Review of Crazy Horse Weeps: The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America

Review of Crazy Horse Weeps: The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Lora Mendenhall

Lora Mendenhall, Ph.D. teaches in the English Department at Indiana University Northwest. Her scholarship focuses on Indigenous Rhetorics, Ecocomposition, Service-Learning and Narrative. She is currently working on a book project regarding ecological restorative justice in Northwest Indiana and beyond.

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Marshall, Joseph M. III. Crazy Horse Weeps: The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2019. 168 pages.

As a scholar and teacher of ecocomposition based on service-learning for environmental advocacy writing, I have often relied on the many works of Joseph M. Marshall III to provide my students with a narrative lens into the Indigenous worldview of the Lakota Sioux. Crazy Horse Weeps, Marshall’s most recent work, takes a fresh approach in weaving together not only the current state of our environment in the U.S., along with U.S. history, but also addresses modern day politics in light of the fact that, for the Lakota, the pervasive threads of oppression and simultaneous disrespect for Grandmother Earth have not changed over time. Where traditional Lakota esteem our planet as a living female entity connected in a balanced relationship with all things, too many of her inhabitants continue to view her simply as an exclusive sphere of resources to be controlled, “promoting an ideology of power over nature” in conquering “undomesticated ground” (Alaimo 2, 23). This “tamers of the land” mantra is diametrically opposed to the Lakota worldview, which teaches human responsibility to care for our planet, as she cares for us (Marshall, The Journey, xx). Her power and destiny are already manifest in her very existence. Our destiny is to reciprocate in kind. This important insight ultimately educates readers about the roles they play in the past, present, and future of consumerism, which has a profound effect on all people and our planet’s vital ecological balance.

From the onset of Crazy Horse Weeps, Marshall mourns the heartbreaking death of “They Are Afraid of Her,” Crazy Horse’s young daughter, from cholera. The book ends with dancing. In between is an enlightening journey beginning with the ability of “Tasunka Witko” (Crazy Horse) to carry on in the face of the unspeakable loss of a child, tragically the result of Euro-American invasion, accompanied with new disease(s). From there, Marshall patiently guides the reader through the Lakota vantage point of U.S. history starting with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and the Oregon Trail, to the resulting mantras of Manifest Destiny, Christian missions, assimilation, and capitalism, all of which remain, by and large, constant. Cause and effect examples in the text reveal the many troubling issues facing the Lakota today—ongoing results of unjust and often traumatic colonial forces. The ways in which these issues are oft portrayed by today’s mainstream media still contribute to what has historically been a “literature of dominance” (Vizenor 3). Rather than the greater population heeding Indigenous voices and knowledge regarding equal rights for all races of people, as well as a respectful belief to not deplete Grandmother Earth’s natural resources which sustain humanity, such worldviews are unfortunately more often quietly or unquietly silenced, and/or dismissed as unprogressive, inapplicable, and quaint.

Where some of Marshall’s previous works may have invoked a warm and nostalgic cedar flute tone, there is no flute here. This work boldly addresses today’s pivotal political issues which impact not just the Lakota, and not just the U.S., but ultimately, our connected global population. True to the subtitle, “The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America,” Marshall gives an authentic, autobiographical, and often familial context for what has been much of his experience on and off the Rosebud Reservation. He awakens the reader with an enlightening documentation of the fortitude required by the Lakota to endure with a spirit of survivance, while continuing to resist forces who oppress and disrespect both Indigenous peoples and Grandmother Earth. As a participant in the Standing Rock/DAPL water protectors peaceful protest, Marshall expresses that despite how some may misinterpret motives, “What we do want is for others to learn that coexisting with the environment and adapting to it is the way to ensure that our children and grandchildren of any race and color will have an unpolluted environment” (135).  At the heart, Marshall echoes the sentiments of Crazy Horse in seeking unity and a promising future “for all living things and [including] young white ones…” One must believe this noble vision ensures the possibility of sustaining all future generations, therefore such a goal necessitates purposeful leadership today: “Leadership is a responsibility, not a prize” (63). Within the Standing Rock camps, Lakota young people took up that responsibility. “It’s the young people who taught us how to stand again. It was the young people that brought that empowerment to the people” (Brave Bull Allard qtd. in Barnett).

As my students gradually become more aware that they exist in a relationship with the natural world through Marshall’s voiced identity and guided leadership in his writing, they are inspired to become fellow seekers in making changes, not only via my classroom and related service-learning work, but also in their everyday lives. These actions, in turn, shape their identities. Writing for environmental advocacy can serve as “one of the activities by which we locate ourselves in the enmeshed systems that make up the social world. It is not simply a way of thinking but more fundamentally a way of acting” (Cooper 373). When one invests their own identity in a place they have lived, cherished, interacted with, and advocated for, that relationship can foster an ongoing lineage crossing time-space dimensions (Deloria 209). Ties to land and place can become intergenerational, which has the potential to ultimately empower a heritage of respect for Grandmother Earth en masse, and from family to community. As Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian R. Weisser have argued, “Ecological thinking relies upon interrelationships rather than rigid boundaries” (569). Furthermore, shared Indigenous rhetorics based on these multifaceted relationships can foster a profound sense of belonging and purpose within the composition classroom, both locally and beyond.

With Native American lands constantly under ecological threat of contamination, endless pipeline developments, and myriad other ongoing treaty violations, as Keith H. Basso states, “new forms of ‘environmental awareness’ are being more radically charted and urgently advocated than ever in the past” (105). Operating from, and delving in-depth into, what Basso calls “contrasted ways of living in the world” are essential to experience the organic connection and relationship between human beings and all of creation. Once explored, these new and vital contrasts not only allow students to change their writing, but also their perception of identity and place within the world, clarifying their roles of respectful responsibility for Grandmother Earth’s care.

As Marshall very practically and poignantly illustrates the Lakota view of respect for all of creation via storytelling/narrative, such as with his remembrance of shock and sadness at a rancher indifferently destroying a meadowlark nest, he reminds us that abuses of power, even when interacting with the natural world, can start out small (127). Add racism and self-promotion to such an ideology, along with a group of followers, and soon a dangerous world leadership based on hatred of others can emerge, eventually leading to ethnocentrism and genocide (48-49). Such scenarios are painfully acute in Native American communities, yet still their belief in, and hope for, an eventual awareness of the essence of what it truly means to be human lives on for non-Native peoples. “I, for one, will place that hope and extend it to the cosmos, because where there is one good person and one kind heart, surely there are others” (115). Concurrently, from my observations, despite the often terrible treatment of the Lakota by whites, and despite the ways in which whites have disrespected Grandmother Earth, the Lakota love of “Unci Maka” (Grandmother Earth) is far greater than their hatred of the hate exhibited and exercised by those who seek to oppress them. In learning from scholars at Sinte Gleska University, as well as knowledgeable Lakota elders and friends, their prayer is that white society will realize what it means to be truly human in connection with all of creation, along with adapting to Grandmother Earth in good ways of balance (as it should be), rather than assuming that she will adapt to the whims of human dominance with every decision. It is overwhelmingly apparent, she cannot.

Amidst addressing current and weighty social issues in Lakota communities (and their related causes), as well as our overall environmental distress, Marshall balances what could seem to be solely insurmountable struggles, with humor. In reading the book chronologically, Marshall recounts his boyhood story of being chased up a tree by a badger, remembering an earlier lesson from his grandmother about the wily ways of badgers. In a subsequent chapter, he ties his first-hand experience with the badger to a story his grandmother later lovingly tells him about a stick and a snake, expressing that he values her profound and uncanny insight in light of the fact that she was previously “right about the badger” (9). This made me laugh out loud. As one of Marshall’s earliest teachers, his grandmother certainly modeled compassion and wisdom, and Marshall highlights the further wisdom of seeing the irony in certain situations. This tempered humor, so often a sign of Lakota strength in adversity, brings to the surface the depth of Lakota character and honor, simply facing what needs to be done. This is the Lakota way, echoing what has remained over millennia: constancy, stability, structure, purpose…part of the greater whole of what it means to be authentically Lakota (80). Returning to the traditional way of attending to concerns within the community, Marshall’s final chapter may initially seem out of step. However, considering Lakota oral culture and storytelling, he is highlighting the circular and reflective collaborative dialogue depended upon for countless generations. In effect, he is, like the book’s opening with Crazy Horse, reminding us of history and the old ways.

While Crazy Horse Weeps fully and openly confronts wrongdoings of the past, as the ending focuses on dancing, the limitless resiliency that comes with a sense of connected culture and tradition is a continued vision of hope for the future of Lakota people. And while Marshall quietly veils his own portion of that resiliency in his thankfulness for those non-Native people who have stood with the Lakota, one realizes hope for all humankind is perhaps what he, and Crazy Horse, have also together wept for all along (112). A journey in understanding the words of these two stalwart and unified leaders challenges my students (and myself) to develop a deep appreciation for a worldview with authentic relationships at its heart. And while over millennia this worldview has not changed, neither has its power to bring humanity together to serve and know that which sustains us, as was intended from the beginning.

Works Cited

  • Alaimo, Stacy. Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space. Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Barnett, Tracy L. “Women of Standing Rock: LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.” Resilience. Accessed 30 Aug. 2019.
  • Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
  • Cooper, Marilyn. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English, vol. 48, no. 4, 1986,  pp. 364-75.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr. The Metaphysics of Modern Existence. Fulcrum, 2012.
  • Dobrin, Sidney I., and Christian R. Weisser. “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment.” College English, vol. 64, no. 5, 2002, pp. 566-98.
  • Marshall, Joseph M. III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. Penguin Books, 2005.
  • Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.