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Anno Domini: The spirits of the Plain still speak
September 01, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
“Spirits of the Plain still sing their sad refrain, and the call of the coyote choir, and the song of the wind in the wire.”

The Plains can be a haunting kind of place, as singer Randy Travis captured in his song “Wind in the Wire.” The emigrant, the fur trader, the Lakota and so many others all made their marks in the history books – events that happened in our own back yard.

I find it puzzling that with such a rich history just outside the window, more area schools and colleges aren’t teaching it in history classes. But on second thought, maybe I don’t want to know. In today’s oppressive PC culture, history is rewritten with impunity to make the European white guy the villain in every story. You’ll understand if you ever have the misfortune of reading any of Howard Zinn’s corrosive history for people who really don’t like America.

Revisionists are quick to trot out the Indian nations as prime examples of the villainous white man. Sure, a lot of atrocities were committed against them, but they also did the same to their neighbors. It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Humankind has been committing outrageous acts against his fellow man since Cain and Abel. It’s a part of human nature. Blame is the only recourse for those who refuse to see the spiritual nature of the problem.

But rather than rail against PC culture and the mental flabbiness that creates it, I’ll spend a few keystrokes remembering a fascinating character from our local history.

Next Monday, on Sept. 5, 1877, an honored warrior of the Oglala Lakota died at Ft. Robinson. His name was Tasunke-Witko, but for much of his childhood he was known as Curly. His father gave him the name by which we know him – Crazy Horse.

I suppose I’m fascinated by the life and times of Crazy Horse because he was such an enigma. Not much was known about him until the final year of his life, as he tried to stay away from the encroaching white civilization that was taking over his people’s ancestral lands.

Nebraska author Mari Sandoz wrote a biography, or sorts, of his life in 1942. But few of the stories could be documented by primary sources. Like it is with so many of our historic heroes, it’s hard to tell where history ends and good storytelling begins.

Another intriguing part of the puzzle is that no picture of Crazy Horse exists, at least one that can be documented as authentic. Several of his friends, including He Dog and Touch the Clouds (another fascinating character) had pictures taken, but not Crazy Horse.

From the records historians have been able to piece together, Crazy Horse was born in the early 1840s along Rapid Creek in the Black Hills.

At a young age, he witnessed the shooting of Conquering Bear near Ft. Laramie in 1854 in a dispute over the killing of a cow belonging to a Mormon emigrant. History records it as the Grattan Massacre.

Crazy Horse distinguished himself over the years through battles with neighboring tribes. And he played an active role in Red Cloud’s successful 1868 campaign against the Army to close the military forts along the Bozeman Trail from Ft. Laramie to Montana.

Tribal members who knew him said he embodied the true virtues of a Lakota warrior: humility, generosity, bravery, perseverance and wisdom.

After the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, Crazy Horse and his band of followers fled to Canada. But after a winter of starvation, especially for the women and children, he surrendered at Camp Robinson in May 1877.

It was quiet for a while. But soon the military became panicky with rumors that Crazy Horse was planning another breakout. Some of his own people, who were jealous of his place of honor, helped keep the rumors going.

On Sept. 5, 1877, soldiers came to arrest Crazy Horse, saying they were taking him to see the camp commander. But when Crazy Horse saw he was being taken to the stockade, he panicked and tried to escape. In the ensuing fracas, he was bayoneted by one of the soldiers. He died late that night, attended by Dr. McGillicuddy, the camp physician, and his friend Touch the Clouds.
His parents took the body of their son up the Beaver Valley and buried him in an undisclosed location. Those of us with a romantic fancy might wonder if Crazy Horse was buried near the site of a future atrocity – at a place called Wounded Knee.

For me, Crazy Horse is one of those icons who personified the struggle between the Indian nations and white society for control of the West.

Many other tribal leaders gave up and were forced onto reservations, where they accepted the dress and customs of white society. But Crazy Horse just wanted to be left alone to live the traditional life of his people, that which had been passed down by his ancestors. He thought that life was worth fighting for – and dying for.

There’s a certain kind of sadness in the story of Crazy Horse and the noble people who were forced into a society that was always foreign to them. To this day, they still have trouble coping, as the government has turned them into dependents. Maybe that’s the saddest part of all.

Those spirits of the Plain can still be heard. They can be heard in the whistle of the wind across the vast expanse that was once home to those who were here before us. And in that sense, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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