The Mercy Tree

The Mercy Tree“Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one.”
― Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

To aim to be rootless in the world is an odd path…to want to be of nature…Crazy Horse desired this. He wanted to be of nature, to shed his human shell and be wind, or leaves, or bolts of lightning. Even the Oglala Sioux found him unusual. They referred to him as “our strange man.”

From time to time, I think I understand this longing; a feeling of being lost and not belonging in the world you’re in.

Nature seems to heal this. There is no right and wrong in nature, merely consequences.

Crazy Horse believed in spirits–that everything in the natural world had a meaning, a definition that guided his, and our, destiny.

When people bother me about not having a deity, the closest thing I can tell them about what I believe is something like this. Like what the first nation peoples and the Shinto Japanese believed. I believe nature and the idea of god are close to the same thing, and I curse neither of them.

Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 10:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Assassination of Crazy Horse

“This is good.  He sought death and now he has found it.” – Touch The Clouds, Crazy Horse’s cousin, and witness to his death.
“No shot was fired, and Crazy Horse– a man who had lost his brother, his daughter, the woman he loved, several friends, his way of life, and even, for a time, his people, began his leaving as a man and his arrival as a myth, a man around whom stories that are like little gospels accumulate. A variation death of Crazy Horse would consist of at least a score of versions, all contributed or recollected by people, white and red, who were in the fort that night.” — Larry McMurtry, Crazy Horse

What I most admire about Crazy Horse is that he helped kill Custer; a stone, murderous, psychopath. The movie Little Big Man, I think, pretty much has Custer’s number. Custer pretty much attacked when he was sure he had a superior number to the opposition. Years ago, I traveled all over the West and stopped in a small town not far from where the battle of Little Big Horn occurred, Spotted Horse, Wyoming. It was basically a post office and a diner/bar, and the guy who ran it was an old cowboy who had a tank full of rattlesnakes out in front of the place and he wore a six-shooter in a holster. It was he who told me that Custer died slow. He said that Custer was “turned over the women.”  I was shocked. I asked Mark Turcotte, the Chippewa poet about this and he said, “Custer’s last breath wasn’t on the battle field.”

There are moments of history when I’d have liked to have been there; like when Custer was introduced to the Oglala nation. . .when he looked around and realized the Oglala had the ass over him and that he was truly fucked. The wet-ass hour.

Did he pray? Did he ask forgiveness? Did he ask for mercy?

Crazy Horse was born around 1840 to Lakota Oglala parents. His father was also named Crazy Horse. In his entire life, he was never photographed. He had curly hair and was paler of skin than other Oglala, leading other children to taunt him about the possibility of white parentage to which the boy took great umbrage. However, this taunting did not persist, as the young Crazy Horse routinely fucked-up anyone who attempted to bully him.
He was fearless and contrary and an absolute natural warrior; a tactician to equal some of the best generals in U.S. history. He was an expert decoy warrior, often using himself as bait. Such was the case in the “Fetterman Massacre” in which Crazy Horse personally lured Lt. Fetterman and 80 of his cavalry to their slaughter.

Crazy Horse painted his cheeks with lightning bolts and his forehead with hailstones, in honor of the Yakiwans (Thunder Beings) and, according to many eye-witnesses, was the most fearless of warriors; always getting very close to soldiers and screaming other-worldly battle screams to his fellow braves. Crazy Horse terrified even his own men.

Crazy Horse is one of those mythic American characters that entreats conflicting historical information at almost every turn. Even his death ( an assassination) is shrouded in mystery and varying accounts. After his death, a photograph of him was produced which was quickly proven a fraud. Crazy Horse believed that the camera stole one’s soul and, given the nature of celebrity, he was not all the way wrong. History is an odd creature. It tends to be the lie we all agree upon. Crazy Horse is a hero to the Lakota Oglala and actually to me, as well. History, for the longest time, regarded him as something of a terrorist. It’s an odd paradox; one is a terrorist until one wins, and then is proclaimed a patriot.

There is a powerful kind of atmosphere around that part of the country. It is as if the land knows and that the scene of the American genocide of its first citizens still carries its ghosts. Montana and Wyoming are places where nature is, to say the very least, formidable. One doesn’t curse the snow, the rain, the dust, the hail, or god, because here; it is all the same thing.

When I was a kid, I thought thunder was something that walked the earth. Maybe Crazy Horse did, too. I don’t try to explain what Native Americans mean when they speak of these things. I’m not meant to understand it. The more I read about Crazy Horse, the more admirable he is to me.

There is a mountain being carved up as a monument to him; something he’d have probably found obscene. Russel Means, the former leader of AIM, has spoken out against it on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of Crazy Horse. While meant as a tribute, Indian peoples realize the mountain, itself, is triumph enough.

Public political assassinations are not a new American story. In my own lifetime there have been the brazen and shocking murders of JFK, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. In all cases, there were plenty of witnesses and one thing can be said of all of them; nobody ever tells the same story of the same killing. Such is also the case of the assassination of Crazy Horse. Many claim he was held by fellow red men while bayoneted by a white soldier. Little Big Man, his betrayer, claims he stabbed himself. There are many versions; so many, any is impossible to believe. What is known is that for the interests of the Army and some Indians, he could not be allowed to leave the fort he was murdered at. He was onto them.

When Crazy Horse witnessed the filth and conditions his fellow Indians were subjected to, for him, all bets were off.

Early in Larry McMurtry’s account of the life of Crazy Horse, the author is clearly puzzled by the perceptions of Crazy horse by whites and by Native Americans: “They depict Crazy Horse as a kind of being never seen on earth: a genius at war yet a lover of peace; a statesman who apparently never thought of the interest of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples–Little Big Man, Touch-the-Clouds and the rest. One is inclined to ask, what is it all about?”

Crazy Horse is certainly an American kind of enigma; a man many would build monuments to and then sneer at clay feet of their hero. The more I read about Crazy Horse, the more fascinated I am. Every account I’ve read seems to be about a different person. He defied type and was his own man.

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 10:14 pm  Comments (1)  

Indian Plume (For Crazy Horse)

Indian Plume for Crazy HorseCrazy Horse stole his first wife.  Black Buffalo Woman was married to another  man named No Water.  Crazy Horse just up and stole her and, in time, she broke his heart. This theft of the heart led to no small amount of acrimony in the tribe, with both Crazy Horse and No Water making repeated attempts on the other’s life.  Finally the Chief stepped in and made Crazy Horse give No Water two horses, and in time, Black Buffalo woman dumped him.  She was the first of  his three wives, all of which he would lose to death or abandonment.

When one drives through the Badlands, the history of that place–or places–seems to lay in wait.  In the high desert, there are plants called Indian Paintbrushes, that I’d always thought were cactus of some kind.  Evidently, they’re not.  I actually don’t really know what the hell they are, other than beautiful.

I think I keep thinking about Crazy Horse because of  the  sad trajectory of his life.  He’d lost his wives, his brother, his father and his dearest friend, Hump; and in his lifetime, he would also lose the ferocious landscape of the Badlands to the white man and the railroads.  His was a life of furious loss, despite fighting mightily to hang onto some semblance of his history and ancestry.  These things too, were lost to him.

His only solace was in nature.  Being on the wrong end of history’s loaded gun, relegated him and millions of other Indians to the shameful footnote of white America’s own  genocidal manifest destiny.

I guess the idea of belonging to a place is something I’ve always considered an idea worth fighting for.  If you’ve ever been to a country that has just lost a war, you know what I mean.  I visited Haiti in the ’80s and early ’90s and there was this despair that hung over  the place like a shawl of angry shadows.

Friends of mine from eastern Europe have told me what it’s like for your country to suddenly lose its borders.  You don’t have to travel to have this discussion; talk to any homeless person about how it feels to no longer have a tether, or a place…or a home.

In our country, we find ourselves in an economic climate where people are just trying to hang onto what they have.  The economic safety nets have proven mythic and there is a hunger in  our cities, the like of which we’ve not seen  since the Great Depression.  The difference now is that there is less continuity of community.  In the 1930s whole neighborhoods pulled together to grow gardens, and conserve rags, tin, fat,rubber and other scrap just to make it by.

It is not so different than what Crazy Horse faced.   History was moving faster than he could hope to; the wealthy taking what they want and sending men with guns to eliminate anyone that stood in the way.

This piece is called,  “Indian Plume.”

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Horse Star (For Crazy Horse)

The Horse Star (For Crazy Horse)

All through the Badlands there are reminders of who used to own this land.  There are  hay-colored grasses and scrub trees standing silently like penitent monks or atavistic sentries that bore witness.  Then and now, window rocks from the “Devil’s Tower” where the  Sioux kept watch  for cavalry and road agents and bounty hunters, who collected a tarriff for every Sioux they killed.  The natural history and landscape of the Badlands still bear the impression of the bloody and brutal history  that unfolded there.

We sometimes think of the Badlands as only Montana and the Dakotas.  It actually spanned many states and the Great Plains almost as a whole.  Horses were not introduced to the Americas until the Spanish brought them in 1640 or so and the Sioux were among the first tribes to become expert horsemen.  Horses were of more value than land in many Native American cultures.

Crazy Horse was a superior rider who could do many other things while riding a horse.  He was as expert at breaking and training horses as well as capturing wild horses.  As a young man, Crazy Horse stole another brave’s wife, Black Buffalo Woman, who it is said he was in love with ’til the day he died.  Upon being confronted and captured by tribal elders, he was forced to return her as well as two horses to the aggrieved brave.  This was considered an extremely harsh penalty.  All Black Buffalo Woman would have had to do in order to divorce the brave was to move his stuff  out in front of their tent and this would have been the only statement necessary regarding the finality of their marriage.  Crazy Horse was heartbroken by this and became even more reckless in leading war parties and raids.  His first wife, Yellow Dress, grieved endlessly over his taking up with another woman and died at a young age.

At a relatively young, age Crazy Horse lost the woman he loved, a brother and his father, and it probably affected the view he had of the world.  That life was perilous, short, bitter, and fragile. . .this piece is called, “The Horse Star.”

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Winter Monument (For Crazy Horse)

Winter Monument (For Crazy Horse)When one drives through the Badlands or the Gila wilderness at night, one keeps company with the stars.  They are never more visible, never more primary, and never more operatic.  There are no street lights or buildings or ambient lights to interfere with their radiance.

Crazy Horse loved sleeping out under the stars, as did the poet Li-Po in China, 1200 years earlier.  Both men had a communion with nature that is best described as spiritual.  The poet, Li-Po, would be reduced to tears at the sight of the constellations.  Crazy Horse wore three hailstones painted on his forehead because he believed they were of the stars.
They guide us and move us to poetry and song and paint and dance.

Years ago I did an Artist in Residence in Missoula, Montana.  They put me up in a Double Tree Suites place right next to the Bitterroot River.  It was early winter/late-autumn and the colors were muted, russety reds, ochres, firey yellows, as well as plum-colored leaves that were as furiously sad as a Guy Clark song.  It woke me to the idea of making work rooted in nature.  This was kind of a new idea to me.  I’d always drawn birds, but never the land itself.  Some of my favorite art were Charles Burchfield’s watercolors, Arthur Dove’s bloody suns, John Marin’s scratchy and earthy mountain-scapes and the sublimely lovely Marsden Hartley paintings.  But until then I’d never seen myself as being able to cobble together works about nature.

While I was staying there, the woman at the hotel desk informed me that at four the next morning there would be a meteor shower, and if I’d like to see it, she’d give me a wake-up call and I could walk out next to the river and witness one of nature’s most amazing light-shows.  True to her word, she woke me up at 3:30 and I made some coffee. . .

I walked out to the river with five or six other guests and watched–and was astonished. The stars and comets were dancing a ferocious dervish in the black sky.  I thought it’d be one or two shooting stars; this was the sky moving like amphetamine-laced neon light.  I’d never seen anything like it.  I had the thought that I knew what people meant when they said the stars spoke to them.

These thoughts loomed large in my head when I thought about the work I’d been making about Crazy Horse and the monument still being carved out of Thunder Mountain to “honor” him.

I thought that the greatest, and most resonant monument one could build for him is already there; the stars, the river. . .the mountain itself.

It is hard to imagine what shooting stars would have meant to someone so attuned to nature, as he was.  To Crazy Horse, the sun was the Almighty; and one did not curse the rain or the hail or the blinding white winter.  It was nature, and this combination of forces, or spirits and the Creator were all the same thing.

On my way back from L.A., me and my pal, Stan, drove through Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Cherokee and Blackfeet land.

In Carl Sandburg‘s, “The People, Yes“, the poet claims that, “The people know what the land knows,” and implies, just like Native American cultures do,  that the land itself        has a memory.

This thought is not hard to believe crossing the Black Mesa and the high desert.  It is unforgiving and thorny, beautiful, fierce, spiky and haunted.  It is a land of shooting stars, thick poisonous snakes, abandoned towns and absolutely no mercy.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The White Lodge

The White Lodge As a kid, I remember seeing cars and trucks with dead deer lashed to them in autumn.  Deer Season.  The men in our neighborhood would go up to Wisconsin or Northern Illinois and hunt whitetail deer.   The argument was always that without a certain amount of thinning the herd, the deer would starve during the winter, which seems a logical premise.  People ate the venison they harvested throughout the winter.  It was healthy, low-fat meat that was plentiful.

Still, it bugged me. The killing of deer seemed ugly.  Or shooting birds.  I never liked the idea  of it.  I’ve eaten plenty of venison and have liked it, but I don’t think I could ever look through a scope and pull the trigger on a deer.  It seems like a sin, like something that should be a crime.  I see them once in a while, walking placidly across a field out by the airport or on a ride up to Wisconsin, and they seem more mythic as I get older; more poetic. . .more like something to protect rather than bust a cap in.

I am not squeamish about guns.  I’m a firm believer in the right to bear and keep arms.  I am very pro Second Amendment . Hunting does not even bother me so much, though I choose not to do it.

Crazy Horse hunted buffalo with a bow and arrow.  Now, piss off a fully grown buffalo and watch how fast he stomps a mud-hole in your ass.  He also hunted antelope, deer and elk, all of them formidable creatures when wounded.

Often, roving groups of shit-heads hunt wolves from helicopters, with high-powered rifles, or hunt quail (which are about the size of a feather-duster and about as ferocious) with shot-guns on game farms, like Dick Cheney.

These tools are not without their comic value though.  At least once a year, a story surfaces that one of these Bwana-types gets snot-flying drunk and, despite the orange vest, blows the brains out of one of the other he-men in his hunting party.  Oops.  I often wonder if it is a cock-size thing that makes grown men go out and blast ducks out of the sky.  Really. . .what for?  Though I agree with Ted Nugent on the Second Amendment, I despair at the endless photos of him with some magnificent animal he has just killed.  To take this much joy in killing is psychotic.

At one time hunting to eat made sense.  Now hunting just seems to be an exercise in cruelty.

Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Black Petals

The Black Petals

There is a lovely flower store across the street from my studio called Larkspur.  My friend, Beth Barnett, owns it.  Sometimes when it is gray and shitty in Chicago, which is about eight months a year, I go over there and marvel at the color and smell of her daily inventory of flowers and plants . . . it is one of those pleasures that I live for.  She has things other stores don’t–anemones, Vanda orchids, Calathea plants–the stuff nobody else much cares about.  This store is a revelation; it always cheers me up.  I bought a Calathea plant there last week because I wanted to draw its black and purplish leaves.  It is from Brazil and is often a mourning plant, a plant given at times of death, much like the Irish giving lilies.  I thought it perfect for the mournful and autumnal life of Crazy Horse.  Black petals as deep and rich as crude oil, or night in the Badlands.  Calathea does not grow within 2,000 miles of the Black Hills, yet somehow, it is fitting.

I was in New Orleans last week where everything grows and overgrows; flora and fauna incessantly trying to reclaim the place.  I was there for these panels sponsored by Louisiana Artworks, speaking to young (and some not so young) artists about how to enter the world as artists.  I became acquainted with some wonderful emerging talent that really deserves a bigger audience.  I was touched at how, in the middle of the shittiest art-economy I can remember, these kids were full of optimism, energy and desire, how they evince an undefeated kind of spirit in the face of no small amount of adversity.

I came back to a Chicago in the full thrall of autumn with the trees and bushes changing colors; gorgeous fiery yellows and russet reds, burnt ochres and umbers and oranges.  This city is never more beautiful than in the fall.  Soon it will be time to turn the clock back and it will be dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, which will bum me out.  I don’t get Daylight Savings.  What the fuck are we saving it for?  Autumn is sad in the same way finishing a good book is, you don’t want it to end.  Winter is cruel in Chicago and at times it is easy to believe that cruelty is the true nature of this city’s heart . . . it can be a heartless motherfucker.

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Winter Crosses

Winter Crosses

Winter in the Badlands is, to say the least, formidable. The wind, hail, snow and freezing-sideways-rain can create a whiteout in seconds.  It is one of those landscapes where nature truly has the ass over you.  When he was alive, Crazy Horse used the unpredictability of nature and the vagaries of landscape to his advantage in warfare and hunting.  He knew where his enemy and his prey would be in any given weather because he knew what the land knew.  Winter made hunting easier because the deer, antelope and buffalo had nowhere to hide and had to move constantly to forage for food.  Winter was also very hard on the tribes of Native Americans.  Water would freeze, fires would have to be kept perpetually burning in order to stay alive, which would in turn alert enemies as to their location.  It was a perilous time of year for man and animal.

The cross motif present in much Native American art is not Christian, it represents the four directions, or the four winds, as my friend Mark Turcotte told me.  Mark is the great Chippewa poet I’ve known for years who has been a huge help in directing me toward what to read and look for when making these offerings.  I’d been perplexed by the presence of so many crosses and had thought that maybe this element had been introduced by missionaries before they aided in the systematic attempted genocide of the American Indian tribes.  As far as we know, Crazy Horse’s deities were rooted in nature.  Like many Native American tribes, he regarded the sun as the Almighty.

In battle Crazy Horse adorned his forehead with three hailstones and red lightning bolts on each cheek.  He also carried a small pebble or hailstone behind his ear.  These images were powerful talismans in his life and visions.  When it would hail, the Native American believed it was raining stone and, depending which text you read, this was alternately ominous and hopeful at the same time.

Natural phenomenon is almost always present in Native American art and textiles; weavings and blankets and rugs and bold patterns that reflect the temperaments and shapes of landscape and seasonal shifts.

The last time I was in the Badlands, I was aware of nature as a presence, as an entity.  It is a powerful place charged with our most shameful histories, those sad resolutions of tribal fates that have forever etched regret into our American psyche.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Deer Music

The Deer Music

In Larry McMurtry‘s splendid Crazy Horse, the author does something really smart, he measures what Crazy Horse means to his people and to us as Americans.  Little is known about Crazy Horse, despite the iconic presence he is.  McMurtry does not indulge any speculative history; rather than this, he carefully crafts an enigmatic and towering definition of who Crazy Horse became in history’s wider lens.  Instead of perpetuating the myth-writ-large, McMurtry, with the skill of a surgeon, explains our complicated history with the legacy of this odd man.  I’ve always admired McMurtry’s writing and while I was never much interested in Western things before or Texas so much, Lonesome Dove changed all of that for me and I became a rabid fan of Mr. McMurtry’s novels.

One of my aims in making these meditations on Crazy Horse is not to convince you I know a lot about Native American History or Native Americans.  I don’t.  I am a white guy who is fascinated by the problematic history and wanderings of one iconic Native American, Crazy Horse.  He was an odd man who was not very comfortable as a leader, or a member of a tribe, or even as a man.  He was a seeker of spirits, of nature, which are pretty much the same thing in this particular body of work.  Do I feel a kinship with him?  Not really.  He was at heart a loner, happy out wandering in nature, hunting deer, elk and buffalo, sleeping in caves and under the stars.  I am an admirer of his courage and otherworldliness.  I feel greatly for those who will only be like themselves.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 11:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crazy Horse Among Falling Stars

Crazy Horse Among Falling StarsUpon  returning from Tokyo, I started re-reading my notes about Crazy Horse and at the same time, Basho’s poem-diaries. It struck me how much these two men were alike in a lot of ways. Matsuo Basho would often take long journeys on foot around Japan.  His final one is recounted in his most well known diary, Narrow Road to a Far Province.  It is Basho searching, trying to find, in nature, his reason, his task. . .his definition.

Crazy Horse wanted little to do with other people, red or white.  He was happiest out wandering in nature.  He was as content to sleep in a cave or a hole, as he was in a camp. He loved being out under the stars and was  comfortable with his own company.  There was a reason the Oglala referred to him as “our Strange Man.”  His nonconformity set him apart in a tribal culture.  He had much responsibility in his tribe.  He was among the most fierce of warriors; a brilliant tactical fighter and a superb hunter, and to his tribe, he was necessary and he was up to shouldering his immense responsibility to his people.  He hunted buffalo, he led war-parties and raids, but when the opportunity arose, he would go off by himself to be in nature and fast and seek visions.  He was curious about the spirits and the next world and he sought wisdom.  Like Basho, he was always searching and seeking knowledge.

In Tokyo, I visited some Shinto shrines and was struck by how much Shintoism reflects the beliefs of some Native American beliefs as well.  I’m not religious at all, but do tend to cede the power most attribute to god, to nature.  The Shinto teachings have an intense reverence for the natural world and the shrines are sublimely beautiful.

It may sound odd that I went to Japan to better understand Crazy Horse, but I think it helped.  In every culture, there are these odd-spirited men who don’t quite fit into the world easily, yet they push that culture forward for better and ill.  They are necessary people who don’t want to punch a clock or color inside the lines.   There is an otherness about them.  In Japan, the Haiku monks were thought to be oddballs in their day.  Basho was an admirer of Li-Po, the great Chinese poet of the 8th century, another wandering spirit enamored of wandering in nature.  It is not an accident that Haiku is rooted in nature and  reflects the seasonal shifts of one’s lifetime.

I hope that after Crazy Horse was murdered, he went somewhere.  He certainly deserved better than he got.  I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I’d like it if he had one.  Haitians refer to the land between the living and the dead as the “Gray World” and there is no time continuum; it is a place where Basho and Crazy Horse could meet.  I hope wherever Crazy Horse went, he wore a necklace of stars.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 12:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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