We will be known forever by the tracks we leave

  • Published
  • By Jacqueline Melcher, Installation Management Division, 88th Civil Engineering Group

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- I recently wrote a leadership essay for my Air Command Staff College master’s class on a 19th-century Oglala War Chief, Tashunke Witko, an individual who didn’t attend a military academy or receive any formal training. One might be intrigued as to why. Just hang on and I’ll explain.

I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. My upbringing and culture were so rich with Native American and Lakota values that it helped shape my leadership styles and principles today.

Here is the history behind the great leader Tashunke Witko, or Crazy Horse, his influence on me over 150 years later, and how he exemplified servant leadership, critical thinking, integrity, bravery and a fervent desire to continue learning and seeking guidance from elders and mentors.

Crazy Horse was born around 1842 near Rapid City, South Dakota.  He was part of the Oglala band of Lakota and was given the Lakota name “Tashunke Witko,” which translates to Crazy Horse, after defeating a band of Shoshoni warriors.

He is widely recognized as one of the Lakota people’s most revered leaders. Brave by example, he always put his people first, and they loved him for it. In 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he led his people against the invasion of George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary, one of the most modern, well-trained and equipped armies in the U.S. arsenal. This victory stands as the greatest defeat of the U.S. military on American soil of all time. 

Servant leadership

One of the vital traits of a good leader is their compassion and care for their people. Crazy Horse’s devotion to the Lakota way of life and to preserving the land never wavered. He learned at an early age, after witnessing the destruction of the less capable members of the tribe, that above all, protecting the elderly, woman and children were paramount in his culture. From that point until the end of his life, he would make sure his helpless ones were safe before he would charge into battle.  

He demonstrated his compassion for his people time and time again. During a harsh winter, a band of the Nez Perce who had been driven from their lands found their way to Crazy Horse’s camp. He graciously fed and clothed the starving and frost-bitten people and provided them shelter.

The news of this kindness spread to neighboring villages. Even during the last days, when the people were forced onto reservations and given half of the allotted rations, Crazy Horse would ensure the people were warm and fed.

Critical thinking

Crazy Horse and his people frequently moved around for good hunting and to avoid the soldiers. This created a volatile environment that required him to develop adequate critical thinking skills.  He was forced to innovatively navigate and master the challenges of this strategic environment. Critical thinkers strive to ask questions and arrive at a greater understanding.


Crazy Horse’s strength of character and devotion to his way of life was one of his greatest attributes. The U.S. government repeatedly broke the terms of the 1868 Laramie Treaty and continued to change the boundaries of the Lakota Territory and hunting grounds. The U.S. government unsuccessfully tried to entice Crazy Horse with rations and false promises to surrender. Even in the wake of hunger and death, Crazy Horse’s character and integrity was unwavering. These traits garnered him the trust of his people to lead them in all aspects of their lives.


Crazy Horse’s bravery and courage were unmatched. One day while hunting elk, he encountered a party of nine Crow Indians. He was able to kill two of the Crow that had charged him, but the remaining party surrounded his position. He took cover in a wooded area as the standoff continued until nightfall. Crazy Horse was able to escape unscathed, which gained him tremendous admiration from his fellow warriors.

His ability to remain calm under pressure and think strategically during stressful situations was impressive. Others marveled at how he had beaten the long odds and lived to talk about it. With a seemingly mystical ability to avoid injury or death on the battlefield, his courage inspired his people and gained their full support.

Continue learning and seeking guidance

Crazy Horse was known to frequently visit the “Hemblecha” site to pray and seek guidance from the Creator. The Creator instructed him to pay attention to the teachings of his father and elders to become a great warrior. During the summer solstice, he would perform the “Sun Dance” to clear his mind and cleanse his soul to prepare for upcoming battles. These rituals allowed him to stay self-aware and assess his competencies as a leader.

I believe a leader is remembered by their devotion to their people, their tireless efforts to do what is right and their voluntary accountability to the mission and those that they serve. Having joined the Air Force just four years ago, it’s these foundational lessons that have enabled me to be successful early in my professional career.

I am extremely proud to be a military spouse, civil engineer, Lakota woman and contributor to the Air Force mission. I will continue to meld the cultural values of my ancestors with those I acquire throughout this journey as an Air Force leader.