The Crow on Horseback
From the Great Plains to the Obama Inaugural
BY PAT HILL
Montana's Crow Indians will join 10 other Native American nations in Washington, D.C., this month for President-elect Barack Obama’s Inaugural Parade.
The Crow were the first Native Americans to receive the invite from Obama's inaugural committee. Obama was ceremoniously “adopted” by the Crow [Apsaalooke] when he stopped at their reservation southeast of Billings while on the campaign trail last May.
“To have us left out all these years, and then for him to come here, it shows respect,” said Crow tribal member Darrin Old Coyote at the ceremony, according to the Associated Press. “And it makes us optimistic.”
The Apsaalooke Mounted Parade Unit heads off to D.C. on Jan. 16 with a chartered bus, individual vehicles, and a caravan carrying 24 horses in gooseneck trailers. Rooted in history, the Mounted Unit will ride past Obama single-file at the Inaugural Parade dressed in regalia that includes full war bonnets, an indication of the importance placed upon the horse in Crow culture.
“Horses are a vital part of Crow [Indian] culture,” said Tim McCleary, who teaches Native American Studies at Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation. “Ask a Crow rancher how many cattle he has,” McCleary told the Pioneer, “and he may not know for sure, but he knows exactly how many horses he has.” McCleary added that horses play an important role in the spiritual world of the Crow.
“The Crow believe that that people, horses, and dogs are the only creatures that possess the necessary 'energy' to have souls,” he said.
The Crow Indians have been strutting their stuff on stallions since the early 1700s, when they first acquired the horse. Various tales relate to the tribe's acquisition of the animal, according to Joseph Medicine Crow, a tribal historian who recorded the stories (usually passed down orally) in his book From the Heart of Crow Country (Orion Books, 1992):
“Around 1725 or 1730 a Crow Indian war party journeyed to the Fat River (Green River in Wyoming) and either purchased or stole a stallion horse from some other tribe and brought the animal back to the Crow camp in the Upper Wind River of what is now Wyoming.
“This was quite an event because the Crow had never seen a horse before. It stood as high as an elk but looked very different, with round hooves, a long shaggy mane and tail, and no horns or antlers. As the people were looking it over, one man got too close to the hind legs of the animal. It quickly kicked him, and the man rolled over into the dirt. After this incident the pals of the man nicknamed him Kicked in the Belly. In time this band of the Crow tribe came to be called Kicked in the Bellies. Today the descen-dants of these people live near Lodge Grass, Montana, and are still called by that name.
“The same people, who live near Lodge Grass, have also been called ‘People of the Valley of Chieftains,’ because many great chiefs—such as Spotted Horse, Old Dog, Wolf Lays Down, and Medicine Crow—settled here when the Crow tribe ceded the western part of the reservation and moved to the eastern part in 1884.
“About the same time as the Wind River horse incident, another story relates a war party of the Mountain Crow band traveled south and brought back several of the new animals. This party apparently reached the Great Salt Lake.
“Yet a third highly mythical version exists. In this story a Crow man saw strange animals in a dream. He set out looking for them and finally saw several emerging from a lake. He captured a few and brought them back to the Crow camp.”
The Crow people quickly became outstanding riders and horsemen. They dubbed the horse Ichilay, meaning “to search with,” perhaps referring to the search for enemies and game. While other Plains tribes used the travois for hauling, the Crow, from children to elders, all rode, and used packhorses, enabling them to travel fast no matter what the terrain. McCleary said Crow youngsters are still raised with horses and ride from an early age.
It didn't take long, according to McCleary, before the Crow had the largest horse herds on the Great Plains, and other tribes regarded the Crow as rich because they owned so many good horses. Many of those horses were purchased or raised, and many were stolen. One of four military “tests” for an aspiring Crow warrior was to sneak into an enemy camp at night, capture a fine horse, and bring it back successfully.
By 1743, when the La Véren-dryes of the Hudson Bay Company met a group of Crow Indians east of present-day Hardin, the Crow already owned so many horses that they provided the traders with fresh mounts when they departed.
White Americans first became aware of the tribe's superior horsemanship as far back as the early 1800s, when trappers observed Crow riders performing amazing feats on horseback during annual gatherings known as rendezvous, when trappers would sell their furs, stock up for the coming year, and party like there was no tomorrow. And the Crow inspired awe among both whites and natives with parade -like extravaganzas, such as their entrance into Fort Laramie for negotiations and to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851:
“One well-tailored group of a hundred or so chiefs and warriors arrived at Fort Laramie fashionably late,” wrote Peter Nabokov in Where the Lightning Strikes; The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places (Penguin Books, 2006).
"One can imagine them rising before dawn, painting their horses, pulling on form-fitting leggings and war shirts fringed with scalp locks, strapping tight their high-pommeled elkhorn saddles and draping them with mountain lion pelts.”
Nabokov wrote that a reporter from the Missouri Republican who was at Fort Laramie that day recorded that the tardy Crows were “the finest delegation of Indians we have yet seen…” The reporter added that even after the 800-mile ride the Crow made to Fort Laramie, their horses “showed more mettle” and the Crow themselves “were dressed with more taste, and their dresses, especially the headdresses of the chiefs, made more display than any of the other tribes.”
“Quite likely the Crow stage-managed their entry for maximum effect,” wrote Nabokov, “as they did on triumphal returns home after successful war parties, and as they still do for morning parades during the tribe's August fair at Crow Agency, Montana.” And parades nearing two miles in length occur for four days every year at Crow Fair, with a parade reserved for tribal members wrapping up the popular summer event.
“The modern-day parade is indicative of the old times, when [the Crow] migrated and followed the buffalo in caravans,” said Donald Spotted Tail, a Crow tribal exec-utive committee assistant, according to the AP. “That's why we still continue to parade. When we parade, there's a reason behind it. We parade toward the new day. And we ask for good fortune for the whole Crow Nation.”
At his adoption ceremony into the Crow tribe, Obama was given a Crow name, translated as He Who Goes Throughout The Land And Helps People. Obama promised the Crow and the rest of America's Indian nations, according to the AP, that as president he would work to fulfill treaty obligations and bring quality health care and education to reservations all across America.
In a speech following the ceremony, he said, “I will never forget you. You will be on my mind every day that I'm in the White House…and now that I'm a member of the family, you know I won't break my commitment to my own brothers and sisters.”