About The Crow People

From: Graetz, Rick, and Graetz, Susie. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.

Chief Plenty Coups“The Crow Country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you travel, you will fare worse.

“If you go to the south, there you have to wander over great barren plains; the water is warm and bad, and you meet the fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter, and no grass; you cannot keep horses there, but must travel with dogs. What is a country without horses! On the Columbia they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes, and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fishbones out of their mouths. Fish is poor food. To the east, they dwell in villages; they live well; but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri... that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.

“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water; good grass; plenty of buffalo. In summer, it is almost as good as the Crow country; but in the winter it is cold; the grass is gone; and there is no salt weed for the horses.

“The Crow Country is exactly in the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains; all kinds of climates and good things for every season. When the summer heats scorch the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer, and the antelope, when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bears and mountain sheep. In the autumn, when your horses are fat and strong from the mountain pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt the buffalo, or trap beaver on the streams. And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves, and cottonwood bark for your horses; or you may winter in the Wind River valley, where there is salt weed in abundance. The Crow Country is exactly in the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

Chief Eelapuash (Arapooish in some of the older books) in the 1830’s to a fur trader. Crow lands of today are exceptional. They range from the high desert-like Pryor Mountains in the west to the Wolf Mountains and Rosebud Creek on the eastern fringe, and from the Wyoming line north to the edge of Billings and Hardin. Their 2.2 million acres take in some of Montana’s most noteworthy landscapes…the rugged and beautiful Bighorn Canyon, ice caves and wild horses in the Pryors, the 9,000-foot rise of the snowy Bighorn Mountains and the historic Little Bighorn and Bighorn rivers…a place for all seasons.

Seen from the air, it is obvious that much of Crow Country is still wild and uncluttered. The diverse landscape ranges from high, sharp-edged terrain to flat cultivated benches. Much of the western reach is difficult to negotiate, as the hills that climb from the bottom lands are dissected by a labyrinth of coulees and canyons.

Pryor Mountains

Named after Nathaniel Pryor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Pryors, or Baahpuuo Isawaxaawuua (Hitting the Rock Mountains) as the Crow called them, rise from the heart of traditional Crow Country. Still used for vision quests today, this treasured land contains sacred sites and ancestoral burial grounds. In essence, the Pryors are made up of two high ridges, each about twenty miles across. The northern Pryors are within the boundaries of the present reservation; here the highest points ascend to just a little over 7,300 feet descending gradually into lower timbered buttes. Ice caves and a wild horse range highlight the southern part where the higher points top out at over 8,700 feet. A dramatic plunge of 5,000 feet to a desert environment exists at the southern most tip. The west side consists mostly of an 8,500-foot high reef of limestone. The eastern perimeter drops from a timbered ridge to lower hills that are abruptly ended by the walls of Bighorn Canyon. Before the onslaught of early day hunting and disease, bighorn sheep roamed the ridges of these mountains. In 1972, the animals were reintroduced to the nearby Bighorn Mountains. Not too long after, they crossed the frozen Bighorn River and moved back up into the Pryors. Today, there are approximately 115 sheep living along the east escarpment and the southern reaches of the mountains.

John Pretty On Top, a Crow traditionalist explains the Pryors in the publication Every Morning of the World by Loendorf and Nabokov. "I like to go up high enough to see all God’s creations, and the more you see of God’s creations the more you realize of the gift to you…And the place to do it is up high, in the mountains, that is a cathedral without a roof, without a wall, it is forever, as far as you can see is what He has given you...that is how I see that mountain.”

Bighorn Mountains

The Bighorns are the most sacred of the mountains in Crow Country. Today only the northern most twenty miles of this 120-mile long uplift is on the reservation. The entire range is an integral part of their history, having been used for hunting, rituals and as a respite from the heat of the low lands. Many legends are also told about this high country. One of them was recounted by Henry Old Coyote in the book Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area…" a boy and his step-father went into the Bighorns to hunt at a place called Hole-in-the-Wall. On the brink of a steep canyon, evil spirits entered the man and made him push his step-son from the steep cliff to a certain death. When he returned to the village, the man reported that the boy had lost his ways in the forest. A search was unsuccessful. “The boy had fallen into some cedars growing from the canyon wall and survived. On this perch, hundreds of feet above the rocky talus slopes of the narrow canyon, he sat for four days. Nearly dead of hunger and exhaustion, he finally was rescued by a band of seven bighorn sheep led by Big Metal with hooves and horns of glistening steel. Big Metal gave his own name to the boy and each of the six other sheep gave him power, wisdom, sharp eyes, sure footedness, keen ears, great strength and a strong heart. “Big Metal returned to his people bearing a sacred message. The sheep had told him…we seven rule these big mountains. That river down there is the Bighorn River. Whatever you do, don’t change its name. If you ever change the name of the river, there will be no more apsaalooka (Crow) tribe. The apsaalooka will be nothing." This wide expanse (up to fifty miles across) of mountains start their gradual climb to 9,000 feet from the valley of the Little Bighorn River as a series of fissured wide ridges. Compared to the rugged south of the Bighorns where Cloud Peak soars to 13,167 feet high, the northern segment is relatively flat. Most of the large glaciers that helped shape these granite and sediment mountains have given way to a few small ice remnants, perennial snowfields, forested slopes and sage covered meadows. In the warm seasons, magnificent wildflowers cover the area.

Two deep ravines, Black Canyon Creek on the east and Big Bull Elk Canyon on the west divide the northern mountain plateau and descend rapidly into Bighorn Lake. In places, the relief is an imposing 2,000 to 2,500 feet. The Crow Buffalo Pasture, where the tribe manages 700 to 1,200 head of bison, sits between these two colorful and dramatic canyons. On the west side of the range, Precambrian rocks, the oldest in the world, are exposed showing a chain of geologic events.

Wolf Mountains

Guarding the eastern perimeter of the reservation are the low-lying Wolf Mountains. Here several summits are between 5,000 and 5,200 feet in elevation, but most only reach 4,000 to 5,000 feet. This range extends northward from the Wyoming line for approximately fifty miles. Dense forests, interspersed with huge park lands, provide good grazing as well as wildlife habitat. The eastern side, sloping off to the Tongue River Valley has particularly beautiful wildflower shows in the spring and summer. From points on the western fringe, it is possible to look out across all of Crow Country.

Bighorn Canyon

Before the 1962 completion of the 525-foot high Yellowtail Dam, the wild free-flowing Bighorn River, coming out of Wyoming, incised deep into the limestone plateau between the Pryor and Bighorn mountains. Its power of erosion carved one of the most precipitous gorges (more than 1,000 feet deep) in the Northern Rockies. The depths of the canyon were a daunting place to early-day trappers and natives. In order to avoid the dangers of the river, they blazed the fifty-mile long Bad Pass Trail above the western edge from the canyon’s mouth upstream to the lowlands near Barry’s Landing. In 1852, famed mountain man Jim Bridger is suppose to have run the wild rapids of the river in a log raft. Today, a seventy-one mile-long lake fills the once untamed Bighorn Canyon. The National Park Service manages the park lands with input from the Crow Tribe. The water is open to public use, however, reservation lands border the entire northern segment and much of the eastern boundary of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area; a tribal permit is required for access. Yellowtail Dam, named after, but against the wishes of, former Crow Tribal Chairman and reservation superintendent Robert Yellowtail, didn’t come without controversy. Many of the Crow people, including Yellowtail, opposed the project and viewed it as yet another incursion by the white man on sacred lands. The United States Government condemned more than 60,000 acres for the recreation area and the dam, which flooded many burial sites.

Bighorn River

As water pours out of Bighorn Lake at the dam, the Bighorn River picks up again and flows north for forty-eight miles through the Crow Reservation on its way to the Yellowstone River. The cold, nutrient rich waters of the first twelve miles beyond Yellowtail Dam are considered one of the nations great trout fisheries.

At one time the Crow had complete control over the river, but lost out in a prolonged court battle with the State of Montana to keep non-Indians off the Bighorn. Today there are four public access sites.

Little Bighorn River

The "Greasy Grass," as the Crows sometimes call the Little Bighorn, occupies a broad flood plain as it drifts north from Wyoming for more than fifty miles through Crow Country. Enroute towards its meeting with the Bighorn River at Hardin, it picks up waters from Lodge Grass Creek headwatering in the Bighorn Mountains and Owl Creek tumbling out of the Wolf Mountains. The benches and low lands on either side of the river provide fertile ground for farming and grazing. The Little Bighorn River has a place in history owing to a one-day event that the Crow had nothing to do with, other than the fact that some of them were scouts for the United States Army. On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer, Commander of the United States Seventh Calvary led his troops to complete annihilation at the hands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The site today, near Crow Agency, is marked as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Other than that time, the Little Bighorn observed a quiet history of cattle drives, trappers and then eventually Crow farmers and ranchers establishing their claim to the soil.

Population and Culture

Today, more than 10,000 tribal members call the Crow lands home. Two-thirds of them live on, or are adjacent to, the present day reservation. Divided into three subgroups…Mountain Crow, River Crow and Kicked in the Bellies…they live in the reservations six districts…Lodge Grass (sometimes called the Valley of the Chiefs), Wyola (Mighty Few), Reno, Bighorn, Pryor and Black Lodge. Proud of their history, traditions and language, the Crow are striving to keep them a part of everyday life. One of the best examples is the strong, time honored clan system…a complex, matriarchal based, extended family. There are seven different clans on the reservation, each one is supportive of the other, shares family responsibilities and provides for the needs of their less fortunate members. At birth, a child becomes a member of and takes the name of the mother’s clan. Here they are never without a mother or a father, there are no cousins, only brothers and sisters. The father’s clan members become the newborn’s uncles and aunties. Also some unrelated members are considered kin. It takes a bit of time and practice to understand this system. More than ninety percent of the Crow elders and adults speak the Crow language. Emphasis is being placed on keeping their culture alive. Because many under thirty prefer to speak English, and are adopting the white man ways, the clan system and the language are endangered.


It can’t be emphasized enough, how important the land is to the Crow people. Clara Nomee, current chair of the Crow tribe, says…"the land is sacred to us, we consider the earth our mother. Within the Crow culture, we are told by the elders that all Crow members are blessed with three mothers...the earth, our natural mother and our tepees or lodges." Burton Pretty On Top Sr., Cultural Director of the tribe stresses that "…spiritual concerns are more important than material…preserving land for the future, saving it for Crow children is important.” He emphasizes that “the children belong to a proud tribe and the tribe considers their land important to their being...The Apsalooka and the land are one.” Pretty On Top also relates, “In the hearts and minds of the Apsalooka, it is our belief that “Akbaatatdia” (the Creator or First Maker) selected us to be his children and to be the inhabitants of a sacred place, this land He selected for us is where we still live today.” For this reason, the tribal administration has set up a fund to buy property from individuals, Indians as well as whites, that comes up for sale. Once these pieces are purchased they become tribal lands. The approximate 5,000 whites now living within the confines of the reservation have bought almost 34 percent of the land from the original allotments granted to members. In the past, far more land was sold to whites than is now.

Introduction to Crow History

(By Graetz, Rick, and Graetz, Susie)

The history of the Crow Tribe of Indians is at once colorful, fascinating and sad. Several existing good books and numerous papers detail their passage through time. It is not the purpose of this work then to reinvent what has already been well stated elsewhere. Rather we present an overview of important documented events, profiles of several notable individuals and the two versions of how the Crow came to “Crow Country.” Four books were an immense help and are well worth reading; they are... Montana Indians by William L. Bryan Jr., From The Heart Of The Crow Country by Joe Medicine Crow (to be released fall of 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press), Parading Through History: The Making Of The Crow Nation In America 1805-1935 by Frederick Hoxie (Cambridge University Press), and The Crow and the Eagle by Keith Algier (Caxton Printers, Ltd.). The Migration Story, The Battle of Pryor Creek, and Chief Medicine Crow were penned by Joe Medicine Crow, whose grandfather, Medicine Crow, was one of the last of the great Crow war chiefs. Appointed in 1948 by the Crow Council as Tribe Historian, Joe, now in his eighties, was the first of his tribe to graduate from college. Earning a Master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California, he also has finished all of his course work towards a doctorate there. As a young boy, he garnered information from his notable grandfather and elders of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Crow who had experienced the free-roaming days before reservation life...men like White-Man-Runs-Him, one of Custer’s scouts who survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This former warrior lived with Joe’s family for a time, recounting many stories detailing the Indian Wars. In 1932, drawing from his background and education, Joe began to formally research an accurate portrayal of his people. Timothy McCleary, who has a Master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Montana, is the chair of the Department of General Studies at Little Big Horn College, and is presently working on his Ph.D., researched many facets of historic and contemporary Crow culture. In his book The Stars We Know; Crow Indian Astronomy and Lifeways, he writes a second version of early history somewhat similar to Joe Medicine Crow’s, but with one fundamental difference concerning the sacred seeds. Space has not allowed us to say much on the many intriguing rituals and festivals such as vision quests, sweat lodges, etc. In brief, two in particular are important in the Crow world. The planting and harvest of a rare and special tobacco by members of the Tobacco Society heralds back to the sacred seeds given to No Vitals and the group that separated from the original Hidatsa in the late 1500’s. This gift from God, as long as it is planted and cared for, ensures that the Crow will always exist and enjoy good things. It is an enactment of their origins and territorial claims. Sun Dances, viewed as anti-Christian because they involved the sun as a deity, body piercing, and the seeking of revenge against an enemy, were prohibited by early reservation Indian agents. Revitalized in the 1940’s when the piercing was eliminated, the dance now asks to have good fortune, well being, and health bestowed on the Crow people.