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Chapter 1: Introduction

Apsáalooke Writing Tribal Histories Project

Of all the Native American groups in the West, the Apsáalooke Indian Nation is one of the most interesting stories of cultural survival in the face of dramatic change. This booklet provides insight into the unique origins, history and present lifestyle of the Apsáalooke Nation. The Crow people of southeastern Montana call themselves Apsáalooke, which translates as "Children of the Large Beaked Bird." This term was erroneously translated as "Crow" by early Europeans and has since been their English name. Informally, however, the Apsáaalooke call themselves Bíiluuke, which translates as "Our Side." To be Bíiluuke implies not only common genetic ancestry, but, more importantly, common language, spiritual beliefs, and social structure.

Contemporary Apsáaalooke are descendants of nomadic hunters and warriors. Their ancestors lived in tipis, moved about the Great Plains in search of game, primarily buffalo, and fought inter-tribal battles over honors and horses. In past times the Apsáalooke people followed a generalized yearly pattern. Small family groups in the winter would gather into larger kin based groups in the spring to harvest edible roots. As summer approached, they gathered into their respective bands, or possibly, even the whole tribe, for large buffalo hunts. Fall brought a return to smaller groups to pick berries and then a break into family or kin groups again for the winter.

Historically, the Apsáalooke people recognized three political divisions. The largest of these was known as the Ashalahó, "Where There Are Many Lodges," or the Mountain Crows, who lived in northern Wyoming and southern Montana, ranging as far east as the Powder River and west as far as Livingston, Montana. The second largest was the Binnéessiippeele, "Those Who Live Amongst The River Banks." This division ranged from the Yellowstone River, in the south, to the Milk River, in the north. The last division of the Apsáalookes was known as the Ammitaalasshé, "Home Away From The Center," or, more commonly, Eelalapíio, the "Kicked in the Bellies," because a colt kicked a member of this band when the Apsáalookes first encountered horses. This division derived from the Mountain Apsáalooke band. They became a distinct division 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 fringe or away from the center of the Apsáaalooke world.

The three groups, Mountain, River and Kick In The Belly, 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. But for special occasions, such as the planting of sacred Tobacco, Sun Dances, 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 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.

Their present reservation, formed at the turn of the century, is a mere 2.2 million acres, compared to the estimated 38 million acres they once controlled (Maps 1 and 2). On this reservation are six districts and six major towns (Map 3). The reservation is cut by two major rivers, the Big Horn and its tributary the Little Big Horn, which run south to north. These rivers create two major valleys and the natural divisions between the three mountainous areas on the reservation, the Pryors, Big Horns, and Wolf Mountains. In the northern districts of Black Lodge and Reno, and in the upper parts of the Big Horn and Pryor Districts, the terrain is open rolling hills interrupted only by cottonwood trees and brush that lines river and creek beds. These open lands are used for high quality winter wheat and sugar beat agriculture. The gently rising mountain ranges on the southern half of the reservation are covered in cedar and jack pine where elk, mule deer, and black bears are often seen. The mountains remain a vital resource to Apsáalooke people for food, medicines, and spiritual retreat.

The six towns of the reservation are dominated by government-built housing developments, what are referred to as "housings" by Apsáalooke people. Crow Agency, the town in which the Federal and Tribal government offices are located, is some fifty-five miles east of the city of Billings. Near or in this community are the Indian Health Service hospital, the tribal college, and the site of Custer’s last stand, Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument.

South of Crow Agency is the major reservation town of Lodge Grass, in the district of Lodge Grass. This typical western ranch community is built on the bottomlands of the Little Big Horn River. To the west, over the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, is the town of St. Xavier in the Big Horn District. In this community is a one hundred year old Catholic mission and school that is surrounded by a handful of homes. South of St. Xavier, along the Big Horn River, is the growing community of Ft. Smith. This town is built on the historic site of a fort that guarded the Bozeman Trail for a brief period in the 1860s. After the construction of the Yellowtail Dam in the 1960s, the town swelled with an influx of out-of-state fishermen seeking a chance at the trophy size trout that grow in the cold after-dam waters.

To the west of Ft. Smith lies the isolated hamlet of Pryor. Nestled against the pine covered Pryor Mountains, this small community, known as a bastion of Mountain Crow traditions, is inviting and friendly. This town was the residence of the last Apsáalooke chief, Chief Plenty Coups, and his home, now a Montana State Park, was preserved by the chief’s wishes for all peoples.

The three political divisions of the Apsáalooke settled in separate areas on this reservation. Descendants of the Mountain Crow can be found in the central and western parts of the reservation, in the Big Horn and Pryor Districts. The descendants of the River Crow can be found in the northern part of the reservation, in the Black Lodge and Reno Districts. The Kicked In The Bellies are located on the eastern side of the reservation, in the districts of Lodge Grass and Wyola.

To a large extent the family, village, and band wanderings of the historic Apsáalooke have been retained in family, district, and tribal activities of the reservation. In winter, families cloister to their homes in towns and ranches across the reservation, and the family listens to an elder tell stories or simply watches 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 fall buffalo hunt. In fall, activity slows and families return to a more sedentary lifestyle in preparation for winter.

The contemporary Apsáalooke people also continue to maintain their language and beliefs against the economic and cultural oppression they have faced for the last one hundred years. Most Apsáalooke people are bilingual, however many prefer to speak their native language and follow Apsáalooke customs and beliefs. They practice a complex kinship system that has different expectations for those on the mother’s side than those on the father’s side. The mother’s relatives are expected to provide for the emotional and physical needs of the individual, whereas the father’s side is expected to provide the religious training and social recognition of the individual.

"Clan fathers" and "clan mothers," as those on the father’s side are called, are highly respected and sought for a variety of social and religious needs. Individuals in this standing are expected to provide advice, prayers, and religious instruction for their "clan children." This relationship can be seen as the basis of Apsáalooke social and religious structure, since everybody is a clan father or clan mother to someone.

When Apsáalooke people are asked what religion they follow, they often respond by identifying themselves with a Christian group, such as Baptist, Catholic, or Pentecostal. Most Apsáalooke people, however, continue to follow native beliefs and practices. Even the most devote Pentecostal has difficulty ignoring clan father or clan mother responsibilities.

The clan fathers and clan mothers are therefore the ones who transmit the moral, ethical, and behavioral expectations of Apsáalooke culture. This instruction is generally conveyed through oral narratives. Apsáalooke storytelling and cultural training is passed on during winter evenings. Historically, the timing of Apsáalooke stories served a practical purpose, to entertain during the long winter nights. Then as now, these stories also served a cultural purpose; they convey crucial Apsáalooke ethics, values, and beliefs. From these stories Apsáalooke children learn what is expected from them in life and how they might achieve their desires. Therefore, these narratives are also a very important socializing tool.

The Apsáalooke have three basic categories for their stories, baaéetchiichiwaa/ones that are retold, baaéetchiwataale/true narratives and baleiichiweé/one’s story. Baaéetchiichiwaa include those kinds of stories that tell of the origins of people and animals, and the creation of places. Main characters are often animals and objects that converse with human beings. Non-Indians often erroneously identify these stories as myths, legends and folktales. Baaéetchiwataale are accounts of historic events and people and can be correctly identified as oral histories. Baleiichiweé are stories about contemporary events witnessed by the storyteller or the accomplishments or antics of living people.

All of these kinds of stories are part of the oral tradition, which has helped the Apsáalooke keep their history and culture alive over the centuries. And while the oral tradition is a process, it is much more involved than many people realize. There is more to the oral tradition than just telling stories or listening to them. This is a process that ensures that narratives are passed down through the generations, so that the people know their own culture and history.

The storytelling process begins with children who are told stories from the time they are born. Sometimes the narrations are just pieces of larger stories, told in a moment when a man and his granddaughter are walking by a mountain where something important to their people occurred, or when a little boy is being bad and his mother reminds him of a story about a little boy who was bad. Other times, the stories are longer, and retrace why certain behaviors and practices are observed. People hear the same stories through out their lives, sometimes a person is told the story by one other person, other times there might be a group of people, together, telling and listening to stories.

Often times, the same stories would be told multiple times, by different storytellers, each one adding the details that he or she remembered when they were told the stories. One might hear, “That was a good story. Let me tell it the way that I was told.” This would signal that the new storyteller remembered a different detail that might add to the story. When he was done telling his version, then it would be some one else’s turn. These storytelling sessions were also a way to remind the audience of the particular values of the Apsáalooke people. While telling a story, the storyteller might say, “And the boy, who would never speak harshly to his parents, was quiet. Isn’t that the way that we Apsáalooke are?” That would be the audience’s cue to call back, “Yes, that is the way that we are.” Through this process, the audience’s attention is periodically called to social and cultural expectations.

Apsáalooke people put a great deal of value in telling the truth. When people re-tell stories in front of other people, it is always important to have some one else to “back up” or validate the stories that are told. This way it keeps things from getting too distorted. When people came together to tell stories this helped the many versions to he heard by everyone.

While writing things down today seems like the best way to make sure that people remember things, what would happen if some one write something that no one else agreed with and that was what people read about later on? And what would happen if people didn’t read a book anymore? The oral tradition has kept traditions alive for a very long time, providing daily reminders of Apsáalooke identity. Therefore, to better understand Apsáalooke history and culture, oral narratives have been included in the text.

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