Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Nonfiction Review: The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History

My neighborhood book group’s selection for last month was a nonfiction book, The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III, a descendant of the same Lakota community as Crazy Horse. It was fascinating and eye-opening, though also quite depressing, as I knew from the beginning how it ends.

Most of us have heard of Crazy Horse as a part of U.S. history in relation to General Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, but here Marshall delves into a fuller history of the man behind the legend, based on oral histories passed down within his tribe. He spent a lot of time talking with the elders in the Lakota community and hearing the stories that their grandparents told them, as well as doing extensive research of a more typical kind. He tells Crazy Horse’s story, beginning with his childhood and moving through his coming-of-age and his leadership within the Lakota to his early death.

Born to Crazy Horse and Rattling Blanket Woman, the small baby who would later receive his father’s esteemed name was first called The Light-Haired One (or just Light Hair, for short) because of his unusual brown hair. He was raised as any Lakota child was, nurtured by his mother, grandmothers, and other female tribe members in his early years and then gradually taught life skills by his father, grandfathers, and other male members after the age of five. Lakota boys were taught that men’s roles were to provide for (hunt) and to protect the rest of the tribe. Light Hair was quiet and introspective, with a few very close friends, and was well liked by most in the community.

The story of Crazy Horse is also the story of the Lakota people, and it is told here in fascinating detail. Marshall describes the homes, food, and culture of his people at that time. He delves into Lakota customs, from celebrations to courting to hunting rituals, as well as the relationships between Crazy Horse and others in his community.

Of course, at this time, in the 1840’s – 1850’s, Lakota life was changing drastically and irreversibly due to the new presence of white people in their territory. The U.S. set up military forts on and near Lakota (and other tribes’) lands, and a steady, growing stream of people passed through this area on what the whites called the Oregon Trail, in covered wagons. Where there had once been a narrow trail along the North Platte River shared by bison and humans, this new, different kind of human left in its wake a wide, rutted road, littered with dead carcasses, shallow graves, and discarded metal and wood parts. As dismayed as the Lakota were by this destruction, it became life-threatening when the bison, the lifeblood of the community, began to move away from the area.

As we all know from standard history lessons, things escalated horribly from there. Whites not only scared away the bison, they also hunted them: shooting them with powerful guns, a hundred or more at a time, stripping their furs, and leaving the carcasses behind to rot. They moved further and further into Lakota territory, in spite of treaties signed with the Indians (which they barely understood). These territorial incursions and threats to the Lakota way of life eventually resulted in battles between whites and Indians. When the Indians saw that the whites even fought differently than they did, with a goal to kill as many as possible and often leaving maimed bodies of women and children in their wake, the Lakota had to defend their lives and their livelihood.

We all know how it ended, but the battles that occurred in between are described here very differently than what we all learned in history classes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize the Battle of Little Bighorn (which the Lakota called The Greasy Grass Fight, after the river where it occurred) when I read about it. Custer is barely mentioned.

My entire book group felt that this book was interesting and informative. We all felt it was a very different perspective than what we’d known before, an important one to learn. We even saw parallels with events occurring in the world today. Unfortunately, some in my group didn’t finish reading it. Though the subject matter was thought provoking, the writing was sometimes sluggish and repetitive. Ratings ranged from 3 to 9 (I think I gave it a 7). I’m not typically a nonfiction reader, so it was perhaps even slower reading for me, but I was only about two-thirds of the way through the book when we discussed it, and I did decide to finish it.

I learned so much from this book. It was especially interesting to me because we often visit and vacation in this region, the Black Hills of South Dakota. We have family there and also love the area for its natural beauty and many amazing parks. It’s easy to see why the Lakota considered it a sacred place. We have been in the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the places where the author conducted his interviews. It may have taken me a while, but I am glad that I finished reading this book. It was a fascinating and enlightening side of history that I had never heard before.

298 pages, Viking

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The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History
by Marshall, Joseph M.Trade Paperback

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  1. A sluggish non-fiction can be tough. I think reading "the other side" of history is so important.I've never been to South Dakota, but really must go and see the area!

    1. I agree! It was a bit slow-paced for my tastes but I am so glad I read it - very enlightening.

      And, yes, South Dakota is amazing! I hope you get there soon!