Chief Plenty Coups

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

Plenty Coups (meaning many achievements), last of the traditional Crow chiefs, wrote that he was born “in 1848 at The-cliffs-that-have-no-name,” most likely near present-day Billings. Confusion reigns though, as other records indicate that his birthplace was at the confluence of the Missouri and Musselshell rivers, while some say near the Crazy Mountains. It was his grandfather who proclaimed, “He will count many coups and he will live to be old and become a chief...I name him Plenty Coups.”

In a dream when he was nine, Plenty Coups was told “God has given you the powers to be great. Make them work for you and you will become a chief.” Like Chief Medicine Crow, the young brave had several visions of the future that proved to be true. When he was eleven, he saw “many buffalo coming out of a hole. They spread over the plains, then disappeared. Cattle came out of the hole and covered the plains. Winds blew down the trees in the forest. Only one was left standing. In it was the home of the chickadee.” In the dream he went and looked over a cliff and “saw an old man sitting by a log house.”

The elders in the tribe interpreted this as meaning, “All the buffalo would be killed and cattle will take over the prairie. The lone tree will be the Crow Nation. The falling trees represent those tribes who fight the white man. They will loose everything. We must be friends with the white man to save our lives. The chickadee is your medicine. We must be wise like the chickadee. The old man you saw was yourself.”

As the young Plenty Coups progressed through and beyond his teen years, he took part in many raids against Indian enemies, living up to his name and working hard to gain all the skills needed of a Crow warrior and leader.

By the time he was twenty-eight years old, Plenty Coups became a chief, having earned that right many times over. It has been recorded that there were, depending on which accounts you read, anywhere from 50-100 coup feathers on his stick. Initially, he was head of the Mountain Crow clan and when they joined with the River Crow, Plenty Coups, based on his bravery, wisdom and leadership, was made chief of the entire tribe.

In spite of all the wrongs bestowed upon his people, Plenty Coups never lost faith in the belief that both white and Crow should work together. With General Crook, he participated in the battle of the Rosebud against the Sioux in June of 1876. Some historians say Crook might have suffered the same fate as Custer if it weren’t for Plenty Coups and his Crow warriors.

Skillful in negotiating with the US Government, he was also wise in counsel to his own people. His eloquent tongue often determined many a tribal council vote. This chief’s vision of the future led him to encourage Indians to adopt the white man’s way and engage in “peaceful pursuits.” He was the first to take up farming and prompted his fellow tribesmen to follow his example.

As a young man, Plenty Coups supposedly had eleven wives. In 1893, he wed Kills Together, they remained a couple for thirty years until her 1923 death. Following tribal custom, one year later he married her sister, Strikes The Iron. Throughout all his marriages, he never had children of his own; the dreams and visions he experienced, prophesied that all the Crow were to be his children.

Between 1907 and 1917, Plenty Coups performed one of his greatest services to his people by leading the successful fight against a US Senator’s efforts to dissolve Crow lands. In these same years he labored to guide his tribe in the transition from the earlier nomadic life of the Plains Indian to reservation life; strongly urging them to continue practicing their traditional ways, while doing what it took to prosper in the white man’s world.

A champion of education, he encouraged Crows to go to school, become well educated and then return home to the reservation and put their knowledge to work. It was this very philosophy that sought Plenty Coups to enlist young Robert Yellowtail and others to help defeat the many Congressional bills intended to open the reservation to non-Crows.

In 1921, Plenty Coups was chosen by the President of the United States to represent all of the Indian tribes in America at the ceremony to create a memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Dignitaries and other leaders from throughout the world were in attendance.

As 100,000 spectators looked on, this great Native American...resplendant in full ceremonial regalia, looking every inch the wise and formidable chief that he was, removed his eagle feather headdress and laying it along with his coup stick on the coffin, addressed the crowd in Crow, “I am glad to represent all the Indians of the United States in placing on the grave of this noble warrior this coup stick and war bonnet. Every eagle feather which represents a deed of valor by my race…I hope that the Great Spirit will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all the men hereafter.” Newspapers throughout the country said that this was “one of the outstanding features of the whole remarkable ceremony.”

Upon retirement, he became a successful farmer winning many awards for his apples, potatoes and other crops. In 1928, Plenty Coups and his wife gave their home and land to the government of the United States as a peace symbol. Today it is a Montana State Park.

On March 3, 1932, this compassionate leader of his people passed onto another world. After his death, the head men of the Crow council voted unanimously against choosing another chief. The leader of the council said…"No living man can fill Plenty Coups’ place.” Of all the great Crow leaders, past and present, he was perhaps the most revered.