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Members of the Family of Crazy Horse coming to Lamar Public Library, A Journey of Truth

No matter where we live, no matter what language we speak or religion we follow, no matter our age, our education, our income, the color of our skin or any of those things that seem to separate us from one another, there is, nonetheless, one thing that connects us all as human beings. 

That one thing is stories.

From the time that pictures were drawn on rocks to the time when language was first spoken, human beings have told and listened to stories, and we continue to hear them and tell them every day.

Stories fill our lives. Sometimes, they fill our hearts.  And, sometimes, a story is so good that it belongs on the front page of a newspaper.




By Priscilla Waggoner

doug war feather, bill matson and floyd clownAt first glance, this is the account of a journey taken by four men. Author William Matson was born in the Northwest, the son of a newspaperman and a secretary for a Lutheran church. Brothers Floyd Clown, Doug War Eagle and Don Red Thunder were born 1300 miles to the east on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.  Floyd, Doug and Don are members of the Minicouju band of the Lakota Sioux.  They are also, through both their father and mother, descendants of Crazy Horse, the famous Lakota warrior. 

As interesting as that premise is on its own, this narrative is also about something much larger.  It’s about the principle of honoring a promise and listening to the wisdom of grandfathers from “the other side”. It speaks of the very real threat that forced a family into hiding followed by the consequences of coming out of hiding and claiming a rightful legacy. But, perhaps, most of all, it’s about telling the truth and the understanding that only truth can bring. 

Stories born of real events are, in many ways, like old rivers.  Their headwaters are found at some point way back in the past from which they flow to some place in the distant and yet to be seen future.  This story actually begins with the birth of Crazy Horse, an extraordinarily brave, highly honored and respected visionary and Lakota war chief who, along with Geronimo, was among the last to surrender to the U.S. military and “agree” to relocate to an agency.

Although much of his public fame is focused on the courage he displayed at the Battle of Little Big Horn and other conflicts, his actions were largely guided by his deep and unconditional love for his family and his people.

On September 5, 1877, roughly four months after his surrendering to U.S. troops, Crazy Horse was murdered at Fort Robinson while people he knew stood by and watched. It was a heartless assassination. He was stabbed in the back by a soldier who was carrying a bayonet.  Since then, there has no small amount of contradictions in the stories that have been passed around about that day, and only the family knows the true story.  It is also only the family that knows where Crazy Horse is buried, knowledge they won’t disclose until the time is right.  But the horror of that death and the fear of additional murders that it engendered in his family caused his descendants to not speak of their lineage for years.   Beyond those simple facts, much about Crazy Horse has been written that is false or told with little to no comprehension of either the man or his culture.  However, one thing is true:  he was a great man, an extraordinary leader with a courageous, deep and self-sacrificing love for his family.

Against that backdrop, this piece of the story started a century after the birth of Crazy Horse when the United States was in the middle of World War II.

William Matson’s father served in the 7th Calvary, the same regiment as the one led by George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  During basic training, the commanding officer made it a practice to ask new recruits who won at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  Matson, who went on to be a journalist, answered the question with the facts.  “The Indians did,” he said. Apparently, that was not the answer his commanding officer wanted. Matson was punished for his response.

“My father must have held a grudge because…I’m his son,” William Matson says with a soft laugh, referring to his presence with Floyd, Doug and Don. “After the war,” he continues, “my father wanted to write a book about the battle from the native side, but life got in the way.” Matson’s father developed lymphoma late in life, and, on his deathbed, asked William to write the book.
Photo of Black Shawl, only wife of Crazy Horse.  (Crazy Horse did not allow his photo to be taken, so there is no current public record of his appearance.)
Matson, clearly a man of honor in his own right, set out to fulfill his promise. He quickly discovered that there were few native voices and an abundance of misrepresentations.  “One guy would write a book with some theory,” he says, “and another would put him in the bibliography and that theory was suddenly a fact.” In 1999, he tracked down a Northern Cheyenne in Montana who agreed to give him some stories on the battle.  And he did.  When Matson showed up, the man led him to a room and showed him a collection of roughly 300 books. “Read them all,” he said.

Staying true to his promise, Matson did exactly that, becoming specifically interested in Crazy Horse as he read. He soon realized he could not find any information on Crazy Horse’s mother.  In 2001, he traveled to the Cheyenne River Reservation to meet someone who’d agreed to help him, as well, only to be stood up once he arrived.  While there, Matson decided to go to the top of Bear Butte, also called “Bear Mountain”, a site sacred to many Indian tribes.  On the way up, Matson realized that he was only studying facts and nothing about Lakota spirituality.  At that point, he heard his father tell him to “open his heart”. 

After learning all he could about Lakota ceremonies, Matson returned to the Cheyenne River Reservation where he was given Doug War Feather’s number. Matson went to the house, bringing with him a script for a documentary on Crazy Horse he’d been writing. It was, essentially, the fulfillment of his promise to his father.  He was met by Floyd, Doug and Don.  “They told me they knew I was coming,” Matson recalls.  “They said they knew I would come from the West.

At that time, I just thought, this sounds like…something from a movie or something.”

Upon meeting Floyd, Matson handed him the script. “Floyd read about three words, called it ‘garbage’ and tossed it on the table,” Matson says, with a slight smile.  “He told me he would tell me the true story—if I had a good heart.”  They would know the nature of his heart by doing a sweat lodge.

As is so often true of translation from the Sioux language into English, the name Clown does not mean what some might assume it means.  The family name of Clown was derived when Amos Old Eagle told the agency his boyhood name, which was "Heyoka". A Heyoka in the Lakota culture is someone who heals through laughter.  As there is no equivalent word in English, when they were registered with the agency, their family name was recorded as Clown.

Floyd Clown is the eldest of the three brothers who are administrators of the Crazy Horse estate.  Floyd’s father was Blaine Clown who was the son of Amos Clown who was married to “Julia”, the English name given to Crazy Horse’s youngest sister.  Their descendancy can also be traced through their father who was a nephew to Crazy Horse.    

Floyd, a soft spoken, straightforward, plain speaking yet profoundly eloquent man, tells the story of his family after the murder of Crazy Horse, which began with not speaking about who they were.
Dull Knife, Crazy Horses grandfather on his maternal side 
“My uncle went to fight in World War I,” he says. “He was there fighting for his country. He was killed over there.  His younger brother, my uncle, declared in public that he was the younger brother of Crazy Horse.  He was killed for that.”  Floyd pauses for a moment before continuing.  “In the 1930s, someone wrote a book that said that Crazy Horse was buried on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  My mother said he wasn’t buried on Pine Ridge. They came looking for her after she said that.”  Despite the passage of 60 years, there were still people looking to do harm to the family of Crazy Horse.  For that reason, all of the members of his family were told to be quiet about who they were.  “They said, if someone speaks of your grandfather,” Floyd says, “listen to what they say and then walk away.”  Extraordinary as it sounds, descendants of Crazy Horse--who are now 3000 in number--all did as they were told

For 124 years, people living on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations claimed to be the family of Crazy Horse.  It was a story told so often and by so many people that people assumed it was true while the real truth was lost to everyone except for the true family of Crazy Horse.  And then, in a ceremony in 1990, the grandfathers spoke to members of the family.  “They said the year 2000 would be the time when people would start looking at things in a new way,” Floyd says. He and his brothers were also told that someone would come from the West who would help them tell the truth.

At that point, the true family of Crazy Horse came out of hiding and declared who they were.  They went before the federal courts; they provided the “blood tree” that shows their genealogy plus the six different types of proof the federal court required.  Those who claimed to be family were given the same opportunity to provide proof, but they had no proof to offer.

In 2001, the same government that took the life of their grandfather, Crazy Horse, publicly acknowledged the family for who they are.  When asked about the irony of that, Floyd simply says with no sound of rancor or bitterness, “That’s the system we live under.”

After Floyd, Doug, Don and other members of the family could see that Matson had a good heart, he spent the next 12 years recording oral histories and accompanying the brothers to numerous sites. “Their history would be described to them by landmarks,” Matson says.  “Tipi rings that were left behind. Things that other people wouldn’t see. They could see the site. They could even say where different people were.” He pauses for a brief moment and then sums it up succinctly.  “The hstory of the Northern Hemisphere did not begin with Columbus,” Matson says. “People have a tendency to not believe native spirituality, but they’ve been here longer than anybody else. They know this land better than anybody else.” 

The result of this more than decade of time spent with the brothers almost as one of the brothers himself resulted in Matson writing a book. That took a year.  He then gave the manuscript to Floyd and Doug to edit and make corrections.  That took six months. Matson, Floyd, Doug and Don have now been traveling for almost two years, telling what they know to those people who come to their book signing. They’ve done 110 book signings so far.  This Saturday in Lamar will be 111.

The grandfathers had told Floyd to speak the truth of his family, and he does simply, factually and patiently, especially with those who need an education to understand the significance of what that truth actually means. 

But, when listening to him, it soon becomes clear that truth is not restricted to family or history or circumstances. He describes it almost as a living, breathing thing.  “Today,” he says, “if you don’t have faith in truth you better go to look to make sure it’s real.  You have to touch it to make sure.” 

When asked about the complete lack of any desire for revenge, he answers, “The system taught us to live under man-made laws.  You can’t change what’s happened. You can’t change the past,” he says.  “You can only change the future.”  When the observation is made that he doesn’t even speak of those who have hurt or frightened or attempted to steal from or even murdered those people he values so greatly, he pauses and then answers with a thought that is even bigger than the question that was asked.  “People have two sets of eyes,” he says.  “One set are the eyes that see. The other eyes are of the heart.  It’s the eyes of the heart that interpret for us what our eyes see.” 
He then speaks of his people and what they have to teach those with the heart to listen.  “This is a time to heal, to heal grandmother earth.  Pray with nature.  Feel for nature.  Remember grandmother earth and walk upon her with respect.  All life is sacred.  When we’re born, we’re already sacred.  Some are I-me. The red nations are we-us. Under this, we are all equal.  Don’t criticize people for what they do.  Don’t judge them. Understand that some have just gone off track.  The grandfathers don’t see the color of skin, they see the heart. The red nations walk like that.  This is what we were told to tell people.”

William Matson began this journey out of a promise to fulfill the goal his father didn’t accomplish while on this earth.  Floyd Clown, Doug War Feather and Don Red Thunder are grandsons standing up for all their grandfathers. And, with all of the words that have been written in this article, that is not even a part of the whole that is waiting to be shared with those who go to Lamar Public Library this coming Saturday, May 5th at 2:00 in the afternoon.  If the two hours spent talking to Mr. Matson and Mr. Clown were any indication, it will be a conversation to be remembered for…a very long time.
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