One of the most interesting television programs – PBS’s History Detectives – did a segment about one of American history’s most interesting people – Crazy Horse, legendary leader of the Oglala Lakota Native American tribe of South Dakota’s Black Hills. History Detectives is a show where their researchers examine articles in private possession, and attempt to find the real story behind the objects. The show is something between Antiques Roadshow, CSI, and a time-travel through history.

I’ve seen photographs over the years that were supposed to be portraits of Crazy Horse, but so far none have withstood scrutiny. Many believe what the Lakota have emphatically stated for years: that Crazy Horse was never photographed. He was born before the invention of portrait photography, but lived until 1875. At least in theory, he could have been the subject of the Wet Plate Collodion process, which was popular during his lifetime. Photographic technology at the time made it nearly impossible to capture candid or moving-subject images. The process required a still subject and several minutes of exposure time for each image.

I won’t ruin the joy of watching the program, so I won’t tell you their findings. If you don’t know about the show, or haven’t seen this segment (there are several segments within each episode) and wish to watch online, here’s the link to the Crazy Horse story.

I do want to touch on some things that I find fascinating about the warrior and that era of the mid-to-late 1800s. Crazy Horse was a legend while he still lived. His followers became convinced that he could not be killed by the white man’s bullet. In fact, one of the telling signs in fake or misidentified Crazy Horse photographs is the lack of a scar on the left cheek. A soldier once took aim and fired at the face of Crazy Horse. The best the bullet could do was to carve a line of flesh out of his left cheek.

The photograph in question was in a frame with the label, “Crazy Horse,” below the image. The back of the print was stamped, “Alex Gardner, 921 Penna Ave, Washington, DC,” with the year 1875. This is the same Alexander Gardner who was known to have faked some of his most famous Civil War images, which I wrote about in my MappingTheEdge post, “Conjuring The Truth“.

Gardner had a photographic studio in Washington DC at that time. Gardner also traveled to the Black Hills to photograph negotiations between the Lakota and US Government officials a few years earlier. Upon surrender, several dozen Lakota were brought to Washington DC and photographed by Gardner, including the great warrior Red Cloud. Many of the original glass plate negatives still exist.

On the show, one Lakota expert and the grandson of Crazy Horse disputes the photograph of Crazy Horse under question, saying that his grandfather never wore an eagle feather, as the figure in the image clearly has displayed behind his head. He said Crazy Horse only wore feathers from the red-tailed hawk. There are also discrepancies with the dress of the figure in the image (and of the other figures in the glass plate images).

After the Lakota surrender, their leaders were taken to Washington DC to be photographed, but were also taken to military sites, and shown massive collections of artillery and cannons as a psychological shot to the heart, showing the futility in resisting. To add to the indignity, traditional tribal dress was often replaced with studio props. Items were placed on the heads or in the hands of the Native American warrior-leaders in an ironic attempt to make them seem “more authentic” in their portraits.

Only the right side of the face was visible in the image, so the left cheek scar could not be confirmed, unless, as in many cases, the image was reversed. This would mean that the cheek in the image would be the left, and scarless.

Crazy Horse was revered by his people for multiple reasons, not the least of which was his stubborn refusal to not surrender, and to refuse to sign away his people’s land. The Lakota oral history says that Crazy Horse believed the white man’s technology to be evil. The last thing Crazy Horse wanted was for the white man to capture his soul in the camera. Was he eventually forced to surrender?

As I said, I won’t tell you if the photograph in the story is of Crazy Horse or not. I will tell you that his younger sister described her brother’s likeness to a forensic artist in the 1930s, over 50 years after Crazy Horse’s death. The resulting sketch, shown for the first time on that History Detectives episode (and shown here for you) was so like her brother, that she cried upon seeing it. She believed that the sketch was the closest likeness that she would ever have of Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse died an old man on September 5, 1877. He died just as he lived, resisting the white man. When the US Army attempted to take him into custody, he fought back and was stabbed by a bayonet. He died a few days later, and the final resting place of Crazy Horse remains unknown. It is no doubt somewhere in the Black Hills, his land.

In an Army surplus tent in 1947, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear started a Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills. The goal was to create the world’s largest stone carving, a permanent change to the horizon where Crazy Horse fought, lived and died.

When finished, the 563-foot-high mountain carving will be a 360-degree image of Crazy Horse on horseback. The memorial is to be a living one, and the location of The American Indian University and Medical Training Center.

On History Detectives, they ask how the sculptor knows what Crazy Horse looked like. It turns out that it doesn’t matter. The figure that is still being blown out of rock is always changing and being changed, both by the explosions that form the image, and by the elements of nature after the sculpture is formed. The work ultimately reflects the spirit of Crazy Horse, not is physical image.

The portraits of the surrendering Lakota are amazing for what they are and for what they represent in history. They are also amazing for what they are not.