Crazier than Fiction

By on July 18, 2018

Armed with truth and oral traditions, the descendants of famed Lakota warrior Crazy Horse rewrote the fabled history of their kin with help from a prophetic Western figure.

Now, the predestined collaborators bring their book to Jackson.

A drawing of Crazy Horse (there are no photos ever taken of him). The drawing was made by an artist based on the description of his sister Julia Clown or known to her tribe as Iron Cedar.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When the legendary warrior Crazy Horse was 18 years old, the Buffalo Nation gifted him with a pipe in the Black Hills. The pipe represented truth, said Floyd Clown, one of Crazy Horse’s descendants. More than a century later, the family still has that pipe, and they value what it represents as much as they cherish the artifact itself. The truth is important and even sacred. But for years Clown and the rest of his extended family listened to the stories about their ancestor Crazy Horse. They began in hushed whispers, but the lies and myths grew and spread and became fact. And even though Clown and others in the family knew they weren’t true, they were unable to speak up and correct the record.

Crazy Horse was many things, including a target of the federal government, which was so threatened by the leader, his family went into hiding after a military guard killed him in 1877, Clown said.

The family’s concern about retribution from the government meant they quietly endured the stories that people—too young to even be alive at the time—inserted themselves into, or changed the outcome. Everyone in the Crazy Horse family was taught from an early age to simply listen and walk away.

“Sometimes it made us laugh—what they assumed and how off-track they were,” Clown said.

The family knew the truth. The stories of Crazy Horse were handed down as an oral history from generation to generation, known only in the family.

In 2016, the family decided to share the truth with the world. That year, William Matson published Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy, a book he wrote with the blessing and input from the family. It is more than a sanctioned biography, Matson said. It is a family’s history, told through their voices and put into print.

Matson and family members like Clown tour together to promote the book, and share the truth about Crazy Horse. They will speak in Jackson from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Valley Bookstore.

Oral History Written Down

Unlike other historical books, “this has no reference section, because everything in this book came directly from the blood family,” Clown said. There is an appendix with a family tree and testimony from hearings related to the family, but other historical texts and accounts weren’t used or even needed for the book. In fact, much of what had been written before about Crazy Horse was totally wrong, Clown said.

Julia and Amos Clown, parents to Edward Clown. Julia was also known as Iron Cedar and was Crazy Horse’s youngest sister. The photo was taken by a newspaper photographer upon the return of their eldest son’s body from the WWI battlefields of France in 1921. They were the first Gold Star family of South Dakota.

Most of those accounts weren’t written maliciously, but the stories and facts came from other sources and not directly from the family, Matson said. Writers often had preconceived ideas about Native American culture and didn’t truly understand it. There was also a language barrier. The documents many historians referenced were written by the soldiers, not the members of Crazy Horse’s tribe, Matson said.

Things were lost in translation, with people interpreting something incorrectly, but passing it off as fact.

There were complicated familial ties that people outside the tribe might not understand. Men had multiple wives, and sometimes people changed their names to mark significant occasions. They didn’t use suffixes like junior or senior. It’s not surprising people got it wrong, Matson said.

“Would the United States accept the French or Chinese version of American history?” the book asks. “So why must our people continue to be defined by other cultures?”

The book was a chance for the family to tell their story. The family shared their stories with Matson and double checked the manuscript and gave it final approval before it was published. Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy is the family’s oral history written down, Clown said.

“We made this book for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “This is so they know where they come from. It was also about waking up our nation, reminding them of the truth.”

The first thing the family wanted to clear up was to which Lakota tribe Crazy Horse belonged. People for years said he was Oglala. He wasn’t, Clown said. He was Miniconjou.

Crazy Horse is perhaps most famous to the world for his efforts against George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn. It was the greatest defeat of the U.S. military on American soil. But what most people don’t know is that off the battlefield Crazy Horse paid attention to the tribe’s children and listened to the wisdom of its elders, and tried to lead by example, Clown said.

Crazy Horse led his people to other victories, until the U.S. government convinced Crazy Horse to turn himself in. He did so in exchange for the freedom of his people. When he realized it was a ruse, he tried to escape, Clown said. He was killed fighting for his freedom. Crazy Horse’s family went into hiding, fearful for their lives. Some changed their names.

In hiding, the family listened to the untrue stories about Crazy Horse take root. The family remained quiet and elusive until a brewing company released “The Original Crazy Horse Malt Liquor,” and the family sued the company to stop it from using the name or Crazy Horse’s likeness to sell products.

Part of the suit required the family to prove they were related to Crazy Horse, so they created a blood tree, a family tree whose branches reached 3,000 people as descendants of the Lakota warrior, Clown said.

Black Shawl, Crazy Horse’s wife.

The truth was out. People who had falsely claimed they were descendants were outed. Some of the people on the tree didn’t even know they were related to Crazy Horse and didn’t know the stories handed down orally through the generations, Clown said.

It was time to share the truth with the world. But the family knew they needed help. They needed a writer they could trust, who would tell their story.

The grandfathers said help would arrive from the West, Clown said. The family prayed and Matson arrived one day from Oregon. The partnership was predestined.

“There was a purpose for him to be there with us,” Clown said.

It took Matson more than a decade to write the book. It’s now been published in foreign languages including Norwegian and German. Matson and the family have traveled the world to talk about it and Crazy Horse.

Trust, Truth and Tradition

No matter where they go, the No. 1 question the family and Matson receive at book signings is how the partnership came to be, how a white man gained the trust of Crazy Horse’s family to tell the story.

For Matson, the book project began before he was even born. His father was in the seventh cavalry in World War II. A drill sergeant asked him who won the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Matson’s father said the Native Americans. The drill sergeant always told him he was wrong and punished him for the answer. Matson’s father wasn’t swayed from what he knew to be the truth. He vowed one day he would write a book about the battle and make sure the truth was widely shared.

But life moved on and when lymphoma ravaged his body in 1998, he hadn’t yet written the book. Matson was at his father’s bedside as he died. He asked his son to take up the task and Matson promised he would.

It was a much harder task than Matson expected. As he began his research, Matson realized immediately that there were few Native voices in history and even fewer primary sources telling the Native Americans’ stories. There were books about some of the major battles, but rarely told from the Native American’s perspective and some stories about the warriors, but the children and elders were mostly ignored. There was little about the culture of the different tribes.

One book he did find and like was about Crazy Horse, written by Mari Sandoz. The book intrigued Matson and fostered a deeper curiosity about the warrior, beyond just the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He’d set out to truthfully document a single battle, but it became something bigger.

He read about 300 books in his research, but certain things just didn’t seem to come together or timelines or scenarios didn’t quite add up.

Matson began a quest to find Native Americans who would share their stories, but in the meantime, he continued his research and drafted a screen play about Crazy Horse based on what he’d read.

He didn’t give up on trying to find primary sources and traveled to Montana and South Dakota hoping to meet with Native Americans who might know the history of Crazy Horse, but it never quite worked out.

On a fact-finding trip to South Dakota, Matson climbed Bear Butte. On his way up the hillside he heard the voice of his deceased father telling him he needed to open his heart. Matson realized before he could demand the facts and stories from the Lakota, he needed to understand their culture and spiritual aspects to it.

After the hike, he met a park ranger who knew some of Crazy Horse’s family. When he heard why Matson was in South Dakota he offered an introduction.

Doug War Eagle, a descendant of Crazy Horse, met Matson at the door and said he knew Matson was coming—the grandfathers had said help would come from the West and Matson had traveled from Oregon.

War Eagle introduced him to several other family members, including Clown. Matson shared his screen play script with Clown who read only part of it before he said it was “garbage” and that he would tell Matson the true story if he had a true heart.

Matson prayed with the family in a sweat lodge and passed the first test. For the next decade, Crazy Horse’s family shared their stories.

It began slowly.

And the family continued to test him at first. They told him Crazy Horse didn’t have a sister, but then weeks later told a story about a sister. Matson immediately caught the discrepancy. He passed. It meant he was listening.

The family took Matson to historical sites, like the battlefield where Crazy Horse fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Fort Phil Kearney, a former military outpost in Wyoming. They also visited sites where the Native Americans once spent the winters and places that were still considered sacred. At each site they would share stories.

Matson watched in wonder as the family members would act out stories using different tones of voices to represent the different characters. If he asked to hear a story later, the same lines were repeated word for word, he said.

“I got to witness oral tradition,” he said.

Matson was a trusted family friend when Clown and others finally asked him if they wanted to write the book that would share their stories with the world.

Matson wrote the book in first person, as though the family was telling the story, because even if they didn’t write the words down, they are the ones telling it; it is their story, Matson said.

Amy and Edward Clown (parents of Floyd and pipekeeper for the Crazy Horse family). Edward was Crazy Horse’s nephew and grandson to Waglula, or Old Man Crazy Horse.

The book was vigorously fact-checked by many in the extended family who looked for discrepancies in how stories might have been told or remembered. With 3,000 family members, some had different versions of the narratives. Some had even started to believe some of the lies told by outsiders, Clown said.

The book took on the unexpected role of settling the final versions of stories within the family, too. Clown loves that now everyone in the family is passing along the same stories to the next generation.

Matson and the family promote the book together. They answer questions about the book, Crazy Horse and their own lives. The family also runs a Facebook page where they answer questions. No longer do they rely on other people to try to tell their truth. It’s their story and their history and now they share it in their own voices, Clown said.

Crazy Horse family member Don Red Thunder, Crazy Horse family member Doug War Eagle, author William Matson and Crazy Horse family member Floyd Clown.

When Matson’s father asked him to write about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he wanted the truth to be known, Matson said.

“That was his desire,” he said. “And that is what fueled my desire, finding the truth and sharing it.”

For Clown, the book has even more significance. Normally oral histories aren’t shared in written form, where the emotion behind the words can be lost.

“We carry our oral history in our hearts,” he said. “It is sacred to us.”

But the book was a way to share the family story, handed-down as truth with the world, as well as other members of the family. Crazy Horse has hundreds of descendants.

This is a chance for everyone to share, defend and know their truth, Clown said. Because as Crazy Horse knew when he received the pipe more than 100 years ago, the truth is what matters.

About Kelsey Dayton

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