Christina Rose
Too often non-Natives set out to honor cultural icons without consulting the tribes for important cultural references.

Crazy Horse & Custer Resurrected for New Play Against Family’s Wishes

Christina Rose

For more than a month, Doug Bissonette,  has been trying to reason with the producer of a new play called, “Crazy Horse and Custer” because he says the play misrepresents Crazy Horse and his traditional ways. Bissonette, Lakota, is the family, court, and tribal representative for the estate of the famed Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse.

Written by Jon George of Sacramento, California, the play will open November 6 and run through December 15 at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Crazy Horse will be portrayed by Louie Leonardo, who came to Pine Ridge and met with Bissonette to learn as much as he could about Crazy Horse’s life. But when Bissonette and other members of the Crazy Horse family read the script, they asked that the play not be produced.

The production is based on the resurrection of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer as they discuss their roles in history, including how things might have turned out differently at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

“I visited with Leonardo about the play, but the part about bringing him back to life, that deals with his spirit, it goes against our belief. We don’t play around with the spirit,” Bissonette said.

Wilmer Mesteth, spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota, said this play is based on excerpts from books, some of which is incorrect. “I feel like it is exploiting Crazy Horse. I met the guy and he is adamant that the play goes forward. He talked to their attorneys, and it turns out that legally there is nothing we can do.”Mesteth said the image of Crazy Horse is best left as it is and that his spirit be maintained. “This play is based on fiction and we don’t understand in our culture what they are trying to portray and we feel that it is offensive,” Mesteth said, adding, “The respect factor, they are our heroes and we want that left intact. Lakota people, we respect our leaders, our chiefs, our ancestors. We don’t do such things as this. We are reverent about our leaders, we don’t make jokes about our leaders. The ways people talk about leaders in the press, we don’t do that.”

Wilmer Mesteth, spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota and the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, cannot understand why the show’s author and producer would want to distort the memory of Crazy Horse. (Christina Rose)

Bissonette and others relayed their concerns to the show’s producers who said they would produce the play without the family’s permission.

Bissonette explained that his family is dedicated to the truth about Crazy Horse. “We make sure everything is validated. We talk with all of the family members, and we don’t leave anybody out; and we don’t want false claims.”

The Lakota relationship with all beings is misrepresented several times, as is Crazy Horse’s involvement with his culture. In the script, Crazy Horse says, “I did not go through the sage smoke, the sweat bath, the day-long dancing, all the other preparations the elders demanded for a true vision... I went out alone. I had my dream.”

Mesteth said this was spiritually inappropriate.

“He had to go through the sweat lodge, you don’t go by yourself. You have your clan. (With vision quests) Even today people will go and check on you,” Bisonnette said. “This is the culture, the preparations, you can do it alone but it is not our way. When one goes, everyone goes, even if it’s dying together.”

ICTMN made several calls and sent emails to the theatre’s executive directing producer, Michael Luan, but none were returned. Bissonette received an email from George, the author, who wrote he did not believe the play would detract or debase the memory of Crazy Horse and added, “What I have written here is neither myth nor is it history… it is a play, an entertainment, and by its very nature a fiction. Crazy Horse and Custer, while they were based on existing records, I have reconstructed to fit the needs of my fancy.”

Quoting Judge Robert Sack, George wrote, “The dead have no cause of action for defamation under the common law, and neither do their survivors, unless the words independently reflect upon and defame the survivors.”

The quote further states that the longer someone has been dead, “the more open the use of material about his life” and that while “no one can ever know the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, or motivations of such a party, a writer may ascribe his own interpretations on these matters as he wishes.”

Michael Her Many Horses, advisor for Crazy Horse’s estate, said there can be serious problems when writers take liberty with cultural icons. “We are trying to reason with them to show them the error of their ways. When some cultural icons are defamed such as the prophet Muhammad, the people become violent. We are very mature people and try to reason with them when they play with our cultural icons. It is disgusting that people cannot be reasoned with.”

While the author states his work is one of fiction, the announcement for the show states that in the play, Crazy Horse is not just speaking for Plains Indians but all Indians.

The cost for four tickets for adults will cost $163 and will be performed in the Pollock Stage theatre, which seats 85 people. The show has been done in partnership with the California Museum, which is currently sponsoring an ongoing exhibit, California Indians: Making A Difference. Calls to the museum were not returned.

Bissonette and other tribal members feel the show does not honor Crazy Horse’s life and spirit and hopes the public will rise to his defense.

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Josef-Peter Roemer's picture
Josef-Peter Roemer
Submitted by Josef-Peter Roemer on
People in the USA are not interested about a culture unless it translates into bucks, then anything goes. Just look at TV commercials that should tell you something.

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
yet another example of white people taking what is ours and doing what they want with it...unfortunately, they have free rein to do so because at this point in time, tshunka witko's life has become public intellectual property that is not copyrighted, and in the interest of preserving what they think we cannot, have taken his life, rewritten and redone and made it what they wanted to be presented in a public forum... you ask: 'is nothing sacred??' apparently NOTHING that belongs/belonged to our culture including personal memories, stories, music, histories, etc is.....

Terri Bales's picture
Terri Bales
Submitted by Terri Bales on
I am so tired of these type of people taking advantage of the American Indian Tribe. If I could I would SUE one way or another. They wont be perfect. They are miss representing our ancestors. They do what they want. Government screws us and so are these type of people. They just dont care as long as the money goes into their pockets. Find an way and take the funds away from them. Hurt them where their pride is which is their pockets.

marilyn  maxwell 's picture
marilyn maxwell
Submitted by marilyn maxwell on
please do not tramp on this culture they were wronged many many years ago the goverment lied to them and still do to all americans but the true natives are the native americans ..

Jon George's picture
Jon George
Submitted by Jon George on
I have read your article with some dismay. I have only the greatest respect for the historical Crazy Horse and for the Lakota people, past and present. A great part of what I try to do with my material is to show my audiences how they have not understood the Lakota, or the other native American peoples, nor do they see the negative effects this misunderstanding is having today. No writer will ever be exempt from criticism of his work. But I would have hoped that the criticism might be based on valid criteria, not reactive responses derived from the critics' own misunderstanding of the material and what it tries to do. To equate my work with the defamatory screeds against the Prophen Muhammed is not only wrong, but an affront to me personally. Please learn what it is you are condemning before your condemnations.

Sherrill Adams's picture
Sherrill Adams
Submitted by Sherrill Adams on
The California Museum should be ashamed!!!! To partner with this affront to the Oglala Lakota people and the family of Crazy Horse is unconscionable. Museums are supposed to be about accurately preserving history,cultural information and artifacts. The California Museum doesn't seem to have any ethics at all. The author of this play is ignorant but our constitution allows an ignorant person to write anything he wants. The California Museum has an obligation to preserve and respect all aspects of history. I wonder what the California Arts Board has to say about this Museum's behavior. Funding and donations should cease until the Museum complies with ethical behavior.

Darlene Shook's picture
Darlene Shook
Submitted by Darlene Shook on
The family of Crazy Horse should have the right to say no if indeed they aren't representing the correct information will be a play I wont be spending money or time on !!!!!!

Cynthia Pickel's picture
Cynthia Pickel
Submitted by Cynthia Pickel on
How disgusting what do they think this is all done illegally by criminal frauds and are aggravated identity theives

make a public appeal asking everyone not to go and your reas's picture
make a public a...
Submitted by make a public a... on
ask your tribe to get in line and count out indian head pennies for the tickets short a few and change your mind about going no one is inside at show time.

isabella Rivera's picture
isabella Rivera
Submitted by isabella Rivera on
I wish they wouldn't go on with the play. They are missing the point - like usual. Nothing is respected in this culture (but money), not even the air that is breathed.

isabella Rivera's picture
isabella Rivera
Submitted by isabella Rivera on
I wish they wouldn't go on with the play. They are missing the point - like usual. Nothing is respected in this culture (but money), not even the air that is breathed.

edgardo cafisse's picture
edgardo cafisse
Submitted by edgardo cafisse on
History repeats once there was no respect at all for Lakota's traditions and Spirituality now it happens again and only for a"money purpose" this is extremely outrageous. I strongly hope that the play will be modified or...EVEN BETTER not played at all.

Jean Hammond's picture
Jean Hammond
Submitted by Jean Hammond on
I am grateful that Doug Bissonette and Wilmer Mesteth are here to defend Crazy Horse. I, too, believe that the play (for entertainment purposes?) ought not be presented. We went through this with the movie Thank you Doug and Wilmer.

wanda Mckenzie-Lopez...'s picture
wanda Mckenzie-...
Submitted by wanda Mckenzie-... on
Perhaps you can take the message that was given referring to how History is being changed to suit the writers fancy...and pass out pamphlets detailing and quoting the writers response at the play...

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
You cannot reason with a fool my friends...............Washichus are notorious for slandering our peoples & ancestors..............there is no so blind as those who have eyes but refuse to open them................there are none so deaf as those who have ears yet refuse to listen............................. Our Creator deals with those who spread lies & cause trouble............death is the equalizer & spares no one..................even to live for eons, though it seems forever, death STILL comes to all my friends.............

Taylor Durant's picture
Taylor Durant
Submitted by Taylor Durant on
Will you be there to give flyers with the truth? That way you could let the viewers know the parts that are inaccurate. At least the dignity could be preserved....perhaps you could call for a boycott.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
It is my understanding that the theatre company and the actor portraying the role of Crazy Horse have made changes in the script to address some concerns. It would seem that something that raises awareness of the issues of the Lakota and the situation of the Lakota today (which I understand the play does) would be of benefit. Perhaps working with the theatre together would be a spiritual action rather than anger and threats. It seems from what I understand the theatre has been trying to do so. Has anyone actually read the revised script with the changes that were made based on concerns? That to me is a theatre who is interested in sharing the story of Crazy Horse accurately.

Little Choctaw Lady's picture
Little Choctaw Lady
Submitted by Little Choctaw Lady on
Yes, the author's comments could have been more sensitive and the wording in the play could have been changed to better understand Lakota ways. All too true. This controversial play could on the other hand bring about a renewed and robust conversation about Crazy Horse and Custer as individuals primarily and less about culture. Let's give it a chance and keep the conversation going. As for "big bucks" being made on the play, I doubt it, but who knows. I feel that Native American cultures in this country and their past leaders are viewed so uni-dimensionally and it is in examining and discussing the great Native American leaders from the past that we keep their greatness alive. Let's not completely condemn this effort, even if the theater's arrogance is hard to ignore.

Terry Varela's picture
Terry Varela
Submitted by Terry Varela on
I am trying to set-up a protest here in Sacramento in response to the family's concern, and my own, about this play. Is there a way that I can get the "ok" from the family. We want to honor and respect their wishes. Thank You.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Everyone who is calling for a boycott has no idea how live theatres function. It isn't Hollywood, and no one is making a lot of money. They do it because they love it. People involved in live theatre are some of the most dedicated and culturally sensitive professionals you'll ever come across, and I don't think this theatre took on this project with any intention to offend anyone. HAs anyone commenting here even read the script, or all you all just jumping blindly on the 'white-man-sucks' bandwagon? Because that's just as bad as what you're claiming this theatre is doing. Is their show for entertainment? Maybe. I don't know, I haven't read or seen it. Is it for education? Definitely. If nothing else, this show exposes people to a name and a culture that they might not have ever come across, and from there they can be inspired to learn more about the Lakota, and other native peoples. And is that really such a bad thing?

 Little Choctaw Lady 's picture
Little Choctaw...
Submitted by Little Choctaw... on
Why don't you just go and see the play first and then decide if you want to protest? You could also call the California Museum in Sacramento and get their understanding about the play since they are sponsoring it. A protest without knowing what you are protesting about doesn't make sense right now. Just my thoughts.

Gerald Gannon's picture
Gerald Gannon
Submitted by Gerald Gannon on
1. Crazy Horse had no off-spring, thus no ancestors. 2. Calling up the example of some Muslims' irrational response to cartoons and fictional representations of Muhammad shows the irrationality of the opposition to this play. 3. Crazy Horse left no estate, so Advisors and Representatives of Crazy Horse estate have little claim to legitimacy. 4. It is unknown whether Crazy Horse followed what is now considered the Lakota Ritual. As far as is known, he never participated in Sun Dance. Almost all that is known of Crazy Horse is from a book written by a white woman. All later accounts are more or less copied and expanded upon that book. So this play is as legitimate as anything actually known about the man.

Kathy Bluedragonfly Deeds's picture
Kathy Bluedrago...
Submitted by Kathy Bluedrago... on
The irony of this play is if this was a play about African Americans and they as much as said please do not run it, it would not be ran!! Again another example of dishonor to our people! When will someone rise and say enough is enough!!!!! Honor to the Lakota people FREE LEONARD!!!!!!