Somehow, a mighty dispute arose over buffalo. This dispute grew into such proportions that a segment of the Hidatsa left their homeland and moved into the grasslands, or plains territory. They took the name "Absaroka", which meant "bird people". Since black was their most sacred color, signifying victory of both spiritual battles and physical conflicts, the "bird people" very naturally evolved into "the Crow".
As the Crow moved across the plains, they found the territories now known as Montana and Wyoming to their liking. Those who settled north of the Yellowstone River in the more mountainous country became known as the Mountain Crow. Those who continued south and settled in the valleys of the Big Horn River, Powder River and Wind River became known as the River Crow. They became very quick enemies of the many Sioux tribes, and of the Blackfoot.
The Crow adopted all aspects of plains life. They became nomadic and gave up their permanent earth lodge homes in favor of the easily moved tipi. They abandoned farming, but did continue to grow tobacco since it was such a valuable commodity for trade with other tribes. They became skilled hunters with the lance, and bow and arrow. It was not until the end of the 19th Century that guns replaced the traditional weapons of the Crow. Like other plains hunters, they learned to cover themselves with animal skins to mask their human smell, and to stalk their game against the wind to control both noise and suspicious odors.
Tall and strikingly handsome people, the Crow were vain in many ways. The women had no equal on the plains for their skill at tanning hides, and for the elegance of the highly decorated clothing and other possessions they created. The designs stitched by the women were geometric and were created by every possible material including human and animal hair, hide and fur strips, quills and even various grasses, flowers and plants. Eventually beads, cloth, yarn and ribbons became available to the women to even further enhance their art. Nothing escaped decoration!!
The men cut their hair in front to form a pompadour which was held high and in place with a combination of bear grease and clay. Hair was of the utmost importance to Crow men, and their goal was to have hair that drug the ground. To accomplish this, they saved the hair they cut, as well as hair that was naturally shed, and wove extensions into the head hair. When this was not long enough, they would braid wide falls of human hair and animal hair (especially horsehair after this became available) which they attached to head hair with buckskin strips. There are historical photos showing Crow men on horseback with hair that actually covered the horse's rump! Someone commented recently that the Crow invented mousse and hair weaving. Nothing is new —
Even though the horse was introduced to the plains by Coronado in 1541, it took a good 200 years for this animal's potential to be realized by Native Americans. Until this time, dogs had been the beasts of burden and had pulled the travois of the plains peoples. Even after the arrival of the horse, no one would think of climbing on its back. Instead, horses were called "spirit dogs" and were used and regarded in the same manner as the dog. However, once the power, speed and freedom the horse represented to the Native was discovered, the Crow were truly in their glory.
The Crow quickly became the most accomplished and most famous horsemen of the northern plains. Only the Comanches of the south came close to the reputation of the Crow as riders, and only the Comanches owned as many, and sometimes more horses than the Crow. No distance was too far, and no danger too great, to keep the Crow from adding to their inventory of horses. The Crow gathered horses where they found them - whether running wild or carefully tethered in the villages of other tribes. It mattered not, for they quickly became Crow property. When villages awoke in the mornings to find every single horse gone, they knew they had been visited by the Crow during the night.
The women took advantage of all this horseflesh to expand their artistic designs, and horses were soon sporting fancy handiwork on bridles, collars, blankets, saddles and stirrups. Saddles were scorned by the men, but Crow women did use a crude wooden saddle as time went on. Imagine the weight, and the heat, of a fully decorated horse carrying a fully decorated rider.
As with other plains tribes, the Crow practiced the Sundance and the Vision Quest, had medicine bundles, and carried shields. However, their use of these ancient traditions was very different.
The Sundance was practiced as a way to call down revenge against an enemy, and a special Sundance medicine bundle was used only for this purpose. Customarily, the Sundance is a ceremony of supreme sacrifice and prayer for the welfare of all people, all creatures of the earth, and of Mother Earth herself. Not so with the Crow.
Medicine bundles were too large to wear, and were constructed for very particular purposes. Depending upon the needs and desires of the individual, the personal medicine bundle would hold a pipe and tobacco for the needs of the spirit, face and body paint, corn for plentiful food, elk teeth or beads for wealth, an otter pelt so that water would be plentiful, horsehair for successful horse raids and many horses, and other items signifying personal importance to the owner. Once the medicine bundle was filled, sacred songs and ceremonies were held to wake up the power of the bundle. Success was shared, and if an individual noticed that a particular member of the tribe had exceedingly good luck and good fortune, he could buy the right to duplicate some of the items in the other medicine bundle, and could even buy the rights to use that other person's sacred songs and cermonies to empower the copied bundle. There were special bundles for war, for horse stealing, for romance, for healing, for hunting, for witchcraft, and for revenge against others.
Personal medicine shields were painted and decorated with messages and visions received by the owners which foretold the future. These shields were not carried into battle for protection, but were given a place of honor at the tipi. They were considered far too powerful to be seen by the enemy, and were only taken into battle when the owner was told by the Spirits that his was a war shield to be used in such a manner.
The Vision Quest was of paramount importance in the life of a Crow. Both boys and girls began their Vision Quests around age 9, and it was believed that the villages carried the combined power of all the visions received, and that this power joined forces to be shared by the tribe as a whole. Until visions were received and explained by the village medicine person or shaman, the child had no standing in the village, or in the tribe. The Vision Quest was repeated at intervals set by the elders and medicine people until visions were received, but to lie about success was unthinkable and an unforgivable sin. However, if there were repeated failures in the Vision Quests, the individual was ostracized. Such repeated failure was cause for dishonor and for scorn as such individuals were not allowed to marry and take their rightful place in the village, or in the tribe. In order to preserve self-worth and dignity, a person could buy a part of the vision of a tribal leader, elder or medicine person until such time as he received his own messages.
Considering the speed of the white man's migration into the plains on the way West, it is amazing that the Crow Nation was not discovered until 1805. From the outset, the Crow worked with the white man, and served as scouts for the explorers, mapmakers, surveyors, artists, photographers and writers. As times became more dangerous, Chief Plenty Coup encouraged the men of the Nation to work as scouts for the U.S. Army. It was his belief that cooperation with the military would earn the gratitude of the "Great White Father", and that the Crow would be favorably rewarded for their loyalty by keeping their land, and their traditional way of life. He was wrong.
Crow scouts helped to track Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in his flight to freedom; they supplied information to the Army that helped to defeat and capture many Native tribes, friend and enemy alike, and they took part in the battle against Crazy Horse and his people. Once the fighting was over, and the white man's domination of the plains secure and unchallenged, the Crow were sent to reservations with the same treatment given the other Native Nations. As a show of gratitude for his efforts, Chief Plenty Coup (then a very old man), was chosen to represent all the Native Nations at the dedication of the first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, following World War I. In an ultimate display of respect for the fallen soldiers of this war, Chief Plenty Coup left his eagle feather bonnet and coup stick on the grave.
The Crow did establish a reservation in Montana and, ironically, the Custer Battlefield Monument is located on that reservation. Each year, the Crow stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn for visitors to the area.
Also, the Crow Fair, an inter-tribal Pow Wow sponsored by the Crow
Nation, is held on the reservation and is one of the largest Pow Wows in
this country. It is open to the public, and would be an experience worth
your attention if you're in or near Montana in August. The phone number
for information is (406) 638-2601 but, if this is no longer a good number,
ask information for the number of the Tribal Office of the Crow Nation.
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