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Thomas Powers's "The Killing of Crazy Horse"

Friday, December 10, 2010; 8:28 PM

THE KILLING OF CRAZY HORSE

By Thomas Powers

Knopf. 565 pp. $30

It is easy to see why people are still fascinated by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse. He was the frontier version of James Dean. He lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse. Crazy Horse and Dean even share the honor of having their own U.S. postage stamps. Crazy Horse's stamp was worth 13 cents; Dean's was 32 cents.

What is unique about Thomas Powers's approach to Crazy Horse is the dramatic staging of his meticulously researched and gripping account. The Oglala war chief nearly wiped out Gen. George Crook, who led the Black Hills and Yellowstone Expeditionary Force meant to drive the Sioux from the Black Hills, and settled instead for killing Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25 and 26, 1876. Powers sets up the story as a tragic drama played out between Crazy Horse, the heroic and implacable Indian leader; Crook, the antagonist with a flaw - a few of them, actually; Frank Grouard, the ethnically vague, self-promoting scout; Little Big Man, the friend who betrayed the chief; and jealous rival chiefs such as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail.

Fate hangs over the book's pages like smoke over a battlefield. Powers shows Crook at his worst - unable to best Crazy Horse in battle, he lures the chief to Camp Robinson, where he is murdered in a mystifying storm of deceit on the part of Crook, jealousy and frustration among his Sioux allies, and a series of simple blunders. One can't help feel after reading Powers's account that Crazy Horse was fated to die that day.

As the narrative unfolds, Crazy Horse emerges from the pages as he must have to those who wanted his head: as a mystery, a rumor, someone sighted from a distance. It is not known exactly how old he was - born circa 1840 - or how he got his great name (either from his father or from a vision), or even how he felt about all the bloodshed. Powers leaves one to speculate: If Crook's sin was pride, did Crazy Horse share that tragic flaw? Was his decision to fight Americans calculated and political? Or was fighting such a way of life on the plains that it was impossible for him to imagine an alternative?

It is violence that defined the West during the Indian Wars and violence that defines Powers's book. Perhaps more gripping than the way in which Crazy Horse's life begins in soft focus, becomes sharper and then eludes capture (no one knows where his body is buried or what happened to his medicine bundle) are the small moments of violence that Powers relates. These are chilling and unforgettable. In one episode the Sioux catch a Crow horse thief who is shot and killed, and his arms and legs hacked off and tied to the bushes, before the Sioux band decamps. In another occurrence, U.S. soldiers drag the bodies of two Sioux warriors back to the Sioux camp and, within sight of the friends and relatives of the slain, throw them on a fire and laugh as their flesh sizzles and pops in the flames. Much later in the book, Shoshone scouts working alongside the U.S. Army under Crook's command sack a Cheyenne village and find a buckskin bag full of the severed right hands of their own children, who they'd assumed were safe at home.

Writing about such a time of rapid, cataclysmic change, it would have been easy for an author to take sides. In some ways Powers's decision to withhold judgment is a wonderful thing, but in his quest for balance he glosses over the fact that, while Crook might have been fighting for his pride and his command, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were fighting for their lives. Crook's defeat would have spelled the end of his career; Crazy Horse's defeat was the end of an age. What, after all, are you to do when you have been born and bred and taught to live a certain way, and then that way is no longer open to you?

For many Indians at agencies throughout the West, the question of what to hunt and how to express their culture was answered by the government allotment of beef cattle. Instead of killing the cows in their pens and butchering the meat there, Indians released the cows and chased them down on horseback in mock hunts that meant a great deal to those conducting them. "The beef issue at Red Cloud [Agency] was part of the tour given every visitor," Powers writes, "and they all returned with stories of the festival atmosphere, the dramatic slaughter and quick work done by Indian women with their butchering knives; of the children and young men with blood running down their necks as they chewed into livers or kidneys plucked steaming from the freshly killed beeves; of the intestines, carelessly washed of their grassy contents, chewed on by infants and old people alike."

More than the story of Crazy Horse or the battles between two implacable foes, Powers gives us a portrait of a place - a portrait done in the blood of the heartland, a heart still beating after all these years. Powers has given us a great book, a great painting of that still-beating heart.

bookworld@washpost.com David Treuer's latest novel is "The Translation of Dr. Apelles." His nonfiction book on contemporary reservation life, "Rez Life," will be out in 2011. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Leech Lake Reservation.

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