With Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life and Legacy, Crazy Horse’s family sets the record straight 

From the year that he was murdered in 1877 until just a couple of decades ago, Crazy Horse’s extended family, all of whom call him “grandfather,” stayed silent about the leader. Afraid of the repercussions of being the Lakota war hero’s closest blood relatives, they stayed in hiding and waited for guidance from their ancestors. Meanwhile, dozens of books were written about Crazy Horse by non-Natives, rife with misconceptions, inaccuracies and pure fictions, many of which were passed down from book to book.

Finally, in 2001, Crazy Horse’s blood relatives were ready to speak.

“[The ancestors] told us it was time for truth now,” says Floyd Clown, a close relative to Crazy Horse who lives in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. “It was time to correct everything about our grandfather and our family. To think of all of those books written, and they are all wrong.”

Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior's Life and Legacy - The Edwin CLown Family as told to William Matson - Hardcover, Gibbs Smith 256 pages, $25.50
  • Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior's Life and LegacyThe Edwin CLown Family as told to William MatsonHardcover, Gibbs Smith 256 pages, $25.50
At the same time, over a thousand miles away from Eagle Butte, in Portland, Oregon, Bill Matson was on a mission given to him by his father. During World War II, his father was a member of the 7th Cavalry (George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry) and whenever the soldiers were asked, “Who won the Battle of Little Bighorn?” Matson’s father would be rebuked for saying “the Indians.” After the war was over, he dedicated time and research to telling the Native American side of American history. His dream was to write the history of Little Bighorn from the Native point of view, but before he could finish, he died of lymphoma in 1998.

On his deathbed, Matson’s father asked him to finish the project. Matson approached it in starts and stops, learning a lot of hard lessons about history, storytelling, white privilege and Native American culture along the way. At one point, he secured an interview with a man named Eugene Little Coyote, who said he could tell him Native stories about Little Bighorn. But before he shared his tales, the man led Matson to a library and said, “Read these first.”

“So I did,” Matson says. “I read about 300 books.”

Matson had another breakthrough moment. He had traveled all the way to South Dakota, to the foot of the sacred Bear Butte, to speak to a Lakota man who said he had information about Crazy Horse. But when he arrived, he found out the meeting was off.

“After I was stood up, being a typical white man, I started to climb,” Matson says. “I realized I had been studying the history, but not the spirituality. My father talked to me and said, ‘Open your heart.’ I knew I had to get to the spiritual side and that I had to write the book on their terms.”

He realized he needed to get to know the families and earn their trust before asking for their stories. He also understood that none of the stories would ever be his to tell: He would be a conduit.

Finally, in 2001, armed with both knowledge and an open heart, Matson connected with Doug War Eagle, one of the three administrators and spokesmen of the Crazy Horse estate. War Eagle said the family would open up and tell their story, but first they would take Matson into a sweat lodge and make sure his heart was good. It was.

“Bill was sent to us,” Clown says. “From our ceremonies, we were told we would get help from four directions, and he came to us from the west. He went to all the sites. He heard the truth and put it down on paper.”

Sixteen years later, after countless interviews (and after moving to South Dakota himself), Matson and the Edward Clown family released Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life and Legacy, the first book about the war hero that is told completely from Native oral histories, and verified by his closest surviving relatives. In order to preserve the tradition of oral history as much as possible, the book is written in first person.

“I tried to leave as little a footprint as I could,” Matson says. “I wanted the reader to feel as though they were talking directly to the family, which to a certain extent, they are. I tried to include the emotion of it, too, because without the emotion, it’s not the same story. When someone would cry or their voice would crack, I included that in the experience.”

The book reveals missing factual puzzle pieces (such as Crazy Horse’s true subtribe and how Custer might have died at Little Bighorn) and deals with larger, thematic differences regarding how Crazy Horse has been portrayed.

“I hope readers can learn to be open, and have an open heart,” Clown says. “My grandfather once said that there’s no more truth and honesty and trust in this world. That’s what we have to bring back.”

Floyd Clown, Doug War Eagle and William Matson discuss Crazy Horse at Shakespeare & Co. Thu., Aug. 3, at 7 PM. Free.

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