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Meet the indigenous people of Montana: Crow


The Crow people (Apsalooka, children of the large-beaked bird, that is, the crow), also known as the Beaux Hommes (French: handsome men), speak a Siouan language and, like other Siouan speakers, came from a homeland in or near Georgia where their ancestors may have hunted alligators. They were among the first people in the present-day U.S. to adopt pottery, which facilitated their expansion up the Mississippi River to where their fishing and hunting ancestors settled on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio. In about the year 800, they were introduced to the cultivation of the “three sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, by the expanding Eastern Woodland culture into which they were absorbed. The men wore deerskin clothing and the women wore bison skins, and they made lodge homes out of mud thatched with willow sticks. They lived in long-term villages in the winter and traveled to hunt deer and other animals in the summer. Their earliest known enemies were the Erie people, who were exterminated in the 17th century in wars with the Iroquois. For each Crow killed in war, a relative would cut off a knuckle to symbolize the need to avenge that relative’s death by killing a member of the tribe responsible, a custom that continued until the 19th century. The Crow also captured the children of enemy tribes and adopted them as their own. Like most tribes, the Crow also practiced scalping.

In the 16th century, they began to get guns from the Iroquois in exchange for furs, but the Chippewa and Cree has better guns and drove them out of Ohio into the area of Winnipeg, Manitoba where they resettled. In further wars with the Chippewa they were driven further west and resettled in the area of Devils Lake, North Dakota. In the 17th century pressure from the Lakota Sioux forced them to leave this area. Two chiefs who were brothers, No Intestines (Shiipdetash) and Red Scout (Chiitdeehisshish) went on vision quests to determine where to resettle. Red Scout had a vision of corn and led his people to the area of Stanton, ND, where they became the Hidatsa. No Intestines had a vision of tobacco and led his people to the region of the Absaroka (Apsalooka) Mountains where they became the Mountain Crow. They were later supplemented by Hidatsa bands disputing over food, who became the River Crow, and by Mandan fleeing smallpox. Instead of growing their own food, they took their food to Shoshone, Mandan, or Hidatsa villages to trade. After trading buffalo hides to the Comanche and Kiowa for horses, they allied with the Kiowa and Plains Apache to drive the Shoshone out of the Yellowstone River basin and the Yellowstone Park region, at the same time giving up permanent settlements for a nomadic lifestyle based on the bison hunt and replacing their Earth lodges with bison and pine tepees. The Crow became wealthy through the breeding and sale of horses and purchased guns from the Cree and others to defend against horse traders among the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Pawnee, Ute, and Blackfeet, all of whom became their enemies. They allied with the Salish, Kootenai, and Nez Perce tribes against the Blackfeet. Soon the Cree and their allies the Assiniboine and Chippewa re-emerged as the most dangerous enemies of the Crow, and in the 19th century they came under increasing pressure from the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.

Before splitting from the Hidatsa the Crow were ruled by men who inherited office from their uncles; after adopting horse culture and nomadism, to become a chief of a Crow band a man or a “manly-hearted woman” (who typically married other women) had to kill a bison, have a vision quest, steal a horse, and count coup (hit an enemy with a tomahawk and ride away).

Traditional Crow religion centered on Old Man Coyote, a creator god, vision quests, the Sun Dance, and sacred tobacco. Catholic and Unitarian missionaries converted a minority of the Crow after reservation life began in the 19th century. Some of the Crow were converted to the peyote cult in the early 20th century, and in recent decades large numbers have been converted by evangelical Christian missionaries.

The Crow stole horses from Lewis and Clark without repercussions. The Crow traded furs for gunpowder and clothing with first the French and later Americans. Chief Long Hair (Itchuuwaaooshbishish=Red Plume) signed a treaty of alliance with the U.S. against the Blackfeet in 1825. A band of Crow who disagreed broke off to join the Kiowa. Chief Plenty Coups (Alaxchiiaahush) had a vision that whites would come to dominate the Crow Country and the Crows’ future depended on good relations with the whites. In 1851, the Crow chiefs Plenty Coups, Rotten Tail (Chiischipaaliash), and Woman Chief (Biawacheeitschish) signed the treaty of Ft. Laramie with the U.S. under Fillmore, and with the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara agreeing to a peaceable division of territory, safe passage for Oregon Trail passengers, and construction of roads and forts by the whites. The U.S. agreed to pay each tribe $50,000 a year for fifty years. However, when the Senate under William Rufus King took up the treaty they wanted this changed to 10 years, to which the Crow refused. The Crow also allied themselves with the Gros Ventre against the Blackfeet, who were not part of the treaty.

The Ft. Laramie treaty reserved 38 million acres of land for the Crow. However, Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho raids in violation of the treaty continued, and after these tribes’ victory in Red Cloud’s war the U.S. turned a majority of this territory over to the Lakota. In 1868 Plenty Coups agreed to accept a new reservation, the present-day Crow Reservation, in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to pay its original promised annuity of $50,000 a year for 50 years. After this agreement, the Crow Reservation was 8 million acres. In the Black Hills War, the Crow sided with the U.S., Shoshone, and Pawnee against the Sioux and Cheyenne, and much of the war, including the battle of the Little Bighorn, was fought on the Crow reservation. Subsequent land cessions, made to avert the repeated threat of sending kids to boarding schools, and a Congressional act reduced the size of the Crow reservation to its present 2.3 million acres. Crow Agency is the principal city.

In 1889, the Crow fought a minor war against the U.S. However, in general they have been friendly to the U.S., and more Crow have served in the U.S. military than any other Montana tribe. Some other Native people in Montana, as well as some whites, look down on the Crow for historically siding with Custer and the Americans.

The Crow reservation’s economy is based on payments from the government for coal leasing. They are led by an elected tribal council which selects a chairman, and recent tribal politics has been marred by accusations of embezzlement and obstruction of justice. As a tribe with a conservative leadership, the Crow tribe pays out a monthly stipend to its members, who go into Billings to spend it since there are no grocery stores on the Crow reservation. Vigilante and police harassment of the Crow by residents of Billings are common. A tribal plan to increase coal mining was blocked by the administration of Barack Obama but the tribe’s court appeal means it may succeed in the future.

The Crow are known for their long hair, pipe hair ornaments, eagle feather headdresses, and beaded dress. Their Siouan native language is the first language of nearly 3/4 of the people on the reservation. They have a history of adopting people from other tribes; famous adoptees include Woman Chief, a captured Gros Ventre girl who became a famous warrior and was killed in battle against the Gros Ventre; James Beckwourth (Aaliile=Bloody Arm), a Black mountain man who led Crow war parties against the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre; and Barack Obama (Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuukshish=One Who Helps People Throughout the Land), ceremonially adopted in 2008 when he became the first presidential candidate to visit the Crow reservation. The Crow tribe was the first tribe to have a Native Bureau of Indian Affairs supervisor, Robert Yellowtail.

Traditional Crow music was used to accompany dances and used drums, whistles, and vocals with simple, repetitive melodies.