I recently attended a lecture and book signing with William Matson, author of Crazy Horse- The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy, as told to him by the Clown Family, descendants of the great Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse. Floyd Clown was at this event and told the family history as it has been passed down to him in the Lakota tradition.
Many things were said during that discussion that challenge what I have learned over the years about Lakota history and what I have always felt in my bones. I am trying to be open to new information but feel a little unsettled.
You may wonder why this matters to the point of me writing a blog about it. I have been interested in and felt a strong connection to the Lakota people since I was in grade school. Crazy Horse has become somewhat of a spiritual figure to me.
I have my own Lakota story that I would like to share with you. Fair warning, it may leave you feeling skeptical yourself. That’s fine, but in the tradition of the Lakota, let me tell you a story…
When I was much younger, I took a journey across Canada, into Alaska and down through Wyoming and Montana. Wyoming and Montana, in particular, have always held a special place in my heart.
On the last night of the trip that we decided to camp outside Buffalo, Wyoming, at the edge of the foothills of the Shining Mountains (aka the Bighorn Mountains) under a full moon. In the morning, we packed up our things to head back east. I stood looking out over the grassy hills at the round, pale moon shining faintly against the purple pink of the new day and thought, I’m coming back here someday. Tears pricked my eyes at the thought of leaving a place I had only been in for about eight hours. I’d never been to Buffalo before, yet I felt such a strong kinship with the place. I didn’t understand it, but took it inside me and by the time we got to Iowa, I felt a little more centered.
Fast forward fifteen years. The year of my 50th birthday. I was asked what special thing I wanted to do and answered that I wanted to go to Buffalo, Wyoming.
The trip was meant to be a vision quest of sorts for me. And it was, though not even remotely in the way I expected. I made some preparations to my body and spirit and made a prayer flag to put on the Wounded Knee burial site when we stopped at Pine Ridge Reservation.
In the Shining Mountains above Sheridan, Wyoming, there is an ancient medicine wheel. I thought it would be meaningful to go there on the summer equinox. I figured the snow would be melted and we could hike up there and I would have a spiritual experience, maybe give the next half of my life some direction.
I also wanted to make a brief stop at Fort Phil Kearny, where my hero, Crazy Horse, had acted as a decoy during the Hundred in the Hand Battle and pretty much wiped out the US troops occupying the land alongside what had become the Bozeman Trail.
We arrived the day before the equinox, got up early the next morning and headed to Sheridan. A stop at the visitor’s information center dashed my hopes of realizing my spiritual goal! The medicine wheel was still covered in feet of snow! As the guide said, “You can go up there, but you won’t see anything.”
I was devastated. In usual Heidi fashion, I was convinced my trip was ruined. Sorry. That’s how I usually roll. Cup half or three quarters empty. Character flaw.
My husband suggested we go back to Fort Phil Kearny, check it out and regroup.
It was a warm day in June, under a bright blue sky, and a good day to explore the reconstructed fort and the ridge where Crazy Horse once road would be good. I imagined us being there a few minutes and then heading in search of food and beer, since I could now be done with my abstinence from alcohol that had been part of my spiritual cleansing.
We walked into the museum and browsed around the historical bric-a-brac and, of course, perused the bookstore before leaving through a door on to the flat butte that was where the fort would have been. Very little is left of the original building. After being abandoned by what was left of the US troops after the Fetterman fight, Crazy Horse’s band burned it down and made it their winter camp.
It’s hard to describe what happened to me when I walked out onto that field, but I was overwhelmed with unexpected emotion. My heart began to pound and I burst into tears. Alarmed, my husband wondered what was wrong. I had no answer. I had no idea why I couldn’t stop shaking and crying. Looking around me, everything felt so familiar. Even writing this, my heart picks up speed.
We spent time wandering around and then decided to walk Lodgepole Ridge alongside the Bozeman Trail. It was here on December 21, 1866 that Crazy Horse and his Lakota, along with Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors tricked and defeated 81 of Captain John Fetterman’s soldiers.
As I stood on that ridge overlooking Peno Creek, picked some sage for my medicine bag and felt the beauty and familiarity of the Powder River Valley wash over me, I was convinced I had been here before. This was my spiritual experience. This was the gift and message of my vision quest. It answered an age-old question in my mind. Was reincarnation real? That day convinced me that it is.
We stayed there most of the day and went back again the next. I felt that I belonged there. But what did it mean? I prayed about it. I continued to research the history of this place and the only way I can make meaning of this in the context of a lifelong fascination with the Lakota Indians is that I must have been a member of Crazy Horse’s band. Even the name, Oglala, which I always understood to be the band he belonged to, had a pull to me, over some of the other band names. There are other little synchronicities that reinforced this for me, but they are small details and actually could be coincidental.
This brings the story around to this recent lecture by Matson and Clown. Mr. Clown told us, and the premise of the book is that the Clown family are the true descendants of Crazy Horse on the maternal side. They are in the process of legal litigation to claim this familial connection through DNA testing and other processes. Assuming they win the decision, they would be eligible to claim any profits of any person who has used the Crazy Horse name for merchandise and book, movie, or music royalties.
That’s a bummer. I have always had a plan to write a novel about Crazy Horse. This may curtail that plan. Beyond that though, there are two things that troubled me.
- Mr. Clown stated that the band called ‘Oglala’ is what he called a “paper tribe”, meaning it is inauthentic. He claims that the term was created after Crazy Horse’s assassination. If felt upset by this statement. The specific name Oglala has long meant something deep to me. Why would that mean more to me than other band names such as Brule, Miniconjou or Hunkpapa?
- He claimed also that Crazy Horse was never buried in the Badlands and that only his family knows where he is buried, but that it is not time to reveal that. For whatever reason, this too disturbed me, though it is very minor issue.
I’m not suggesting that the Clown family is not telling the truth. I’m not an expert on Lakota history. What troubles me is the difference in his history versus what I have learned and my deeply unsettled feeling about it.
Why does this matter so much to me? How do I explain the butterflies in the belly and the trembling of my fingers as I listened? How am to understand that when I went forward to have my book signed and to meet Mr. Clown, he and I could not seem to look directly at each other. On my way home, I recalled that in Lakota tradition, women do not look directly at men. I could not have looked that man in the face, if my life depended on it. And how do I explain that feeling that someone was resting on my shoulder, listening in to this discussion. Crazy Horse?
I would like nothing better than to think Crazy Horse sat with me at this lecture, but that may be pushing things too far. I can only say for sure, that I have felt his spirit in my life for many seasons and the day on Lodge Pole Ridge was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Though mine, was not an authentic vision quest, I believe the grandfathers blessed me with a spiritual experience and I am grateful. Mitakuye Oyasin (We are all connected)