Question. What is the most endangered ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere? The reefs of the Pacfic? Close. The Amazon Rainforest? Nope. The Isles of New York? Extinct. Despite what your latest cross-country flight might have suggested, it is, in fact, the Great Plains of North America. The vast expanse Zebulon Pike once coined “the Great American Desert”, has methodically disappeared over the last two hundred years. Today, between only one to four percent of the tall grass prairie remains intact in the Northern plains. First came the plow, followed by the paver, and the final punches were landed by the likes of Colonel Sanders and Taco John. The plains are perhaps the most exploited, misunderstood landscape in the world. We have killed them with our hate for what they are and smothered them with our love for what they are not.
The Great Plains are an arid land. The western slope of the plains in Montana, Wyoming, and Texas often receive less than 15 inches of rain in a given year. Visionaries like Pike and John Wesley Powell pleaded with the pilgrims of Manifest Destiny that such a climate was not an ideal place for farming. Yet an abundance of top soil proved too tempting to pass up, and myths that “rain would follow the plow” breed development at a pace more frenetic than any the world had ever seen. The bison vanished. The tall grass prairie turned to wheat. The great rivers were dammed. Before long, the land was unrecognizable. This, however, was not overly striking to the newly-minted “Midwesterners”. For they had just arrived, and the true people of the plains— the Sioux, the Apache, the Blackfoot, the Lakota, and others— had been reduced to small pockets of their homeland.
When we think of what makes America “America”, we often think of the Midwest. We think of grandmas baking rhubarb pies for burly grandpas in feed store trucker-hats, state fairs laddened with corndogs, and square dance halls flush of blushing youths. This is folly. When we think of the elements of Americanism, we should indeed be brought to its heartland, but also to its heartland’s patriarch: Chief Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota.
Crazy Horse was the original “American”. He was stubborn, fiery, and decidedly loyal. Yet unlike most modern Americans, he was also deeply rooted. As Ian Frazier explains in his wonderful book Great Plains, Crazy Horse was what Wallace Stegner would have called a “sticker” (without wanderlust):
Unlike most Indians who had won names for themselves during wars with white men on the Great Plains, Crazy Horse never visited New York. In fact, of all the famous plainsmen in history, Crazy Horse was the only one who neither came to the plains from somewhere else nor ever left. As a teenager, he once went along on a raid against a village of Omaha Indians in what is now eastern Nebraska; other than that, as far as anybody knows, he lived his entire life between the hundredth meridian and the Rocky Mountains. Crazy Horse was probably born in 1840 at the foot of Bear Butte, near where Sturgis, South Dakota is now. He had sand-brown hair, and his parents called him Curly.
Crazy Horse saw massive changes in his lifetime. At the time of his birth, the U.S. Census’s Frontier Line, the official boundary of the settled nation, reached halfway across the plains. Kansas City didn’t exist. By his death, a scant thirty-seven years later, the frontier line had vanished into the Pacific Ocean and Kansas City ranked in the top thirty largest cities in the nation. In those thirty-seven years, Crazy Horse lived a colorful life, to say the least. As a teenager he was present when 5,000 to 10,000 plains people gathered at his birthplace of Bear Butte to discuss their stance on the growing number of white settlers around the Black Hills. He became notorious for his bravery in battle and steady demeanor. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk, a contemporary of Crazy Horse, tells John G. Neihardt:
I remember the story of how he and his brother were out alone on horseback, and a big band of Crows attacked them, so that they had to run. And while they were riding hard, with all those Crows after them, Crazy Horse heard his brother call out; and when he looked back, his brother’s horse was down and the Crows were almost on him. And they told how Crazy Horse charged back right into the Crows and fought them back with only a bow and arrows, then took his brother up behind him and got away. It was his sacred power that made the Crows afraid of him when he charged.
In June 1876, Crazy Horse led approximately a thousand warriors to a vexing victory against the ranks of eleven hundred federal troops. Just over a week later, he would rally his men to victory once again in the now-famous Battle of the Little Bighorn over General George Custer. Within the following year however, Crazy Horse would bring 899 of his people peacefully into Fort Robinson to live in the confines of a reservation. A few months later, he was dead— murdered by the bayonet of Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee. The story of his death is one of the great tragedies of American history, and deserves much more depth in its analysis than can be provided by this author. In short, it was horrible and it was beautiful.
In Great Plains Frazier sums up the life and death of Crazy Horse and its importance to American History this way:
Personally, I love Crazy Horse because even the most basic outline of his life shows how great he was; because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he knew exactly where he wanted to live, and never left; because he may have surrendered, but he was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured; because he was so free that he didn’t know what a jail looked like; …because, like the rings of Saturn, the carbon atom, and the underwater reef, he belonged to a category of phenomena which our technology had not then advanced far enough to photograph; because no photograph or painting or even sketch of him exists… Crazy Horse was a slim man of medium height with brown hair hanging below his waist and a scar above his lip. Now, in the mind of each person who imagines him, he looks different.
I believe that when Crazy Horse was killed, something other than a man’s life was snuffed out. Once, America’s size in imagination was limitless. After Europeans settled and changed it, working from the coasts inland, its size in the imagination shrank. Like the center of a dying fire, the Great Plains held that original vision longest. Just as people finally came to the Great Plains and changed them, so they came to where Crazy Horse lived and killed him. Crazy Horse had the misfortune to live in a place which existed both in reality and in the dreams of people far away; he managed to leave both the real and the imaginary place unbetrayed.
Crazy Horse died on the floor of the adjutant’s office at Fort Robinson. He refused a cot, the European comfort, to be closer to the land, to the plains. The great accident of Crazy Horse’s life was his death. Had the powers in Washington D.C. had their way, Crazy Horse would not have died on his beloved prairie. He would have been shipped off to a prison in the Dry Tortugas of Florida to rot away without the threat of rallying his people. Had he not been murdered, this story would not be about Bear Butte, but a tropical national park a world away from the plains. Instead, he died as true Midwesterner.
Bear Butte was established as a South Dakota state park in 1961. In its bounds lies a refuge for the retreating Great Plains. An hour or so to the south, a monument of Rushmore proportions is being painstakingly constructed for the Chief. This is good and great, but perhaps the greatest memorial surrounds Bear Butte itself: waving grasses in the prairie wind.
Photo courtesy of David Kingham/Flickr