Aug 30 2008

Letter about Crazy Horse to Saving Iceland

From Reverend Billy

A year ago we were with you in Iceland, the land of fire and ice and spirits and charms! This year we get news and images on the computers. Congratulations on the Century Aluminum Smelter blockade. You slowed down the output from that day, July 21, 2008. You’re saving lives! Every hour that an F-16 is not yet in the air…

Wandering your website, I remember my sermon last year. I tried to conjure the memory of Crazy Horse and bring his spirit to your struggle for Iceland. Savitri remembers the recurring phrase, “The land is innocent and powerful.” I don’t remember much of the specifics of my talk that afternoon, which was itself an on-the-spot remembering. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the river valley in our windows and simultaneously my boyhood love of the stories of Crazy Horse, from when my family lived in the Dakotas.

And so if you will read this letter, and help us bring back that day in the hotel conference room in Olfus… Writing is an act of memory and by writing this letter to you today — maybe some of your year-ago campaign, and our sermon within it, will resurface in these pages.


Your volcanic wilderness with its geysers and glaciers and cascading rivers – to Savi and I it feels like the American west. It is as if Yellowstone and the Alaskan fjords and the Black Hills were concentrated on this island just below the Arctic Circle.

Savitri and I went west this year. We returned to South Dakota, to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, which towers over the flat part of the state to the east, with the four burdened-looking President’s heads gazing from the mountain. It’s like having giant rolls of paper bills, with Washington, Jefferson, Teddy and Abe – glowering down on the little prairie towns.

But then behind the Presidents is another mountain and another leader emerging… It is the Crazy Horse Memorial. The great brave is rising year by year from the mountain, and as he rises on his pony he is pointing east at – what? – The United States advancing toward him. The Crazy Horse Memorial was the idea of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and the Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear. They began to convert the mountain into Crazy Horse in 1948 and the work has been continued by the family and by the tribe these last 60 years.

Crazy Horse. He studies us from the horizon-line. He will always sit on his horse back in the sky, just beyond our American border that comes toward him in the form of a spray of bullets.


After the Civil War, the victorious United States army turned its attention west toward the Indian territories. In the 1870’s, the “Iron Horse” rode the rail all the way to the Black Hills on the edge of the Dakotas and Wyoming. Just like Iceland now, the extractive industries were coming in as the larger wildlife – wolves, eagles, and buffalo were killed off and any natives who might lay claim to the land were forced into new treaties and escorted to reservations. However, a large group of Sioux and Cheyenne migrated farther west in the 1870’s, out of the reservation system. Tatanka Yotanka, known to us as Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Sioux, was the trusted leader and seer.

In 1876, the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army marched into eastern Montana looking for this large moving village of natives. Major General George Armstrong Custer was in the lead. Custer was the tall handsome Civil War hero, a German American from Ohio, a kind of proto movie star. The natives called General Custer “Yellow Hair.” Custer was known for fearlessness in combat, at Gettysburg and Bull Run. He led the division that trapped Robert E. Lee on the final day of the war, at Appomottax.

On June 25th in 1876, eleven years after his heroism at the end of the Civil War, Custer’s men discovered Sitting Bull’s encampment and attacked it. They found that all the fighters had slipped away. Within 48 hours, a combined force of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors, led by the young Lakota Sioux war chief Tashunca-uitco – known to us Crazy Horse – out-flanked, trapped and overwhelmed the 7th Cavalry. Custer, with his 268 men, died there. The Sioux called this “The Battle of the Greasy Grass.” Americans of European descent have called it Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand.


Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior, was born on Rapid Creek near the present-day Rapid City, South Dakota. His birth name translates as “In the wilderness.” His adult name – as we know it – “Crazy Horse” doesn’t have the humor of the more accurate translation: “His horse is crazy!” But despite this light-hearted name the man was known for his self-possession and quiet. He rarely spoke. His life was forever marked by an attack on his childhood village by a U. S. Army officer named Grattan and his 29 cavalry troops. From that point, the young Crazy Horse began to experience the trance visions he would have for the rest of his life.

In preparation for battle, Crazy Horse was known to cover his horse with dirt, and then cover himself too and then ride into the enemy lines right through the astonished enemy warriors, whose arrows and bullets would slow down, as if they were falling through clear honey. He heightened himself, whooping in a trance – acting Crazy! – am I remembering our sermon? … whooping in a trance – acting Crazy! – moving in and out of all that mean-spirited cutting metal – the enemy slowing to a stand still – Crazy Horse’s raging laugh is a long echoey sound and he and his horse jump and whirl and zig zag and leap and turn and turn and charge! He gallops up to the enemy war chief and claps him on the shoulder and screams madly. Then he’s suddenly some place else, how did he get over there? Crazy Horse slices his way back through the entire battle.

It was known that Crazy Horse did not scalp his opponents – he demoralized them. He knew the rhythms and depth of focus of his enemy. He made them see things. He created a parallel world.

And Crazy Horse is famous for his call to his warriors “Hoka Hey! Today is a good day to die!” The knowledge of his enemy’s perspectives and rhythms, his intuition of what his enemy could and could not see… Somehow he needed to risk death to make his enemy’s ability to see become that clear. He needed to risk death to become untouchable. And Crazy Horse is uncatchable to this day. No one can square his personal facts. He is unverifiable. He was never photographed, (and yet we are sculpting a mountain of him). Like the hapless men of the 7th – historians strike out at this blurring brave but can’t make contact. Throughout his life he was seen here and there across the Great Plains, sometimes showing up in two of three places at once. No one knows where he is buried.

But for activists Crazy Horse is very clear. He has a gift for us.


Crazy Horse and his scouts watched from their high grassy Little Big Horn ridges studying the trajectory of Yellow Hair. First there was the speed of the cavalry, force-marching from Fort Lincoln to the east on a two-day marathon deep into Indian Territory. Less than a week before, Custer spurned offers of reinforcements, or faster-firing, heavier guns – all for speed. The westward ho! jerked Custer’s focus farther west, into a harsh dream that stabbed at the horizon. Crazy Horse let him fly by, like a Tai Chi practitioner uses the opponent’s momentum.

I wonder if Crazy Horse saw more than just Yellow Hair galloping toward his village with the cavalry in their blue and gold uniforms. The gambles Yellow Hair was taking were consistent with the 150 years of Americans that followed him. Yellow-Hair fronted for the Iron Horse, the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota and the Air Force base at Rapid City. Oh Iceland! – the American bombers are there now, a few miles from Rosebud, waiting for your aluminum.

This is the late 1870’s and Crazy Horse knew the culture of the trading posts, the missionaries and the fire-water. The proliferating palefaces must have been a nightmare. He was standing at a turning point, each moment was disappearing into pre-history, to be replaced by a new kind of cultural time that was defined by the whites. It must have been galling that Custer was praised by some of Crazy Horse’s people, with the self-damning celebration some victims have for a great tyrant. They called Custer “The Son of the Morning Star.” This pre-cursor of Vegas must have been hard to look at, but easy to see from a distance. His horse was front and center. You could see his foppish hat and his white gloves up to his elbows, trotting out from the great wars to the east.

Crazy Horse discovered in Custer a way of looking at the world that would allow his braves to grease the grass. On that day in 1876 as Yellow Hair approached him, Crazy Horse knew how the general was squinting at the western horizon while only taking the measurements of national borders, of ranches and mines and railroads. Custer’s neurotic hurry, riding the dying horse of his own myth, warped his military science. He wanted what all corporations want: Expansion and then extraction of all value for that expansion. He ran his men west to claim square miles of natives, of buffalo, of gold…

Crazy Horse must have been quite sure that Custer was staring with the burden of these dreams. Yellow Hair squinted into the grassy distance where the invisible warriors waited. He couldn’t see his enemy because in a sense the Souix and Cheyenne were beside the point. They were only the momentary obstacles between the hero and his inevitable expansion, and the bottom line for his employers in Washington. Custer’s focus was blurred and vague – and fatal. Crazy Horse guessed that the American was ignoring his scouts, rejecting any report that might slow him down. He waited in his silence as Yellow Hair raced toward the phantom village that would pull him in….

Crazy Horse knew that he and his men could slow down as the cavalry sped up, and become invisible, lost in the grass, float up as a cloud, disappear over a horizon that could suddenly come out of the sky like the killing point of an arrow. And Crazy Horse would be the warrior who named the battle, The Battle of the Greasy Grass.


And now, The Battle of Greasy Ice! Amen! Saving Iceland – you be must be Crazy Horse. You are peering down at your opponent from the volcanic rim.

The corporations are having their way with Iceland now – and they have learned from both Yellow Hair and the disappearing village. The modern corporation is like the Iron Horse – with the high tensile-strength metal and cheap energy of a fighter plane, but can shape-shift into its marketed image, become a friend whispering in our ear, a thousand products floating over our cities… And, when we oppose them, as you are here in Iceland, the corporations don’t have to meet you at all. The companies have no home address. You can go to the front gates of the government, or the banks, or the big smelters – the corporations are equally present everywhere, yet always foreign, from an exotic greater world.

If they cannot hide their participation in a show-down with citizens, they move aggressively to do so on their terms. They paint our eyes with graphics. They present a battle where there is no battle and dam our rivers behind our backs. They construct romantic battles and pixilated arrows and nostalgic de-politicized histories. When finally local Icelanders demand a real battle, in the form of democracy – the corporations level heavy advertising at the voting constituency that might get in the way, then bribe the elected officials and regulatory agencies. The CEO’s of never pay taxes and make 20 million a year. These corporations have an array of moves, engineered by an army of professionals, that makes it hard to know the enemy’s perspective and rhythm. For too long the corporations have been naming our battle.

Saving Iceland – With your action camp, sending out multiple actions over the weeks across the island, your highway blockages and dances in the lobbies of energy companies – you are operating on a time-honored activist stage. You appear, endangering yourself, dancing colorfully around the frozen-looking police, then you talk in press releases and statements in the courts. You release CO2 emissions reports about smelters. You bring in river and dam specialists from around the world to educate the public about the ecosystem of the Iceland’s rivers. (We have activists here today from Topango, South Africa, India, Montreal and Brazil.) Then you appear again with your multi culti band of moral enforcers, gyrating around the corporate guards. It’s not just the volcanoes and waterfalls that make us think of Crazy Horse’s west, it’s you. The way you vanish and re-appear, shouting and moving like the rivers you want to save — that looks like warrior’s theater.

Crazy Horse appeared to watch Custer running toward him. Then he vanished to prepare a parallel world. Still that glitzy enemy approached. The warrior knew that his way was called the past, no longer sensible even criminal – but he withdrew into the earth he was named for, in the wilderness, the world, oh we are remember our sermon again.

… the greasy grass world, the lubricated vegetation world through which braves would ride and swim and slither and burst into view from behind the green veil –

…that magic world that scandalized the America of his day – simply the earth itself. The earth is specific. The natural world has the strategy for activists. She is our teacher. Take a few square feet of forest floor and the information is there for the asking. Follow a bird or animal for a few hours – it’s all there. You’ve got your disguises, faking like a possum or like the killdeer bird who lures a predator away from her chicks by pretending to have a broken wing, there’s the ever present strategical music and the showbiz – it’s all there – magic acts abound, swallowings, floats, upside-down bark clingings, every kind of hiding and surprise tactic, murder mysteries of jealous poisons and quick flights into weightlessness…

I’m serious. Before battle get away from people and ask for directions.


Crazy Horse’s instructor was the Great Plains. From what he tells us he returned always to his people and his land, his beloved Black Hills. He spoke repeatedly of his ancestors buried there, all around him, their power rising in a noiseless stream in the grass and trees. He knew the wind, the direction of it around storms.. He knew what sounds would travel how far. He was a hunter, the scent in the wind fed him and his family… He knew what animals were watching from beneath the rim of the grassy horizon.

Does all this seem mysterious? Yes, mysterious but so familiar. This is the vanishing art of Crazy Horse again. We search for him and his invisibility bends our senses on that horizon of greasy grass. Certainly the 7th Cavalry in 1876 feared Crazy Horse, feared him the same way they couldn’t figure out the limitless prairie night sky. Custer called the Sioux savages, criminals – but he was defending himself and his men against the unknown. Everything was fathomless out here in the Dakotas, all of it unknown, and so was Crazy Horse.

Icelanders may stare at you activists. You might hurt their eyes, or be hard to see. You might be strange to them, at first. When we took our church service into the Klinglin Mall – they were shocked into stillness. The depth of mystery that we must have seemed to them, the trick of the eye, the subversion of the logic of big retail. Do you remember that one policeman was beside himself with rage? Did he sense that we were not necessarily Christians? Did he transfer his expectations of silence of his own home to the cafeteria in the mall? Did he find the Reykjavik teenager in the televangelist’s suit preaching in the native tongue – my stand-in after I was detained – an abomination? Or maybe he simply loved Consumerism and thought it must be the modern future of Iceland.

While the cop was screaming, others were laughing, murmuring, shrugging – many different responses. And if the executives of Alcoa and Rio Tinto and Alcan had been there in the mall, I suppose they would have called us “romantic” or “eccentric” or “dangerous.” That is how the mall spokesperson would talk after we left. Anything to normalize us, and discourage the revolutions in personal perspective that might have occurred among their customers. Best for the mall to formalize a puritanical non-response. But they are unaware of how slowly they are moving in this battle.


Savitri is from New Mexico and I’m from Minnesota and South Dakota – and we were both come from childhood geographies amidst Native Americans. When we accepted your invitation to visit the action camp, so deep in this place’s nativity, we didn’t expect that unmistakable feeling. Then you invited us also to re-enter your super mall, Reykjavik’s first and big alternative reality of its kind, and a kind of learning center for the Consumer… So we walked into passion play here in Iceland, the struggle between two sources of imagination.

We know that taking into your mall and thinking performatively, full of “push prayers,” we invoking the image of pop religion, the televangelist – casting demons from the pit of ads and money. We were aware throughout our adventure, though, of the native spiritual life that your Klinglin mall blocks so skilfully and brutally from you. It is sad that such a exporter of monoculture exists in as beautiful a place as Iceland. As you deal with the corporations buying your rivers to dam them and buying the mouths of the rivers to erect toxic smelters there… you can measure the consumerism coming into Iceland by the products emergence from the mall, as against the other end of imagination, the connection to ancestry and sustenance of folk myth, even if updated to be a part of current culture.

The burden all activists have worldwide is to find where the corporations can be out-flanked. Their retail outlets, where they take cash from hypnotized consumers, the “Point of Purchase” – that is a weak point in their defences, we believe. We have worked hard at aggressive ritual-making at the cash registers of the big box sweatshop companies. With one hand on the register and one hand in the air – we watch a jolt go through the bodies of our American on-lookers. There is an equivalent in Iceland. As Crazy Horse discovered with his penetrating study from the high ridge, there is a way to defeat an enemy who pretends to be speeding from the future.

The larger view we have now of the globalized economy was first introduced to many of us in 1999 at the WTO meet in Seattle. To the extent that the destructive neo-liberal trading system, as conceived by free trade agreements by big governments and banks is stalled now, the Battle of Seattle is key. The new imperialists were out-flanked, taken by surprise. Most of the opposition imagery was endearingly human, surprising, and engaging. I remember one vivid skirmish: Delegates to the WTO were trapped in their hotel by scores of environmentalists dressed up in sea turtle costumes. The turtle-humans swam back and forth, passing out literature about how the new economic order was over-ruling earth-friendly laws. They blocked the front door and the force of their moral bravery cancelled the conference and simultaneously ignited many discussions across the world.

Saving Iceland – you have a field of battle to discover in the aluminum companies’ smoke and mirrors. You may discover that the point of purchase is the place, where the advertising concentrates and the sales personnel shepherd consumers to the purchase. Or the exposed point in the corporate system could be at the point of information flow, the press releases, the “spokespersons” that the Yes Men manipulate so well. Or Michael Moore’s working class comedies in lobbies, in streets and on beaches may be a clue. Or Annie Leonard’s vivid teaching in “The Story of Stuff,” or fomenting share-holder rebellions, as we’ve seen at Starbucks and Exxon and Disney. Or the interactive theatrics of the Living Theater or of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. Finally though, we have come to believe that Iceland itself has your answer. Iceland will save itself partnering with you.

There is a knowing of the corporations’ perspective that Iceland will give you. Even though the corporations study the neurology of our brains, and reproduce false battles before us – there is a way to out-flank them and overwhelm them. Let’s go down deeper into the notion that Iceland holds in its life it’s own best defence. You have extreme animism here. Your famous lovelings, flying sprites with spells coming out of their wands. You have the Huldufolk, the “hidden people,” the elves and faeries. They are so thoroughly sensed by Icelanders – it’s hard-wired into your culture, a little like the belief in angels in the United States. You’ve told me that highways actually curve around suspected towns full of the hidden citizens. The Kringlan Super Mall was itself forced to re-design its foundation because of the belief that spirits would be upset.

You see you have your unknown. Your ancestors have left you a map for vanishing and re-appearing, as has Crazy Horse. And big hydro can try to dam you, but you fly, you dig, you transubstantiate and there you are again. You have your own greasy grass. You are saving Iceland because you are Iceland.

Iceland is still becoming a land. It seems to be arriving from the deep, struggling with steam shooting and glaciers descending and volcanic fire and weirdly blue pools in the crevices. The consciousness from all of time presses against everyday life. It’s tragic, but it makes sense that the war companies would find so much electricity by placing their turbines in these rivers. Our sense of hope comes from the inevitable feeling that all this energy is formed by beings, consciousness, the hidden people doing their job. Your island is haunted in the most practical way.

The Iceland people are famous for being reserved, polite. You don’t have a history of street demonstrations. The rocks, on the other hand, shout with their fire and ice. It is well-known, too, that the Iceland has very few people. There are sweeping vistas that have no houses. That land, though, is saturated with flamboyant nether-people engaged in stories that everyone knows involving every sort of plot twist. You have a clue here. Alcoa has already been forced to make concessions and assurances that the Huldufolk and elves would not be displaced before the construction of one its smelters. The Icelandic people had to be satisfied that attention was paid.

Your hidden people require a kind of environmental impact statement, then. The environment is defined to include the invisible. The corporations have managed to keep the EIS of this kind separate from its impact reports on reindeer, harbour seals, pink-footed geese, and rare invertebrate species – I’m speaking of the Karahnjukar dams. Your strategy ought to combine the two, and let the spirits of nature imbue all of the opposition to the dams, so that the spectre of the entire earth stands before the corporate strategists. The endangerment of life in this last great wilderness of Europe cannot be separated into powerless parts, with the Huldufolk consigned to cultural superstition, and the bird species to the concern of Ornithologists, and so on. Spook ‘em! The Sioux painted their faces and screamed bloodcurdlingly, as they represented the whole rage of the violated earth.

Elders who have lived for all those seasons of midnight suns tell stories that come from those rocks and that’s when we can really feel the power that cannot possibly be dynamited into shape of the new, corporate rivers. Like Puck, Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the hidden people are caught up in mischievous adventures. They are not bad or good so much as interested in change and even chaos. The native Iceland stories come to the light like angry life, like the fire and ice, and don’t you think they will call out to you before the river dies?

You do have your allies, the living things that Icelanders have accepted from the land. The land is innocent and must be defended, and the land is powerful also and gives you the opening for your response. The Huldufolks are whispering to you. Let the ghosts ventriloquism come through your mouths. This might be a source of a more straightforward kind of talk to the Icelandic people than recitations about the evil of the corporations. Don’t be afraid of the natives here. Yes they are not accustomed to rebellion. But all the myths of this island are full of revolution. Every Icelander will know what you are doing, not via the news only but also from the earth. The citizens in the open air will join the hidden people in choosing your battle and afterwards naming it.

And so the most hidden people reveal themselves and disappear at will. Invite their advice, hold vigil for them, appear with them, enact them. March within the people’s under-conscious selves, just as corporate marketing seeks to do. However, you do not arrive as an advertisement, but in person, embodying your defense of the land and of original culture. You are half-way to this now with your “action camps” in the mountains. Let your instincts take you farther, with prayers, séances, silent meditations. Make your way through the doubts, the predictable obstructive self-appointed prophets that will appear. Fake it till you make it in the direction of the hidden people of your island. Eventually partner spirits will come.

The “Radical Faeries” are the clearest corollary in other parts of the world. The Faeries have evolved rituals of many kinds, starting with their circles and dances. They also have economic power in the world, own land and defend themselves legally against official homophobia. The energy of the faeries never seems to wane, as the cultural wars rage. They never over-play their position. The Faeries are not dependent on the battle emotionally, their sustenance coming from a source baffling to their opponents yet alluring and clear to their allies.


The powerful player in this struggle with the military and their extractive industrial companies – Crazy Horse will tell you – is the earth itself. In this time of our history the earth is front and center, the star of the show, our leader. Oh! I remember –

I am offering an invitation to you to remember your own island and its spirits. The defenders of the island, on Iceland’s seal, are the eagle, the dragon, the giant, the bull… and there has also been a presence in your ancient heraldry of great fish. These fierce defenders should not be replaced by the international logos of corporations that supply the armies and air forces of our habitually violent nation states.

I am remembering more of our sermon, which was an attempt at remembering Crazy Horse, standing on his grassy ridge to the west. Progressive activism has long ignored the ancient bridge to the ineffable, while favoring strategies that are often redoubts of intellectualism that only professional lefties can understand. Perhaps we identify the old ways as weak, as we watch the indigenous people fall before the onslaught of the globalized economy. Nevertheless, we have found in our work in the “Church of Life After Shopping” that all people retain old working souls whose relationship with the spirits of the natural world is still going on within us. It is an act of remembering something that we can’t Google. In our work we have seen many different kinds of people energized by a memory that precedes the coercive faith of corporations.

And so good night to you, and thank you for your invitation to come to Iceland and learn so much from you and your land. And thank you to Crazy Horse and his ancestors, they have have been our hosts, too.

I’m remembering again… Activism now – must be the act of applied mystery. We know that the activist leading us is the earth. We must be earth ourselves. We must be the earth defending the earth. We are only joining the system of life of which we a part, which is already engaged in that fight to survive. We watch the tsunamis and cyclones and fires and floods. The earth is heroically trying to save itself from the Yellow Hairs and the corporations that make bombers.

Crazy Horse accepted that he was given a specific task. He listened and watched and prayed, and then he covered himself and his horse with the earth.