From the Hidatsa Lands to the Canadian Rockies
The Crow People descend directly from the Hidatsa tribe of present-day North Dakota, sometimes called the North Dakota Gros Ventres, and are of Siouan origin, speaking a language classified as Siouan. The Crows separated from the Hidatsas between the years 1400 and 1500, anthropologists say, while linguists, whose estimates are based on the age of vocal development and the variance of the Crow language from that of the parent tribe, place the separation in a time frame of A.D. 900 to 1000.
Originally, three bands of the Crow tribe lived in what is now Montana and Wyoming: the River Crows, who inhabited the territory along the Musselshell and Yellowstone Rivers south of the Missouri; the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, the band that frequented the area now known as the Bighorn Basin in northern Wyoming; and the Mountain Crows, also known as the Main Camps, who frequented the area of the Upper Yellowstone River and the Bighorn Mountains.
Among the stories told concerning the separation of the Crows from the Hidatsas is that of No Vitals and his search for the sacred tobacco.
No Vitals and his brother were on a vision-quest fast, during which they experienced very similar visitations of the supernatural. The brothers’ shared vision was said to be of corn, which was already grown by the Hidatsas. But in No Vitals’s vision he also saw wild mountain tobacco growing in the foothills of mountains. Thus began the separation on the Missouri River of No Vitals and his followers from the rest of the Hidatsas.
No Vitals and his small band of followers embarked on the first of two odysseys, which saw them journey to the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, in present-day Alberta, to the upper reaches of the Arkansas River. To this day the Crows still sing lullabies of the mountains of Glacier Park and the fowl of the Arkansas.
Not finding any tobacco on the first odyssey, the No Vitals band returned to the Missouri to pursue the vision again. When they finally did find wild tobacco (Nicotiana multivalvis and N. quadrivalvis), it was growing among the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, and the small band relocated to the valleys of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers.
The Crows quickly became nomadic hunters. Their activities included stalking large game, trapping small animals, and staging elaborate buffalo jumps.
The Crows being matrilineal, clan lineage is traced through the mother. The present-day clan system is derived from the thirteen original clans of the tribe. Today there are ten clans, two in each of five kinship groups. Oral tradition related to the origin of the clans goes back to Old Man Coyote, the trickster character in ancient stories of the tribe.
It is said that Old Man Coyote characterized clans as similar to driftwood in that they belonged to whichever group happened upon them. To this day, Crows are identified by clan, in keeping with the characteristics and personalities generally associated with that clan through the ages and generations.
The Crows’ yearly cultural round was similar to that of other Indian tribes of the northern Great Plains. Spring, considered the beginning of the cycle, was perhaps the most significant of the seasons. First thunder was a signal to discontinue the winter’s activities such as story-telling and to take up tools and revive tribal ceremonies. This activity coincided with the birth of new birds and animals. Adoption and initiation ceremonies were begun, and a new perspective on life blended with new plant growth and the coming abundance of the warm seasons.
Summer was a time of gathering the fruits of Crow country. Fresh berries, roots, and other items of sustenance were plentiful. It was time to enjoy the pure waters and cool winds of the mountains. Autumn was a time to harvest neces-sities and prepare for winter. The Crow’s abandoned their traditional war parties to intensify the hunt for prime animals and for gathering other goods. They gathered meat, berries, all manner of supplies, then prepared for the winter ahead. Winter was a time to retreat to the sheltered valleys and strengthen family and tribal ties. After the first snow, storytelling began, and continued until the first thunder of spring.
The worship system of the Crows’ parent tribe, the Hidatsas, was carried on by the Crows, and some forms persist to the present day. The tribe also copied, adopted, and adapted worship practices and ceremonies from other tribes.
The Crows continued the practice of fasting for divine guidance, as practiced by the Hidatsas, along with wound healing and other cere-monies for health maintenance, and the sweat lodge. The Crow Sun Dance, a communal worship of the sun, was banned by federal authorities in the late 1800s, but the Shoshone Sun Dance came to the Crows in 1941 and became a popular feature of tribal life. The peyote ceremony also came from the tribes of Oklahoma in the early twentieth century.
The original ceremony of the tribe is known as the Tobacco Ceremony (sometimes mistakenly called the Beaver Dance). This ceremony surrounds the harvesting, cultivation, and keeping of the sacred tobacco seeds first seen in No Vitals’ vision. No Vitals believed that by practicing the Tobacco Ceremony, the Crows would multiply and grow stronger.
The Crows’ leadership roles generally resembled those of the Hidatsas. Warlike endeavors were key to becoming a leader and chief. Leadership required four acts of bravery and display, the achievement of which reflected divine guidance and grace. First, one had to be the first to strike or touch an enemy in battle. There could be only one first striker in a battle, and the race to attain that honor created the fury of an attack.
Second, one had to take a weapon from the enemy in battle. With the coming of gunpowder, the taking of a rifle was a prime honor.
Third, one had to take a horse in battle, either from the enemy horse herd or, better, from the doorway of the owner’s lodge. Fourth, one had to lead a successful war party and demonstrate leadership prowess in a demanding situation. The achievement of all these honors qualified one to be a chief, but it remained for the camp, the clan, the band, or other group to select its leader from the pool of eligible candidates. The head or principal chief was selected by a council of chiefs.
Women played a significant role in practically every phase of Crow culture. They fashioned objects of worship and well-being. They served as the eyes and ears of their husbands, whether he was a chief or not. They related the feelings and talk of the camp, band, and tribe. As such, women reflected the mood of the tribe and discussed tribal direction and options with the men.
The Crow Reservation was first defined by the treaties of 1851 and 1868, negotiated with representa-tives of the United States at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Reduced by subsequent land sales, the reservation is today significantly checker-boarded—with Indian and non-Indian lands interspersed. Almost half of the reservation is technically owned by Indians and held in trust by the federal government, but land use by tribal members is minimal. Indian lands have been sold or leased to nonmembers to such an extent that the overwhelming majority of Crow Indian land is under the control of white farmers and ranchers. The populations of Indian and non-Indian residents on the reservation are about equal.
The Crows began as an agri-cultural and quasi-sedentary tribe. They became a nomadic hunting tribe, and today they constitute a rural community occupying a federal Indian reservation, but with members both on and off the reservation. Until the 1930s the majority of tribal members spoke only the Crow language, but today the majority speak English as a second language. Contemporary life-styles and mores are intermeshed with ancient Crow culture, tradition, and systems of worship.
Crow Fair & Rodeo
The Annual Crow Fair Celebration is one of the largest gatherings of the year for the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation and is considered the largest modern day American Indian encampment in the country—deemed the Teepee Capital of the World because of the approximately 1,200 to 1,500 teepees in the encampment during the one week of celebration over which the Crow Fair takes place.
Many cultural activities take place throughout the days of this great celebration.
The evening pow-wow grand-entries displays the beauty of all tribes in attendance, the different dance styles, and many other cultural activities that happen during a pow-wow.
A daily parade takes place in the morning showing traditional bead work, buckskin and leather work, all made especially for the purpose of showing the best each family has to offer.
This celebration also offers an INFR sanctioned All-Indian rodeo. This shows the best Indian Cowboys in the western United States and their outstanding abilities. There is pari-mutuel horse racing daily as well as the very popular Indian-Relay horse races. This shows the best in Indian horsemanship from throughout Indian country.
At the close of the celebration is the Dance Through Camp, commonly known as the Parade Dance, based on the spiritual belief-ways of the Apsáalooke people and meant as a prayer for good fortune for members of the Crow Tribe, for future camps, and for the coming year.
The Crow and Their Horses
Ancient Times to Spring 2011
The Crow Indians are horsemen, having been so since the early 1700s, when they first acquired the animal. The horse occupies a certain spiritual status among the Crow, as one of the few creatures, along with people and dogs, that possess souls.
Various tales relate to the tribe’s acquisition of the horse, 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 descendants of these people live near Lodge Grass, Montana, and are still called by that name.”
More recently, owing to their renown as horsemen, Montana’s Crow Indians sent a mounted unit to ride in President Barack Obama’s Inaug-ural Parade.
And in March of this year, a herd of 700 neglected and starving horses was rounded up by dozens of Crow Indians near Crow Agency, Montana, at the behest of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The animals had been left without food or water after rancher James Leachman went broke, filed for bankruptcy, and sold his ranch. The horses, caught in a barren pasture, were in a state near starvation. The BIA then stepped in, since the horses had been trespas-sing on tribal lands, and enlisted one of the world’s greatest equine societies to help with the situation—the Crow Indians of Montana, who rounded up the horses and fed them in advance of them being sold.