Crow Culture Survives and Merges with the Modern World through Montana’s Poet Laureate
BY PAT HILL
Montana’s Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird is a traditional Crow Indian who made his bones in the literary world writing cowboy poetry.
“It’s an honor I’m lucky to get…I appreciate it,” said Real Bird, who was selected last September as the Treasure State’s third Poet Laureate by Gov. Schweitzer. Real Bird, who will turn 62 in July, told the Pioneer it’s an honor he wasn’t expecting.
“I was surprised,” Real Bird said. “I’ve always been able to just wander around in life and enjoy myself and not get stuck waiting around for retirement or anything else. I still ride the trail of the buffalo…I keep my Indian-ness alive and live in the world the way it is. I’m sort of like a tool of reality alongside the road. Life out here…under the stars…is reality, you know…”
“It is an honor to appoint Henry Real Bird as poet laureate,” Schweitzer said in a press release. “Our heritage, our lives and our way of life in this great state are often expressed through poetry and the work of Henry Real Bird brings so much of Montana to life. This is a unique oppor-tunity to bring poetry to the people of Montana.”
Real Bird is a rancher and edu-cator as well as a poet. He got his bachelor’s degree at Montana State University-Bozeman and his Master’s degree at MSU-Billings. A former president of Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation, Real Bird has written six anthologies, four poetry collections, and 12 children’s books that he also illustrated. His presence in the world of cowboy poetry is well-respected. Over the years, Real Bird has often recited his work at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and was keynote speaker at their last event.
Real Bird was also presented the Western Heritage Award by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Hal Canon, founding director of the Western Folklife Center, told the Montana Arts Council that Real Bird’s work is in the “greatest tradition of the beat poets. His work is an interesting melding of cowboy, horsemanship and Crow culture. There is no difference between his poetry and everyday life.”
Real Bird speaks Crow as his primary language, and his love of the land and his culture truly comes out in his writing. He is also a former rodeo cowboy who raises champion bucking horses at his south-central Montana ranch near Garryowen. Crow Indians have what might be termed a special relationship with horses, and a reputation as excellent horsemen.
In 1969, Real Bird told the Pio-neer, he dislocated his hip after being thrown while bronc riding and dragged by his foot. The injury he sustained began his “transition out of the physical world of bronc riding into the spiritual world of writing.”
“I remember laying there in traction in the hospital in ’69 looking up at the ceiling and thinking about writing,” Real Bird said. That injury didn’t keep him out of the saddle, though: Real Bird rode on the pro rodeo circuit from 1973 until 1980, even though pain from his injury had become a problem by 1974. Real Bird no longer rides in rodeos, but horses are still a big part of the Poet Laureate’s life.
“Now I’m raising bucking horses, writing, and dreaming,” he said. “I look for riddles. I enjoy life…I’m not so worried about ‘making it.’ I go with the wind.” Real Bird told the Pioneer that he typically rises about 6:30 or 7:00 each morning, has some coffee, and “then I move slowly and feed the horses.”
“It takes about two hours or so,” he said. “Today I had to rush to make this 35-mile trek to my daughter’s house, but mostly I just try to take it real easy.” He said he often checks on his neighbor’s herds as well, “just to make sure everybody’s safe.”
Real Bird said he also strives to make sure Crow culture is safe, and that retaining native language is an integral part of preserving native culture. “I work on that as an educator…to preserve the language,” he said. “In 1954, there were 30 of us in the third grade, and we all spoke Crow. Now, of all the grades K through 6th, only one percent are Crow Indian speakers.” Real Bird said the loss of the Crow language on the Reservation has led to a “sell-out” of Crow culture.
“These sell-outs, they’re strange,” said Real Bird. “If you speak Crow, you’re of low mentality or something. They shun the language and move on.” Real Bird said he wants to see more emphasis put on Crow language in reservation classrooms, and he teaches his family to speak Crow on the home front.
“I want to speak Crow Indian with my granddaughter,” he said, “and then with her younger brother. There’s a big loss with the oral tradition gone…some kids not even knowing where they come from. It’s unbelievable what we have become. Language is important, and I’m going to get back in that battle, but for now I’m just taking it easy.”
Real Bird said that retaining Crow culture doesn’t mean taking a step back in time.
“We have to live in the industrial world the way it is,” he said, “ and yet we still have to retain our Indian-ness…for our souls, you know. I’m able to use modern things like pickup trucks, and yet around our sacred fires I’m still able to take care of my soul, and protect it, and live in the modern world …it isn’t hard to do…to be able to keep the connection with Mother Earth.” Real Bird said that “the sell-outs have no leg to stand on and no ground to be on” when it comes to retaining their connection with the land.
“They [the sell-outs] sold their land, and now they’re even trying to sell their water,” said Real Bird. “We worked hard in the 1960s and ’70s to make sure mine reclamation worked…keeping acid rain in check…keeping the air clean for us and the generations we leave behind. Our water has to be clean. Our land has to be clean.” Real Bird said he does his best to get the word out regarding the vanishing Crow culture and his people’s connection to the land.
“I’m filled with a lot of emotion right now that I have to write out,” he said. “So that’s what I do…I pump out reality through the words and blast it out to today’s Crow society and the rest of Montana and America and the world.”
Real Bird will be continuing his relationship with the land and the people in a unique manner this July, when he sets out on horseback from North Dakota to Montana’s Rocky Boy Reservation in North-central Montana. He said it’s a journey he’s looking forward to: his grandfather grew up along the “big river” [the Missouri] near the Rocky Boy reservation.
“I’m going to ride where my grandfather rode. I’m going to show the kids how to write poetry all around that part of Montana,” Real Bird said. “I’m just a simple guy on horseback, with a frying pan and a coffeepot and a match and pencil and paper, riding on horseback and flat enjoying myself.”