Crazy Horse: a Life by Larry McMurtry
1. McMurtry is a novelist and screenwriter, not a historian. What are the differences
between his account of the lives of the Plains Indians and Crazy Horse in particular from
those of professional historians or biographers? How does his style add to or detract from
your knowledge of the events discussed?
2. What is McMurtry’s opinion of the various historical accounts given of Crazy Horse’s
life and the battles and activities he was engaged in? Do you agree with him, and why?
3. What was the situation of the Plains Indians when Crazy Horse was born around 1840?
Why was their way of life beginning to change? How did the availability of manufactured
goods obtained from American soldiers and traders affect them?
4. What particular elements of the encroaching white civilization had the most deleterious
effect on the Plains Indians? Do you think the outcome of their conflict with whites
would have been different if they had faced just one of these negative impacts rather than
several? Could they have done anything to prevent the destruction of their way of life?
5. Native American tribes are often depicted as having a warrior culture. Did you find that
true in the descriptions in this book? What aspects of Oglala culture surprised you? How
did Indian warfare differ from your previous ideas of it?
6. What were the differences between warfare between Indian tribes and skirmishes with
U.S. troops? How were Plains Indians unprepared for the white man’s method of
7. The incident of the Mormon cow (p. 28) provides a good illustration of mistrust and
bloodshed between whites and Native Americans. Were incidents such as this simply the
result of the stupidity and ignorance of a few leaders, or were they inevitable given the
U.S. government’s incoherent policy towards Indians?
8. Much is made of the fact that Crazy Horse came into conflict with the norms and
traditions of the Sioux, even though they were noted for being very tolerant of unusual
behavior. How did his indifference to these customs both enhance and detract from his
authority and prominence within the tribe? How did it impact the tribe as a whole?
9. Describe Crazy Horse’s vision. Why didn’t he prepare himself for his vision quest as
other young warriors did? Is too much made of the interpretation of this vision? How did
Crazy Horse apply it to his life?
10. Describe Sioux customs of marriage and divorce. Crazy Horse ignored these customs
when he stole away with Black Buffalo Woman, who was married to No Water. Who is
to blame for this breach in etiquette? How did it affect Crazy Horse’s standing with his
11. Describe the different attitudes towards leadership between white society and Plains
Indian cultures. How did misunderstandings of these different power structures affect
negotiations and day-to-day interactions between the two groups? Was anyone to blame
for not recognizing and taking these differences into account?
12. Some Sioux leaders — Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and Sitting Bull— accepted that the
whites would eventually take their hunting grounds and sacred lands and end their way of
life and tried to make the best of it. What factors led these leaders to come to this
conclusion? Do you think that Crazy Horse and the other “hostiles” should have tried to
learn more about their antagonists?
13. What was Crazy Horse’s relationship with the few whites (Agent Jesse Lee, General
Crook, Dr. McGillicuddy) he encountered? How did they view and describe him?
14. What is your opinion of the Indian scouts who worked and fought for the U.S.
government against their own people or other tribes? What factors might have led them to
do so? McMurtry says they were crucial to the U.S. success if many instances. Were they
justified in their behavior in any way or was it simply a betrayal of their own people?
15. Towards the end of his life, Crazy Horse told U.S. government agents he would fight the
Nez Perce if they wanted him to. What was his motivation for saying this? Do you think
he would have campaigned against the Nez Perce on the U.S. government’s behalf?
16. Why did Crazy Horse turn himself in to the white authorities? Why were they so anxious
to punish and imprison him even when he was living peacefully and complying with their
17. How did rivalries among Native American leaders contribute to Crazy Horse’s death?
Were these rivalries natural or were they fomented by U.S. government representatives
18. Crazy Horse endured many losses: that of loved ones (his brother Little Hawk, his friends
Hump and Lone Bear, Black Buffalo Woman and his daughter They-Are-Afraid-of-Her)
as well as his free-roaming way of life. How did these losses shape his character?
19. In several instances Crazy Horse is called Christ-like. What is the basis of this
evaluation? Is there some truth in it or is it part of his myth?
20. Why is Crazy Horse remembered and revered in a way other Native American warriors
and leaders of the same time and area are not?
21. What would Crazy Horse make of the monument of him currently being built in Custer,
South Dakota? What would his contemporary Oglala people or members of other tribes
have thought of it?
About the author
Larry McMurtry has written over 50 books. His work is predominantly set in either the old West
or in contemporary Texas. His best-known novels are The Last Picture Show, Terms of
Endearment and the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. He and co-writer Diana
Ossana won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (from a
previously published story by E. Annie Proulx).