What did Crazy Horse look like?
Charles E. Trimble
There has always been controversy in historical and academic circles over
whether there is, or ever was, a photograph of Crazy Horse. Even on the
Internet an argument raged as to the authenticity of a photo put forth by
academic activist Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and
proclaimed the real thing.
No photograph claimed to be that of the great Lakota chief has ever been
authenticated. And varied reasons are given as to why the great chief is
supposed to have refused to allow his picture to be taken. The usual
reasons, of course, are variations of Crazy Horse’s reply recalled by
Indian agent Valentine McGillicuddy when he urged the chief to pose for a
picture: “His invariable reply to my request was, ‘My friend, why should
you shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?'”
A strong case made by Tom Buecker, curator of the Fort Robinson Museum near
Crawford, Neb., is that one good reason no photo was ever taken is that,
for all but a short time in his life, Crazy Horse was never in the vicinity
of a photographer. Right up to his death, Crazy Horse could never be called
a “hang around the fort” type.
In Crazy Horse’s time the photo equipment was bulky and the process of
photography was time-consuming, from preparing the glass plates to
developing the negative immediately after taking the picture. A darkroom,
backdrop, supplies and other equipment had to be on hand for work, usually
in a town or fort. In addition, lengthy exposure time required the subject
to pose, which would have made it almost impossible for a snapshot to be
taken of an unsuspecting person.
In the short time that Crazy Horse was near a photographer – near Fort
Robinson after his surrender in 1877 – his renown worldwide was so great
that a photographer would have made much in fame and fortune for getting a
picture of him, and the photo itself would have been circulated around the
world. This would negate the likelihood of a later discovery of a Crazy
Horse photo in some obscure collection or of finding one that is not
clearly identified as the great leader. In the only photo clearly
identified as Crazy Horse, the man in the photo is much older than the
famous chief (who died in his early 30s).
As for McGillicuddy’s recollection of the chief’s reply, Buecker notes that
even though it was a moving statement, “it is probably another piece of
McGillicuddy folklore.” The agent, who was also a physician and attended
the chief in his last hours, was proud of this fact and likely would have
embellished it to call attention to his association with Crazy Horse.
Although other credible sources, such as Mari Sandoz, have attributed
similar reasons for his refusal as McGillicuddy’s claim, Buecker’s opinion
seems more real. Although I am not an expert on Lakota religion or culture,
I have never read or heard from a credible source of any Lakota taboo
against having one’s image captured by photography; certainly not fear of
death. Great Sioux leaders like Sitting Bull, and even several holy men of
the time, willingly posed for photographs. Red Cloud is second only to
Lincoln in having his portrait done by photography. If Crazy Horse did
refuse to have his picture taken, it would be more likely that he wanted to
do nothing to satisfy the curiosity of whites, whom he considered mortal
enemies, or that might indicate participation in an alien culture he
Descriptions of Crazy Horse’s facial and physical features are abundant,
both from Lakotas and a few whites who knew him well. These are included in
letters, transcripts of interviews and in books based on those primary
sources, and all are consistent in their descriptions. These descriptions
generally help disprove the claims of authors and some respected historians
that any photo purported to be that of the great leader is the real thing.
Sometime prior to 1940, Oglala Lakota artist Andrew Standing Soldier
rendered an ink and watercolor sketch based on descriptions of old men and
women who knew Crazy Horse personally. Standing Soldier created extremely
accurate portrayals of Lakota life in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as of
historic events. Of his Crazy Horse portrait, relatives and close friends
of the war leader reportedly pronounced it an excellent likeness.
But claims still arise in new books and periodicals that some photo or
other is that of Crazy Horse.
Modern depictions of Crazy Horse in movies, paintings and monuments
continue to be stereotypical caricatures of what an Indian man is “supposed
to look like.” Take, for example, the massive sculpture transforming a
granite mountain in the Black Hills. The face on that mountain doesn’t
portray the chief’s fine-featured countenance described in so many reliable
sources; for one thing, the nose is a feature that would be more like that
of the ancient Red Cloud in his final days than that of Crazy Horse.
However, this does not demean the good intentions on the part of the
Ziolkowski family and foundation of honoring so great a leader.
But as Buecker concludes in his article: “The lack of that definitive,
exact image that we hold so important, plus our not knowing where Crazy
Horse is buried, adds to the mystic attraction people have of him today.
But rest assured, even without a photograph, the deeds of Crazy Horse live
Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation. He
was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and
served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians
from 1972 – ’78. He is president of Red Willow Institute in Omaha, Neb.,
and a columnist for Indian Country Today.