Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1981, pp. 54-66.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The western writers John G. Neihardt and Mari Sandoz had much in common, not the least of which was their admiration for Crazy Horse, the famous Oglala Sioux chief during the Indian wars of the last century, whom both considered the "last great Sioux." The chief was a fine tactician and warrior, fighting successfully against General Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud and General Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876, but the authors found much more to admire in his personal life. Born on the Great Plains around 1841, he remained a "hostile savage" all his life; nevertheless, he encompassed the virtues of the exemplary classical hero. As Neihardt more than once remarked, he had qualities a Virgilian hero would aspire to: daring and brave, he was also selfless, humble, pious, and generous. Like many another tragic hero, he was doomed to be a scapegoat, killed through the treachery of both friends and enemies, at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1877.

With such a heroic career, personality, and fate a man might easily attract interest, but the aspect that seems to have appealed most to both Neihardt and Sandoz was his spiritual quality, his mysticism, for he was a "godintoxicated man" who lived his life according to mystical power-visions and experiences. He won for himself a unique place of reverence and awe among his own people. Although he lived, as Neihardt states, in "the deepening gloom of his disintegrating world" as the whites increasingly trespassed into his land, his had been "a rich life, nobly lived." It is this aspect of the man, his spiritual life, that both writers stress, Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks (1932) and Sandoz in her biography, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942), both written from the Indian point of view. Because the authors shared similar backgrounds and concepts, Neihardt's works were of major significance to Sandoz's Crazy Horse, although their approaches were different and her work is in no sense a duplication of his.1

Sandoz and Neihardt knew and admired each other. It is not clear just when they first became acquainted, but they met on various occasions at the homes of mutual friends when Sandoz lived in Lincoln during the 1930s. Sandoz received national recognition upon publication of her Old Jules in 1935, while Neihardt's popularity as an author and poet had waned. She helped whenever she could to gain the recognition she thought due him and was particularly consistent in praising Black Elk Speaks to anyone who would listen.2

The literary treatment of Crazy Horse by the two authors differs according to their purpose in writing about him. He is an important figure in Black Elk Speaks as a tribal war leader and the revered older cousin of Black Elk, but he is not the protagonist. Sandoz, as his biographer, makes him the central figure of her book, presenting his life from childhood until his death. In Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt serves as an amanuensis for the holy man; his primary function is to help the old man explain his great power-vision for all men. Sandoz acts as a historian for a warrior. But though their books are quite different, Neihardt and Sandoz shared a deep respect for Crazy Horse and his culture, an attitude much rarer then than it is today. American interest in Indian literature was practically nonexistent in the 1930s and '40s. Nevertheless, both writers persisted in telling the story they thought America needed to know.