I'm nearing the end of a remarkable book that tells history like I've never read it before. It narrates the life story of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior whose life played out at the sunset of the traditional Plains Indian culture. Sure, I knew his name. Most Americans do. But did I know who Crazy Horse really was? Did I believe he actually lived? Or was he like some man transformed by myth, like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. And how was he different from Geronimo or Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph, other names recalled--but not really understood--from old school textbooks with sepia photos.
But now I'm learning that Crazy Horse was a real man. He was born, near the Black Hills of South Dakota, around 1840. He was Lakota, or Teton, or Brule Oglala, or what we mostly known as Sioux, the buffalo-hunting horse people of the Great Plains. But it was all more complicated than that, of course. And that complexity comes across in Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, the book by Mari Sandoz that I am reading. Sandoz, Nebraska writer celebrated for her histories of the Plains culture, writes in the language of Crazy Horse and his people. October isn't October, it's "the Moon of the Changing Seasons." Cannons are "wagon guns," and railroads are "iron roads." And sprinkled everywhere in the book are the myths, sayings, jokes, insults, and imagery of the Lakota culture, carefully added by Sandoz's careful research and accumulated knowledge.
When the book opens, Crazy Horse is a young boy known as Curly, a nickname earned by his wavy hair and light-colored skin. Later he is given the name His Horse Looking. He became Crazy Horse, also his father's name, after a daring act in battle. But always he was known as "the strange one" by his people and his followers. He lived on the plains and valleys between the North Platte, the Big Horn mountains and the Missouri River. He never joined an agency or camped near the trading posts. He was what the U.S. Army called a "hostile," a Native American who resisted both the overtures and the depredations of government agents and soldiers. He died in 1877, a year after annihilating Gen. George Custer's calvary at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, after a soldier bayoneted him as he struggled to escape his captors at an agency.
Despite illuminating so much Plains Indian culture for me, this book also raises many new questions, especially about the study of history. Because it is told from the Indians' perspective, there is no overarching view of army tactics, settlement pressures, or the drive for westward expansion. Our orderly view of history vanishes into the smoke of pipes for both peace and war. In the book, the action follows much like this: Whites arrive. Indians watch. Warriors ride out to scare the whites. Soldiers come. Warriors fight soldiers. Soldiers attack Indian camps. Warriors raid settlers and forts. And atrocities mount on both sides. Instead of zooming back to Washington or relating strategies discussed at soldier forts, the story lingers in Indian lodges, goes on vision quests, and follows action of the battle from the back of a panting horse. Although I know how Crazy Horse and his people's dream dies, and remember the bloody names like Wounded Knee and Standing Rock, with this book, I feel like I am reading American history for the first time.