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The life and death of Crazy Horse

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The life of Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse is shrouded in confusion, misinterpretation and controversy. So thoroughly did the most enigmatic figure in Plains Indian history avoid contact with whites (outside battle, at least) that no photograph or even sketch of him exists; unlike other Indian chiefs, he refused to visit Washinfgton DC or speak with reporters.

Crazy Horse earned his title as a youth after he single-handedly charged the rival Arapahoe and took two scalps. His finest moment came in June 1876, when he led a thousand warriors in inflicting a stinging defeat on the superior forces of General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud River. Just eight days later, Crazy Horse headed the attack at the Battle of Little Bighorn in today’s Montana, where Custer and his entire company were killed.

After Little Bighorn, US Army efforts to round up the Native Americans were redoubled. In May 1877, Crazy Horse surprised friend and foe alike by leading nine hundred of his people into Fort Robinson. They gave up their weapons, and Crazy Horse, keen to stay in his native land (unlike Sitting Bull, who had retreated to Canada), demanded that the buffalo grounds along the Powder River remain in Sioux hands. Tensions at the army camp rose after a rumour went around the barracks that the Sioux chief had come to murder General Crook and Crazy Horse was arrested on September 5, 1877; during a tussle outside the fort jail, he was bayoneted three times and died the next morning.

Quite why this undefeated warrior should have surrendered without a fight, and whether he fell victim to a deliberate assassination, remains unclear. What is certain is that his death signalled the closing chapter of the Indian Wars. The Oglala Sioux were forcibly moved to the poor hunting country of Missouri as white settlers immediately swept into western Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Crazy Horse, so one story goes, was buried by his family in an unmarked grave in an out-of-the-way creek called Wounded Knee – the very place where, thirteen years later, three hundred Sioux men, women and children were slaughtered in the bloody finale to over half a century of barbarism (see The Black Hills).

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