Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Crow people traditionally call themselves Apsaalooke or Absaroka, commonly translated as "Children of the Large-Beaked Bird." While likely referring to the raven, this term was misinterpreted by early trappers who began to address the Apsaalooke as the Crows. The Crows attribute their origins, as well as the creation of the world, to the trickster Old Man Coyote. The narrative begins with Old Man Coyote traveling alone in a cold and wet world. As four ducks flew over, Old Man Coyote asked his younger brothers to dive beneath the waters and bring up some earth so he could make the land. The first duck dove but was unsuccessful, as were the second and third ducks. Finally, Old Man Coyote asked the fourth duck, Hell Diver, to bring up some earth. The duck dove deep and, after being down a long time, surfaced with a small piece of mud. With this earth Old Man Coyote traveled from east to west and made the land, mountains, and rivers, animals and plants, and gave them life. But the world was still a lonely place. So Old Man Coyote molded from the earth an image he liked and blew a small breath into it. The first man was made. Old Man Coyote was not satisfied. He tried again and the first woman was created. Old Man Coyote was no longer alone. He taught the people how to live and pray, giving them their language, clan system, and ceremonies.

The historic migration of the Crows from the Lake Winnipeg region of Canada into the Bighorn and Yellowstone River basins of Montana and Wyoming (probably before 1600) predated the arrival of the horse. Horses were acquired by 1750, and the Crows' economic life was transformed from one of sedentary farming to one of bison hunting. The horse became an integral symbol of Crow identity and status. Male leadership roles became predicated on achieving a series of war deeds, such as touching an enemy in combat or leading a successful horse raid against an enemy. Among their enemies were the Blackfeet, Cheyennes, and Lakotas. The Sun Dance became a prominent ceremonial expression, helping unite the tribe and providing a means to obtain spiritual power to avenge the death of a relative.

Despite the changes initiated by the adoption of the horse, the Crows retained elements of their former society. The Tobacco Ceremony, the yearly planting and harvesting of the sacred tobacco seeds, reflected their once-agrarian orientation. The Crows also maintained their matrilineal clan structure, and even today's clan system is based on the thirteen original clans. The Crow language is part of the Siouan family, thus giving them a linguistic affiliation with many other tribes of the region. Today, up to one-third of the population continues to speak their native language.

The central organizing principle around which much of Aboriginal and contemporary Crow society revolves is best understood in the Crow term for clan, ashammaleaxia, literally meaning "driftwood lodges." As an individual piece of driftwood has difficulty surviving the powerful eddies and boulders of the Yellowstone or Bighorn Rivers, so too does an individual Crow have difficulty surviving the river of life, full of potential adversaries–formerly Lakotas and Blackfeet but now unemployment, substance abuse, and discrimination. But in tightly lodging itself with other pieces of driftwood along the riverbank, the driftwood is protected. So, too, is an individual Crow protected and nurtured when lodged securely in an extensive web of kinship ties. These are ties made up of both social and spiritual kinsmen and maintained through an extensive pattern of gift exchanges.

The values of ashammaleaxia are clearly evident in oral traditions, kinship relationships, and religious ceremonialism. The story of Burnt Face is an example. A young boy is badly scarred and subsequently ostracized. Burnt Face fasts for several days in the Big Horn Mountains. While on the mountain, he assembles the "Big Horn Medicine Wheel" as a gift to the Sun. Having given of himself, Burnt Face is adopted by the Little People, who remove his scar. He returns to his people and subsequently becomes a great healer, having extended his kinship ties to the Little People.

Of all kinship relations, that of aassahke, or "clan uncle and aunt," is pivotal. A clan uncle or aunt is any male and female member of one's father's mother's clan. Such individuals are to be respected, and gifts of food and blankets are provided to them during giveaways. In return, aassahke bestow on a child an "Indian name," sing "praise songs" for accomplishments, and offer protective prayer.

The principles of ashammaleaxia are expressed in a sweat bath, a Catholic Mass, a medicine bundle opening, a vision quest, a peyote meeting, and a Sun Dance. In each instance, individual prayer, the "gift" of sacrificing food and water, or the medicine power of a guardian spirit may be directed at a kinsmen in need. The last "buffalo days" Sun Dance was held in 1875, but with the assistance of the Shoshones, the Crows were again performing the Sun Dance by the 1940s. Today the Shoshone- Crow Sun Dance has become fully integrated into Crow family and religious life. As many as 120 men and women participate in a Sun Dance, several of which are held on the reservation during June and July. Along with the sponsor, each dancer has made a vow to the Creator or his or her own spirit guardian to go without food and water and "dry up" to help another. Typically, dances last three days. During the Sun Dance, individual participants offer prayer for family members, collective morning prayers are given for the welfare of all peoples, the sick are "doctored" by medicine men, and individual dancers may be given a vision.

The ravages of smallpox in the 1830s, the destruction of the bison, the confinement to a reservation in 1868, and its subsequent reduction by treaties and allotment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all contributed to a decrease in the population to a low of 1,625 by the early 1930s. With improved health care and economic opportunities, the enrolled Crow population had risen to 10,000 by 1998. The Crow Indian Reservation of some two million acres, of which nearly one-third is owned by non-Indians, is located in southcentral Montana.

Electing not to adopt most of the specific provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Crows wrote their own constitution in 1948. It established a general council government made up of every adult member of the tribe. The council elects four officers: a chairman, vice chairman, secretary, and vice secretary. It also establishes various governing committees that oversee such activities as land purchases, industrial development, housing, education, and tribal enrollment.

The resilience of the Crow people is partly the result of persistent great leadership, including Plenty Coups, Pretty Eagle, Medicine Crow, Robert Yellowtail, Angela Russell (a state senator), Bill Yellowtail (a state senator and regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency), and Janine Pease Pretty On Top (president of Little Big Horn College and a 1994 MacArthur Fellow).

See also LAW: Montana v. United States / SPORTS AND RECREATION: Crow Fair.

Rodney Frey University of Idaho

Frey, Rodney. The World of the Crow Indians: As Driftwood Lodges. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Hoxie, Frederick. Parading through History: The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805–1933. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lowie, Robert. The Crow Indians. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1935, rev. ed. 1956.

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