He Led His People Through the End of an Era
BY JAMES CRUTCHFIELD
Of all the Indian chiefs in Montana tribal history few have commanded more respect than Plenty Coups, one of the last of the great Crow leaders.
The Crows were a sizable tribe of Siouan-speaking people who migrated from the Dakotas to Montana near the end of the eighteenth century. When white explorers and fur traders discovered them, they were living along the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. They called themselves Absa-roka, which meant “children of the large-beaked bird.”
Margaret Carrington, wife of Colonel Henry Carrington, who built Fort Phil Kearney along the Bozeman Trail, described the Crow country as some of the most beautiful in America. In 1868, she wrote:
Partially girt in by the Big Horn and Panther Mountains, yet roaming at will, they were masters of a region of country which has no peer in its exhaustless game resources…while its natural scenery, made up of snowy crests, pine-clad slopes and summits, crystal waters, and luxuriant vales, certainly has no rival in our great sisterhood of States.
The Crows were constantly at war with their neighbors, particularly the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet tribes. But they had a high regard for the trappers and traders who followed Lewis and Clark into the area.
The Crows were a handsome people. George Catlin, the renowned American artist who visited the tribe in the l830s, described the men as “fine looking, with an ease and grace added to their dignity of manners… most of them six feet tall or more… and many have cultivated their hair to such an almost incredible length that it sweeps the ground as they walk.”
The women were likewise attractive and gifted at making beadwork and tanning leather. They made large tipis from tanned buffalo hides, and, according to Catlin, they “often dress the skins almost as white as linen, and beautifully garnish them with porcupine quills, and paint and ornament them in a variety of ways, as to render them exceedingly picturesque….”
Plenty Coups was born in 1848 near where Billings is today. As a boy, he witnessed the last days of the fur trade and the beginning of white immigration into tribal territory. As he reached manhood, he became one of the first of his people to realize that the only way his tribe—or any other—could survive was to adapt quickly to the white man’s ways. He spent the rest of his life attempting to lead the Crows peacefully through the transition from buffalo hunters to modern Montanans.
While learning from whites the things he needed to know to save his people from annihilation, Plenty Coups also gave important assis-tance to U.S. authorities. He furnished Crow scouts for Custer’s Sioux expedition in 1876, as well as for the Nez Perce campaign the following year. When the Northern Pacific Railroad considered running its line through parts of Montana, Plenty Coups offered his coopera-tion.
By 1904, Plenty Coups had become the principal chief of the Crow nation. As a man of obvious influence among his people, he traveled to Washington, D.C., several times and met with high ranking officials to discuss Indian affairs. When the United States went to war with Germany in 1917, Plenty Coups urged the young men of his nation to take up arms against the Central powers. Although he was almost seventy years old, the amicable chief even volunteered for the Army himself.
In 1921, Plenty Coups returned to Washington. This time he served as representative of all Native Americans at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The old chief demonstrated his elo-quence when he said:
“For the Indians of America I call upon the Great Spirit of the Red Men with gesture and chant and tribal tongue that the dead should not have died in vain, that war might end, that peace be purchased by the blood of Red Men and White.”
Once, during a visit to Mount Vernon, Plenty Coups decided he would like his home, like George Washington’s, to be memorialized as a lasting shrine and museum to his people. When he died in 1932, his wishes were observed, and today the Chief Plenty Coups Memorial State Monument stands near Pryor, a tribute to this remarkable Indian statesman.
Editor’s note: This account is one of thirty-four colorful historical stories in James A. Crutchfield’s It Happened in Montana (at local bookstores).