Joe Medicine Crow, RIP

Joseph Medicine Crow, a Crow tribal historian and elder, has crossed over at the age of 102. The Crow, who currently have a small reservation in Montana, were at one time at least three separate, distinct, and autonomous groups: the River Crow who ranged north of the Yellowstone River, the Mountain Crow who live south of the Yellowstone and farther west, and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies (also known as Home-Away-from-the-Center) who lived in the same area as the Mountain Crow.

The Crow

The Crow were once a part of the Hidatsa living near the Missouri River. Archaeologists suggest that the Crow moved out onto the Great Plains in two migrations. The Mountain Crow moved out first, about 1550. Then a century later, the River Crow followed them.

Crow historian and elder Joseph Medicine Crow, in We, The People: Of Earth and Elders—Volume II, describes the Crow migrations this way:

“Way back in the 1500s, what might be called our ancestral tribe, lived east of the Mississippi in a land of forests and lakes, possibly present day Wisconsin. They began migrating westward around 1580 until they crossed the Mississippi to follow the buffalo. As far as the Crows are concerned, they separated from this main band in about 1600-1625.”

According to one oral tradition, there was a buffalo hunt at which the wives of two of the chiefs argued over the upper stomach of one of the cows. There was a scuffle and one of the women was killed. This escalated into a skirmish between the two bands led by the chiefs, and several more people were killed. As a result, one band left the Missouri and migrated to the Rocky Mountains. The band that followed along the rivers and streams came to be known as the River Crow (They Travel Along the Riverbanks) and the other band became known as the Mountain Crow. The Mountain Crow later divided and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies appeared.

Another oral tradition tells that at one time there was a wandering tribe under the leadership of two brothers: No Intestines and Red Scout. At what is now called Devil’s Lake, they did a vision quest together. During the vision, No Intestines was told to search for the seeds of the sacred tobacco and Red Scout was told to settle on the banks of the Missouri River and grow corn. No Intestines led his people to many parts of the Great Plains in search of the sacred tobacco seeds.

The oral tradition tells of the Great Salt Lake, the geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park, of the Arkansas River in Oklahoma, and of the plains of Alberta, Canada. Finally, at Cloud Peak, the highest crest in the Bighorn Range, No Intestines received another vision and thus the Crow made their home in Montana and Wyoming with the Bighorn Mountains as their heartland.

The oral traditions also tell of another group of Crow—Bilápiiuutche, Beaver Dries Its Fur—which became lost during the journey. Several explanations are offered for the fate of this group. Some feel that it split in Canada and remained there. Others say it turned east and ended up at Lake Michigan. Still others feel that Beaver Dries Its Fur became a part of the Kiowa who were closely associated with the Crow.

Joe Medicine Crow

      Joseph Medicine Crow was born on October 27, 1913 on the Crow Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana. His father was Leo Medicine Crow and his mother was Amy Yellowtail.

He attended Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, graduating in 1938. He then went to the University of Southern California where he earned a master’s degree in anthropology in 1939. His master’s thesis was on the effect of European culture on Native Americans. He then completed his coursework for his Ph.D. and started writing his doctoral dissertation in 1940. However, international events interfered with his ability to complete his doctorate.

Like many Crow tribal members, Joe Medicine Crow served in the army in World War II. Among the Crow, the concept of “chief” really means “good, valiant”. To achieve this title a person had to perform four deeds: (1) to lead a successful raid, (2) to capture a horse tethered in an enemy camp, (3) to be the first to count coup, and (4) to take a weapon from a live enemy. Serving in Europe during World War II, Joe Medicine Crow performed these deeds and earned the status of war chief. To meet the second requirement, he stole 50 horses from a German SS camp.

As the Crow Nation tribal historian, Joe Medicine Crow collected oral histories. As an oral historian, he was the last living person to have heard direct oral accounts from the Crow warriors who were at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn where Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer was defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne. His step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was one of Custer’s scouts.

In 2003, the University of Southern California awarded Joe Medicine Crow an honorary doctorate. In 2009, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama for his service during World War II and his works on Native American history.

Dam Indians: Yellowtail Dam

In 1967 the Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn River was completed in the traditional territory of the Crow Indians in Montana. The dam was named after Robert Yellowtail, a prominent Crow tribal member. The construction of this dam stands as a symbol of the arrogance of the United States government and the total disregard of the rights of Indian people by the governmental agency which is supposed to protect those rights.  

The Crow:

The Crow were once a part of an ancestral tribe which included the Hidatsa which lived in the eastern woodlands. Archaeologists suggest that the Crow moved out onto the Great Plains of Montana and Wyoming in two migrations. The Mountain Crow moved out first, sometime in the 1500s. Then a century later, the River Crow followed them. Crow historian and elder Joseph Medicine Crow describes the migrations this way:

“Way back in the 1500s, what might be called our ancestral tribe, lived east of the Mississippi in a land of forests and lakes, possibly present day Wisconsin. They began migrating westward around 1580 until they crossed the Mississippi to follow the buffalo. As far as the Crows are concerned, they separated from this main band in about 1600-1625.”

By the time the first Americans began to enter into Crow territory in the early 1800s, there were three separate and distinct groups. The two largest groups were the River Crow who ranged north of the Yellowstone River and the Mountain Crow who lived south of the Yellowstone and farther west. The third group, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies (also known as Home-Away-from-the-Center), lived in the same area as the Mountain Crow.

The name Kicked-in-the-Bellies came from an incident when the Crow first encountered horses and one of them was kicked by a colt.

Crow

A nineteenth century painting of Crow Indians is shown above.

The Crow Treaties:

The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as meaning that Indian tribes are domestic dependent nations. Thus, in dealing with Indian tribes as sovereign nations, the United States negotiated treaties (i.e. international agreements) with them.

The first treaty signed by the Crow was in 1851 at the Fort Laramie Treaty Council. The purpose of the council and of the resulting treaty was to establish peace between the United States and the tribes, including a promise to protect Indians from European-Americans, and to stop the tribes from making war with one another. At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council, an area or territory for each tribe was defined. As there were no River Crow at the Council, the Mountain Crow version of their geographic rights and hunting areas was used and it was assumed by the Americans to be binding to all of the Crow tribes.

In 1864, Congress passed the Organic Act which organized the Territory of Montana. Section 1 of the act states:

“That nothing in this act contained shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory so long as such rights remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians…”

Sidney Edgerton was appointed as territorial governor and ex-officio superintendent of Indian Affairs. The new territorial governor said:

“I trust that the Government will, at an early day, take steps for the extinguishment of the Indian title in this territory, in order that our lands may be brought into market.”

One of the first actions of the newly formed Montana Territorial Assembly was to pass a resolution calling for the expropriation of all Crow lands. The acting governor attempted to negotiate a treaty in which the Crow would give up all of their lands in the new Montana Territory. An attempt to invite the Crow leaders to a treaty council failed when runners failed to locate any of the Crow tribes.

In 1867, two of the Crow tribes-the Mountain Crow and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies-once again met with American treaty negotiators at Fort Laramie. The Americans told the Crow leader:

“We wish to separate a part of your territory for your nation where you may live forever.”

The Americans promise that non-Indians will not be allowed to settle on Crow lands. The principal Crow speaker was Blackfoot who reminded the commission of the promises made to them in 1851, but which were never kept by the Americans. He shouts at them:

“We are not slaves; we are not dogs!”

Bear’s Tooth reminded the Americans:

“your  young men have devastated the country and killed my animals, the elk, the deer, the antelope, my buffalo. They do not kill them to eat them; they leave them to rot where they fall.”

In 1868, the Mountain Crow, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, and the Americans again met in council. The River Crow were not present. The Americans proposed a drastic reduction in the Crow tribal area which was established in 1851: from 38.5 million acres to 8 million acres. All of the Crow lands in the new state of Wyoming were to be ceded to the United States. Crow leader Blackfoot (Sits in the Middle of the Land) and ten others signed the treaty. The Crow leaders assumed that the United States would negotiate a separate treaty with the River Crow.

Two months after signing the treaty with the Mountain Crow and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, the River Crow sign their own treaty with the United States. However, this treaty was buried and forgotten by Congress and was never voted on. Consequently, the treaty with the Mountain Crow and the Kicked in the Bellies was considered by the government to be the Crow treaty and the River Crow became invisible to the government.

In 1934, American Indian policy changed dramatically with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Under the IRA, tribes could decide to reorganize their tribal governments and adopt constitutions. The Crow, however, rejected reorganization under the IRA. In 1948, the Crow wrote their own constitution which established a general council in which every adult member of the tribe is a council member and is entitled to vote in council meetings.

The Dam:

American Indian policy in the United States is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs which is a part of the Department of the Interior. Ultimately, the person responsible for Indian affairs is the Secretary of the Interior. While the Department of the Interior may have a trust responsibility with regard to Indian tribes, its primary focus has been (and some feel still is) administering Indian resources in the best interest of non-Indian commercial entities.

In 1951, the Department of the Interior offered the Crow $1.5 million for the Yellowtail Dam site. The Crow rejected the offer. Undaunted by the Crow refusal to sell the site, private interest groups, such as the Big Horn County Chamber of Commerce, Montana’s Congressional delegation, and the Department of the Interior continued to seek support for the dam.

In 1955, the Department of the Interior began a condemnation suit to acquire the Yellowtail Dam site from the Crow. While the Crow had rejected an earlier offer of $1.5 million for the site, the Department of the Interior felt that it had a legal right to the land and intended to pay them only $50,000 for it. The Crow tribal council asked for a lease of $1 million per year for 50 years.

In 1956, under intense pressure from both the Department of the Interior and Montana’s Congressional delegation, the Crow voted to sell the Yellowtail Dam site for $5 million. The vote took place after a 13-hour meeting and passed by less than 60 votes.

The Department of the Interior rejected the Crow offer and seemed committed to condemning the land. The Crow met and discussed the issue for two more weeks. The result was a resolution that still asked for $5 million. Congress accepted the $5 million offer, but President Dwight Eisenhower vetoed it.

In 1957, the Crow, angered by the rejection of their $5 million offer for the Yellowtail Dam site, rescinded the offer and replaced it with a proposal calling for a lease of $1 million per year for 50 years. The Crow were warned by the government and by private individuals that they had no chance of winning in court and that they would probably only get $15,000 to $35,000 for the site. Under pressure, the Crow returned to their original $5 million offer.

In Congress, the $5 million was reduced to $2.5 million plus the right to sue in court for additional compensation.  This was the final settlement with Congress dictating the amount rather than negotiating.

The debate over Yellowtail dam divided the Crow: the Mountain Crow opposed the dam, and the River Crow supported the dam. Robert Yellowtail, an outspoken critic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was one of the main opponents of the dam and protested the decision to sell the dam site to the government.

Yellowtail Dam

Yellowtail Dam is shown above.

Suppressing Dissent on the Crow Reservation

The Crow Reservation in Montana was first defined by the United States government at the Fort Laramie Treaty Council of 1851. Subsequently, the Indian Office (later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs) assigned Indian agents to administer the reservation. In 1902 Samuel G. Reynolds became the Indian agent for the Crow reservation and began to implement a program of self-sufficiency. He cut off all tribal rations and began to abolish the tribal farms which had been collectively farmed by the Crow. He announced that he would discontinue the practice of meeting with the tribe in a council or powwow. Reynolds’ authoritarian policies were carried out in part by Big Medicine, a tribal police officer.

Crow Map

The location of the Crow Reservation is shown in the map above.  

Following federal Indian policies that called for the break up of tribal held lands so that these lands could be developed by non-Indians, the sale of “unused” land on the Crow reservation was unilaterally altered in 1904. Ignoring Indian protests and concerns, Congress ratified the new plan to give Indian land to non-Indians. The following year, the Crow Reservation was allotted and Crow land began to pass out of Crow control.

In 1907, journalist Helen Grey met with the Crow in Lodge Grass, Montana where she heard their grievances against Indian agent Samuel Reynolds. Reynolds, angered by the protests against him, ordered Grey off the reservation. She travelled to Sheridan, Wyoming where she expected five Crow leaders to meet her and accompany her to Washington. However, the Crow leaders – Spotted Rabbit, Holds the Enemy, Joe Cooper, Packs the Hat, and Yellow Brow – were arrested and told that they could not leave the reservation without the permission of the agent. Grey travelled alone to Washington where she met with President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield, and Indian Commissioner Francis Leupp.

At this time, there was little concern about the civil rights of Indians and the right to travel freely even though several court cases had affirmed these rights. Indian agents, such as Reynolds, tended to ignore court decisions and assume that American laws applied to Indians only when convenient to the interests of non-Indians, and particularly to non-Indian corporations such as those that leased Indian lands.

Upon her return to Montana, Helen Grey entered the Crow Reservation to attend some ceremonial dances. Indian agent Reynolds had her arrested. Later, a grand jury in Helena, Montana would hold a hearing on charges that Grey had solicited money from the Crow for her Washington trip. Reynolds declared a smallpox quarantine around the reservation and thus prevented any Crow from testifying before the grand jury.

In 1907, at a council with the Crow regarding the unoccupied lands on the reservation, Curly, a warrior and a former army scout, said:

“The land, as it is, is my blood and my dead; it is consecrated, and I do not want to give up any portion of it.”

In 1909, Crow leaders contacted Washington attorney Charles J. Kappler who represented tribes with complaints against the government. The Crow prepared a petition asking that the firm of Kappler and Merillat be appointed to represent them before Congress and governmental agencies. In 1910, Indian Commissioner Robert Valentine rejected this petition, claiming that there was no reason for the Crow to have counsel.

In general, Indian tribes were denied the right to their own legal counsel based on two lines of reasoning. First, they could use the attorneys already employed by the United States government, so having a private attorney was a waste of money. There was little concern about potential conflict of interest regarding having an attorney who actually works for the entity that is being sued. Second, many times the Commissioner of Indian Affairs did not feel that the tribes had any legitimate complaints and therefore legal counsel was not needed.

Indian Samuel G. Reynolds moved on, but the Crow Reservation remained, its administration subject to the whims and fancies of whatever non-Indian was appointed to the position of agent.

In 1919, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the boundaries of the Crow Reservation. When the reservation was established, the United States had met in council with only one of the three Crow tribes and had thus determined the Crow Reservation boundaries based on the traditional homelands of the Mountain Crow. Crow leader Robert Yellowtail testified:

“Mr. Chairman, your President yesterday assured the people of this great country, and also the people of the whole world, that the right of self-determination shall not be denied to any people, no matter where they live, nor how small or weak they may be, nor what their previous conditions of servitude may have been.”

He went on to say:

“I and the rest of my people sincerely hope and pray that the President, in his great scheme of enforcing upon all the nations of the earth the adoption of this great principle of the brotherhood of man and nations, and that the inherent right of each one is that of the right of self-determination, I hope, Mr. Chairman, that he will not forget that within the boundaries of his own nation are the American Indians, who have no rights whatsoever-not even the right to think for themselves.”

His words continue to ring true today.

Today, the Crow Reservation is the fifth largest reservation in the U.S. in terms of area. The Crow tribe has 11,000 members with about 8,000 living on the reservation. Most of the tribal members-85%–speak Crow as a native language and it is the official language of the tribe.

Medicine Crow

A photograph of Medicine Crow by Edward Curtis is shown above.

 

The Migrations of the Crow Tribes

When the first American explorers and fur traders began to move out onto the Northern Plains following the Corps of Discovery (i.e. Lewis and Clark) in the early nineteenth century, they encountered the tribe they came to call the Crow hunting in Montana and Wyoming. At this time, the Crow were horse-mounted buffalo hunters with a good understanding of the ecology of the country. However, like many of the other Indian tribes living on the Northern Plains at this time, this had not always been true. Oral traditions, linguistics, and archaeological data all suggest that the Crow began their migration onto the Northern Plains about three centuries earlier.  

According to oral traditions, in the 1500s the Crow ancestral tribe was living east of the Mississippi River in a land of forests and lakes. Some Crow elders feel that this was probably present-day Wisconsin. At this time, their subsistence was probably based on a combination of hunting forest animals such as deer, elk, and moose; fishing; gathering wild plants; and planting some crops, including corn. At this time, they were not living in the Plains Indian tipis, but in woodlands wigwams: domed shaped structures covered with bark.

For some reason, they migrated to the west and settled along the Missouri River in North Dakota. Here they settled into a more agricultural way of life, raising corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash in small, irregularly shaped fields. They adopted the more permanent earth lodge house common to the tribes along the river. From here, the ancestors of the Crow broke off from the ancestral tribe, moving onto the plains to become more dependent on the buffalo for their subsistence.

Linguistically, the Crow are a Siouan-speaking group which is most closely related to the Hidatsa. The linguistic data suggests that the Crow separated from the Hidatsa in the late 1500s.

According to one oral tradition, there was a buffalo hunt at which the wives of two of the chiefs argued over the upper stomach of one of the cows. There was a scuffle and one of the women was killed. This escalated into a skirmish between the two bands led by the chiefs, and several more people were killed. As a result, one band left the Missouri and migrated to the Rocky Mountains. The band that followed along the rivers and streams came to be known as the River Crow (They Travel Along the Riverbanks) and the other band became known as the Mountain Crow. The Mountain Crow later divided with part becoming the Kicked in the Bellies.

Another oral tradition tells that at one time there was a wandering tribe under the leadership of two brothers: No Intestines and Red Scout. At what is now called Devil’s Lake, they did a vision quest together. During the vision, No Intestines was told to search for the seeds of the sacred tobacco and Red Scout was told to settle on the banks of the Missouri River and grow corn. No Intestines led his people to many parts of the Great Plains in search of the sacred tobacco seeds. The oral tradition tells of the Great Salt Lake, the geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park, of the Arkansas River in Oklahoma, and of the plains of Alberta, Canada. Finally, at Cloud Peak, the highest crest in the Bighorn Range, No Intestines received another vision and thus the Crow made their home in Montana and Wyoming with the Bighorn Mountains as their heartland.

The oral traditions also tell of another group of Crow-Bilápiiuutche, Beaver Dries Its Fur-which became lost during the journey. Several explanations are offered for the fate of this group. Some feel that it split in Canada and remained there. Others say it turned east and ended up at Lake Michigan. Still others feel that Beaver Dries Its Fur became a part of the Kiowa, who were closely associated with the Crow. According to some oral traditions the Comanches located a group of massacred people in southern Colorado who were dressed like Crows.

Like the other tribes of the Northern Plains, they did not receive horses until sometime in the 1700s, perhaps about 1750. It is likely that they first acquired horses from the Shoshone.