Crazy Horse chronicles family oral history of Lakota leader

TORRINGTON – It’s a family legacy, 140 years in the making.

It started with the death of Lakota leader Crazy Horse on Sept. 5, 1877, at Fort Robinson on Red Cloud Agency land in northwest Nebraska, a pivotal event for the Lakota Nation as well as for the family and forced his descendants into hiding for more than a century.

On Thursday, a piece of that legacy could be found at the Goshen County Library Annex, in the persons of brothers Floyd Clown Sr. and Douglas War Eagle, Crazy Horse’s grandsons, and documentary film maker William B. Matson, author of the book Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life and Legacy.

While there are hundreds of books dedicated to the life of Crazy Horse and the Lakota Nation of the late 19th Century, Matson’s tome – compiled from oral histories handed down and shared by the descendants of Crazy Horse – contradicts most if not all that was previously written, Clown said.

The book “stands up for the family with truth,” he said. “Truths we want to correct for our people.

“All of the books written about our grandfather, since we wrote this book, they became fictions,” Clown said. “Assumptions, not truth.”

Matson credited the inspiration for the book to his own father, who served with the 7th Cavalry during World War II – the same regiment decimated at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

A drill instructor, touching on the history of the unit, asked the trainees – including Matson’s father – who won the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Matson said. When his father responded ‘the Indians,’ he was admonished for being wrong and was punished, Matson said.

“He held a grudge,” Matson said. “One he passed on to his son.”

And it was a grudge turned passion to learn more about the culture and history of the Native Peoples of North America, particularly the Lakota, he said. His father had intended to research and write a book, but never got it done, he said. On his death bed, the father passed his interests and desires on to the son.

“I read all the different books about the battle – about 300 books – and they didn’t agree” on the history and timelines, Matson said. “The history is all screwed up.

“The first thing I found was, there weren’t many Native voices writing the histories,” he said. “I decided I’d find some.”

Matson’s interests eventually zeroed in on the life of Crazy Horse and, through several false starts and convoluted steps, he met Clown and War Eagle. 

“They said, ‘We’ll tell you the true stories, if you’ve got a good heart,’” Matson said, and invited him to a sweat lodge. Hearing the songs and prayers in the lodge “was really a fantastic experience.

“Afterward, I said, ‘I wish I knew your language. I’d have sung with you,’” Matson said. One of the men who’d been charged with tending the fire said, ‘They don’t let me in the lodge. I sing Merle Haggard.’ I realized I’d been accepted.”

The book represents the first telling of the family’s stories, Clown and War Eagle said. Shortly after Crazy Horse had surrendered himself at Fort Robinson and was killed, the family went into hiding, beginning more than a century of fear and deception focused on saving their
own lives.

“When our grandfather was assassinated at Fort Robinson, it was because the government was scared of our grandfather,” Clown said. “When the government is scared of something, they destroy it.

“For years, my father was not able to say ‘(Crazy Horse) is my uncle,” he said. “Growing up, we were told not to tell people who we were as members of the family of Crazy Horse.”

The story of the life of Crazy Horse and similar writings on the history of the indigenous peoples of North America are important stories to tell, Matson said. It’s a portion of American History that is too often ignored.

“These types of books belong in the schools,” he said. “American History didn’t start with Christopher Columbus. 

“It started long before that,” Matson said. “There’s a rich history out that that’s been lost.”

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