Mysteries surrounding Crazy Horse reshaping history of Custer's last stand
Dakota Digest - 08/10/2009
By Charles Michael Ray
The PBS program “History Detectives” recently examined what was believed to be a picture of the Lakota Chief Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was a man who would not allow his picture to be taken...and to-date no known photographs of him have appeared.
In fact, relatively little is known about the brilliant war chief and central figure in Great Plains history.
Descendents of Crazy Horse are starting to speak about some of the mysteries surrounding Crazy Horse and that information is reshaping the history of Custer’s last stand.
It’s hard to overstress the importance of Chief Crazy Horse to Lakota People. He is credited with uniting the Lakota and Cheyenne Nations in battle against General George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse refused to sell out his lands, he never signed a treaty, and for these he is a widely admired figure in Lakota history as well as American History.
“He has this almost like this robin hood. This mythology thing and everybody has different legends and stories about him and I think all of that is great,” says Lakota Historian Donovan Sprague Hump.
Crazy Horse is seen as a hero who sacrificed everything for this people. But for many years the family of Floyd Clown kept their own ties to Crazy Horse under wraps. They didn’t want anyone to know that he was a relative.
“We were taught that when we were little that when somebody talked of Crazy Horse we just listened and walked away,” says Clown.
In 1918, Floyd’s great uncle Peter Wolf was murdered while riding a horse across the open plains near Cherry Creek. The Clown Family believed the US government assassinated Wolf because he was related to Crazy Horse. This sent the family into hiding for more than 80 years. They kept quiet out of fear until 2001.
“We knew the truth but we couldn’t say nothing because the government was after the family,” says Clown.
In 2003, after being asked to come forward by a number of elders, Floyd Clown and a few relatives went to the Little Bighorn Battlefield and the site of Custer’s last stand. They met with historians there to share the family’s oral history of the battle. Clown spent his life listening to his father and grandfather tell detailed stories about the Little Bighorn. According to Clown, Custer was not the last man standing. In fact, he says Crazy Horse ordered that Custer be taken out first. Clown says it was two Lakota Hayoka, or holy men, who killed Custer. They were named Quick Bear, and Scar Leg.
“Quick Bear took him out with a club caved in his head. And then another Hayoka Thunder Dreamer his name was Scar Leg. He’s the one that shot him in the head then he turned around and grabbed the index finger - took his spirit – the one that he points around with – he took that,” says Clown.
For historians, family accounts like this one are improving the understanding of what happened at Custer’s last stand. John Dorner, Chief Historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, says the Crazy Horse family accounts match up with archeological evidence in the field.
“The Indian testimony is so important and critical to our understanding of the historical events that took place here because the Lakotas and Cheyenne’s and Arapaho’s survive to tell that story,” says Dorner.
In 1890, the US military placed White Marble Markers to show the places where each member of the 7th Calvary fell. Dorner says for a long time the history of the site was told primarily from the military perspective. But today the battle field also includes Red markers. These markers show places where Indian warriors fell.
“The red granite markers that we have on the battle field now are the same size as the 7th Calvary markers erected back in 1890. But they have the name the warrior that fell there and a brief interpretative text,” says Dorner.
Dorner says these markers are in place thanks to the input from Lakota and Cheyenne families. In 1876, shortly after the battle, Indian families put small piles of stone to mark the place where a warrior was lost. These stone piles were covered by prairie grasses over the years, but the families remembered the location and they passed it on down through history. They even visit the markers occasionally. Families like the Clowns have helped uncover several of the markers. Dornor says today the new Red Markers help to fill a gap in history.
“It’s such a powerful message out there but it transcends the cultural landscape but it also tells the story,” says Dorner. “Those markers bear a mute testimony for the Lakota’s and Cheyenne’s in the same way that the 7th Calvary members who fell on this field.”
For his part Floyd Clown says the telling of the Lakota side of this story has potential to help bring about unity and pride within Lakota communities.
“Because it’s waking up oral histories of families because we’re telling them no more assumptions. It’s time for the truth and tell your truth honestly,” says Clown.
The Clown Family is just one of those related to Crazy Horse. The actual family tree of Crazy Horse is an open debate within the Lakota nation. Many families hold claim to him as a relative. Today The Clown Family is out of hiding. They’re happy that all of Crazy Horse’s relations can stand up and be proud of their ancestor.
You can check out the closest known image of Crazy Horse – a drawing of the Lakota Chief on the PBS “History Detectives” program on line at pbs.org
(here is the actual link to the show for the web) http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigations/705_crazyhorse.html
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