Crazy Horse and the Western Hero
Crazy Horse, believed born sometime in 1838, was a respected member of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe and is noted for his courage in battle. He was recognized among his own people as a visionary leader committed to preserving the traditions and values of the Lakota way of life and leading his people into a war against the take-over of their lands by the White Man. The location of Crazy Horses birth is not conclusively known. Some sources report his birthplace as the South Cheyenne River. Other sources point to either Rapid Creek, near present day Rapid City, South Dakota, or near Bear Butte outside Sturgis, South Dakota.
Crazy Horse earned his reputation among the Lakota not only by his skill and daring in battle, but also by his fierce determination to preserve his people’s traditional way of life. Celebrated for his ferocity in battle, Crazy Horse was recognized among his own people as a visionary and independent leader committed to preserving the traditions and values of the Lakota people. This is what has made his legacy so strong. He refused, for example, to allow any photographs to be taken of him. He also fought to prevent American encroachment on Lakota lands following the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, helping to attack a surveying party sent into the Black Hills by General George Armstrong Custer in 1873.
Even as a young man, Crazy Horse was a legendary warrior. He stole horses from the Crow Indians before he was thirteen, and led his first war party before turning twenty. Crazy Horse fought in the 1865-68 war led by the Oglala chief Red Cloud against American settlers in Wyoming, and played a key role in destroying William J. Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Phil Kearny in 1866.
It is believed that Crazy Horse was in the Brule camp when it was attacked by United States (U.S.) troops during the Grattan Massacre. After witnessing the death of Sioux leader, Conquering Bear, Crazy Horse wandered alone into the lake country of the Sand Hills, where he had the vision that would guide him for the rest of his life. His vision led him to go against Lakota customs by not wearing face paint or a war bonnet in battle, and to rub dust over his hair and body before going into battle.
Through the late 1850s and early 1860s, Crazy Horse’s reputation as a warrior grew as did his fame among the Lakota. Little written record exists of the fights involving Crazy Horse because the vast majority of them were raids against other preliterate Plains tribes. Because of his fighting ability, Crazy Horse was installed as an Ogle Tanka Un (Shirt Wearer or war leader) in 1865.
On December 21, 1866, Crazy Horse led the Oglala contingent of a war party comprising 1,000 warriors, including members of the Cheyenne and Miniconjou tribes, in an ambush of U.S. troops stationed at Fort Phil Kearny that became known as the Fetterman massacre. Crazy Horse led a decoy party that drew the U.S. soldiers out of Fort Kearny while the main body of warriors hid around the Lodge Trail Ridge. The ambush was the worst army defeat on the Great Plains at the time.
On August 14, 1872, Crazy Horse, along with Sitting Bull took part in the first attack by the Lakota on troops escorting a Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew. The Battle of Arrow Creek ended with minimal casualties on either side. On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led a combined group of approximately 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack against General George Crook’s force of 1,000 cavalry and infantry and 300 Crow and Shoshone warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud. The battle, although not substantial in terms of human loss, delayed Crook from joining up with the 7th Cavalry under George A. Custer, ensuring the Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When the War Department ordered all Lakota bands onto their reservations in 1876, Crazy Horse became a leader of the resistance. Closely allied to the Cheyenne through his first marriage to a Cheyenne woman, he gathered a force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne at his village and turned back General George Crook on June 17, 1876, as Crook tried to advance up Rosebud Creek toward Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Bighorn. At 3:00 P.M. On June 26, 1876, Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked the Lakota and Cheyenne village, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse entered the battle by repelling the first attack led by Major Marcus Reno. After driving back Reno’s force, Crazy Horse’s warriors were free to pursue Custer. In the counterattack that destroyed Custer’s 7th Cavalry to the last man, Crazy Horse flanked the Americans from the north and west, as Hunkpapa Warriors led by chief Gall charged from the south and east
Following the Lakota victory at the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and Gall retreated to Canada, but Crazy Horse remained to battle General Nelson Miles as he pursued the Lakota and their allies relentlessly throughout the winter of 1876-77. On January 8, 1877, his warriors fought their last battle, the Battle of Slim Buttes, with the United States Cavalry in Montana and on May 8 of that year he realized that his people were weakened by cold and hunger and he surrendered to United States troops in Nebraska. This constant military harassment and the decline of the buffalo population had forced Crazy Horse to surrender. Except for Gall and Sitting Bull, he was the last important chief to yield. To encourage Crazy Horse to go to Washington D.C. To meet with the then newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes, Lieutenant William Philo Clark made him a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Indian Scouts on May 15, 1877. Crazy Horse still declined to make the trip.
Even in defeat, Crazy Horse remained an independent spirit. “As a leader, Crazy Horse kept the interests of his people before him. He provided for them and protected them from harm. He signed no treaties, and he surrendered only because he did not want his followers to suffer depravation, cold, and hunger. Even in his dying moments he thought of his people. For all of those reasons, it is easy for the Lakotas to remember him and say his name as if it were a prayer.”
In September 1877, when he left the reservation without authorization, to take his sick wife to her parents, General George Crook ordered him arrested, fearing that he was plotting a return to battle. Crazy Horse did not resist arrest at first, but when he realized that he was being led to a guardhouse, he began to struggle, and while his arms were held by one of the arresting officers, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet.
Westerns Films are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier, the borderline between civilization and the wilderness. They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres, and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins. This indigenous American art form focuses on the frontier West that existed in North America.
The western film genre often portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature, in the name of civilization, or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier. Specific settings include lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, the isolated homestead, the saloon, the jail, the small-town main street, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization. Other iconic elements in westerns include the hanging tree, stetsons and spurs, lassos and Colt .45’s, stagecoaches, gamblers, long-horned cattle and cattle drives, prostitutes (or madams) with a heart of gold, and more. The western film genre has portrayed much about America’s past, glorifying the past-fading values and aspirations of the mythical by-gone age of the West. Over time, westerns have been re-defined, re-invented and expanded, dismissed, re-discovered, and spoofed. The western has more or less died out as a genre, and the sort of gangster picture that made Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart famous has become a rarity.
Warshow’s essays appeared from 1946 to 1955, primarily in The Partisan Review, The Nation, and Commentary. Because he died of a heart attack in 1955, at the age of 37, his life’s work fits into a single volume. Warshow’s posthumous fame, what little of it there is, rests largely on his film essays, especially “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” which are occasionally included in anthologies of film criticism.
Warshow knows from his own experience that he is drawn to the Western, regardless of what others say about its value as a genre, and he wonders what draws him to it. The Western, he writes, “offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found almost nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence. This refusal is a virtue, but like many virtues it involves a certain willful blindness and it encourages hypocrisy.”
When the right moment comes, we want the hero to draw a little faster than the villain – but only at the right moment. The Western hero, as played by someone like Gary Cooper, is a man who lives by a code, and thus only resorts to violence when the unwritten rules permit it. Many of those around him fail to understand the need for violence, and hence he must often act alone; moreover, he must always use violent means honorably, so as not to disgrace himself.
We can spot the hero a mile away. Why? Because, says Warshow, “in a movie it is not the intrinsic worth of an idea that counts, but the power with which it is made into an image; in the movie theater, we think with our eyes.”
The ideals embodied by a man of integrity who must commit acts of violent goodness must find appropriate visual expression. “Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence. Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: what most interests him is not (as we so much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.”
Warshow has eloquently articulated what we take to be true about the Western hero, even if we have never explicitly formulated this truth for ourselves. When he makes the general observation that the westerner is a “classical figure” there is little doubt it is Cooper’s persona that is his point of reference for the genre as a whole. Written in a somewhat melancholy tone, there is in Warshow’s essay a sense that the genre’s classical style had reached a limit point and that a new ensemble of elements had emerged. Warshow understood the western to have been the most classical of American genres; whether it would remain so was an open question.
Richard White’s central thesis is that succeeding occupants of the American West exploited the land and Indian and Hispanic inhabitants, displacing previous cultures for immediate financial benefits. This book embodies the theme that, as succeeding groups have occupied the American West and shaped the land, they have done so without regard for present inhabitants. They have cared little about the cost their activities imposed on others; what has mattered is the immediate benefit they have derived from their transformation of the land. “UW [University of Washington] history department chairman Richard Johnson characterizes it as ‘a reinterpretation of Western history that decisively turns away from the Hollywood epic of white men heading wagon trains and shaping frontier democracies on virgin land. Instead, it delineates the forming of a region: one already endowed with distinctive Indian and Hispanic cultures, and one where racial tensions and discriminations, extractive industries, highly urban settlements and a common dependence on the federal government were at least as important as the traditional elements we associate with a rural and independent West.'”
Scholars have reexamined and dismantled the West of heroic white male pioneers transplanting and improving civilization in a region sometimes encountered as a welcoming garden, sometimes as a dangerous frontier. From the arrival of the first Americans and their dispersal across the North and South American continents, to the age of European colonization, to the creation of the West in the nineteenth century, and, finally, to the rise of the urban West of the twentieth century, White weaves together the complex themes of conflict and exploitation (environmental and human), race and ethnicity, class, and gender. “Nineteenth-century migrants into the West established what amounted to a new world on top of the existing world of Indian and Hispanic villages. Like Indian and Hispanic communities, most Anglo American and immigrant communities were family-based… In all of these communities women remained subordinate to men.”
Linking these themes is the constant struggle for power and survival. Whether the tale is of Spanish conquistadors overpowering the Pueblos of the Southwest; American settlers and soldiers destroying the native populations of the Plains, Rockies, and Pacific Northwest and appropriating their resources; or the battle between ranchers, miners, and timber interests and a growing federal bureaucracy, the relations of power defined the terms of survival. “Powerlessness was already familiar to a large number of westerners by the twentieth century. They belonged to groups defeated or subordinated during the nineteenth century. Indians, Asians, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans were the predictable inhabitants of the periphery.”
Unlike the traditional heroic West, White’s West does not stand apart from the rest of the world. Instead, the region is very much a part of national and global historical developments. To the extent that western exceptionalism exists at all, it stems not from any set of ideals, whether Jeffersonian or Turnerian, but from the exceptionally powerful role of institutions – religion, government, industrial capitalism, and urbanization – in shaping the region’s geography, culture, economic life, and politics. The U.S. government owned the trans-Mississippi West and ownership gave it the power to define the rules, or sometimes the lack of rules, governing political organization, settlement, infrastructural development, resource exploitation, and the dispossession of native occupiers. “The federal government’s role in distributing lands meant that American citizens in the West felt the presence of the federal government far more directly than did citizens elsewhere. That presence was supposed to be temporary, because the public domain, it was thought, would in time become entirely private property. But that did not turn out to be true.”
The U.S. conquest and settlement was an expensive proposition and only the combined power of government and eastern capital could provide the necessary investment. That meant that the West and its resources were tied closely to the national and global economy. The West, in short, became a region characterized by intensive industrialization. That, in turn, made it a mainly urban region. This urban industrial West was a magnet for migrating populations from Europe, Asia, Mexico, and the American East. As governments, business interests, and migrants struggled for power and survival their goals were immediate. Control of land, water, timber, minerals, and jobs mattered above all else.
To most whites nature existed largely as a collection of commodities. God, they believed, had created nature for individual human beings to use, and it was their duty to make use of it. Logically enough, they valued plants, animals, and minerals according to their utility, and to call something useless was to question its right to exist in a human-dominated environment…. Native Americans’ beliefs about nature varied widely, but as a whole they can be distinguished from whites’ attitudes by their tendency to endow nature with a spiritual dimension largely lacking in white thought.
Those who lost out, and later generations, were on their own.
Marshall, Joseph M. “Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) 1840-77.”
Pautler, N.P. “We all play the hand we’re dealt, honored historian says.” University Week. June 22, 1995, p. 3.
Robert Warshow. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
White, Richard. It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Joseph M. Marshall. “Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) 1840-77.” “http://www.emayzine.com/cgi-bin/sitemail/log.cgi?page=lectures/CRAZYHOR.html” ?Houghton Mifflin Encyclopedia of North American Indians. June 19, 2005. .
Robert Warshow. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 121.
Ibid., p. 139.
Ibid., p. 123.
N.P. Pautler. “We all play the hand we’re dealt, honored historian says.” University Week. June 22, 1995, p. 3.
Richard White. It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, p. 298.
White, p. 431.
White, p. 137.
White, p. 212.
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