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

A play called "Crazy Horse and Custer" showing in California is not sitting well with Crazy Horse's descendants, who say it doesn't represent him well

For more than a month, Doug Bissonette, has been trying to reason with the producer of a new play called, “Crazy Horse and Custer” because he says the play misrepresents Crazy Horse and his traditional ways. Bissonette, Lakota, is the family, court, and tribal representative for the estate of the famed Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse.

Written by Jon George of Sacramento, California, the play will open November 6 and run through December 15 at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Crazy Horse will be portrayed by Louie Leonardo, who came to Pine Ridge and met with Bissonette to learn as much as he could about Crazy Horse’s life. But when Bissonette and other members of the Crazy Horse family read the script, they asked that the play not be produced.

The production is based on the resurrection of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer as they discuss their roles in history, including how things might have turned out differently at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

“I visited with Leonardo about the play, but the part about bringing him back to life, that deals with his spirit, it goes against our belief. We don’t play around with the spirit,” Bissonette said.

Wilmer Mesteth, spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota, said this play is based on excerpts from books, some of which is incorrect. “I feel like it is exploiting Crazy Horse. I met the guy and he is adamant that the play goes forward. He talked to their attorneys, and it turns out that legally there is nothing we can do.”Mesteth said the image of Crazy Horse is best left as it is and that his spirit be maintained. “This play is based on fiction and we don’t understand in our culture what they are trying to portray and we feel that it is offensive,” Mesteth said, adding, “The respect factor, they are our heroes and we want that left intact. Lakota people, we respect our leaders, our chiefs, our ancestors. We don’t do such things as this. We are reverent about our leaders, we don’t make jokes about our leaders. The ways people talk about leaders in the press, we don’t do that.”

Christina Rose

Wilmer Mesteth, spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota and the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, cannot understand why the show’s author and producer would want to distort the memory of Crazy Horse.

Bissonette and others relayed their concerns to the show’s producers who said they would produce the play without the family’s permission.

Bissonette explained that his family is dedicated to the truth about Crazy Horse. “We make sure everything is validated. We talk with all of the family members, and we don’t leave anybody out; and we don’t want false claims.”

The Lakota relationship with all beings is misrepresented several times, as is Crazy Horse’s involvement with his culture. In the script, Crazy Horse says, “I did not go through the sage smoke, the sweat bath, the day-long dancing, all the other preparations the elders demanded for a true vision... I went out alone. I had my dream.”

Mesteth said this was spiritually inappropriate.

“He had to go through the sweat lodge, you don’t go by yourself. You have your clan. (With vision quests) Even today people will go and check on you,” Bisonnette said. “This is the culture, the preparations, you can do it alone but it is not our way. When one goes, everyone goes, even if it’s dying together.”

ICTMN made several calls and sent emails to the theatre’s executive directing producer, Michael Luan, but none were returned. Bissonette received an email from George, the author, who wrote he did not believe the play would detract or debase the memory of Crazy Horse and added, “What I have written here is neither myth nor is it history… it is a play, an entertainment, and by its very nature a fiction. Crazy Horse and Custer, while they were based on existing records, I have reconstructed to fit the needs of my fancy.”

Quoting Judge Robert Sack, George wrote, “The dead have no cause of action for defamation under the common law, and neither do their survivors, unless the words independently reflect upon and defame the survivors.”

The quote further states that the longer someone has been dead, “the more open the use of material about his life” and that while “no one can ever know the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, or motivations of such a party, a writer may ascribe his own interpretations on these matters as he wishes.”

Michael Her Many Horses, advisor for Crazy Horse’s estate, said there can be serious problems when writers take liberty with cultural icons. “We are trying to reason with them to show them the error of their ways. When some cultural icons are defamed such as the prophet Muhammad, the people become violent. We are very mature people and try to reason with them when they play with our cultural icons. It is disgusting that people cannot be reasoned with.”

While the author states his work is one of fiction, the announcement for the show states that in the play, Crazy Horse is not just speaking for Plains Indians but all Indians.

The cost for four tickets for adults will cost $163 and will be performed in the Pollock Stage theatre, which seats 85 people. The show has been done in partnership with the California Museum, which is currently sponsoring an ongoing exhibit, California Indians: Making A Difference. Calls to the museum were not returned.

Bissonette and other tribal members feel the show does not honor Crazy Horse’s life and spirit and hopes the public will rise to his defense.