Migration Stories

The Migration Story

Joe Medicine Crow

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

The migration story of the Crow Indians, or Absaro-kee, is certainly interesting, intriguing, and often frustrating to the researcher. At the outset there exists a time gap, as well as a credibility gap, between the legendary and the real, but as oral and re-corded history reach back into the past and begin to support and substantiate the legendary, the gap begins to close and a starting point is finally found from which some continuity can be identified and maintained.

Now, let us hear perhaps the most extensive and dramatic Indian migration story ever told, the one known and repeated by a succession of sixteen generations of Crow historians, keep-ers of the tribal annals, and tellers of tales. It is said that in the long, long-ago times, the ancestral tribe of the Hidatsa and Crows once lived toward the east in the “tree country,” now believed to be the western end of the Great Lakes, say south of Lake Superior and west of Lake Michigan. Here the tribe followed the lifeways of woodland Indians.

One spring, as the grass was turning green and the deer and buffalo were grazing with relish in the open parks, the rains stopped. Hot winds began blowing continuously, and soon the green earth was parched to brown. The buffalo disappeared. The chiefs held council and an earnest search for the vanished herds was organized. Teams of fourteen men were sent out in all directions. The parties eventually returned without succes...all but the team going west.

It was a long time later that this last group returned. When they did, each man was laden with huge packs of jerked buffalo meat. Everyone in the tribe had a little meat to eat. The searchers then reported that their travels had led them far to the west where trees began to thin out and there were open areas of grassland. There the hills were rolling, broken by bluffs covered with pines. The men killed some buffalo and returned. This place is now believed to be in the area of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Soon after, the entire tribe packed up and headed west. As the story goes, they caught up with the buffalo herds and resumed a more leisurely way of life, maybe even settling down as part-time farmers and hunters in what is now perhaps northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba.

Up to this point, our story is legendary. But here the oral history takes root. In 1932, Cold Wind, then more than ninety years of age, said that, as a young man, he had gone to visit his Hidatsa relatives in North Dakota. From there, he went east and traveled many, many days and finally came to some Indians (probably on the White Earth, Red Lake, or Leech Lake reservations of northern Minnesota). There, he met an old, old man, a tribal historian, who knew stories about the ancestors of the Hidatsa. This old man took Cold Wind on a trip farther east and north. They came to a valley, and along the river were the caved-in sites of the earthen lodges and other structures of a village. Next, the old man took Cold Wind up on a nearby bench and showed him tepee rings. Then he said, “According to our historians, your ancient ones, the forefathers of your people, once lived here. These tepee rings were used by a part of the tribe who preferred to live in tepees during the summer and hunt the buffalo, while the others lived in the village along the river and did some farming. Then, one day the two groups got together and moved away. They headed southwestward and never came back!”

As Cold Wind continued, he became more positive and explicit. His informants and teachers were the octogenarians, and older, of his youthful years. It was about 1550 A.D. that this ancestral tribe deliberately moved away, either looking for better hunting and farming grounds or fleeing from hostile tribes from the east. We now know that, as eastern tribes acquired firearms from European traders, the bow-and-arrow Indians were pushed farther and farther west. Nearly all of the present Montana tribes migrated there from the eastern woodlands.

On the way, these migrants stopped for some time at Sacred Waters (Devil’s Lake in northeastern North Dakota). Here, two chiefs...No Vitals and Red Scout, fasted and sought the Great Spirit’s guidance on their perilous journey. Red Scout received an ear of corn and was told to settle down and plant the seeds for his sustenance. No Vitals received a pod of seeds and was told to go west to the high mountains and plant the seeds there. These seeds were sacred, and the proper way to use them would be revealed. The Great Spirit promised No Vitals that his people would someday increase in numbers, become powerful and rich, and own a large, good, and beautiful land!

The journey was resumed and by the turn of the seventeenth century, the band had reached the Missouri River and moved in with the Mandans, whose village was located on the west side near the junction of the Heart River with the Missouri. Later, the newcomers moved farther upstream and built their own village of earthen lodges in the vicinity of the confluence of the Knife and Missouri rivers.

It was probably between 1600 and 1625 A.D. that No Vi-tals, now middle-age, finally decided to go westward to plant the sacred seeds and look for the promised land. “It is time I heed the Great Spirit’s instruction. I have tarried too long. Those who want to go with me are welcomed.”

Thus, one spring morning there was hurried activity in the village. Large dogs and tamed wolves were harnessed to travois. As relatives bade farewell, No Vitals and about 400 tribe members faced westward and left. Thus began perhaps one of the longest and most dramatic migra-tions of any Indian tribe, covering thousands of miles over rough and rugged terrain, through intense winters and tor-rid summers, and consisting of about 100 years of wandering.

It has been assumed by white historians and archaeolo-gists that this secessionist tribe straightaway entered present Montana, either by following the Missouri all the way up to the three forks or by going up the Yellowstone and then “disappearing” for a long period of time. According to ac-cepted Crow oral history, however, this was not the case. Contemporary tribal historians relate in detail how No Vital’s band traveled up the Missouri and settled in the Cardston, Alberta, area for quite some time. The band prob-ably trekked up the White Bear River (Milk River) in a northwesterly direction.

The ethnohistorical concept that the incipient tribe trav-eled very slowly as it gradually experienced a cultural tran-sition from sedentary to nomadic lifeways, was probably not the case. When No Vitals left, he started out afresh as a brand-new tribe without a name; he literally and symbolically decided to travel light, for he left all the heavy implements behind him for good. His band became an instant tribe capable of existing as a separate and distinct entity, and one motivated with the desire and dream of someday receiving the blessings of the Great Spirit when it reached the promised land!

The people of this new tribe, still without a name, referred to themselves as “Our Side.” One day, the leaders called a council. The consensus of opinion was: “This place is too harsh; the winters are long and cold. We must move and find a better place to live.” Once again, they packed their dogs and wolves and headed south through the valleys and passes of the Rocky Mountains. Just how many moons or winters the wandering tribe traveled through was never specifically mentioned.

Then, one day, they came to a lake that was described as “so large that the other side could not be seen” and so salty that they could not drink it. There is no question but that this was the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It is not known how long this tribe stayed here, but they apparently disliked the arid land and decided to move on once again. This time they headed eastward.

The details of this trek are lacking until the band came to a huge pit in the ground with a roaring fire at the bottom, apparently a burning coal vein. It may have been located somewhere in the present states of Wyoming, Colorado, northern New Mexico, or northern Texas. From this “Place of Fire,” our story fades into the legendary once again. One version indicates that, they finally came to a large river flowing to the east. As they followed it downstream, they found many arrowheads and other stone artifacts along the banks. They called it “Arrowhead River, ” now identified as the Canadian River of north Texas and Oklahoma. The group eventually came to a forest country. Here, they noticed flocks of large birds with striped wing and tail feathers (turkeys). The people didn’t like this area since "they could not see distant places” because of the trees. This was probably in the present state of Oklahoma and Arkansas or even Missouri.

Once again, the decision was made to turn and go in another direction. This time, the group headed north and west. Just how it emerged once more onto the prairie country of the Western Plains is not known. It may be conjectured that the migrants either followed the Arkansas or the Missouri rivers upstream. If they followed the latter, they could have turned directly westward by going up the Platte River and eventually entering into what is now northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the very region they called their own land in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.

When the wandering tribe finally arrived in this area, the people were still pedestrians. No Vitals, who led the exodus around the turn of the seventeenth century, had been succeeded as head chief by his protégé Running Coyote. He was entrusted with the care of the sacred seeds and was credited with originating the Crow technique of stampeding buffalo over cliffs.

Subsequent head chiefs...called the “chiefs before the coming of the horse and the white man,” were listed as Paints His Body Red, Red Fish, One Heart, Raven Face, and White Moccasin Top. It appears that, by the time the tribe arrived, One Heart was the head chief.

In about 1734 or 1735, Chief Young White Buffalo, who succeeded White Moccasin Top, was regarded as being instrumental in transforming the new tribe from walking to horseback riding Indians.

In closing, may I again take courage to state that when No Vitals led the exodus of some 400 people away from the ancestral village along the Missouri, the break was made quickly and cleanly. The new tribe left its material culture behind; there was no gradual transition from the earth lodge to the tepee!

The migration was purposely made. It was motivated by the dream of one man named No Vitals. At the Sacred Waters, the Great Spirit promised him a good land far to the west where his people would find the good life one day. Yes, it took about 100 years of wandering through the wilderness over long, long distances. The original migrants all died along the way, but it was their great-great-grandchildren and their children who brought the sacred seeds to the mountains of the west...the Beartooths, the Crazy Mountains, the Bighorns, the Wind River Mountains, the Absarokas, and even the Grand Tetons. Indeed, this is the land the great Crow chief Arapooish described as “a good country because the Great Spirit had put it in exactly the right place.”

Migration: Another Version

Rick and Susie Graetz

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

Crow oral tradition links the origin of the tribe to a separation from a parent group. Tradition relates that this group traveled extensively across the upper Midwest of the United States, and possibly into southern Canada. Eventually this parent group came under the leadership of two brothers known as No Intestines and Red Scout. These leaders had their respective followers and, even though they camped as one group, the two divisions were clearly defined within a single village. The group following No Intestines called themselves Crow people, "Our Side," and they would become the historic Crow who eventually settled in Montana and Wyoming. The group under Red Scout would move to the Heart River area of North Dakota. They would learn horticultural ways from the Mandan of that region, and would become the historic Hidatsa tribe.

In addition, Crow oral tradition lends religious validity to this separation of the Crow and Hidatsa. Their narratives relate how the two leaders had fasted at Devil’s Lake and each had received a vision. No Intestines received a vision that told him to seek the seeds of Sacred Tobacco, Ihchichiaee. Once locating this tobacco, he and his followers would be in the center of the world--the best place for his people. Red Scout, on the other hand, received a vision instructing him to settle with his people on the bluffs above the rivers, and to plant corn on the flood plains below.

After the initial vision, No Intestines and his followers began a long trek west. Eventually, the Crow people stopped near Chief Mountain, in present day Montana, and there No Intestines fasted again. On the fourth day he received a second vision telling him he was not yet at his destination, the area was too cold. Then the Crow people moved south, passing by Salt Lake, Utah. After a while, No Intestines and his group reached the Canadian River in Oklahoma, called Arrowhead River by the Crow. Here, No Intestines fasted again and was told to move north. So the Crow people headed north, following the Missouri to the Platte River, then trekking to the Powder River which they followed north until they reached the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming.

To the Crow the highest peak on the crest of the Big Horn Mountains is called Awaxaawakússawishe, "Extended Mountain," and it is considered the center of their world. On this peak No Intestines fasted for the fourth time and received a vision telling him that he was in the right place, that the tobacco seed could be found at the bottom of Awaxaawakússawishe. As he looked to the base of the mountain, he saw the seeds as "twinkling stars," ihkaxáaxaaheetak. The Crow people then made their home in Montana and Wyoming, with the Big Horn Mountains as their heartland.