Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, Montana, says the man in this picture is Crazy Horse. Native historians and photography experts aren't so sure. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Is This Crazy Horse? Investigating Indian Country's Most Controversial Photo

Angela Aleiss

Once again, the debate over the alleged tintype photo of Crazy Horse has surfaced. True West magazine in its January 2015 issue features "100 Best Historical Photos of the American Indian," and photo number 97 includes the tantalizing caption, "Is This Crazy Horse?"

The privately owned Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, Montana, says it is.  The tintype has been the museum's prized possession for almost 15 years, and its website boasts of a “striking correlation between the eyewitness descriptions of Crazy Horse and the man in the portrait,” supposedly taken in the late summer of 1877 at Fort Robinson, Nebraska (merely weeks or days before his death on September 5).  The museum says it can trace the photo’s provenance to its first owner Baptiste (Little Bat) Garnier, who claimed to persuade the Lakota leader to have his picture taken.

The museum’s online store sells the Crazy Horse photo for $1.

A version of this tintype has been promoted as a photo of Crazy Horse. Is it?

But this isn't the first time someone has claimed an "authentic" photo of Crazy Horse. Numerous so-called images of the Lakota leader (and his personal belongings) have appeared over the years despite that Lakota historians and biographers believe that Crazy Horse never posed for a photograph.


Portrait of a group of Indian men from Denver Public Library. The information provided in the album is as follows: 'At the Wild West Earl's Court with a crouch hand camera during July, August and September 1892. Buffalo Bill's Show.' Presented to Nat Salisbury Esq for use of the staff with A.R. Dressers Compliments Springfield Bexley Heath. Kent, England Oct. 1892'

But experts believe that the image could be an Indian performer from Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which operated from 1883 to approximately 1917.  

"This 'Crazy Horse' photo definitely looks like an individual who is dressing up for a photo or a performance,” says Jeremy Johnston of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. 

RELATED: Is This Drawing a Self-Portrait of Crazy Horse?

Johnston is the Curator of the museum’s Western American History and Managing Editor of the Papers of William F. Cody. He says the "cross-cultural" attire of the man is consistent with the Indian performers who often posed in both Western and Native clothing for Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows.

Two Indian Men standing and Woman seated. Photo has handwritten date of 1905. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, U.S.A.; P.421.013

"To me, this 'Crazy Horse' photo looks like some of those that were sold as souvenirs and postcards in Germany," Johnston says by telephone. “The attire just doesn’t fit the [1870s] era.”

Donovin Sprague, Minnicoujou Lakota historian and author, agrees. "The person in the photo is dressed in a flamboyant manner unlike how Crazy Horse dressed," he says.  Sprague teaches history at the Black Hills State University in South Dakota and is related to Crazy Horse through High Backbone (Hump), the brother to the biological mother of Crazy Horse.


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