Montana Crow Poet’s Ancestral Journey Along the Missouri River
BY PAT HILL
Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, a Crow Indian, re-connected with some long-lost kin on a long horseback ride along the Missouri River trail this summer.
“I wanted to go and ride with my brothers over there…the Hidatsa,” Real Bird told the Pioneer, “and to again be able to stand in the earth lodge. The Hidatsa and the Crow used to be one.”
Before the Crow and Hidatsa peoples parted ways, they had already migrated west from their ancestral home, thought to be in the region of the headwaters of the Mississippi River, to the Devil’s Lake area of North Dakota. After “splitting up” with the Hidatsa by the year 1500, choosing the Yellowstone River drainage in Montana and Wyoming as their base of operations, the Crow further divided into the River Crow and Mountain Crow.
The Hidatsa remained in the Devil’s Lake area until they were pushed southwestward by the Lakota Sioux. They formed an alliance with the Mandan people they encountered at the mouth of the Heart River on the Missouri, and the Hidatsa were living in three villages at the mouth of the Heart when Lewis and Clark encountered them in 1804.
As whites became more engrained in life on the northwestern plains, trade between the natives and the new-comers became a cornerstone of their relationship. Built in the late 1820s, Fort Union trading post, on the upper Missouri River and at the present-day Montana-North Dakota border, was the most important trading post on the upper Missouri until 1867. At Fort Union, tribes including the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Cree and Hidatsa traded pelts and buffalo robes for items like beads, blankets, cookware, cloth, knives, guns, and alcohol. Declared a national historic landmark in 1961, the reconstructed Fort Union commemorates the short period of time on the northern plains when two distinct groups of people found common ground through trade. Real Bird began his ride up the Missouri near Fort Union July 13, riding out with members of the Hidatsa Horsemanship Program.
“My great-grandfather was at Fort Union and spent time on the Missouri River,” said Real Bird. “My grandfather spent some time with the Hidatsa, too. It meant a lot to me to ride a horse where my great-grandfather rode…where my grandfather rode a horse, too…to be able to ride a horse along the Missouri River like the French fur traders and later, Lewis and Clark. That [route] was the trail of life kind-of-thing back then, when everything came upriver from St. Louis. Now everyone travels on the Interstate, and no one remembers the old wagon trails…a lot of people don’t even care about such things.”
Real Bird said his journey “was a beautiful ride because people were good to me.” The first night on the trail, after riding nearly 30 miles, Real Bird said a rancher put them up in style, complete with beds and hot showers, and gave the Hidatsa Horsemanship Program a cutting horse to boot.
“That country along the Missouri is beautiful,” Real Bird said. “I never knew…I stayed on the highway like everyone else when I was rodeoing in that country.” He said that people all along the way continued to welcome them.
“People opened up their houses to us,“ said Real Bird. “We got home-cooked food. One older lady even brought us buffalo meat and bannock bread, and later, she cooked a tenderloin of elk for us. They brought us hay and watered our horses and the whole works. It was just amazing. People would ask us what we were doing, and we’d tell them, and they’d be all excited and want to help out. Gestures like that are beyond words.”
Real Bird said that he traveled along the Missouri for about ten days before veering up the Milk River at Nashua, Montana. He ended his journey on Box Elder Creek. The ride took Real Bird through some country that hasn’t really changed much since the Indians were its only inhabitants, and the Poet Laureate passed on books of his poetry to people he met along the way.
“To be able to give out books of poetry to regular people way out in the hills that nobody ever cares about because everyone’s stuck in Billings, Great Falls, Bozeman or Kalispell…that’s why I chose to ride through that country,” Real Bird said, “to be able to get people way out in the hills to think. I wrote a lot of those poems out in the hills, where it’s nice and quiet, and you’re able to think.”
Real Bird said he gave out about 50 books of poetry before arriving at the Rocky Boy’s Reservation in north-central Montana on July 31. In coordination with Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Real Bird gave out another 400 books of his children’s poetry at the Rocky Boy pow-wow.
“That [Rocky Boy’s pow-wow] was the culmination of the ride,” Real Bird said. “Giving those books to those kids is what I wanted to do…for those kids that are way out in Rocky Boy’s and Box Elder…I just wanted them to have those books.”
Real Bird said that the whole experience of the ride was “so unbelievable” that he’s going to write a piece on his journey.
“I was able to ride in wind that’s good, to meet a lot of nice people on the trail, and I just want to thank all those people for helping me,” said Real Bird, “and for allowing me to be able to give out my thoughts along the way.”