag for all the men to see.
“He refuses to comply!” said the interpreter to the Lieutenant, having not the faintest notion what the Chief had just said.
“... DO... Something!” Grattan commanded.
“I BELIEVE I just GAVE you an ORDER!!!” screamed the interpreter in a voice that roared with emasculated rage.
Around him stood a few Brule braves staring gravely, unmoving and showing no reaction.
“YOU LITTLE LADIES BETTER LISTEN REAL GOOD!” screamed Lucia to the men who had gathered nearby. “WE'LL RIP YOU ALL A NEW SET OF EARS, ya HEAR ME???! We come to KILL you ALL!!!”
Augustine Lucia raised his gun for emphasis. The soldiers glanced nervously around. Lieutenant Grattan stood uselessly among them, perhaps daydreaming of his boyhood in Vermont.
“I will bring the man,” said Brave Bear, desperate to keep the peace. Then, positioning his arms as if holding a musket, he added, “but I must first arm myself, in case he refuses to go.”
The Brule Chief then turned away and walked in the direction of his lodge. Augustine Lucia had not understood him.
“He's going for his weapon!” yelled the panic-stricken interpreter.
“FIRE!,” yelled the panic-stricken Lieutenant.
A cannon blast shattered the morning air. An unthinking soldier, automatically following the orders of his Commander, repeatedly fired at Brave Bear as he approached the door of his lodge. The Chief straightened at the shock of being hit, then fell to his face on the ground and lay motionless.
At once, twelve hundred horrified warriors came pouring out of their tipis like boiling lava from exploding volcanoes, and wiped from the earth Grattan's sad little company of about fifty drunken troops. The rest of the soldiers were forced to open fire in sheer self-defense. But for every artillery blast reported, a hundred speeding arrows returned, each one finding its hated target as if by radar.
In a few short minutes Lieutenant Grattan, Augustine Lucia, and all of their soldiers were dead. Most of them had fallen where they stood. The rest had been killed by Red Cloud's braves, along with the men who had sneaked away to block the passage of the troops as they scrambled to escape. It's been said that – from a certain distance - the bodies of Grattan and his troops resembled a field of dead porcupines.13
above image credit: mayaincaaztec.com
Native American tribes Native American tribes Native American tribes
A hush fell over the campground as four-thousand people shared the very same thought. Within fifteen minutes, the entire camp was disassembled, each lodge's belongings strapped securely onto a pony drag (a stretcher made from skins and lodge poles), and hitched to the back of a horse if they had one. Four men cushioned a pony drag with sage. They placed Chief Brave Bear upon it, face-down and moaning in paralyzed anguish. The villagers escaped to a hiding place about eight miles away, where they camped for the rest of the sleepless night in varying states of shock.
Crazy Horse had witnessed this unprovoked assault, an obscenity far beyond his childlike comprehension. Chief Brave Bear. A kind, strong, unarmed man. Shot in the back with cannon balls.
Next morning, an angry gang of Brule and Hunkpapa braves approached the American Fur Company warehouse. The men who ran the place squealed and scattered like frightened mice, leaving their defenseless, long-suffering women and tiny, terrified children behind. The braves broke the door down and helped themselves to the promised goods, and perhaps some of the women.
Three days later, a messenger delivered unsettling news to the frightened white men at the Fur Company: The braves would be back the next day, this time to help themselves to the Company's inventory, and nobody had better try to stop them.
As whatever had passed for color drained from the white men's hairy faces, the messenger turned and rode off. Next day, after taking what they wanted, the braves were forced to make a peaceable exit, as there was not a white man to be found as far as any eye could see. The red men rode away in the sickening silence of hollow victory. Unwelcome memory washed over them in waves, drowning all hope of denial.
Brave Bear was dying.
A warm, calm summer wind washed along the open plains as the mounted warriors approached the horizon and paused, silhouetted on a hazy yellow sky, then disappeared over the plateau ridge.
From that day on, the people hiked from place to place, camping where they could, sleeping very little, fearing revenge. From that day on, always fearing revenge. Five days after the attack, they camped at Snake Creek. This is where Chief Brave Bear - Matȟó Wayúhi - died from his injuries and was laid to rest. He was 53 years old. The people scattered and laid low until the following spring.
Soon after the dying of the Chief, Crazy Horse disappeared for several days. It wasn't the first time he'd wandered off alone, but he'd been gone too long, and hadn't mentioned his leaving to anyone. Due to the recent turn of events, Waglula nearly collapsed in panic and frantically summoned Hump for assistance. Together, they looked for the boy. After an exhaustive, two-day search they finally found him, as his horse was partly visible through the sagebrush. Waglula soundly scolded the boy for going off alone. Didn't he know there were enemy tribes and white soldiers about?
Crazy Horse was escorted home, embarrassed, annoyed, and more determined than ever to strengthen his Invisible Medicine. Born with courage unequaled, he didn't know what his father was talking about, but respectful ones don't question their elders. For a short time following, the boy was called His-Horse-In-Sight, but the name never really took hold and was soon forgotten.14
In the Moon of Leaves Falling, Brave Bear's brother, along with Spotted Tail and several other Brules, decided to get revenge for the death of the Bear Chief. When an Indian was killed by an enemy, it was customary to kill an enemy of the same group in vengeance, thereby restoring honor to your tribe. They'd already killed nearly fifty white men at the scene of the crime, but self defense didn't count as revenge.
So the the war party attacked a westbound mail wagon near Horse Creek in southeastern Wyoming. They killed three white men, burned the mail, and took $20,000 in gold coins. The gold proved too heavy to carry long distances, so they dropped it along the trail they rode away on, and ended up with nothing they could use.
Ten months after the Grattan attack, 11-year-old Crazy Horse traveled alone to visit his family at the Brule campsite, now overseen by Brave Bear's successor, Chief Little Thunder. On arrival, Crazy Horse stumbled upon the gruesome aftermath of the destruction of that entire village.
Alone, he beheld the mutilated forms of eighty-six friends and neighbors. Many he remembered watching when they danced. Some were obscenely disfigured. Babies, riddled with bullet holes. Young girls, scalped between the legs. His reaction to walking alone among the abandoned, wide-eyed corpses of villagers he knew since birth can only be imagined. The people never abandoned their dead. Even warriors killed in the heat of battle were dragged away home, despite the clear and present danger to those who remained.
Crazy Horse, no older than today's fifth-grader, respectfully covered the mangled bodies as well as he could manage. Then he mounted his pony and hurried north, scouting tell-tale signs left along the trail. Maybe a yellow cloth streamer tied to a low branch. Maybe an arrow, pointing the way. But not a trace remained of the boy he had been, and the treasure hunt was a favorite game no more.
Following the rag scattered trail, Crazy Horse soon detected movement in the brush. Instinctively he raised his bow and grabbed an arrow from his quiver. In a smooth, sweeping instant, the arrow was placed and the bowstring drawn. But then he heard the voice of a lady. Venturing nearer, he spotted an injured Northern Cheyenne woman. Her husband lay dead a short distance away. In her arms she held an infant, which she rocked back and forth, cooing sweetly. Crazy Horse smiled faintly, shifting his stunned gaze to the baby she held, but recoiled in shocked horror. The baby was dead.
With persistent, gentle persuasion, Crazy Horse convinced the young mother to leave her dead child and go with him. She was too badly hurt to walk or ride, so he found an abandoned pony drag for her to lie down on, and hitched it to his horse. He cushioned it with greenery and blankets, as he had seen them do for Brave Bear. As he carefully helped the lady onto the stretcher he'd made, blood poured forth from a gash in her thigh like wine from a broken flask. The startled boy jumped on his pony and continued carefully north – not too fast, or she might suffer further injury. But not too slowly either, or she might bleed to death before he could find help.
After a while, they caught up with some of those who had escaped, and the lady continued her journey with them. She'd been visiting the Brule camp with her family when the bad trouble came. Led by General Harney, 600 armed U.S. Soldiers had attacked 250 villagers, killing as many as they could and burning to ashes what little they owned.
The massacre had been ordered as “punishment” for the Grattan incident the previous year. President Franklin Pierce had deployed these troops with the less-than-detailed instructions to "whip the Indians." So Harney's men attacked the peaceful Brule village of Chief Little Thunder, with tipis pitched in a semi-circle on the banks of Bluewater Creek.
The soldiers had charged without warning, firing their weapons indiscriminately at the camp. Women and children had run screaming for cover into caves along the creek. Following them, the soldiers had fired blindly into these caves, killing mostly women and children. It could not have been much of a battle, since no white soldiers were killed in the destruction of Little Thunder's village.
Some villagers had managed to escape. Others (mostly children, and some of the prettier women) were kidnapped. Crazy Horse was relieved to learn that all of his close relations had gotten away, and also the family of his good friend Red Feather. Among those captured were Spotted Tail's wife and daughter. Spotted Tail had fought ferociously and received two gunshot wounds.
Word spread like flames on a windy prairie. Cheyenne campfires teemed with stories of the young Oglala boy who saved the life of Yellow Woman. Oglala campfires teemed with villagers boasting they'd known all along that their boy was destined for greatness. The rescue of Yellow Woman at Bluewater was his first true claim to fame. Crazy Horse never mentioned it, but Yellow Woman told everyone.
After that, the boy had many admirers among the Northern Cheyenne.
Meanwhile, when Spotted Tail tried to negotiate the release of the prisoners, he was told there would be no negotiations until the raiders of that mail wagon were caught and punished. So Spotted Tail and several others came up with the ingenious (if suicidal) idea of surrendering to U.S. troops. Fully expecting to be executed, they were vaguely disappointed to learn they were going instead to prison at Fort Leavenworth.
The wife and child of Spotted Tail were freed. The wagon raiders were released from prison in less than a year, but by then, one of them had already committed suicide. Spotted Tail had learned to read and write English while incarcerated. On his release, he was hailed as a hero by the Lakota people for his stunning act of self-sacrifice, and as a role model by the whites for his earnest attempts at peaceful negotiation.15
More than a year after the Bluewater incident, when Crazy Horse was twelve, Waglula decided the time had come for his son's first Vision Quest. A boy's first vision was a crucial rite of passage.
“Going up the Bads for a fast and a sweat. Come along?” asked Waglula.
“I will,” said Crazy Horse.
Waglula took his son up to a secret place in the hills, where they set up camp and built a sweat lodge. Then they sat for a while. At some point, Crazy Horse went off to be alone, returning some hours later just as quietly as he had left, having scouted the general area. Then they sat a while longer. How patiently Waglula must have waited for his son's first vision. This was a monumental moment indeed!
Together, they camped through the night.
Next day, Waglula set up Crazy Horse in a private spot about three miles away, with nothing but a pipe and a blanket for company and warmth. Then Waglula walked back to the campsite and waited.
Two days later Crazy Horse returned just as quietly as he had left, then sat across from Waglula and silently studied the distance.
Waglula waited. Nothing happened.
Then the boy and his father visited the sweat lodge, where hot steam hissed and burned around the voices of the spirit world. After the sweat, Crazy Horse and Waglula took a cool dip in a stream.
Later, back at the campsite, Crazy Horse busied himself sharpening his knife blade on a flat stone.
“So! … How's... everything?” inquired Waglula.
“It is well,” answered Crazy Horse.
“Good!” replied Waglula. “Washday...”
And silence fell once more.
Waglula sat, chin-on-hand, and quietly regarded his son. A finer, quicker, brighter boy was never born. Already, his courage was second to none. Indeed, he offered much to make a father proud, but engaging this boy in a verbal exchange was like wading chest-deep through a pool of molasses. So morning rode on to late afternoon, until finally Waglula could contain himself no longer.
“Son!” said Waglula, “Have you experienced your first vision?”
“Washday!” Waglula said, jumping to his feet. “When?”
“Fourteen moons ago.”
Above: A vision of Crazy Horse's Vision
image credit: David Padgett, fineartamerica.com
Crazy Horse reminded his father of the time shortly after Chief Brave Bear was killed, when he had disappeared for several days. Blanketed in the blessed solitude of a hole in a hill somewhere, Crazy Horse had been seeking a vision – a solution to a problem. A way to save his people from... he knew not what. He knew only that they were in danger. He knew not why.
But the Hemblecha called for careful preparation, including a four-day fast. The experience was (and is) an ordeal requiring the close supervision of a medicine man. A boy didn't normally do this before the age of twelve. Crazy Horse was ten at the time, so he went off on his own and eventually had a vision.
He told his father he saw a young man on horseback, riding in a storm. The rider was a warrior, but carried no scalps. A driving rain slanted severely in the wind, yet the man wore nothing but a breech cloth. His long, unbraided hair flew freely as he rode. A smooth, flat, polished stone was fitted behind his left ear. A streak of red lightning zigzagged down the left side of his face. Dots, like blue hailstones, were painted on his chest. Arrows flew by like tangled grasshoppers. Bullets swarmed about like killer bees. Yet the rider rode on, unharmed. As the storm died down, a spotted eagle followed overhead. Then a pair of sun-darkened hands grabbed the rider by his arms. In breaking free of their grip, the rider fell from his horse and was gone.
On awakening, Crazy Horse could not shake the feeling of those hands upon his arms. Terrifyingly familiar hands, pulling him away from some unspecified, but well intended, higher purpose. He could have sworn he was awake, but the hands still gripped his arms, holding him back, shaking him up, pulling him to his feet. Suddenly, the hands swung him swiftly around, and he had found himself staring into the worried faces of Waglula and Hump.
When Crazy Horse finished his story, he and Waglula observed a long and thoughtful silence. Then the two of them packed up their gear and ambled away toward home.
“Why didn't you SAY?” asked Waglula.
“You didn't ask.” said Crazy Horse.
Together, Crazy Horse and his father consulted a medicine man. It was decided that this dream the boy had when he was ten was a sign of future greatness in battle. Crazy Horse was a soft-spoken pacifist who shunned confrontation. His personality type was seldom seen among the boisterous Hunkpapas, who approached life with such carefree, extravagant passion. He was a silent, introverted soul, born to the Great Sioux Nation. Yet, he tackled every task with stunning intuition, tremendous athleticism, and fearlessness far beyond the call of duty. Already he was more competent than most grown men, they agreed. A brave, honorable and obedient child, he was someone who could lead by example.
They already had him set apart in their minds to make war against enemy tribes. Such was the way of the Plains. All Crazy Horse wanted was to hunt game and bring horses. But doing these things successfully, he knew, meant sometimes going to war.
It was Summer of 1856 when 12-year-old Crazy Horse killed his first buffalo, an accomplishment not normally achieved before the age of fourteen.
Nothing was more vivid and alive and dangerous and action-packed than a buffalo hunt. Nothing made men braver than the piercing cry of a hungry infant. By today's standards of boyhood thrill-seeking, a buffalo hunt could be compared to capturing a dinosaur. The buffalo hunters back then make the “X-treme” sportsmen of today look like little pigtailed girls playing hopscotch on the lawn.
Just as he'd so many times envisioned, Crazy Horse rode his sorrel horse into the herd and raced up alongside a buffalo, carefully maintaining the speed of the bull to create a sense of stillness. Squeezing the horse with his knees to hang on, Crazy Horse raised his bow. In a smooth, sweeping instant, the arrow was placed and the bowstring drawn. Aiming, as they'd shown him, for the part behind the ribs, he released his grip on the bowstring. To him it seemed slow-motion, but the arrow sped forth like a rocket.
His aim was true.
The animal faltered, but kept on running. Crazy Horse delivered two more arrows in swift succession. The buffalo collapsed in a heap and breathed no more.
In a rare emotional outburst, Crazy Horse threw his fists in the air with exhilaration indescribable!
“Talo! Talo!!” cried the child as the people cheered him on.
Crazy Horse, already by then so well reputed, had just caught enough meat to feed the village. A happier boy did not exist than Crazy Horse was that night, falling asleep with his stomach full of fresh bison, to the exuberant sounds of the people singing his praises, chattering and laughing and planning tomorrow between mouthfuls of the food their little hunter brought home.
Days later, Crazy Horse was presented with a fine bay horse at an elaborate ceremony held in his honor. The way among the people of bestowing honor on a child was like this: The parents of the guest of honor threw a party. During this party the father gave away practically everything they owned, impoverishing the family almost entirely. Blankets, horses, toys, clothing – pretty much everything but the tipi itself. Sometimes the tipi itself. Maybe even a wife or two.
The giveaway symbolized a family's faith in the child's ability to provide for them. Crazy Horse was honored with such a ceremony for killing his first bison. It was the most festive event of the season.
Some of the women sliced fresh meat into long, thin strips, then draped them to dry over high wooden racks inaccessible to hungry coyotes. Other women started the cooking fires. Contrary to popular myth, there were easier ways to make fire than by rubbing two sticks together. Even before villagers had flint-strikers, there was always a fire burning somewhere in the camp. Anyone could find a dried twig and borrow from another fire.
There also existed a particular, slow-burning herb that, once lit, smoldered for moons on end. This herb hung conveniently outside many tipis.16 Anyone wanting a light would simply blow on this herb until the tip of it glowed bright orange, then hold beneath it a dried twig, or one of those rolled-up, green paper rectangles with the faces of old white men in the middle. Dollars were useful for lighting pipes.
Late into night the people feasted, danced, sang and smoked. Then they smoked, feasted, danced and sang some more. The villagers must have joked about forgetting to invite the Guest of Honor to the party, as the meticulously planned event probably had everything in it but Crazy Horse, who hated being the center of attention. Likely, he had managed to make himself scarce and spend time alone with his new bay pony, his new best friend.
It was with this first pony that Crazy Horse began to develop his legendary skill with horses. They say he became one with horses. He never tried too hard to control them, trusting their instincts as much as his own. Two heads were better than one. More than a few times, he let his horse carry him off unexpectedly, only later to realize he'd been rescued from an unseen danger.
When covering vast distances, Crazy Horse found a way to conserve his horse's energy by walking next to it when traveling uphill, only jumping on when going down or riding across flat land. He'd walk his pony to the top of the highest hill, let the pony graze and rest, then race it to the bottom, the downward slope adding momentum, allowing greater speed and distance on the flats. He gained ten miles on his imaginary pursuers over the course of two days.
Later that year, Crazy Horse took his little brother Leo for a ride on his well-trained pony. The boys soon chanced upon a wild plum tree whose quivering fruits were ripe and ready. So thrilled by the sight of it the little one was, Crazy Horse agreed to stop and let his brother gather fruit, after carefully explaining to Leo that a warrior never lets his guard down.
The boys dismounted the pony and approached the tree. Crazy Horse placed his bow and quiver on the ground near his feet, then grasped a low-hanging branch.
“You shake it hard, but not too hard, like this” instructed Crazy Horse, demonstrating with both hands. “That way, only the ready ones fall.”
The swollen fruits came loose and rained down upon the boys, who caught as many as they could in the flaps of their breech cloths. Each boy selected a good looking plum and bit into it. The thin skin broke with a gentle snap. The cool, sticky wetness washed over their tongues as they savored the sweetly spiced flavor. Fresh fallen plums have a kick that tastes like cinnamon if you catch one before it hits the ground.
As his dreamy little brother sucked juice from a plum, Crazy Horse began gathering fruit to bring home, packing as many as the apron of his breech cloth could hold. Suddenly the pony got spooked and ran off. They hadn't even time to wonder why when from behind them came a low, chesty growl. The boys swung round, eyes agape at the twelve-hundred-pound grizzly standing upright, less than stone's throw from where they stood. Wads of chewed fruit fell from their mouths and hit the dirt with an audible plop.
The bear narrowed its eyes at the boys and charged.
Crazy Horse dropped the plums he had gathered like red hot coals from a fire. Instinctively, he raised his bow and reached behind him for an arrow, but came up empty handed. He had put down his equipment to shake plums from the tree. There was no time to pick it up now.
With robotic efficiency, Crazy Horse shoved his brother up the tree and ran off to fetch the pony, just as the bear approached. Naturally, the bear chose the food that wasn't running away. The bear leaned on the tree trunk and tried to shake loose the small boy like ripe fruit. Leo hung on for his life as a giant paw swiped the air just inches from his feet, slicing leaves and severing branches with its gigantic, deadly claws.
Meanwhile, Crazy Horse had caught up with his pony and was trying to take control of it with the rope. If only he could calm it enough so he could ride up close to the bear and shoot it with his...
Panic closed his throat as he spotted his bow and a quiver full of arrows lying uselessly on the ground by the plum tree a hundred yards away, between his little brother and a bear. Leo was losing his precarious grip on the branch that held him aloft.
Crazy Horse grabbed the only thing he had - the rope he tied his horse with. Freeing the animal from its only restraint, Crazy Horse jumped upon the pony and quickly fashioned the rope into a lariat. Then he somehow made the pony charge the bear. To this day, no one knows how he did this. Perhaps it was the pony's idea.
The bear turned its monolithic head and was startled by the sight of a small, screaming centaur fast approaching, one hand twirling a lariat high above the bear's head, the other hand outstretched to snatch his brother from the tree, rushing headlong toward the bear on the back of a speeding, wild-eyed, kamikaze horse, without even using his hands to hold on! The bear fell to its rump in sheer astonishment, then scrambled to all fours and ran howling away like an oversized child crying for its mama.
Back at the campsite, Leo told the whole family what had happened, and Crazy Horse was hailed as a hero again.
It's been said by those who would know that only two things scare a grizzly bear – jingling bells and twirling lassos. Quite by accident, Crazy Horse had stumbled upon the problem's only solution, and saved the life of his brother. What's more, he somehow got his pony to charge a bear.
They say he became one with horses.
above image credit: market watch.com
By his teens, Crazy Horse was wandering off for days or even weeks at a time. Sometimes he visited friends at Northern Cheyenne camps. Other times he rode with the Bad Bow Band under Sitting Bull. Most times, no one knew exactly where Crazy Horse went or what he did. He'd just disappear, then show up again eventually. Never did he arrive empty-handed. He usually brought large quantities of food, firewood, blankets, horses, or whatever needful things it might please the villagers to have.
The party lifestyle was of no interest to Crazy Horse. He generally disliked the dancing, feasting and thunderous warrior celebrations that kept him awake until the morning star appeared. If he enjoyed the festivities, it was only as a spectator. It pleased him well to see his people lost in joyful moments, but Crazy Horse watched from the sidelines – an outsider looking in at the colorful, familiar forms dancing round a fire that seemed to dance along. He preferred listening, unseen, to the measured sound of drums beating in unison with the human hearts among them.
Occasionally, unexpected eye contact from a female relative coaxed a faint, rare, involuntary smile from his virtually unreadable face. Usually he'd be more careful, spying the celebration from some secluded vantage point that they were too preoccupied to notice. Tucked between the folds of a tipi flap. Hanging back in the shadows, deliciously alone.
At the center of most celebrations was a huge, simmering pot of bison stew, brimming and bubbling with juicy chunks of meat pulled from the bone in pieces too small for the drying racks. Depending on what was available, the stew might be flavored with tender maize, hearty beans, or wild onions. Maybe sweetened with honey, or seasoned with fresh cut herbs. Wild white turnips dug from the nearby hillsides had a light, earthy flavor that tasted well with meat, and a potato-like texture that soaked up pools of gravy. These were boiled, roasted, or dried and mashed to flour for making fry bread.
Crazy Horse ignored the social customs of his kind. He had no desire to speak of his accomplishments. He avoided all manner of public display, preferring to keep his thoughts and opinions to himself. Never did he mutilate his flesh in sacrifice at the Sun Dance, though he admired and respected those who did. If any visions came to him at all, he experienced them privately and revealed not their details, except for the one he told his father about when he was twelve.
Nor was he impressed by the flamboyant style of clothing the people wore. Cumbersome head pieces of giant eagle feathers. Elaborately dyed quill work. Long leather fringes that followed the wind. Crude, heavy necklaces of teeth and claws from meat carried home from a hunt. Tiny seed beads of colored glass from trading posts on the Holy Road. All these cherished treasures, masterfully stitched into meaningful arrays with bone needles and sinew thread, held no personal meaning for Crazy Horse.
There was a time before hides became scarce, before white man's cotton became too convenient to ignore. In those days, if the weather was kind, Crazy Horse and his friends wore nothing but breech-cloths. A breech cloth is a rectangular piece of deerskin, about six feet long and maybe twelve inches wide. It was worn between the legs like a pair of briefs, and tucked up and over the top of a waistband, creating apron-like pieces at the front and back.
On colder days, they added hip-high leggings, shirts, moccasins, blankets, and thick fur robes. As far as Crazy Horse was concerned, any additional accessories were of practical use only. The horn-shaped quiver that held his arrows. The slit rawhide goggles that prevented snow blindness. The shiny metal disk he used for a signaling mirror. The eagle bone whistle tied to a leather cord around his neck.
In 1858, the Crazy Horse family attended the Great Teton Council at Bear Butte. The meeting had been called by tribal Chiefs keen on actively resisting the white man's encroachment. As thousands of Indian villagers converged on this sacred place, Crazy Horse had a chance to meet with some of his boyhood heroes. In attendance were Chiefs and warriors from all Oglala tribes.
The Oglalas had long ago split up into smaller groups, as there are not enough animals in one place to feed so many. The Oglala sub tribes, or “Council Fires,” included Blackfeet, Two-Kettles, No-Bows, Hunkpapas, Brules, and Minneconjous. Council Fires were further divided into bands. For instance, the Hunkpapas included the Bad Bow band and the Hunkpatila band, among others.
Council Fires lived and hunted separately, camping several miles apart from each other, reconnecting as a larger group for occasions such as this one. To Crazy Horse and almost everyone else, the greatest of the warriors at the Bear Butte council meeting was a Hunkpapa Chief from the Bad Bow Band, renowned in stories told by the elders. His courage and compassion were unequaled.
As a boy, they called him Huhi, meaning Slow, because he was an analytical thinker with patience far beyond his years. So they fancied him retarded for a time. But at the age of seven, Slow fashioned the perfect arrow, a feat rarely achieved before manhood, in fact, rarely achieved by anyone. At the age of ten, Slow killed his first buffalo by recklessly riding into the midst of a stampeding herd, surviving on nothing more than sheer good luck. He had wanted to be the youngest Buffalo hunter, and was. His father had criticized his carelessness. His mother flat-out fainted when she knew.
At the surprising age of fourteen, Slow led a charge against an attacking band of Flatheads and was credited with saving many lives. It was also around that time that he counted coup on a live enemy, achieving the highest of tribal honors. “Counting coup” was the tribal custom of hitting enemies with a stick, usually after they were dead. Warriors were honored and judged, in part, on how many times they'd counted coup, especially on a live enemy. The custom of counting live coup encouraged fighting men to kill only when necessary. Crazy Horse, following this example, would later count coup on three live enemies in a single battle – rushing up to them, smacking them with a stick and riding off.
For his many fine acts of bravery and compassion, Slow had eventually inherited one of his father's names, Tatanka Iyotake - Buffalo Bull, Sitting Down. It was a name given to his father in a vision, and seemed an appropriate reference to his physical strength, his short, stocky physique, and his thoughtful, deliberate nature.
English speakers call him Sitting Bull.
As mentioned earlier, Sitting Bull also became the youngest known Chief at the astonishing age of 20.
A testament to the greatness of his compassion was the story of how he once traveled with other Bad Bow braves in search of food. Some of the men in his group came upon a small family of Assiniboines sharing a single tipi. Unfortunately, the Bad Bow braves were not very far from their own camp, and could not risk revealing their position to the enemy. Sitting Bull's men attacked the family, killing the father, the mother and the baby she held on her back. All that was left was a boy of about ten years old, trying his best to shoot the warriors with an undersized bow, crooked arrows, and comically bad aim.
The boy fired at the warriors repeatedly, running right up to them and cursing them as they easily skittered away on their horses, laughing at the orphaned child and his little toy arrows falling harmlessly to the ground.
“Get Tatanka!” said one of the men.
Soon enough, Sitting Bull arrived, dismounted, and stood about twenty paces from the commotion.
“Tatanka!” said the Bad Bow brave, “We have a dilemma. Little Assiniboine is a child with the courage of a man! Quite a worthy little guy indeed!”
“I see,” said Sitting Bull.
“We wonder if you will help us decide” said another brave, “Shall we kill him now or wait until we get back to camp?”
With that, the boy instinctively ran to Sitting Bull and threw his arms tightly around the Chief.
“Brother! Save me!” said the boy in his own language, but with Wakantanka as the translator, Sitting Bull understood.
A simple, desperate plea from a child melted the Strong Heart of the Chief.
Sitting Bull had never had a brother. What's worse, it happened that he was still grieving the recent death of his firstborn baby son. Not only did Sitting Bull save the boy. He formally adopted him as a brother and the boy would spend the rest of his life among the Hunkpapas, with Sitting Bull by his side.
Sitting Bull was as brave a man as ever there was. A willing and able decoy, he always rode the Daring Line in battle, yet suffered little more than the bullet to his foot that gave him a permanent limp. Even more amazing, Sitting Bull had twice volunteered as a Sash Bearer. Sash Bearers wore long red sashes, with which they staked themselves to the ground before battle, sworn to stay put until victory or defeat. A Sash Bearer never came home alone.
So brave and so competent (not to mention so lucky) was the great Chief Sitting Bull, that no one ever seemed to notice he was only five feet tall.
Crazy Horse greatly admired Sitting Bull, whose grandfather, Standing Bull, was the first Oglala explorer to discover the Black Hills in 1775. The next few Oglala explorers were the first to discover the unwelcoming Absaroka who already lived there. But the Black Hills were so beautiful. So sacred. And Mother Earth belonged to no man. So the Crows and Oglalas spent the next hundred years trying to kill each other.
According to historical records, the Council meeting at Bear Butte, with 14-year-old Crazy Horse and 27-year-old Sitting Bull in attendance, went something like this:
“What is the best approach to the Washeechu problem?” said a Council Chief to the crowd.
“Avoid Washeechu,” came a voice from the crowd.
Everyone agreed, and the meeting was adjourned.
After the council, while the Yanktons signed a treaty with U.S. troops, the Crazy Horse clan, Sitting Bull's Bad Bows, and quite a few other Oglala, Brule, and Minneconjou families moved to the Powder River region. There they lived adamantly by the chase – hunting game, raiding horses, and remaining as far away from white people as possible.
But their delicate balance with nature was feasible only as long as buffalo roamed the vast, unbroken range.
Above image: South Dakota Public Broadcasting
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Here are some Classic Short Stories from the public domain:
Told in the Drooling Ward, by Jack London
The Ransom of Red Chief, by O. Henry
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
Go here for selected Moral Stories.
See this page for Aesop's Fables, other short stories, printable poems, and more.
Click this link to learn Why Reading Is Important.
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Above: Rock formations in the badlands of South Dakota.
image credit: Judee Shipman