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The Betrayal of Sergeant Crazy Horse

Chuck Trimble on the betrayal of Crazy Horse and the splintering of Indian country in the 1970s.

In my historical research I sometimes come across items of interest that I really can’t challenge, but that I don’t want to believe because they may tarnish my image or opinion of some great hero of mine. One such item is that the famous warrior chief and mystic Crazy Horse had enlisted as a scout in the U.S. Army and carried the rank of sergeant for four months up to his death.

This item I found in an excellent book, Fort Robinson and the American West (Nebraska Press, 1999) by Thomas R. Buecker, curator of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Fort Robinson Museum. Other books that corroborate this fact are the two volumes of the Interviews of Eli S. Ricker (Nebraska, 2005), and the most outstanding account of the warrior chief’s life, Crazy Horse, a Lakota Life, by Kingsley M. Bray (Oklahoma Press, 2006).

To me, Crazy Horse’s service as a US Army scout does not diminish his place in history or his legend, but what really bothered me in reading Kingsley Bray’s book was the betrayal of friends and allies surrounding his death. No Lakota leader comes out untarnished by that betrayal—Red Cloud, Spotted Tail (Crazy Horse’s uncle), American Horse, or Little Big Man. Only his close friends from the Hunkpapa—Touch the Clouds and several of his followers, stayed with Crazy Horse to his death. Little Big Man stands as a turncoat and a coward.

The most depressing part of the story, however, was how these great leaders were manipulated by the US Government agents and military leaders to do their dirty work of destroying the man who was among the greatest Indian leaders of all time.

The older chiefs Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had earned their powerful positions through leadership in war and statesmanship and were accustomed to the honor accorded them. They were also used to their positions as spokesmen for their nations, and were vigilant in defending their positions of honor and power. But that power and authority brings pride and jealousy, especially when the circumstances of confinement to a reservation, and dependency on the enemy government for your people’s subsistence have eroded your power and your ability to serve them as expected of a chief.

This is what the government agents and the military leaders played on as a means to destroy all those chiefs, for that was the first step to destroying the tribes themselves. With his courageous resistance and his refusal to accept confinement to a reservation, Crazy Horse had become famous worldwide, and a continuing inspiration to Indian people of all tribes. He had to be imprisoned or, better yet, destroyed, according to the makers of Indian policy and the army generals. And who better to do it than his own people.

I was depressed when I came to the end of the book to see my great heroes as unwitting players in the betrayal and death of Crazy Horse. And it brought back memories of a time I was caught up in such manipulation by the federal government against another Indian organization, or as I saw it at the time, in defense of the National Congress of American Indians against an organization manipulated by the federal government to do us in.

During the headiest days of Indian militancy in the 1970s several tribal leaders sought to create their own national organization, which threatened to split Indian country during a critical time in modern Indian history. What concerned this group of powerful tribal leaders was that their authoritative voices as duly-elected leaders were being drowned out by the louder voices of urban-based Indian militants. The militant leaders were attracting much attention from the media, and in that limelight were defining Indian country problems and solutions. The elected tribal leadership justifiably felt that they were being ignored by the media, and the authority they held as a result of their election by the people on the reservation was being compromised in the eyes of the general public, and Congress and the Administration alike.

Further, they felt that the NCAI was infiltrated by militants and leaning more to an urban-Indian agenda. NCAI conventions, although controlled by tribes through stringent credentials and protocol were open to the general public, and militants frequently took advantage of the floor microphones to harangue tribal leaders as sell-outs and pawns of the federal bureaucracy. Some tribal leaders began to be concerned that their organization was being taken over by the militants and was out of control.

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Thus, a group of disaffected tribal leaders formed the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association (NTCA), which was welcomed by President Nixon’s new Indian Commissioner Louis Rooks Bruce (Oglala Lakota/Mohawk). The Commissioner felt that the NTCA would simplify the tribal-federal consultation process, since he would be meeting directly with an organization that represented the heads of state of the tribal nations.

By its very nature, the NTCA was politically a very conservative organization that embraced the status quo, decrying the antics and activism of the left-leaning militants clamoring for change. At first they ignored NCAI, nudging the organization to have the good sense to die, which seemed imminent at the time anyway. The older and larger NCAI was at its lowest ebb since its creation almost thirty years earlier due largely to an arrogant and spendthrift executive director in the late 1960s.

In the early 1970s there was much internal strife in the Bureau of Indian Affairs as that agency was losing its exclusive place in Indian affairs because of new funds being made available directly to the tribes by other federal agencies, most notably the Office of Economic Opportunity. Commissioner Bruce attempted to move the BIA in that direction as well and this became a great concern to the old line bureaucracy, the powers of which were concentrated in the Area Offices.

The Commissioner’s cadre of high officials (the New Team) included several from urban-Indian communities who set about to fulfill Nixon’s charge to the Commissioner to “shake up that Bureau and shake it up good.” Protecting their turf, the established BIA bureaucracy immediately took to the Chairmen’s Association to support their status quo, and the New Team took their case to the National Congress.

The American Indian Movement’s Trail of Broken Treaties and the occupation and trashing of the BIA offices in Washington brought the clash of the two Indian organizations to a head, and split Indian leadership between the two. Backed by the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO), which was headed by Vice President Spiro Agnew, the NTCA worked to undermine its older sibling organization, calling for the federal agencies to listen only to the Chairmen’s organization, and ignore the NCAI.

Fortunately, and thanks to excellent Indian staff work on Capitol Hill, the momentum of important legislation was not even slowed by the ongoing glaring match between NCAI and NTCA, and those years of the early-to-mid 1970s saw the passage of what was perhaps the most important legislation in modern Indian history, including the Indian Self-Determination Act.

NTCA passed into history, although relations between the two organizations warmed up considerably in the end. NCAI became stronger, but fault lines exist in a unified national Indian community. These fissures are along the lines of haves and have-not tribes, and large versus small (especially newly-rerecognized) tribes. Who the rascals are that would try to manipulate such a split is not known, but always there.

Indian country, especially leaders who seek to establish new Indian organizations, must remain ever alert to these dangers. We could be our most dangerous enemies.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is