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Political Organization

Apsaalooke Social and Family Structure, By Dale D. Old Horn and Tim McCleary, Pages 11-29.

Tribal Origin of the Apsáalooke

Oral tradition links the origin of the Apsáalooke to a separation from a parent group; the other group formed by this separation would become known as the Hidatsa. Tradition relates that the parent group had traveled extensively across the upper Midwest of the United States and possibly into southern Canada.

Eventually the group came under the leadership of two brothers, No Intestines and Red Scout. These two leaders had their respective followers and, even though they camped as one group, the two divisions were clearly defined within the camp. The group following No Intestines called themselves Bíiluuke, Our Side, and would become the historic Apsáalooke who moved to Montana and Wyoming. The group under Red Scout would move to the Heart River area of North Dakota and learn horticultural ways from the Mandan of that region. This group would become the historic Hidatsa.

Oral tradition lends religious validity to this separation of the Apsáalooke and Hidatsa. Tradition relates that the two leaders had fasted 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 would find his people’s home, 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 plant corn on the flood plains below.

After the initial vision, No Vitals and his followers began a long trek west. The Bíiluuke eventually stopped near Chief Mountain, in present day Montana. There No Intestines fasted. On the fourth day he received a vision telling him he was not at his destination, the area was too cold. The Bíiluuke then moved south, passing by Salt Lake, Utah. No Intestines and his group eventually reached the Canadian River in Oklahoma, called Arrowhead River by the Apsáalooke. Here, No Intestines fasted again and was told to move north. The Bíiluuke moved north, following the Missouri to the Platte River. The Platte River led them to the Powder River that they followed north until they reached the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming.

The Apsáalooke people call the crest of the Big Horn Mountains Awaxaawakússawishe, Extended Mountain,; it is considered the most sacred place of their world. The highest peak of this crest is known as Cloud Peak, and it was on this peak that No Intestines fasted for the fourth time. He received a vision telling him that he was in the right place and that the tobacco seed could be found at the bottom of Cloud Peak. As he looked to the base of the mountain, he saw the seeds as twinkling stars. The Bíiluuke then made their home in southern Montana and northern Wyoming, with the Big Horn Mountains as their center.

Origin of the Apsáalooke Bands

Through time the Apsáalooke people have recognized four bands. The first and largest of the bands originated from the followers of No Intestines. They would come to be known by three names; Ashalahó, The Many Lodges, Awaxaawaxammilaxpáake, The Mountain People, and Ashkúale, The Center Camp. This band is commonly called the Mountain Crow in English. This group lived in northern Wyoming and southern Montana, ranging as far east as the Powder River and west as far as Livingston, Montana.

During the migrations of the Apsáalooke there arose another division called the Bilápiiuutche, Beaver Dries Its Fur. This group became lost on the journey of the Apsáalooke people. Oral tradition provides four possible explanations for the disappearance of this group. Some believe the Beaver Dries Its Fur group split off in Canada and remained there. Others say they turned east, ending up at Lake Michigan. Both of these beliefs stem from the claims of Apsáalooke who, after visiting in northern Canada or Michigan, say they have found a people who they could converse with in the Apsáalooke language. Others believe this group became part of the Kiowa, with whom the Apsáalooke were closely associated in the 1600s. Still, other traditions relate that the Comanches located a group of people who appeared to have been poisoned. These people were dressed like Apsáalooke.

The next band of the Apsáalooke developed out of a separation from the Hidatsa. Some time after No Intestines group had found the Sacred Tobacco and had begun living life on the Plains, there arose an argument between two factions back in the Hidatsa villages along the Missouri River. The quarrel was over the distribution of food, the wife of a leader decided that she had not received enough tripe and the ensuing dispute led to a permanent separation. The dissident group decided to join the Ashalahó Apsáalooke on the Plains. This group formed the core group of the historic Binnéessiippeele. Binnéessiippeele can be broken into two morphemes; binnéesse meaning riverbanks and íippeele meaning something that exists along with another thing. Therefore the name can be translated as Those Who Live Amongst The River Banks. They are often simply called River Crows in English.

This band received a second name because of an incident that occurred in the Pine Hills of Montana. The Pine Hills are a series of prominent pine covered ridges between Billings, Custer, and Hardin, Montana. The Crows call this area Awakuánmaachiiwishe, The Island With Pines. Once when the Binnéessiippeele were camped there they used the pines for firewood. The pitch from the pines blackened the tops of the lodges and since the Apsáalooke had great pride in having a pure white tipi, the other Apsáalooke began to call the Binnéessiippeele Black Lodges, Ashshipíte. This division ranged from the Yellowstone River, in the south, to the Milk River, in the north.

The last division of the Apsáalooke are known as the Ammitaalasshé, Home On The Outer Edge. Ammitée, is the Apsáalooke name for the Big Horn Basin. The Big Horn Basin is on the western end of the Big Horn Mountains, south of the Pryor Mountains and East of the Beartooth Mountains Range. Ammitaalasshé, therefore, refers to those who reside in the Big Horn Basin. This division derived from the Ashalahó band. They became a distinct band because of their habit of spending the winters in the Wind River country of southwestern Wyoming and summers on the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and Montana, on the southern edge or the back of the Apsáalooke realm.

This band received a second name with the coming of the first horses to the Apsáalooke. The Apsáalooke first came to know of the horse when a group of warriors came back from a raid to the south bringing the new animals. The first village they met belonged to the Ammitaalasshé. A member of this village who happened to also be of the Bad War Deeds Clan came up to a foal and touched it in a place that the horse did not appreciate and it kicked him in the stomach. Because of this incident the whole band received the name Eelalapíio, The Kicked in the Bellies.

In each band there were a number of sub-bands. Each sub-band had its own chief and could vary in size from a few lodges to over a thousand. The average sub-band was between thirty to forty lodges per leader.

The bands were patrilocal, which means that an individual was a member of his father’s band. When a woman married she would join the band of her husband. However, bands were not exclusive and individuals could switch band affiliation if they desired. In fact whole sub-bands could switch affiliations. An example would be the sub-band led by Bull Who Does Not Fall Down, also known as The One Who Wants to Get Up. He and his band would join with the Black Lodges sometimes and the Mountain People at other times. Both bands would claim him as one of their band chiefs.

This free movement among the bands is credited to the Apsáalooke’s affinity for one another. In many cases the movement from one band to another occurred because the other band included relatives or close friends and the individual simply wanted to be with them for a while.

The bands were patrilocal because of the political structure of the historic Apsáalooke. The political structure of the Apsáalooke was based on the militaristic demands of the Great Plains culture. The Apsáalooke were defending a large territory that was being contested by some of the largest tribes on the Plains, such as the Lakota and the Blackfeet.

Territories and Movements of the Bands

The historic Apsáalooke followed a generalized yearly pattern. Small family groups in the winter, gathered into sub-band groups in the spring to harvest edible roots, and then band, or possibly tribal level, in summer for large buffalo hunts, followed by a return to sub-bands in the fall to pick berries, followed by family groups again in the winter.

Of the political divisions of the Apsáalooke, the Ashalahó were the largest in number, hence their name, The Many Lodges. They lived in northern Wyoming and southern Montana, ranging as far east as the Powder River and west as far as the Gallatin Basin in Montana. The second largest was the Binnéessiippeele. This division ranged from the Yellowstone River, in the south, to the Milk River, in the north. The last division of the Apsáalooke, the Ammitaalasshé or the Eelalapíio, roamed from Wind River country of southwestern Wyoming and to the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and Montana.

The three groups, Ashalahó, Binnéessiippeele, and Eelalapíio, consisted of several individual villages, or sub-bands. During most of the year, especially winter, these villages remained independent and scattered about the respective territories of each band. For special occasions, such as religious ceremonies, general visitation, or a fall buffalo hunt, the various villages would come together as one band and, occasionally, as one nation.

The force that most strongly influenced the gathering of Apsáalooke people was the availability of game and edible plants. Beginning in the spring, the Apsáalooke people would gather in larger and larger groups until the early fall buffalo hunt. This was possible because of the availability of roots, berries, and game in spring and summer. After the fall buffalo hunt, the large groups, sometimes being the whole tribe, would break into small groups. These small groups would seek sheltered areas in which to spend the winter. The tribe would break into these smaller groups because of the decrease in available game. In fact, these winter groups often relied on stored food, dried meat, roots, and berries that had been procured and processed through the summer.

The three political divisions of the Apsáalooke settled in separate areas on the present reservation. Descendants of the Ashalahó can be found in the central and western parts of the reservation, in the communities of Crow Agency, St. Xavier, and Pryor. The descendants of the Binnéessiippeele can be found in the northern part of the reservation, in the communities of Dunmore, and Crow Agency, and Two Leggings area. The Eelalapíio are located on the southeastern side of the Crow reservation, in the communities of Lodge Grass and Wyola.

To a large extent the family, village, and band wanderings of the historic Apsáalooke have been maintained in family, district, and tribal activities of the reservation. In winter, families gather in their homes in towns and ranches across the reservation, and listen to elders tell stories or simply, watch television. Beginning in spring, districts gather for hand game tournaments and special dances, followed by summer district pow-wows and rodeos, followed by the large intra-and inter-tribal gathering of Crow Fair in late August, corresponding to the former late summer buffalo hunt. In fall, activity slows and families return to a more sedentary lifestyle in preparation for winter.

Political Ascendancy

Over each of the political divisions, tribe, band, and kin group, there was a leader. A man became chief by first achieving the minimum four recognized war exploits. The four customary war deeds of the day were; counting coup (touching the enemy with the hand or an object), capturing a picketed horse from an enemy camp, taking an enemies weapons and leading a war party successfully. A man achieving these deeds was known as a Bacheeítche, Good Man or chief.

The process of becoming a chief began when a boy was still young. A boy began his training for warrior by engaging in many types of games that included swimming, arrow throwing, shinny, hoop and pole throw, and foot and horse racing. These games were often supervised by the boy’s older brothers, and were intended to develop the boy’s physical abilities and train him to understand the rigors of being a warrior.

When they reached the age of puberty the boys would start to accompany war expeditions. Boys who accompanied war expeditions were referred to as Ichkaaté, Little Toe. They acted as assistants to the warriors which included carrying the weapons and medicine bundles, taking care of the horses, cooking and constructing temporary shelters. The Apsáalooke constructed two types of temporary shelters. The first was called Ashdaxpushéeo. Taking an even number of little poles and setting them evenly in two rows made this form of shelter. Then the tops were bent over and tied together, which made a shape much like a Quonset hut. Then hides would be placed over the frame. It could also be made by taking the natural foliage, such as sagebrush or willows, and tying the tops together and putting hides over them to make a temporary shelter. The second type of shelter was called ashdahché. Taking long logs and placing them against cliff overhangs or caves also created this form of shelter.

After several trips with war expeditions the young men would then be allowed to become dúxxia, warriors. The men who had shown their ability as warriors would often be chosen to serve as scouts. Scouts were called Chiichee, and the leader of the scouts was called Chéetiisaahke Old Man Wolf.

A man of proven war abilities could chose to lead a war expedition and if that expedition was successful, then he would be declared a war leader. A successful war expedition was one in which no one was wounded or killed. The chiefs would then give this leader the title of Iipchiiaké, Owner Of The Pipe.

The next level of political status was to be a chief. A chief was one that was able to count the four recognized war deeds of the day which were called ashkápe: capture an enemy’s horse, capture an enemy’s weapon, strike a live enemy, and leading a successful war expedition. These four deeds made the warrior a chief.

There were other war deeds known as baleealaxchía. The war expedition leader designated these deeds. They would vary depending on the decision of the war leader. An example of this is when the war leader Red Bear led the revenge expedition against the Shoshone after the massacre at Red Lodge. When they located the Shoshone camp he designated touching the lodge furthest downstream as a war deed.

Deeds of this form would not be counted towards becoming a chief. Occasionally, the war leader would designate a war deed of the day that corresponded to a deed necessary to become a chief, such as the first captured horse, weapon, or touch a live enemy.

If a man who had counted all four chiefly deeds displayed other outstanding qualities, including generosity, kindness, fortitude, farsightedness, wisdom, and dependability, then the people would naturally desire to follow this man. The people would then make public declarations about their choices. They would announce such things as, "On this day I will walk with Sits In The Middle Of The Land". The people through this process chose their own leaders. If the person was a good leader then the camp would be fortunate. The members of that camp would live well which meant without threat from enemies and locating enough food.

A band chief is called Ashbacheeítche, Chief Of The Camp. The best of the Ashbacheeítche would become the Ashakée, Owner Of The Lodges. The Owner Of The Lodges was the principal chief, he was the chief over all of the chiefs. The last one to hold his title was Sit In The Middle Of The Land.

A number of men were band chiefs and these included: Grey Blanket, Grey Bull, Homosexual Dog, Wolf Lays Down, Old Crow, Sacred Raven known today as Medicine Crow, Long Horse, Two Belly, Pregnant Woman, those are some Kicked in the Belly Chiefs, some of the Mountain Crow Chiefs were Red Bear, Runs Through Camp, Spotted Horse, Iron Bull, Bell Rock, Pretty Eagle, Leads His Own Dog, Sitting Elk, The Bull Who Doesn't Fall Down, and Black Lodge chiefs such as Iron Prong, Two Leggings, He That Had Many Names and Crooked Arm.

The Apsáalooke governed themselves through a representative government. Only men who had achieved chieftaincy were allowed to voice their opinions or those of their band in the council. So the council was comprised of those individuals who were at the level of chief and upward; chiefs, band chiefs and the leader of all the Apsáalooke, The Owner Of The Camp. The Owner Of The Camp would conduct the councils whenever the Apsáalooke needed to make a major decision. At times the Pipe Carriers would be asked their opinion, but they did not have a voting position.

When the councils met, whether at the band level or as a whole nation, tally sticks were used as ballots. Each chief would speak in turn about the issue, whether for or against this particular issue. They would smoke the pipe and talk, what is called in Apsáalooke óopiilaau, smoke and talk. The highest-ranking chief convened the council and then the man sitting to his right would light the pipe. This man would then take the pipe to the front of the group, which meant the man sitting to the east and south, since they sat in a circle. That man would receive the pipe and he would smoke the pipe in reverence and more often than not conduct the pipe offering ritual. Once completing the pipe offering ritual this individual would speak. As the man spoke no one was allowed to interrupt. The pipe was to guarantee that this person would speak with no interference, because of the fact that Apsáalooke held the pipe with reverence. After this person would get done talking he would pass the pipe to the person on his left. That person would take the pipe, relight it if necessary and smoke and go through the pipe offering ritual and then speak. While they spoke the man who was leading the discussion would place the ballots as represented by the tally sticks either for the issue or against it.

This form of decision making led to the misunderstanding recorded in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty. The leader of the Apsáalooke at that council was Sits In The Middle Of The Land and he was quoted as stating, "We will do whatever the chiefs decide". The chiefs in the Apsáalooke language are called Bacheeítche, Good Men, and the translator, who was not a Apsáalooke, misinterpreted that term to mean simply men. Which is why the treaty states that any sale of land has to be approved by the majority of adult males. In fact, Sits In The Middle Of The Land was talking about the government of the Apsáalooke and its decision making body which was comprised of Bacheeítche and Ashbacheeítche and Ashakée; the chiefs, the band chiefs and The Owner Of The Camp. The council was not closed to women since women could also be chiefs. In the history of the Apsáalooke there is recollection of at least three women who had achieved the level of a chief. The first one was simply called The Woman Chief. She was captured as a young girl from the Atsina and raised by the Apsáalooke. She decided to become a warrior and she became a chief. The other two were Among the Willows and Comes Toward The Near Bank. These three women achieved the level of chief amongst the Apsáalooke.

Warrior Societies

The militarism of the Apsáalooke led them to develop highly organized warrior societies. The warrior societies were centered on the men since they were more often the warriors. A man would most often join the warrior society of his father. The eldest men in the warrior society were the leaders. They would decide when to have meetings and they would conduct them. This meant that even The Owner Of The Camp would defer to the eldest of the warrior society to which he belonged.

In times of peace the warrior societies' duties were to act as the Akissatdee. These were men who acted as perimeter guards around the camps and as police within the camp. In this way the safety of the camp was ensured.

There were four main warrior societies; the Lumpwoods, Fox, Muddy Hands, and the Big Dogs. There was a fifth, less structured warrior society that was called the Crazy Dogs. The Crazy Dogs duty was to commit themselves to death in battle and this death in battle was to be done in a manner that was not foolish nor useless. The death had to be to the benefit of the battle as it was fought. These individuals became very reckless in their lifestyle.

A good example of a Crazy Dog was a man named Rabbit Child. He had ascended to the level of chief when he became a Crazy Dog. He decided to become a Crazy Dog after being shot through the knee. His tendon in his injured leg became stiff and he could not bend his knee. When this happened he said that he could not be as good a warrior as he once was nor could he provide for his family in a manner that was befitting a man, so he decided to become a Crazy Dog.

Participation in warrior societies was optional, a man did not have to join. Most men, however, wanted to be part of a warrior society so that they could be part of the camp police or the perimeter guard. In these positions, men were more likely to meet the enemy first if the camp was attacked. For a chance at this opportunity, most young men wanted to become part of these warrior societies and they would voluntarily join.

Every spring the leaders of the warrior societies would distribute two crooked staffs and two straight staffs to four new members. These four were committed to placing those staffs into the ground when they met the enemy, tying themselves to it and not leaving that spot. According to the warrior histories that are told, they served the warriors in two ways; they made sure that there was a rear guard, because these young boys would stand and fight, and it served to rally the warriors to come back and fight some more because they saw these young men fighting to the death. This provided a strong psychological incentive so that the warriors often came home victorious.

There were only three ways that a carrier of a staff could leave the field of battle. Either they overcame the enemy, or they could retreat if another member of their society removed the staff from the ground, or they fought to their death. This was the role of the crooked staff and the straight staff in the Apsáalooke warrior societies.

In the spring of every year, then, a total of sixteen staffs would be given out, eight crooked and eight straight staffs both meaning the same thing - that the recipients were going to stand and fight. If a staff carrier survived the season, they were then acknowledged as a full-fledged member of the warrior society and also a honored warrior.