The last time I saw the Milky Way throwing garlands across the night sky was on a moonless night in western Nebraska. Bands of darkness ran river-like through the streaming starlight, the interstellar dust playing hide-n-seek with the stars beyond. The brightest area seen from my Earth-bound perch was in the direction of Sagittarius, the Great Archer, who moved relentlessly across the southern sky.
Standing there, I was reminded of another great archer who once rode under this sky. Given the name Cha-O-Ha at birth, in manhood he took another – Tašúnke Witkó – Crazy Horse. While he lived, his name cast a dark shadow on the Great Plains as powerful as the Great Rift running above. When he died, half a nation let out its collective breath.
I can’t tell you about his death because it’s been chronicled so often it’s reached a point where legend and truth are inseparable bedmates. What I do know is that on a May day in 1877, the Oglala warrior rode down out of the pine bluffs and surrendered his band of nearly three hundred starving families. It happened right here, where I stood.
If the stories of the time are true – and I have no reason to doubt historian Stephen Ambrose’s research – Crazy Horse entered what was then Camp Robinson wearing a war bonnet, his pony and body painted for war. He had a single hawk feather in his hair, a tribute, perhaps, to his Spirit animal. Thousands of already-surrendered Indians lined his route, cheering and singing. One Army officer complained “By God, this is a triumphal march, not a surrender.”
But it was a surrender. On that day and a day earlier. With Sitting Bull’s escape to the safety of Grandmother’s Land – Canada – the great Sioux War ended..
I wish I could say that the end of the war was the end of hostility, but it wasn’t. Within months of Crazy Horse’s surrender, jealousies and intrigues amongst Indian factions, a gullible Indian agent, and an Army fearful of a potential break-out, led to his death. When the warrior whose heart soared with the hawk saw the three-foot-by-six-foot cell that would become his cage, he turned to flee. But a bayonet through the back and into the kidneys brought him to the ground and to his death. It’s said that overhead, a passing hawk screamed.
Afterwards, his father and mother wrapped him in a buffalo robe and secreted his body somewhere on the Plains that he loved.
My memory of this place, the sky and the man, is filled with scattered fragments – a black butterfly, black-and-white magpies, and dark blood dripping from the bite of a black fly. And the wind that kicks up every afternoon. And the hawks.
On a summer evening I watched the sky turn from powder to deep blue to blackest black and wondered at the days when Crazy Horse sat astride his pony amongst the Ponderosa pine on the bluffs beyond, watching the buffalo graze in the White River Valley where the Camp now stands. Ambrose said it was a fitting stage for the tragedy that would be played out and he was right.
The hawks still swoop low to the ground here, the blustery wind sweeps the air every afternoon and the spirit of the warrior-archer flies through this place as surely as the constellations cross the sky.
And the Milky Way. I like to think it’s as brilliant today as it was on that September day in 1877, when the most feared of the Sioux warriors drew his last breath. And maybe, just maybe, the Great Archer, Sagittarius himself, wept.