Friday, September 5, 2014

The vision of Crazy Horse

image: Wikimedia commons (link). Link to GFDL full text here.

In light of the previous post discussing the tremendous variety of methods by which contact with the spirit world can be achieved, the vision quest of the famous Oglala warrior and leader Crazy Horse is noteworthy on several levels.

In one of his earliest and in my opinion most valuable and thought-provoking historical books, author Stephen E. Ambrose consulted primary-source accounts from Crazy Horse's fellow Sioux warriors who described what Crazy Horse told them about the vision quest in which Crazy Horse received his name and a powerful direction which would sustain and guide him for life.

Below are selected passages from Ambrose's Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, first published in 1975. Ambrose refers to Crazy Horse by the name "Curly" until Crazy Horse receives his vision and his adult name, explaining:
As he would not receive his real name until he had accomplished a notable deed or had a memorable dream, the Indians called him by various nicknames, all connected to his distinguishing physical characteristics. Sometimes he was "Curly Hair," sometimes the "Light-Haired Boy"; as he grew older he usually was called "Curly." 38.
In late August or early September of 1854, when young Curly was about thirteen years old (Ambrose puts the general time of the birth of the child who would later be called Crazy Horse as the fall of 1841, explaining his reasoning in endnote 2 to chapter 3 on page 487 of the edition linked above, but notes that a case can be made for a later year of birth between 1842 and 1845, or an earlier year of birth as early as 1838).

Here is the description Ambrose gives, based upon those to whom Crazy Horse later told his dream:
From the vision the Sioux drew their inspiration. Their dreams might lead them to become medicine men, or warriors, or horse catchers, but whatever the vision proscribed for the dreamer, it was wakan and never to be disregarded. [. . .]
[. . .]
The Sioux were not secretive about their dreams; indeed, they were anxious to tell them to others. Thus we know what Curly dreamed out on the prairie of the lake country in the Nebraska Sand Hills, for he later described it on a number of occasions to Indians and at least once to a white man. He also made a drawing of his vision in sand rocks after the Little Bighorn battle, twenty-two years later.
After two days of fasting and keeping himself awake by placing sharp stones under his body when he had to lie down, Curly began to fear that he had made a terrible mistake. No dream came, perhaps because he had not made the proper preparations, perhaps because he was not worthy. He had given up and started down the hill to his pony, which he had hobbled beside a lake, when the dream came (most likely, he had fainted). 
A man on horseback rode out of the lake. The horse kept changing colors, and it floated above the ground, so light was it, the man too, who sat well forward on the horse. He wore plain leggings and a simple shirt. His face was unpainted and he had only a single feather in his long brown hair. He had a small brown stone tied behind his ear. He did not seem to speak, but Curly heard him clearly nonetheless.
The man told Curly never to wear a war bonnet, nor to tie up his horse's tail (it was the Sioux custom to  tie up their ponies' tails in a knot), because the horse needed his tail when he jumped a stream and in summer time to brush flies. He said that before going into battle Curly should pass some dust over his horse in lines and streaks, but should not paint the pony. And he should rub some of the dirt over his own hair and body. Then he would never be killed by a bullet or by an enemy. But he should never take anything for himself.
All the while the man and horse were floating, brushing aside constant attacks from a shadowy enemy. But he rode straight through them, straight through the flying arrows and lead balls, which always disappeared before striking their target. Several times the man and horse were held back, it seemed by his own people coming up from behind and catching his arms, but he shook them off and rode on. A storm came up and on the man's cheek a little zigzag of lightning appeared and a few hail spots on his body. Then the storm passed, and the man's people closed in around him, grabbing and pulling, while overhead a hawk screamed. Then the dream faded and curly was awake. 67-69.
More than a year later, after Curly had achieved distinction both on hunting parties and raiding parties, his father, who was an interpreter of dreams, interpreted this vision for his son: "He said Curly must be the man in the dream, must do as he said, dress as he dressed, wear a single hawk feather in his hair, a small stone behind his ear. He must lead the people and never take anything for himself" (77).

This vision is remarkable and its implications are profound. Crazy Horse followed his vision, and by all accounts he was able to pass unscathed through the thickest volleys of arrows or bullets. Even more powerful is the possible interpretation of the gathering storm, and the implications of the man being grabbed and pulled. It is also noteworthy to remember that Sitting Bull, one of the other very important leaders at Little Bighorn along with Crazy Horse, also had a powerful and prophetic vision prior to the battle, which was widely told among the warriors gathered along the Little Bighorn, and which played a prominent role in the events of that fateful conflict.

The account is also remarkable in that it shows that a vision was certainly not always obtained every time one was sought. The technique used to induce ecstasy in this case appears to have involved deprivation of sleep and food for multiple days until a vision came -- if one came. It was not induced by drugs, and it was by no means certain that a vision would come at all. In fact, Crazy Horse was basically ready to discontinue his vision quest before the dream finally came to him.

There is much more which could be said or learned from this powerful episode in the life of this remarkable leader, but it may perhaps be best for each to consider it and learn from it on their own. 

The only other point that I would offer is that the power and positive effect of such a vision for the life of the one who is granted it is undeniable -- and these benefits, I would argue, are not restricted to any single culture or people or century in time. Previous posts, such as this one, have presented evidence that argue that contact with "non-ordinary reality" is available to all human beings, and that the knowledge of the existence of the spirit world and of techniques to access that realm when necessary are in fact the common heritage of all humanity.

For other posts about the exemplary life and spirit of Crazy Horse, see here, here, and here.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).