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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 20th, 2005


 

Crazy Horse (New Edition): The Strange Man of the Oglalas

by Mari Sandoz

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Sandoz, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, was born in 1896 on a homestead in northwestern Nebraska, a region Crazy Horse and his band had roamed just decades before. Growing up listening to the stories of old Indians and plainsmen, she developed an uncanny receptivity to the Indian perspective and way of life, which in her writing she married to exhaustive research. (She had been a researcher at the Nebraska State Historical Society, and in preparation for this book, first published in 1942, she immersed herself in all the relevant archives. In 1930 she journeyed 3,000 miles through Sioux country, interviewing friends and relatives of her subject and witnesses to the events she chronicled; Indians who were averse to talking with other whites would usually speak freely to her.) She conceived this densely packed story of Crazy Horse and his people, and of the epic struggle between whites and Indians on the northern Plains, with the eye of an ethnologist. Writing from an Indian point of view and in Indian language patterns (she used the same devices in Cheyenne Autumn, her immensely sad chronicle of the doomed flight of a small band of Cheyenne from their hated Oklahoma reservation to their homeland in Montana in 1878-1879), Sandoz displayed an exquisite sensitivity to the spiritual and cultural impact of landscape and topography, and intensely conveyed the emotional, psychological, and religious universe of the Plains Indians. (In the introduction to this new edition the Indian writer and activist Vine Deloria Jr., who is famously critical of white anthropologists, avers that Sandoz "captured nuances that only a few would know and understand.") That sensitivity makes this, the most accomplished biography of Crazy Horse and one of the best and most moving books ever written about the American West, a strange, often unsettling work.


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