Q: What is the most important difference between The Killing of Crazy Horse and previous accounts that have been written about his life?
A: The Killing of Crazy Horse differs from previous books in its focus on the event—the killing itself—not a formal biography of the chief. Many different people played a role on the fatal day—the brooding General George Crook who was determined to get Crazy Horse out of the way; the great Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud, who was the only American Indian ever to win a war against the government of the United States; the young West Point graduate, Lieutenant William Philo Clark, who thought he could “work” Indians to do the bidding of the Army; the mixed-blood scouts William Garnett (half Oglala) and Frank Grouard (half South Sea Islander); the war comrades of Crazy Horse, He Dog and Little Big Man. Crazy Horse stirred all these men to action, some to defend him, some to get him out of the way. The question at the heart of the book is why was he killed? I found the answer in what a dozen different men thought, felt, intended and did. Seeing the event whole, from all sides, is a good way—in my view, perhaps the best way—to understand what the Sioux and other Plains tribes suffered when they were confined to reservations.
Q: You are perhaps best known for your work on the CIA (although you have written about a wide variety of topics). What made you want to tell the story of Crazy Horse?
A: My writing life has been spent largely trying to uncover things that were hidden, not writing about the CIA as a professional intelligence service. What the CIA was like—its operational style, the tensions between analysts and case officers, the personal histories of the agency’s early leaders—wasn’t classified and it wasn’t even secret in the usual sense when I began, but it was hidden, and it required a lot of patient asking of questions to coax up to the surface.
The first thing that caught my attention about Crazy Horse was the sorrow of his killing. Everybody involved understood almost immediately that it had been a tragic blunder. That sorrow made me wonder why historians had mainly treated the killing as a kind of afterthought. It made a deep and abiding impression on the Sioux, and over time it came to haunt the country as a whole—a painful but perfect example of the way the United States treated its native population. I wanted to know what happened and why it happened. Bringing the whole episode back to life after more than a century seemed almost impossible, but I thought that perhaps it could be done.
Q: In remarks at the end of the book you refer to it as a “true narrative”—what do you mean by that?
A: I’ve started to use the term to describe a certain kind of writing that up until now has been generally identified as “non-fiction.” Any big narrative, whether novel or non-fiction, tells a story which reveals its meaning through events and the interaction of characters. A true narrative tells a story which is not only based on fact, but deliberately avoids all the usual tools of conventional history, such as explanation, analysis, argument. The point is to allow the reader to experience the story, and to register its emotional impact without intrusive nudging or outright hectoring by the author. Think of the way a child experiences a funny story or a sad story. You don’t have to explain it. The humor or the sadness is in the story. The challenge is to put that feeling in, so it is unmistakably there.
Q: Okay, I get the narrative part. But the true part seems a little iffy—how can you prove that a fact is true?
A: You’re right—that’s not easy. But you’re trying to tell a story based in reality—that’s the main source of its impact. Let’s put it this way—you build the story with factual claims you believe are true, and use none that are demonstrably false. The Killing of Crazy Horse is as true as I could make it, but the book is built out of a zillion factual details—odds are that some readers will point out things I got wrong. But not big things—I’m ready to go to the mat for those.
Q: A key figure in The Killing of Crazy Horse is the interpreter Billy Garnett, who was half white and half Indian. Why did you focus so much of your research on this man?
A: Of all those involved in the killing of Crazy Horse, none left a more substantial account of what happened, or spoke about it with greater honesty, than the young mixed-blood interpreter Billy Garnett. The standard histories all give him a line or two, remarking mainly that he was the son of a Confederate general killed at Gettysburg. I found Garnett a fascinating figure from the moment I first learned of him—he was young (only twenty-two when the chief was killed), he was in the very middle of events interpreting the words of the chiefs and Army officers, and he recorded things that others tried to hide or deny. One was Crook’s agreement with the chiefs to organize a nighttime murder of Crazy Horse. In the end a different approach led to the same result, but when asked many years later, Garnett told General Hugh Scott about this murder plot without hesitation. Mixed-bloods like Garnett played an important part in the history of the Plains tribes, but their role has been very little studied.
But something else stimulated my interest in Garnett—a grandson’s story about a visit by the “Old Man” in a dream. What Garnett did in the dream of course plays no direct part in the story of Crazy Horse, but it illustrates how these long-ago events still have power to move the Oglala on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. For that reason I included the story in the introduction to the book, and used another at the end for the same reason. The last story concerns an object given by Crazy Horse to a man he called cousin, an object his family carefully preserved for a hundred years. In my experience such stories come when least expected, are told quietly, and stay with you.
Q: How did the actions of both the soldiers and other chiefs play a part in the killing of Crazy Horse?
A: The father of Crazy Horse said he was killed by too much talk—the endless rumors that Crazy Horse would turn his back on peace, join Sitting Bull in Canada, attempt to murder General Crook. The friends of Crazy Horse said he had given up fighting and wanted only to be left alone, but the Army was angered by the chief’s defeat of Custer and feared he would resume the war. The other chiefs resented his popularity among the young fighting men. Three words capture it all—anger, fear and jealousy. Crazy Horse himself pushed events toward a fatal result only at the last moment—by refusing to submit when the Army tried to lock him up in a military prison.
Q: When most people hear the name Crazy Horse, they think of Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Your book includes the first substantial attempt to describe the fight based almost entirely from the Indian perspective. Do these accounts reveal any major misconceptions of the battle as we know it?
A: Historians have been fascinated by Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn since the general was killed with all his men on June 25, 1876. Custer was one of the great cavalry commanders of the Civil War and he had plenty of experience at Indian fighting. How had he blundered so completely?
Putting the question that way confronted historians with an impossible task—trying to explain what Custer was thinking and telling his officers to do when none had survived to tell the tale. But if you set aside all the surmise about Custer’s conduct of the battle, and simply relate things as the Indians told them, the battle suddenly takes on a kind of clean simplicity. It goes roughly like this—Reno attacked and was driven away. Then the Indians still in the camp confronted Custer on his first approach, chased him up a long hill away from the river, were joined by warriors returning from the Reno fight, overwhelmed the separate groups of soldiers who tried to make a stand, and finally swept over the last panicked men around Custer near the top of the hill. After that it was a matter of killing survivors. The Indian version of the fight takes the mystery out of it—the Indians were too many and the soldiers too few. The Indians had been telling this story almost since the day of the fight, but no one wanted to listen.
Q: The Killing of Crazy Horse is not told only from the Indian perspective but also through the eyes of soldiers who managed the agencies and led campaigns against Crazy Horse and his band. What were their impressions of the chief?
A: Crazy Horse often left an indelible impression on the people he met. It seems to have been part of his power. The soldiers may have killed him but they respected and even admired him. With Crook’s aide, Lieutenant John Gregory Bourke for example, Crazy Horse spoke only a single word, but Bourke left a substantial record of the encounter, and after his death wrote down a long paragraph of unrestrained praise calling Crazy Horse “generous to a fault, skilful, cool in battle, ever in advance of his warriors…the only perfectly modest Indian chief I ever saw,” and there was a lot more of the same.
Another officer deeply impressed by the chief was Lieutenant Jesse Lee, whose sad duty—one he never forgot nor ceased to regret—was to escort Crazy Horse back to the military post at Camp Robinson on the fatal day. Lieutenant Henry Lemly wrote a full, fair-minded account of the killing for the New York Sun, and Lieutenant Clark, who did more to engineer the killing of Crazy Horse than any other man, still praised him as a man and leader, and went on trying to convince himself the killing was necessary until the day he died. There are few villains in this story. Perhaps Frank Grouard comes closest, but I’ll leave that for the reader to judge.
Q: No photos of Crazy Horse exist, and there is much mystery surrounding the great chief’s life and death. Was it difficult to find source material? (You obtained some important primary sources from eBay of all places!)
A: We Americans have a scribbling culture and there are lots of sources. The Army writes everything down and throws nothing away. The same goes for the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Around 1900 the old-timers began to write down what they remembered—not just in books, but in articles for magazines and newspapers, and in talks before state and local historical societies. For many years a newspaper called Winners of the West included nothing but accounts of the Indian Wars. The old plainsman Luther North lived into the 1930s and in his final decades wrote hundreds of letters to friends and historians, often describing the same event three or four times, each time a little differently. Trust me when I say there is tons of material.
My basic approach was to look everywhere, and that included eBay. One day I ran across a letter about the Brule chief Spotted Tail, which I bought for a modest sum. The seller was a retired book dealer in Cheyenne, Wyoming named Pat Hall and after an exchange of letters I went out to see him and ended up buying a large collection of the papers of the historian George Hyde, a familiar name to anyone interested in the history of the Sioux. Hyde had been a good friend of Pat’s in Omaha in Pat’s youth. Included were a thick sheaf of letters to Hyde from old timers like John Colhoff and Philip Wells filled with detail about the Sioux of the 1870s, whom they knew well.
But that wasn’t all I found on eBay. I checked regularly for old photos and found some amazing things. The challenge was to identify the subjects—I had a lot of help on this from experts like Mike Cowdrey and Ephriam Dickson. Doing this over a period of many years—I blush to say how many—gradually deepened my knowledge of the Sioux of the 1870s, and of the Oglala in particular. To keep track of all the individuals I created a biographical dictionary, which now includes several thousand names. My guess is that at least a quarter, and maybe even a third of all the Oglala men active in the 1870s are named in the dictionary. I could talk for a long time about sources, especially the ones still waiting to be found. I went to at least thirty different archives and libraries all over the country but the shocking thing was how few people I found doing the same thing.
Q: Another major source for you were pension files for Oglala and Brule scouts that had previously been untouched. What new information did these files reveal?
A: It would be hard to exaggerate the richness of pension files as a source of personal information about the Cheyenne and Sioux scouts hired by General Crook in 1876-1877. Survivors or their widows became eligible for pensions after the First World War. The trick was to prove service—hard for most Indians who had misplaced their enlistment and discharge papers over the years. The Pension Bureau regularly sent officials to the reservations where hearings were held to determine if the applicant had really served. Testimony was recorded and a typical file might include twenty or thirty pages of information from numerous witnesses—old war comrades, children, former wives, lawyers, reservation officials and the like. Widows had to prove their eligibility, which required a lengthy exploration of the marriages of both herself and the soldier. Billy Garnett was the interpreter at many of these hearings and he often contributed a few words—sometimes a lot of words—to the account of events. Applicants sometimes gave lengthy descriptions of their service—not just dates and units but accounts of battles and expeditions. In one hearing, for example, Short Bull, brother of He Dog, described the wound he had received at the Little Bighorn.
Tracking down these pension files was far from easy, and going through them was time consuming. Some files were hundreds of pages long and touched on every aspect of an applicant’s life. Most of the files had been closed in the 1920s and 1930s, a few in the 1940s. The ones I examined were almost all pristine. No one had looked at them for sixty years or more. A few were thin—application denied at the outset. But most were astonishingly rich in detailed information about the personal, military and medical histories of Indians who had served as scouts in the 1870s. By the time I quit I had copied and made abstracts of about 200 files; dozens made specific mention of details or individuals involved in the arrest and killing of Crazy Horse. It was in a pension file, for example, that I found Little Bull’s description of Crazy Horse’s refusal to ride in an Army ambulance on his return to Camp Robinson on the fatal day.
Q: Your book includes all sorts of words that people may find offensive—half-breed, squaw, buck, chief, even Indian. Do you worry reviewers might give you hell for this?
A: I do worry about it, but I don’t think writers should hide, muffle or apologize for the past. Any story about Indian-white relations in the 1800s is a going to be story with a strong racist undercurrent. Whites of the period were obsessed with race and they continually asserted their own racial superiority, often in deeply offensive terms. Their use of dismissive words like squaw, buck and half-breed doesn’t begin to cover it. I have not tried to soften or conceal this. I often quote those words, but never use them myself.
But use of the word Indian is a different matter. I used the phrase “Native American” once in the book to prove I know it, but otherwise depended on the traditional term “Indian” for three reasons—because that is the word universally used at the time of the story, because the word is commonly used without apology or hesitation by Indians today, and because use of “Native American” would violate the flow of the narrative. Just to give one example—all the early analysts of the battle of the Little Bighorn came up with the same explanation for Custer’s defeat—too many Indians. So that’s what I said. How could a writer who cares about words use “Native Americans” in that sentence? But you’re probably right. I’ll probably catch hell, but what’s a fellow to do?
Q: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project?
A: I do have a new project—still in its very early stages. It’s about a trip my father took down the Mississippi River in a rowboat with his brother in 1906, when he was fourteen years old and his brother Al was nine. The family was moving to Memphis and there were no buyers for the rowboat so they had to leave it behind or take it downriver themselves—five hundred miles. What amazed me when he first told this story, and amazes me still, is the fact that their mother…let them go!
My father used to say that he was the most American person he had ever met. For many years I’ve wondered exactly what he meant by that. Part of it was his all-American childhood, which involved not only hardship and frequent moves but the sort of things that stirred American boys at the time. There’s even an Indian in the story—Joe Creeping Bear, who stayed behind in Memphis one year when Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show ended its season there. My father got to know Joe quite well during a year he spent in prison on a murder charge. Throughout his youth my father had interesting encounters all through the south and west—in Texas, where his father had gone to sell towns by the “Dutch Lottery system,” and in California, where his mother got a job as secretary for a brilliant military thinker who helped organize the Chinese revolution.
But a principal thread running through my father’s life was that trip down the Mississippi. He never stopped thinking about it, and he wrote a pretty substantial account in the 1960s. He talked about it too, and from the time I was ten till I was nearly fifty I listened to those stories and in the latter years I had the wit to take notes. When I’m working on a book I like to walk the ground, and I’m looking forward to some interesting trips. The one I’m looking forward to most will be one down the Mississippi with a nephew in a small boat. But probably not a rowboat.