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'Crazy Horse and Custer' Play Opens Saturday Amidst Protests

"Crazy Horse and Custer" opens Saturday amidst protests and still not being approved by Crazy Horse descendants, though they did make some changes.

The theatrical production of “Crazy Horse and Custer” opens Saturday in Sacramento, California, and will be accompanied by drumming, protests and prayers. The Sacramento Theatre Company has received emails and calls from innumerable sources criticizing the play. The theatre says the play has been modified and many of the issues have been addressed.

The new version of the play was reviewed and while there have been changes, some of the original problems still exist.

RELATED: Crazy Horse & Custer Resurrected for New Play Against Family’s Wishes

Col. George Armstrong Custer

Michael Laun, producer of the show, is upset about the response. He said the family’s lack of involvement is not his fault and that on October 25 he received his one and only communication from the Crazy Horse family on Pine Ridge. That email called the play racist, derogatory, disrespectful, and said it desecrates the memory of Crazy Horse. However, he said the email did not specify how or why. Emails from Laun then stated the family has no legal recourse and the show must go on.

For Laun, this process has been a mystery. The theatre has a long history of being respectful to all races. But Natives and supporters feel it is the treaties and the team name/mascot issue all over again. They feel it is the classic, “But we are honoring you” calamity. It is the classic: “We are listening to what you want, but, we can’t do that.”

The script changes that have been made do not change the main fact of the play: Crazy Horse is still dead and the scaffold is still on the stage. First and foremost, Crazy Horse’s family insisted that Crazy Horse cannot be a spirit, and while he no longer comes down from the scaffold, he still admits on stage that he is dead. Because of this, the family said there could have been no further dialogue.

ICTNM’s previous reporting of this story raised the ire of activists and provoked strong emotions in Terry Marie Varela, a Sacramento resident and enrolled Oglala Lakota, who is a member of the San Francisco Idle No More. She has set up a Facebook page for the protest called Raising Our Voices Against Native Exploitation.

Varela was most offended by Crazy Horse’s repeated reference to Lakota ways as superstitions.

The new version of the script no longer references Lakota ways as superstitions, but it still speaks condescendingly of the Lakota people. By saying things like, “We fought foolishly as always.” Crazy Horse and the Lakota are referred to as “savages” by Custer, which surely reflects Custer’s language. However, there is little balance in historical facts from a Lakota perspective and the misrepresentation of spirituality is rife even throughout the new script.

Tom Gillies, a Sacramento man, attended a preview of the show and said, “The author was lazy.” 

At the end of the play, Crazy Horse calls Custer, “A compelling man,” giving him more respect than he has shown his own people throughout the show.

“The whole play was bookended by a bad feeling at the beginning and at the end,” Gillies said. “I went in there with a neutral view, and I wanted to be convinced it wasn’t a piece of crap, and it was.”

The last scene leaps forward to the life of the Lakota today. “The Lakota have nothing left. Many, not even pride in who they were. I knew. The Lakota would never survive. They lived in a world that did not exist,” Crazy Horse says in the play.

The last line Crazy Horse says in the show has not been changed and still states, “It is bad to be Lakota. It is better to be dead.”

Conversations with the actor and producer prove changes that were made, were made with the best of intentions. There are many changes that are better, but there are still some that are worse. Actor Louie Leonardo thought it might be a good idea to include the high suicide rates at the end; they thought they were helping to get the word out. But it is all done without input from the Lakota, who know a deeper story.

“It didn’t tell me anything about Crazy Horse,” Gillies said. “The lights come on, there is the scaffold, and he announces that was where he came from. My impression of what they did they did at the time, is that it was private. It is the family’s right to the privacy. The author was lazy. If you don’t meet the family, then do some research.”

“Crazy Horse was a man of his time and culture. It was just wrong when they had him say he did all of these things by himself, his visions and smudging. I half expected Frank Sinatra to sing ‘I did it my way,’” Gillies said.

The character was played stereotypically stoic, with stilted language. The writer and actor weren’t familiar with Lakota speech patterns or body language, Gillies said. “He talked like Noble-Red-Man. The character lacked humanity.”

Lawrence Sampson, Delaware and Eastern Band Cherokee, and longtime American Indian Movement activist, wrote on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Facebook page—where a lot of discussion has been taking place: “More cultural appropriation. People who know little to nothing about Crazy Horse choose to present some version of what they imagine he would say with no context whatsoever, without input from his descendants, and against the wishes of the community that holds his memory so dear. What can you expect in a country that continues to wage war against its indigenous population?”