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Our whole Indian policy is a system of mismanagement, and in many parts one of gigantic abuse. —The Nation, January 1867.

crazy horseWith the end of the Civil War and the rise of post-war nationalism during the lamentable period of Reconstruction, the U.S. Army pursued a ruthless and brutal policy of pacification with the tribes of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Indians that had been closely allied to the United States for decades, and often without any trace of hostility toward American citizens, found themselves forced onto reservations and denied access to their traditional economic resources as well as all of their religious and cultural freedoms.

Full of fight and political influence but with no organized enemy after the defeat of the Confederacy, the U.S. Army moved quickly to maintain its self-importance. Nationalism in the North and defeatism in the South allowed the American people to ignore the problems of violence against the original occupants of the Americas (though many white Americans in the West aided the Indians whenever possible), while the earliest Progressives (meeting annually in Lake Mohonk in New York) saw the American Indian as laboratory test subjects for their social-engineering schemes. Thus, the first unholy American alliance of militarism, nationalism, and progressivism was born with the American people hoping not to be inconvenienced.

Though editors such as The Nation’s E.L. Godkin used the pen to fight all such evils, the nationalists and Progressives overwhelmed all opponents. The worst advocates of violence toward the Indian even called themselves the “Friends of the Indians.”

As one little boy tried to explain “I believe in education because I believe it will kill the Indian that is in me and leave the man and citizen.” For those who refused to emasculate themselves, the Army employed the instruments and philosophy of total war against the Indians.

Battle of Little Bighorn

On this day, 136 years ago, a number of natives under one of the greatest strategists of the nineteenth century, Crazy Horse, resisted, claiming their full birthright against the oppressions of an expansive and militarized American progressivism. They met their would-be oppressors, led by one of Michigan’s most arrogant darlings, George Armstrong Custer, in western Montana near a small creek by the name of the Little Bighorn. Breaking off from his main forces of support, Custer had hoped for a three-prong attack against Indian women and children. He and his 265 men paid dearly for their extreme and immoral pride. Every invader–including Custer’s nephew, two brothers, a brother in law—perished that day.

Word of Custer’s defeat reached Washington, D.C. on July 3, 1876, the night before the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At that moment, horrifically, Custer became a martyr for everything wrong in the United States at that point in history: nationalism, imperialism, and progressivism.

As that stunning but largely forgotten twentieth-century biographer, Mari Sandoz, explained, Crazy Horse was the “Strange Man” of his people. A recluse and a mystic, Crazy Horse fully understood the stakes of Sioux resistance—the United States government desired to annihilate his people and their entire way of life. As the military genius he knew himself to be (and he was), he understood that every decision he made could affect the very life of every single native person on the Great Plains. Crazy Horse faced not just defeat, but extinction. He also understood, quite well, that U.S. Policy after the Civil War would prove profoundly different from before the Civil War. In its mad desire to incorporate the entire continent under one government, the United States had lost its entire sense of morality.

Tragedy after Tragedy

Crazy Horse’s own path to adulthood had been fraught with familial dysfunction, moral error, and tragedy. His father and step father had died in war, and his mother had committed suicide. In 1870, he lost his two closest friends, Hump and Little Hawk. Shortly after, he had an illicit affair with a married woman by the name of Black Buffalo Woman. When her husband, No Water, discovered their relationship, he fired a pistol at Crazy Horse’s face.  The powder from the shot scared him horrifically, but the bullet passed clean through this skull without mortally wounding him. As Crazy Horse recovered, Black Buffalo Woman and No Water reconciled.

In 1871, he fell in love again and married, but their only child, They Are Afraid of Her, passed away at the age of two.After his first battle, however, a vision had come to him. He would never be defeated in war, but he would be betrayed by those he protected and loved.

For our very rational age (as least, as we perceive ourselves), this sounds bizarre. But, to Crazy Horse, his vision was one of absolute truth, and he waged war as a man unafraid. On September 5, 1877, at Fort Robinson, in Nebraska, however, two Sioux men pinned Crazy Horse and, with a bayonet, murdered him by stabbing him up into his body from his groin.

Though deeply flawed as a person, Crazy Horse’s struggle was the fight of an Imaginative Conservative as he defended tradition, home, and family against nationalism, militarism, and progressivism. Long live the spirit of Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas, one of the greatest traditionalists of his age and certainly one of the most important men of his century.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


Sandoz, Mari Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas

Joseph C. Porter, “Crazy Horse, Lakota Leadership, and the Fort Laramie Treaty,” in Charles E. Rankin, ed., Legacy: New Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1996)

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6 replies to this post
  1. I do think, though, that Red Cloud was the native military genius of the age. He brilliantly invented and used tactics that were, I think, unknown to his tradition, though they were known in European culture, to great effect against superior forces.

  2. Steve,

    Crazy Horse was a military genius, and many of the battles both Crazy Horse and Red Cloud participated in together. I don't believe Red Cloud participated in the Little Big Horn though. Crazy Horse has been given a lot of credit for getting the Sioux to fight as a unit. To be sure though much of this is passed verbally and so it is hard to make a value judgement on who was the greater military tactician. There is also much of the Crazy Horse legend that leads to his reverence: his strict disregard for material possessions, strong leadership though a quiet personality, the legend of his vision, as well as the fact that no authenticated photo can be found of him. A well written essay.

  3. Its hard to make a value judgement on who was a greater genius, and what the judgement of that is. Crazy Horse according to legend never did loose a battle, not too many people can claim this. Both men were excellent military leaders. There is much of Crazy Horse that can be accountable to legend, but to be sure he was a much revered military leader by the Sioux and greatly feared by the cavalry.

  4. I enjoyed this. My knowledge of the western plains nations is limited. I have written, however,on the history related to the Eastern aboriginal tribes: Delaware, Mingo, Iroquois, Shawnee etc. and should point out that the hatred directed toward these and other nations was grounded on the idea of torture. The European whites who came into contact with the eastern nations were experienced with torture at the hands of the state or a foreign invader. But, that torture has some reason, such as to procure information. However, the torture meted out by the Eastern nations was in part an entertainment carried out by the squaws and children and designed, in many cases, to keep the victim: young, old, women, children, men alive as long as possible. There's no need to explain some of the horrors and depredations visited upon these captives. But, that is the reason why Americans, ever moving West, showed only limited mercy upon the nations.

  5. I don’t dispute the sentiments herein expressed, Brad, but I’ve grown leery of the “hearth and home” arguments. The Oglala (there are, by the way, about 10 times more of them now than in 1800) had moved into the Great Plains only about a generation before Crazy Horse’s birth, and then only because smallpox had killed off more powerful peoples such as the Arikara. It wasn’t as if the Lakota had a natural or divine right to the territory. I don’t much like Custer, either, but why the bloody slaughter of his army should be glorified while every American victory over red men is vilified I’m not quite sure. About the history of all red/white relations on this continent I am ambivalent, content to call it a tragedy; about particular events in that history, I prefer to be specific.

  6. I have often wondered how things could have been different if Europeans acted justly. What do you suppose could be done differently?

    I don’t think the answer is necessarily that Europeans would/should not have claimed the territory as they did. However, when I think of how Christianity spread through Europe it seemed to have been incorporated into the various cultures rather than supplant them. Thus the Irish remained Irish, the French remained French, and the Spanish remained Spanish – yet they have their own “flavor” of Catholicism.

    That did not seem to be allowed in the U.S. The government schools were set up to erase the native cultures and make the Indian into a European. Perhaps if Europeans simply sought to evangelize the natives and let them remain Souix, Cherokee, or Ojibwa – how would that look today?

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