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Reflections on a messianic chief

CRAZY HORSE (Tashunka-piteo in the Lakota tongue) had the greatest military record of any Sioux chieftain fighting the white man on the Great Plains in the bloody decade or so after the American Civil War. Although, as Larry McMurtry points out, the concept of an overall commander in Sioux warfare is problematical, Crazy Horse played a major role in the three greatest victories over the United States cavalry: the Fetterman fight of 21 December 1866, the battle of the Rosebud on 17 June 1876, and the battle of the Little Bighorn eight days later. He was one of the three most important figures in Sioux society at the time. However, unlike Red Cloud, a superior chief in his own Oglala tribe, or Spotted Tail, of the Brule Sioux, he was a loner. He disliked contact with whites, and was thus not able to make the realistic appreciation of their power that his fellow Sioux leaders Red Cloud and Spotted Tail made.

Crazy Horse was a master tactician, and his greatest achievement was his defeat of General Crook at the Rosebud. A day-long battle, involving 1,300 US soldiers and perhaps 1,000 Indians, resulted in 87 deaths (30 among Crazy Horse's men) and in Crook's retreat. At the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse was again prominent, but the premier battle honours that day should probably go to the Hunkpapa Sioux leader Gall. Contrary to legend, the over-hyped Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull was not even present at the battle.

But there are absurd fashions in Indian history, with writers riding hobby horses and propagandising for different chiefs. As McMurtry says, "Historians' approaches to Red Cloud and Crazy Horse are opposite: they tend to take Red Cloud out of battles he may well have been in and put Crazy Horse in battles he may well have missed."

When extreme military pressure from Washington secured the Sioux surrender the following year, Crazy Horse reluctantly came into the Indian Agency at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Crook, who was by now fighting Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, sent envoys to ask if Crazy Horse would scout for him. Crazy Horse replied that he would exterminate every last Nez Perce, but this was translated (whether deliberately or in error is uncertain) as "every last white man".

Feared by the American military and shunned by Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, who were jealous of his martial prestige, Crazy Horse became a marked man. A warrant for his arrest was issued. During a scuffle at Fort Robinson, he was bayoneted to death by an American soldier while his arms were held by the quisling chief Little Big Man.

Crazy Horse was 37 when he died. He has since been built up to Christ- like or Messianic status in native American culture as a man who never truckled to whites and was never defeated by them. The choice of Larry McMurtry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his outstanding western novel Lonesome Dove, was, on paper, an inspired one to write this short biography in the Weidenfeld Lives series. And the choice of subject is refreshingly original in an otherwise somewhat predictable list (Buddha, Mao, Mozart, Joan of Arc, etc).

Alas, the book is a severe disappointment. This is not so much a life of Crazy Horse as an extended essay containing some random reflections on the chief. His great battles are not even described adequately, and none of McMurtry's narrative makes much sense unless one already has an extensive knowledge of western history. McMurtry argues by analogy, conceit and imagination, which is fine in a creative writer but misplaced in a biographer.

The net effect is to make this an esoteric and self-indulgent book with, I would have thought, a virtually non-existent target audience. Those who know nothing about Crazy Horse are likely to be baffled, and those who know even a little are likely to find the treatment inadequate. A pairing of subject and author that must have seemed irresistible to an editorial conference has produced a damp squib. This is a great opportunity wasted.