In his wonderful book The Great Plains, Ian Frazier pays bended-knee-level homage to Crazy Horse, the Ogalalla Sioux (Lakota) freedom fighter who refused to bend the knee to white folks moving west in search of lands and fortunes. Custer lost at Little Big Horn, died there. Crazy Horse won big-time on the very same acre of bare ground.
The central idea of Frazier's book is that the Great Plains, this greatly forsaken portion of America with its wide open vistas, its endless horizons, its wild history of blood and ambition, has always been, first and foremost, a playground. Even Custer had fun out here, Frazier says, even Custer dying. Some of the first white people to roam the tall-grass prairie I live on were the naughty sons of English barons sent to the America prairies to let off the steam, to hunt fox and plant wild oats. They were here to have fun, to be wild, to be everything the church, for instance, forbid. Once their wilding was behind them, their fathers wanted them in jolly old England.
Frazier likes that wild image, and he's not wrong. The story of the plains is madcap really, it's lawless and free, more than a little Darwinian--only the strong survived. I once interviewed a woman who spent her whole life on the Rosebud reservation, a woman as Dutch as I am. We sat in her house in the middle of a world so seemingly barren you couldn't help wonder who could possibly raise the stamina to stay, year after year, in a place intolerant. "It's not easy to live here," she told me, looking outside. "The place is sort of unforgiving."
Crazy Horse, by Frazier's definition, is the Native version of the Great Plains hero because he did his own thing, never had his picture taken, never traveled to Washington, never accepted beads and baubles, never wearied of the fight to hold on to his people and his way of life. Frazier says Crazy Horse, in the religion of the plains, is its most treasured saint.
Frazier is not alone, of course. It's an understandable conclusion. Although there are other famous Lakota chiefs--Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, American Horse, men who really looked like what most of America thinks of when they imagine "injuns," all the rest of them at one point or another in their lives played the game with Washington, with the sunami flooding their world with white people, my own ancestors among them. Only Crazy Horse refused--and died at Ft. Robinson, refusing.
That's why Frazier sings his praises--in The Great Plains.
Not so in his next book, On the Rez, a unsparingly honest treatment of life on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation. In that book he takes back the praise and wonders aloud whether the saint shouldn't be Red Cloud, and not Crazy Horse whose immortalized visage, not yet finished, already appears carved in a mountain. Red Cloud fought white people until he, like so many others, determined that war was inevitably unwinnable. Red Cloud and all the rest determined that his Lakota people had to make the best of a very, very bad thing--the end of life as they knew it.
Spotted Tail threw in the towel early as well, but absolutely refused to do what Washington told him and his bands to do. He wouldn't fight, but neither would he cowtow. Sitting Bull, the religious heart of what happened at Little Big Horn, cut his own deals, even charged people for his autograph.
Struck by the Ree, the Yankton chief, traveled to Washington and stayed for three months, negotiating a treaty that saved the pipestone quarry and a sliver of land in exchange for supplies and schools and the materials white folks thought necessary to slay the savage and save the man. No white man ever kept a treaty, of course, but the effect of this one was, more than anything, to keep the Yanktons, who once lived here on the ground I walk, from destruction via endless war.
Keep going west--Chief Joseph, Manuelito, Cochise, Geronimo, Quahna Parker; or go east--Pontiac, King Phillip, Tecumseh, Sequoiah, Black Hawk--all of them, at one time or another conceded to a force so much bigger than were the people they led that some peace deal had to be struck.
Only Crazy Horse wouldn't. That's why he and his horse are getting a mountain.
To what extent were all the rest less heroic than Crazy Horse?
The Yankton's Struck by the Ree, once determined to be a man of peace by Lewis and Clark, became the prophecy by being the first of Sioux leaders to bend the knee.
You may have trouble finding the monument, and it stands a little crooked these days, but it's there.
When my Schaap ancestors got off the boat and went west to Iowa and South Dakota, they fought no Sioux Indians, probably saw some Yanktons once they moved to Charles Mix County, but probably never knew a Native soul.
Why? Struck by the Ree was a man of peace.
Is that a good thing? That question has a ton of answers.